Feb
04
2013

When 'Confirmed' Means 'An Official Told Me So'

sa17On January 30, reports emerged that Israel had carried out an airstrike on Syrian targets near Damascus. Much of the initial reporting took Israel's claims at face value, though it appeared impossible to confirm that the story was true.

As the story went, Israel attacked because it saw Syrian SA-17 anti-aircraft weapons heading towards Lebanon, where they were to be used by the militant group Hezbollah  A CBS Evening News report (1/30/13) was typical:

Overseas, Israeli jets attacked inside Syria today. The Syrians claim that the target was a military research facility, but our David Martin at the Pentagon tells us that Israel hit a convoy believed to be carrying weapons to Hezbollah, the militant group based in Lebanon.

On NBC Nightly News (1/30/13), anchor Brian Williams asked correspondent Richard Engel to explain "the significance of Israel reaching in and popping a target like that."

Engel explained:

What we've been able to confirm is that an Israeli air strike took place and it attacked a convoy, probably stationary, just north of Damascus. It was packed with fairly sophisticated Russian anti-aircraft missiles. And that those missiles were on their way to Lebanon. They were going to be handed over to Hezbollah. Hezbollah is very powerful in Lebanon. It's Israel's sworn enemy. Israel did not want Hezbollah to have these weapons.

It is highly doubtful that Engel could "confirm" any such thing–unless by "confirm" he means that NBC is confirming that government sources are claiming what they are claiming.

But Engel went even further, adding that the airstrike

means Hezbollah and Israel could be heading up for another round. It also means Israel is willing to reach inside Syria and stop weapons from leaking out, maybe even chemical weapons.

Sure–"maybe" chemical weapons.

PBS NewsHour correspondent Margaret Warner (1/30/13) had the same strange notion of confirmation:

 Israeli officials are completely mum about this, but I have been able to confirm from a U.S. official that, in fact, the attack took place, that hit was a convoy of trucks carrying SA-17 anti-missile components or the missiles themselves headed toward Lebanon.

And Warner also speculated:

The official I talked to said it actually occurred fairly near Damascus, but that the missiles or missile parts were already in Hezbollah's hands, in other words, that this wasn't a Syrian army convoy taking the weapons to Hezbollah, the militant Shiite group in Lebanon, but Hezbollah already had possession of them. If that turns out to be the case, it says a lot about Hezbollah's actions and activities in Syria right now.

Host Gwen Ifill's response was to say to Warner, "So,  a U.S. official has confirmed this to you."

And what if none of this could be confirmed? What U.S. officials claim is not actually a "confirmation" of anything.

So was there any way to actually know what Israel struck? A country in the midst of a brutal civil war is likely to be moving weapons around. Is there any reason to trust the Israeli story that it knew there were weapons heading across the border into Lebanon?

The Israeli government mostly hewed to its policy of not publicly declaring responsibility for the attack, which a New York Times story (2/1/13) explained as "a tactic that experts said was part of a longstanding strategy to give targeted countries face-saving opportunities to avoid worsening a conflict."

But that Times story, by Anne Barnard and Jodi Rudoren, did include some skepticism about the official story:

But if weapons were targeted, analysts said, it is not even clear that they belonged to Hezbollah. Arab and Israeli analysts said another possibility was that Syria was simply aiming to move some weapons to Lebanon for safekeeping.

And Barnard and Rudoren reported:

Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese general and professor at the American University of Beirut, said that SA-17s made little sense for Hezbollah because they require large launching systems that use radar and would be easy targets for Israel. Syria, he said, needs SA-17s in case of international intervention in its civil war.

Those suggestions comported with the account of a Syrian officer who said in a recent interview that the heavily guarded military area around the Jamraya research facility was used as a weapons transfer station to southern Lebanon and Syria’s coastal government stronghold of Tartous for safekeeping, in convoys of tractor-trailer trucks. (The officer said he had lost faith in the government but hesitated to defect because he did not trust the rebels.)

A reader might conclude, based on some of the more credulous accounts of this strike, that U.S. outlets were mostly seeing events from the perspective of the Israeli government. And that was precisely the point of a USA Today February 1 story, which ran under the headline "Analyst: Syria Missiles Threaten Israeli Spy Flights."

The point of the article was that if Hezbollah were to get such weapons, it would make it more difficult for Israel to make its daily spy flight over their country without fear of the planes being shot down.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.