Look, I know this happens all the time, and I look like a real whiner when I point it out, and it’s not going to change anybody’s opinion…


Earlier today in Iraq, some insurgent left a roadside bomb beside some American convoy. Before the Americans could disarm it, the thing exploded, and two soldiers have been treated for slight exposure to the nerve gas sarin.

The markings on the shell were from the 1980s, and it was a very poor use of sarin, so poor that many military experts and a former weapons inspector have conjectured that the insurgents didn’t even know it had sarin in it – it looked like every other shell in the pile. One weapons inspector said that it was probably a prototype left over from an aborted test years ago.

So, my first thought was: from this tiny canister of poorly-stored sarin, the Bush Administration is going to say that they found Weapons of Mass Destruction. I waited for the story to blow up, but by this afternoon, it wasn’t even on the front page of the New York Times’ website. Nor the BBC, or Reuters. CNN? They were interested in hurricanes:


How about the populist USA Today? Well, they semi-buried it as part of another story on Iraq:


yes, I altered one of the pictures, but Bush’s image is not allowed on my blog

Ah, but our other friends, you ask? Simple:


Yep, that’s right. “Sarin, Mustard Gas Found in Iraq.” Obviously, they know that Average Joe Buttplug is going to take one look at that headline and scream “Damn right! Bush saw this shit comin’ a mile away! I bet them ragheads got more, too!”

It’s the little things that get me. This particular instance may not be all that big a deal, but each editorial decision made by these people, tiny little calculations, day by day, has made our populace utterly impermeable to the truth. I just need to print it out so it exists somewhere, not just the rage-filled chambers of the back of my mind.

0 thoughts on “sarin-dipity

  1. Lyle

    you tell ’em, ian!
    at first, as a big sesame street fan, i was tickled to see bert on the front of usa today, but then it seemed all the sweeter when i realized that half of one of mainstream tv’s earliest gay couples (c’mon, bert and ernie are SO together!) was blotting out the simian visage of dubya, enemy #1 of sexual freedoms and equality.

  2. Jonathan

    Of course, sarin and mustard gas ARE weapons of mass destruction which Hussein claimed he didn’t have.
    So, in point of fact, WMD, pathetic as they may be, have been found. That the NY Times and BBC don’t consider it big enough news for the front page is ALSO an editorial decision, the type of which “day by day” makes folks “impermeable to the truth.”

  3. Greg

    I’m a little confused about the whole “WMD” thing. If Sarin is indeed a weapon of mass destruction and has been successfully used as a weapon then where’s the mass destruction? If I’m not mistaken, Sarin gas is a chemical agent that we were searching for along with wmd, but is not a WMD itself. I’m probably just splitting hairs, but this isn’t quite the same to me, or maybe that was Ian’s point…

  4. Sean Williams

    I got a call from my mother-in-law. “They found the WMD!” WMD stands for “Weapons of Mass Destruction”. This was a single shell, not weapons, and after it exploded the mass destruction it did was to affect two soldiers standing nearby, which is incredibly far from mass destruction.
    Yes, printing actual news instead of distortions is an editorial decision, but it is one I can get behind. I was a supporter of this war when Powell claimed there were WMD in Iraq, I would not have been a supporter had I known this is what they were talking about, and neither would Powell.
    Not to be a jerk, but “Weapons of Mass Destruction” means something, and it doesn’t mean a single shell capable of destroying it’s chemical weapon upon usage.

  5. oliver

    There may have been nothing wrong with the shell. A news story I read said that these things hold two constituents of sarin in seperate vials which only mix when the shell is fired through the rifled barrel of a cannon.

  6. Greg

    After reading both the NYTimes(click my name link) and Fox News articles on the subject, I rescind my earlier comments. Sarin is a WMD when used “properly” and has been used to kill thousands. The existence of such agents in Iraq is noteworthy and should be getting more play from major media outlets. I could not find a reference to the story on the Washington Post (my preferred source for news), MSNBC, or CNN (who is at least, no longer talking about hurricanes and has moved on to the 9-11 witch hunt.) I do think that Fox News is sensationalist and generally shows poor and biased judgement in promoting news stories, but in this particular case I think the other media outlets are showing similarly poor judgement in avoiding the story.

  7. cullen

    In many market outlets, ‘Lo-cal’ Fox News shows at 10 pm. almost always leading in sensationalistically with either a close to home story or war headlines. The treatment is beyond self-aggrandizing; it borders on tabloid journalism. Who watches the late evening news at 10 pm anyway? Have you seen Miami or Atlanta’s ridiculous Fox newscasts? I like the melodramatic Muzak sound bytes that accompany zoomed in images: jail cells clanging, explosions, screams. New York’s Fox anchors are actually very good in comparison.
    National Fox News is the WWF of news journalism. Where’s Vince McMahon’s hair?
    I remember being somewhat disgusted during the first Bush War, watching the scud stud whatever-his-name-was and the nightly light show from Kuwait. Now I’m more saddened than sickened.
    Oh yeah, does WMD belong with SBD and SBV (Silent but Violent) in the fart bomb category?

