Joby Warrick Is the New Judy Miller

Poor Joby Warrick. With Judy Miller so disgraced that Fox News had to issue a “she has nothing to apologize for” press release when they hired her back in 2008, Joby drew the short straw yesterday and was assigned to transcribe the hyped bullshit concerns arising from Israel Syria’s neighbors that Syria might be contemplating use of biological weapons. The entire Warrick article needs to be read to get a full feel for its credulous recitations of completely unfounded speculation being passed off as actual intelligence, but I will stick with just a few paragraphs. Warrick opens by making a completely baseless claim:

Last month’s alleged chemical attack near Damascus has re­focused attention on Syria’s 30-year-old biological weapons research and raised concerns about whether the government there could activate an effort to make a weapon.

Really, Joby? Aside from those “intelligence officials in two Middle East countries” who fed you this material, has anybody else voiced a concern that Syria is contemplating use of bioweapons, or even could produce bioweapons if they wanted to?

Even Warrick has to admit that any work on bioweapons in Syria is now over 30 years old. But that doesn’t deter Warrick and the spooks whispering in his ear:

Syria’s bioweapons program, which U.S. officials believe has been largely dormant since the 1980s, is likely to possess the key ingredients for a weapon, including a collection of lethal bacteria and viruses as well as the modern equipment needed to covert them into deadly powders and aerosols, according to U.S. and Middle Eastern officials and weapons experts.

Wow. the “US and Middle Eastern officials and weapons experts” guiding Warrick’s hands on the keyboard as he types are saying that despite not working on bioweapons for thirty years or so, they have the deadly organisms and equipment that would be needed to make “deadly powders and aerosols”.

Warrick and the spies who feed him have absolutely nothing on which to base this accusation. Let’s check a neutral source on what the real status of biotechnology capability in Syria is and whether it can be rapidly adapted to bioweapons. The Nuclear Threat Initiative provides a report on Syria’s potential bioweapons capability that was last updated in February of this year. They come to very different conclusions than Warrick (emphasis added):

In the past, unclassified statements by U.S. officials occasionally claimed reason to suspect Syria of maintaining an offensive BW program. [2] However, in contrast to discussions of Syrian chemical warfare (CW) capabilities, such claims have not included any details on the size and scale of Syria’s potential BW program, and are not presented alongside supporting evidence. Instead, discussions on this topic have focused on speculative extrapolations of Syrian dual-capable industry and on Syrian political motivations. Such analysis can be neither detailed nor comprehensive. Although the existence of a biotechnology industrial base would suggest that Syria has some indigenous expertise useful for developing a biological weapons capability, it does not imply and cannot confirm the existence of an offensive biological weapons program. Furthermore, given that Israel, a state that is understood to possess a nuclear arsenal and continues to occupy the Golan Heights, remains Syria’s primary security concern, and given the risk of “blowback” when deploying biological weapons, such weapons would be of questionable tactical desirability from a Syrian perspective. While public sources on the nature of Syria’s chemical and nuclear programs are limited, even less exists about Syria’s biological program, and “there is no hint of its existence from open sources.” [3]

The report goes on to detail what Syria’s biological industries do (again, emphasis added):

As of 2010, the Syrian pharmaceutical industry included eight or nine large firms practicing modern production techniques, 25 midsized companies producing generics, and 25 factories of limited functionality. [10] By some estimates, Syria’s pharmaceutical companies produced 5,700 types of products and employed a workforce of 17,000. [11] In 2011, Syria’s pharmaceutical industry claimed an estimated output valued at $500 million, $350 million of which was consumed in the domestic market. [12] Syrian pharmaceutical companies produce a broad range of generic pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics, antifungals and antivirals, and vitamins. [13] The growth of Syria’s pharmaceutical industry suggests domestic expertise in the biosciences. However, Syria’s burgeoning pharmaceutical sector has focused primarily on generic drugs, rather than novel research and discovery. [14] Therefore, this activity does not necessarily imply any experience in working with select agents or any development of weaponization techniques.

I would take that information a bit further and state that Syria’s concentration on production of generic pharmaceuticals fits better into a chemical weapons program than a biological one.

After quoting extensively from one “expert” cautioning us that we need to be very afraid of Syria’s bioweapons capability, Warrick concludes his article with what almost certainly should have been the lede:

Other weapons experts view Syria’s biomedical expansion as intriguing but not necessarily alarming. “Syria has a chemical weapons program, so anything they do is suspect,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a weapons expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif. “It’s easy to see the devil behind every woodpile. But I suspect there’s probably not a lot there.”

