NBC Fell for Syrian False Flag Operation: Increased Nuclear Risk

Bias in our media’s international reporting is one of the greatest risks to our national security. Read on to find out why I say that, and to see the latest example to come to light. In this new instance, NBC’s Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel fell hook, line, and sinker for a false flag operation which blamed Syrian President Assad for Engel’s harrowing kidnapping, when in fact, it was Assad’s opponents who were at fault. Engel blamed not only Assad, but also Iran for his kidnapping. While he has now retracted those allegations, it’s hard to repair the damage. “Confirmation bias” causes his initial, false accusations to find a more prominent place in the American psyche than his retraction because our minds emphasize evidence which confirms our current beliefs, no matter how wrong they might be.

Whenever it occurs, media bias is a problem. But why do I see it as so dangerous to our national security?

Media bias stands stands out as one of the first steps in most “accident chains” which had the potential to cause us to teeter at the edge of the nuclear abyss, as we did during October 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis. In fact, media bias played a significant role in creating that Cuban crisis itself. The media fostered the “Red scare” narrative that distorted Castro’s revolution into part of a grand communist conspiracy to take over the world, even though that was not the truth. According to Khrushchev’s speech writer, Fedor Burlatsky:

[Initially] Castro was neither a Communist nor a Marxist. It was the Americans themselves who pushed him in the direction of the Soviet Union. He needed economic and political support and help with weapons, and he found all three in Moscow.*

The media bias continued, with TIME magazine’s September 21, 1962 cover article arguing for an American invasion of Cuba:

Just 17 months ago, President Kennedy had a real chance to blast Castro out of power; but at the crucial moment of the U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy called off the promised U.S. air cover.** Today … the only possibility that promises a quick end to Castro – if that is what is wanted – is a direct U.S. invasion of Cuba, carried out with sufficient force to get the job done with surgical speed and efficiency. 

While TIME poses it as a question in the above excerpt, the rest of the article makes it clear that “a quick end to Castro” is precisely what is wanted. That, coupled with CIA-backed sabotage operations within Cuba – understandably seen in Havana and Moscow as state sponsored terrorism – such media coverage provided added motivation for Khrushchev to base missiles in Cuba as a “nuclear trip wire,” a role our Jupiter missiles were already serving in Turkey. (The media also failed to note the similarity of our Turkish missiles to the Soviet’s Cuban missiles.) If the media had been more balanced, we might well have avoided risking World War III in 1962.

Other examples of media bias didn’t take us as far out in their accident chains, so the world is much less aware of their danger. But their higher frequency makes them far too dangerous.

Part 1 and part 2 of my series on Avoiding Needless Wars shows how media bias played a key role in creating the Vietnam War. The first Tonkin Gulf incident was not the unprovoked aggression by a rogue state that the Johnson administration said it was, and the second – which provided the legal basis for the war – never happened. Part 4 of that series, on Nixon’s Madman Nuclear Alert, gives an example of how that needless war added needless nuclear risk.

Every time we fall for a flawed narrative and attack another nation on false pretenses, it adds to the fear of our rivals that we are a bull in a china shop that can only be deterred by threats. And, when our rivals have nuclear weapons, those threats tend to include nuclear overtones. Putin is doing that now with the Ukrainian crisis, and my June 12, 2014 blog post explains how our behavior led him to conclude that “strategic insanity” has taken us over. Iraq is Exhibit A in Putin’s mind, while Libya and Syria tell him that we don’t learn from our mistakes. Hopefully, Iran won’t be added to that list.

So what’s the latest example of media bias? In 2012, NBC’s Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel and his crew were kidnapped in Syria in what he recently admitted was a false flag operation. While the kidnappers had multiple motives, one of them was to make the Assad regime look bad. Before he became aware that he had been taken in by the ruse, Engel told Rachel Maddow:

I think I have a very good idea of who [my kidnappers] were. This was a group known as the Shabiha. This is a government militia. These are people who are loyal to President Bashar al Assad. They are Shiite. They were talking openly about their loyalty to the government, openly expressing their Shia faith. They are trained by Iranian revolutionary guard. They are allied with Hezbollah.

Engel’s recent retraction admits that he got it all backwards:

The group that kidnapped us was Sunni, not Shia.

The group that kidnapped us put on an elaborate ruse to convince us they were Shiite Shabiha militiamen.

With all the fear, anger, and hate directed at Iran and Assad, it’s easy to see how both Engel and the American public bought into that ruse. But it’s high time we stopped letting biased media coverage feed those emotions and drag us into needless wars with their needless nuclear risk.

Martin Hellman

If you agree that these ideas deserve greater attention, please share this post via Facebook, Twitter, email, and other means.

For more details on Engel’s kidnapping, in addition to his retraction, please see:

NBC News Alters Account of Kidnapping in Thursday’s New York Times, page B1.

A more in-depth piece by Glenn Greenwald which highlights questions raised soon after the event, to which Engel should have paid more attention.

The transcript of Rachel Maddow’s December 18, 2012 interview with Engel.

The transcript of Rachel Maddow’s December 21, 2012 interview with Engel.

* Fedor Burlatsky, Khrushchev and The First Russian Spring: The Era Khrushchev Though The Eyes Of His Adviser, Scribners, New York, 1991, page 169.

** TIME is wrong on “the promised U.S. air cover” – another example of media bias/error. Kennedy had ruled out providing American air cover, but infuriated our military leaders when he refused to provide it as the Bay of Pigs fiasco unwound. Some have speculated that the military mistakenly thought Kennedy would reverse himself when confronted by the alternative of a humiliating defeat.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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