  8. Jonathan

    With regard to Greg’s comment about “where’s the mass destruction?” The thousands of Kurds killed by Hussein’s chemical weapons are a fine example thereof.
    That the sarin was not used effectively is a good thing. Do we have to see actual mass destruction BEFORE having the moral right to take action? Do we have to find more WMD to reach some burden of proof? If so, how much is required before Ian and his (delightfult, by the way) ilk will be satisfied that Bush took the right action in invading?
    Preemption is a good thing.

  9. CL

    The bottom cover story of the New York Post today is this:
    WMD (in big letters)
    Nerve-gas blast in Baghdad
    It seems clearly designed to counter all of the months of complaints about Bush being wrong.
    …By the way, they’ve said the same thing about the upcoming hurricane season for the last three years I think….

  10. Bud

    These political discussions almost never change anyone’s mind; each side comes away believing more strongly what they believed to begin with, and shaking their heads at the ignorance of the other side.
    And yet, I can’t resist putting in my bit.
    Fox News just tries to make as much money as it can, by catering (pandering?) to the desires of its audience. That they’d stretch the truth–or even drum up a war–to make a few more bucks (okay, a whole bunch) is nothing new in journalism. Ever heard of William Randolph Hearst?
    Thank God we have other, reliable sources of news. Yes–CNN, Reuters, BBC, NPR and the like are operated by people, who inevitably have biases–but generally it seems journalistic integrity and good old skepticism ensure that these guys are more on the side of the truth than they are of any political faction. Fox on the other hand shows me just how far people are willing to go to believe what they want to believe.
    Even Gen. Kimmett (chief US military spokesperson in Iraq) downplayed the ‘WMD find.’ Even if the find is confirmed, Iraq posed no threat to us or to our allies.
    Invading Iraq was wrong. War should always be the absolute last resort, and clearly, with inspectors working in Iraq, we had alternatives to this one.
    Preemption is a BAD thing, arguably the worst thing about this war. Bush (or more accurately, Bush’s people) opened the door for any country now to justify its aggression by claiming ‘grave and gathering’ threats to its security.
    Are we safer today?
    I don’t feel safer. If you feel safer, where do you get your news?

  11. Lisa

    Hi Ian
    I worry that this will make me sound like a complete wanker, but I think what you are talking about here could be a great (yet hideous) example of what Foucault calls “discourse formation” — which is basically the grouping of distinguishable items into unities, which in turn creates objects. So Fox can group a small cannister of Sarin gas under the heading of WMD, and thus create an entire discourse around WMD’s being found in Iraq which becomes then in fact our reality -even if its not true.
    Fox has some genius rhetorical strategies in my view — the constant repetition of sound bytes is amazing. First a general or some “expert” says the nugget. Then the reporter says the nugget. Then another couple of experts repeat the nugget (because it has started to slip into the public discourse/lexicon). Then once it has slipped further into the collective consciousness, they interview a man on the street — and s/he repeats the phrase, thus making it sound like common sense rather than a heavily constructed bill of goods. Arrgh. I’m angry today.
    Here’s something that you may find of interest for tracking coverage (all librarian rants end with a link to something to read…occupational hazard….)
    Utilizing a treemap visualization algorithm, Newsmap is an application that visually reflects “the constantly changing landscape” of the Google News news aggregator. As
    this information is displayed visually, this format is able to “reveal underlying patterns in news reporting across cultures and within news
    segments in constant change across the globe.” By customizing the Newsmap application, users can look at various news sectors (such as world, nation, business, technology, sports, entertainment and health), and toggle through
    the various coverage provided by different countries throughout the world. Although it is quite graphic intensive, this site is one that will be worth visiting multiple times and may be of particular interest to those in the
    fields of journalism and international studies. [KMG]
    From The Scout Report, Copyright Internet Scout Project 1994-2003.

  12. Piglet

    The real bitch about wearing the white hats is, it means we have to shoot second.
    If the Faux News anchor said, “good morning”, you’d have to look out the window to see if the sun was up.

  13. oliver

    The “just catering to what the market demands” argument is a perfect legal defense only in a perfectly libertarian society, which isn’t what we live in or aspire to live in–at least, not most of us. The market wants cigarettes, the market wants pornography, and if you put the label “Fox News” on a porn magazine it will sell just as well…or even better, as Murdoch’s market share shows. A big problem with a statement like “X percent of Americans get their news from Fox” is that “news” is poorly defined. If pollsters wrote their questionnaires according to the definition or standards of New York Times newspaper reporters (excepting Jason Blair), “Fox” wouldn’t even be a possible answer to the question “Where do you get your news?” It’s in another category besides “news”–the same category Rush Limbaugh belongs to. Unfortunately, any beautiful person who wears a suit and talks a certain way on TV registers in the mind as a journalist–as illustrated by how many stations were suckered by the whitehouse video news release on medicare reform. People switch from PBS to Fox and skip reading the newspaper because Fox makes them believe they’ve heard “the news” already. That doesn’t mean these people really have though.