I want to go back to that accusation about Syria producing “deadly powders and aerosols”, because we have a wealth of information from the 2001 anthrax attacks in the US that helps to put Warrick’s fearmongering here into perspective. I have long suspected that the anthrax material used in those attacks was produced at the Project Bacus facility in Nevada that Judy Miller first disclosed on September 4, 2001. I suspect further that a very sophisticated technology for weaponizing the spores might have been used.

If we go back to events as they unfolded, however, recall that Brian Ross joined in the fearmongering to accuse Iraq of being involved in the anthrax attacks because the material contained bentonite. That turned out to be completely false with regard to both Iraq and bentonite, but helped to inflame passions against Iraq.

Warrick shows no initiative in his accusations against Syria, because he could have recycled the whole bentonite approach from Ross. Syria sells bentonite on alibaba.com, the site where an undercover ICE agent ran its sting on the man who wanted to sell uranium yellowcake to Iran through a US broker. Perhaps Warrick finally got around to finding out just what this bentonite stuff is:

Unhappy with the inconvenience of traditional litters, biochemist and cat lover Thomas Nelson began investigating alternative clay formulations in the early 1980s. He observed that a certain type of clay called bentonite clumped up in the presence of moisture, allowing waste to be isolated and scooped out, leaving behind clean litter. Today, roughly 60% of the cat litter sold in the U.S. is of the clumping variety, and most of it is made from bentonite clay.

That’s right. The last time fearmongering was used on bioweapons, we were told to believe that kitty litter is just as good a material for weaponizing anthrax as highly sophisticated polymer chemistry requiring advanced equipment and protective measures.

If we see new bioweapons being unleashed on the world, Syria would be pretty low on my list of likely perpetrators. Many known former bioweapons workers are now being supplied with “peaceful” laboratories in which to carry out work that is meant to be beneficial rather than destructive, so there is always the fear of a rogue operator at one of these sites.

Sadly, it’s not just Warrick and bioweapons where we are seeing an all-out blitz on condemnation of Syria. The New York Times yesterday reported on the finding that Syria has long been known to be using cluster bombs in its attacks on rebel factions. Unfortunately, the article fails to mention the recently announced US sale of cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia or the concerns raised that when US cruise missiles are fired into Syria, some may contain cluster bombs.

There are indeed a number of fronts on which Syria is to be faulted for its atrocious behavior, but the current rage being displayed in the press is failing miserably at providing any perspective on where Syria fits on the global scale of bad actors. But alas, Warrick will labor on with his transcription of accusations against Syria despite the US concluding that offensive bioweapons work there stopped thirty years ago. After all, he continues to push the story that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon despite a national intelligence estimate (pdf) that stated conclusively that Iran stopped its nuclear weapon program in 2003.

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
13 replies
  1. Jessica says:

    “The growth of Syria’s pharmaceutical industry suggests domestic expertise in the biosciences. However, Syria’s burgeoning pharmaceutical sector has focused primarily on generic drugs, rather than novel research and discovery. [14] Therefore, this activity does not necessarily imply any experience in working with select agents or any development of weaponization techniques.”

    Sounds remarkably similar to Iran medical isotopes (am I using the right term) for medical purposes, not nefarious weapons. Do they have a Mad Libs version of these articles, just fill in the appropriate country and benign civilian program?

  2. Dredd says:

    War Rick is a latter day press member –a press which has at times become a victim of Mockingbird type dynamics, i.e., infiltration of “the press” with agents of a delusional government.

    The AP mentioned that the military has in the past become a global propaganda machine, getting assistance from the “free press.”

  3. peasantparty says:

    THANK YOU!

    Thank you, Marcy. This is something that everyone needs to read.

    I would also like to thank you for including this part about the Golan Heights that I have been trying to get across to people:

    “Furthermore, given that Israel, a state that is understood to possess a nuclear arsenal and continues to occupy the Golan Heights, remains Syria’s primary security concern, and given the risk of “blowback” when deploying biological weapons, such weapons would be of questionable tactical desirability from a Syrian perspective.”

    Last week while watching the Finance pages I found out that Israel just awarded Cheney’s KBR a major contract to mine Golan Heights. Yeah, an area that does not even belong to Israel.

    Before anyone goes wild and says I do not support Israel, hold on. I have always supported the Jewish people and their faith. This Zionist political murder and occupation is a whole different issue that I cannot and never will support.

    Now, back to the article:

    Isn’t strange that those so-called experts could not go ahead and give us the details, make-up, and source of at least the past

  4. peasantparty says:

    @peasantparty: um…
    the past, let’s say six CW attacks in Syria? Where did they come from, what was the biochem trace, and the delivery style? One would think that the experts mentioned in the article would have enough knowledge if they are really experts to give something of substance other than talking points!

