Sep
04
2013

Asking Kerry Questions–but Which Ones?

kerry-gregory-syriaLast Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry made a dramatic presentation of U.S. intelligence findings regarding the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria on August 21. That intelligence provides the basis for the U.S. assertion that the Syrian government carried out an attack that killed over 1,400 people, and it is  the rationale for an expected U.S. military strike on Syria.

Kerry appeared on all of the Sunday talkshows. But he was mostly not asked about the case for war with Syria.

Instead, the questioning was overwhelmingly concerned with Barack Obama's decision to seek congressional approval for an attack on Syria–a notion that many of the Sunday show journalists seemed to find remarkably troubling.

On Fox News Sunday (9/1/13), host Chris Wallace asked Kerry seven questions–all of them about the decision to go to Congress, which clearly seemed to bother Wallace: "Haven't you handed Syria and Iran at least a temporary victory, sir?"

On CBS's Face the Nation (9/1/13), guest host Major Garrett asked Kerry five questions, all of them about Congress. He wondered if the debate would lead to a different type of war:

Are you suggesting that if Congress goes ahead and authorizes this, this will be a more forceful, memorable military strike than it would have been had the president acted alone?

On NBC's Meet the Press (9/1/13), David Gregory asked Kerry eight questions, five of which concerned the Congressional approval. "Do you think the United States has undermined its leverage in the world, its credibility?" was how he posed one of the questions. The only time Gregory brought up the intelligence that forms the case for war, it was not really a question at all, but an opportunity for Kerry to repeat a talking point: 

Mr. Secretary, I just want to underline the news you made this morning. This is a sarin gas attack perpetrated by the Assad regime. This is a slam dunk case that he did it.

And on ABC's This Week, George Stephanopoulos asked Kerry 10 questions, seven of which dealt with congressional approval. Unlike the others, he posed a question about the strength of the U.S. case for war:

You say that the evidence is clear, but President Putin of Russia calling it utter nonsense that President Assad would authorize this kind of a chemical strike…. Your response to President Putin?

Of course, putting the skepticism in the mouth of a world leader generally antagonistic to U.S. policy is a way of saying that questioning the evidence is something that  "official enemies" do.

But there are plenty of people who think the White House could, at the very least, reveal more of the intelligence they claim is so convincing–that's what Washington Post columnist Walter Pincus, who spent most of his career reporting on intelligence, argued in his September 2 column. And investigative journalist Gareth Porter (Truthout, 9/3/13 ) offered a thorough challenge to the intelligence, and veteran reporter Robert Parry  (ConsortiumNews.com, 8/30/13) raised the kinds of questions that TV reporters should have posed directly to Kerry. 

It's understandable that some interviewers would ask questions about the White House's seemingly sudden decision to take their case for war to Congress. But obsessing over it so thoroughly–it was the focus of 80 percent of the questions Kerry was asked–serves two functions: It crowds out space that should be reserved for skeptical coverage of the U.S. intelligence presentation, and it treats the normal, constitutionally mandated business of seeking congressional approval for war as if it were an exotic and nearly unprecedented maneuver. Both are, in different ways, helpful to the White House–and dodge the essential question of whether they have really made a credible case for war. 

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.