  14. Pete Stanley

    “…Yes–CNN, Reuters, BBC, NPR and the like are operated by people, who inevitably have biases–but generally it seems journalistic integrity and good old skepticism ensure that these guys are more on the side of the truth…”
    Sigh. I don’t think either side completely gets it. I’m afraid I’ll get rather long-winded here.
    Brig. Gen. Kimmett never said that the shell came from the 1980s. Yet this was reported by the LA Times:
    “Kimmitt said the chemical munition appeared to be left over from the 1980s, when Baghdad secretly produced hundreds of tons of poison gas. United Nations records show that the sarin Iraq produced in the mid-1980s degraded quickly, however, and was no longer lethal by the early 1990s.”
    Kimmett never said that. The “ex-regime” time that he refers to could mean last year, though I don’t think it was that recent.
    It’s true that Saddam’s Iraq, as was his wont, didn’t specially label chemical artillery shells. If you consider this for a moment, you will realize how utter callous this policy was. The insurgents may or may not have known what was in the shell, and I think they probably didn’t.
    However, it was not previously known that Iraq had the capability to produce a binary sarin 155 millimeter shell of the type described.
    A binary shell is a chemical weapon where two solutions are stored in seperate compartments of the warhead. In the particular type Kimmett describes, the product was supposed to form after the rotation of the shell in flight broke the membrane or whatever (which is probably why the ordinance disposal guys were only partially slimed).
    The interesting thing is, we never knew Iraq had the capability to produce shells that advanced. They had relied on cruder shells (non-binary) and cruder binary shells (impact, not rotation) before that.
    In addition, Iraq never declared Sarin artillery shells to UNSCOM. Sarin air bombs, missle warheads, and rocket warheads yes, but not artillery shells.
    Remember that Iraq was completely free of UN inspection from the conclusion of Operation Desert Fox to the run-up to the ’03 war, when Blix and UNMOVIC moved in. In that interrim period, I think it’s completely possible that Iraq developed the capability to manufacture these warheads. Developing a new industrial capability in this area while the UNSCOM inspectors were still aggressively searching Iraq would have been very difficult.
    There is also the possiblitiy that the shell is not of Iraqi origin. That is quite disturbing for any number or reasons.
    So where are the damn WMDs? Richard Butler, head of UNSCOM, describes in The Greatest Threat inspections shortly before the end of UNSCOM and the beginning of Desert Fox. Several inspections brought the UN team to a building that was absolutely barren, sometimes the Iraqi minders would openly laugh at the inspectors. Sometimes the UNSCOM team would later be provided with sattelite photos of trucks leaving the back of a compound while the inspectors were being stalled at the front gate.
    What I think happened is that all of the WMDs were removed or hidden or destroyed or all three. Instead of entering an empty building, we entered an empty country. Ridiculous? Perhaps. But Ion Mihai Pacepa, former head of Romanian intelligence, has asserted that the Soviets’ Arab client states had just such a plan in place to hide these programs – that this program was actually set into motion in Libya. And that Iraq had the program ongoing during the 1990s.
    Furthermore, Chuck Spinney (no fan of Bush policy – see here where he asks “Is 9/11 Evolving into America’s Reichstag Fire?”) allows that Saddam may be a genius, and that Iraq may have had a “Toyota production system” to hide it’s WMD production, here and here. Under this scenario (which doesn’t necessarily negate the above scenario) Saddam would only have had to destroy or remove the critical components in the system to render the US search for WMD a laughinstock.
    In the words of one weapons-hunter who was there last year: “It seems Iraqi soldiers were obsessed with keeping ammo dumps insect-free…” Common pesticides are not so far removed from nerve agents like sarin and tabun, yet the pesticides have legitimate commercial uses.
    I, too, have rage-filled chambers at the back of my mind. Not really at the news media – Fox or CNN or any of the others. Objectivity is not available to humans and certainly not to newspapers or other media. A lot of non-Murdoch organizations spun or buried it because it’s good for Bush. The LA Times even had a General Officer saying things he didn’t say. But Ian is right, too – Fox spun this as hard as they could, because it’s good for Bush. In a manner that is faintly ridiculous, I might add. The United States did not invade Iraq to locate, fix, and destroy one (1) artillery shell.
    The truth does not lie somewhere in between. The truth lies far, far in the distance, entirely removed from all of this.
    How’s the Kobe trial going?