    I will now go on to say that this civil war was started by Bush bombing and occupying Iraq. It is also due to the lust of oil, gas, gold, and Banking. Yes, Banksters want control of all banking entities and will do whatever to crush independent state controlled banks.

  5. peasantparty says:

    @Dredd: About a month ago it was announced from the White House that the media can now officially report propaganda without fear of legal turmoil.

    Ha! Ain’t that sumpin? They fixed that up just in time. So, no the Press hasn’t learned anything from the Iraq lies.

  6. omphaloscepsis says:

    Maybe the investors in bio-weapons “defense” need some boosts to their stock prices.

    Al Haig Jr. was Chairman of the Board of BioPharma Inc. for several years, then he retired and passed the baton to — Al Haig III.

    http://www.bizjournals.com/southflorida/stories/2004/11/08/daily57.html

    Then there was the late Admiral Crowe and his post-military career in bio-weapons vaccines:

    http://www.salon.com/2001/10/15/anthrax_vaccine/

    In other bio-warfare news, 5th anniversary of a scapegoat:

    http://www.fredericknewspost.com/news/crime_and_justice/courts/article_0852c641-76b1-584a-8d46-3b18fe2cb485.html

  7. joanneleon says:

    It’s just despicable, and downright scary. It sickens me. Apparently I’ve been a total fool for many years in my mostly unquestioning support of Israel. It’s only in the past few years that my eyes have really been opened. And I realize that their right-wing extremists are not supported by the whole population, but at the same time they remain in power.

    At this point, there’s no country on the planet that scares me more than Israel’s Likud maniacs. There are some that scare me just as much, but none more. I find myself wondering to what lengths they will go to get what they want.

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The US is the world’s premier developer, manufacturer and supplier of cluster munitions. These are particularly vile WMD’s that much of the world wants to ban. The US, the world’s largest supplier of WMD’s, opposes such a ban.

    There are various kinds of cluster munitions. These are like small versions of multiple warhead rockets, but instead of a dozen bombs they contain hundreds, sometimes thousands of bomblets. Typically dropped from aircraft, a container distributes these bomblets. These can be, for example, high explosive charges, pellets, or, notoriously, thousands of razor-like fragments that shred flesh. They are a weapon of terror as much as of immediate death.

    One reason the world community is so vocally against cluster munitions is that many fail to explode. They litter the ground, with the potential to explode when disturbed by children, farmers, families burying their dead. Such munitions have a long shelf life.

    Farmers in Belgium and northeastern France dredge up unexploded WWI munitions every spring, along with bones from yet more unknown soldiers. In Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, thousands are injured each year from land mines and other unrecovered munitions. (A charity devoted to caring for these innocent victims of past wars was one of Princess Diana’s favorites.)

    Cluster munitions were dropped in both Iraqi wars and elsewhere. The US remains an isolated, stubborn supporter and user of these profitable munitions.

  9. LM Lewis says:

    I suppose Joby wasn’t able to get his hands on the August 20 CRS report, “Syria’s Chemical Weapons: Issues for Congress,” now available on the FAS website. It states:

    “Some U.S. assessments issued during the past decade have indicated that Damascus has continued to pursue biological weapons. For example, a report from the Director of Central Intelligence to Congress covering the second half of 2002 states that “[i]t is highly probable that Syria also continued to develop an offensive [biological weapons] capability.”66 More recently, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Vann Van Diepen stated in April 2012 that Syria “has been researching biological weapons.”67 Nevertheless, it appears that Syria is still not capable of producing biological weapons. An ODNI report to Congress covering 2009 states that Damascus is “not believed to have achieved a capability to put [biological weapons] agents into effective weapons.”68 The ODNI report covering 2011 states only that “Syria’s biotechnological infrastructure is capable of supporting BW agent development.”69”

    On April 13, 2013, however, a US official testified to Congress that the sitaution had, somewhat miraculously, changed.

    “[b]ased on the duration of Syria’s longstanding biological warfare (BW) program, we judge that some elements of the program may have advanced beyond the research and development stage and may be capable of limited agent production. Syria is not known to have successfully weaponized biological agents in an effective delivery system, but it possesses conventional and chemical weapon systems that could be modified for biological agent delivery.72”

    Who was that official? James “the least untruthful response” Clapper.

    Interestingly, another US official was willing to publicly disagree with Clapper’s assessment.

    “DIA Director Flynn testified during the same hearing that ‘[w]e do not believe Syria has achieved a capability to use biological agents as effective mass-casualty weapons.’73”

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