  15. Pete Stanley

    Oh, dear. Links are not enabled. Here they are, should anyone be interested:
    LA Times,1,7078213.story?coll=la-home-headlines
    Kimmett’s remarks
    never thought had binary 155 capability
    Spinney “Reichstag”
    Spinney “Toyota production”

  16. Ian

    Classic Pete, even with footnotes! Some interesting stuff there. One thing you’ve discovered in your early 20s that took me until my mid-30s: the truth is never somewhere in the middle, it’s always somewhere bizarrely different.
    Which, in a roundabout way, makes pre-emption even more INSANE and CONTROL-OBSESSED.

  17. Pete Stanley

    OK, then, try this one on for size – the US did not invade Iraq pre-emptively.
    Wolfowitz made a statement several months ago that sounded rather arch, to the effect that the WMD casus belli had been settled on for “bureaucratic reasons.” There were four major unstated reasons to invade Iraq:
    and, most controversially, but most centrally
    4)Operational reasons
    A 1992 Clinton campaign adviser on Iraq by the name of Laurie Mylorie investigated the 1993 WTC bombing. She came to the conclusion that Ramzi Yousef was working for the Iraqis. She published her findings in the Winter ’95 edition of the journal Foreign Affairs. She subsequently published a book in 2000, under the title of “A Study of Revenge (Which was re-released after 9/11 under a slightly different title). In her introduction, she thanks her friend Claire Wolfowitz for her support and help. Claire is Paul’s wife.
    When Paul joined the administration, he became an advocate for Mylroie’s views, particularly after 9/11. I do not agree entirely with Mylroie, but I think she is mostly correct. Ties between Saddam’s baath regime and al Qaeda were serious and longstanding.
    Close study of 9/11 will reveal that it fits a pattern of previous attacks in the 1990s. However, I beleive that the decision to attack Iraq was not made until after detailed analysis of the Senate anthrax attacks was completed, probably in late 2001 or early 2002.
    So why hasn’t this all this stuff been released to the public? Four reasons:
    1) Blackmail. I beleive that there were six foriegn governments that were somehow involved, in varying degrees, in the 9/11 plot. Two were involved at the highest levels. Two had insubordinate factions supporting the terrorists. And two were not involved in the plot, but were aware of it and allowed it to continue, giving the US only vague warnings. The first two have been marked for destruction (one down, one to go). The remaining four have the screws applied at various convenient times by Bush.
    2)The idea of Iraq-al Qaeda links is met with fierce resistance in the CIA, State Dept, and some other quarters in the US gov’t. If Bush tried to make the case on Mylroie’s arguments alone, he would be countered by a flood of anonymous leaks from “senior intelligence officials” in the NYT, LA Times, WaPo, and especially through Seymor Hersh at the New Yorker and Michael Isikoff at Newsweek.
    3) Some of the things the terrorists did on 9/11 involved classified technology.
    4) Uncle Sam is not eager to broadcast exactly how badly he had his ass kicked on the morning of Sept. 11. Jet fuel does not act like high explosive, nor were WTC buildings 1,2 & 7 made out of toothpicks.
    5) I do not think Bush is above using this for political gain. If Kerry really gets him on the ropes in October, Bush might release all of this information. Including WMD findings. Kerry is aware that the WMD question isn’t closed – he said a couple weeks ago that “We may yet find” WMD in Iraq
    I intend to publish my findings at some point. No doubt I will be denounced as crazy or worse. I’m sure almost nobody left or right will like what I have to say, as I destroy too many cherished notions.
    And Ian, I didn’t want to put too fine a point on it, since you’re our Gracious Host and all, but it isn’t a choice between Fox News and CNN, any more than it’s a choice between Average Joe Buttplug and Enlightened Ian Williams. These are mirror images.
    I will not begrudge you your healthy skepticism of Bush, the Iraq invasion, etc. I’ve been quite skeptical, and (I believe) it’s led me to truth. What I’m attempting to critizise is unquestioning adherence to one side of an argument or issue.

  18. oliver

    O.K.. I’m really sorry for how this mystery has made everybody waste their time speculating. _I_ did it. The whole thing. The plan to topple the towers, the hiding of the WMD. I got a little tipsy at the houka one night while Sadam and Osama were around and I’m afraid I just went on a tangent that proved a little too inspirational. I only provided them my swiss account numbers afterwards to save face. I had no idea they meant business! (These guys joked around _alot_) If you doubt my story, ask yourselves why there were no accordion players in the buildings when the planes struck and who warned them.

  19. Doc V

    So along with the other ten million weapons violations, Missiles that violated the range agreements, chemical delivery systems, uncombined components for Mustard Gas, testing of biological agents on political prisoners that could have caused a plague; now one of the canisters and there are probably others, has been used.
    Of course some people will say this is not a


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