The exercise of power is determined by thousands of interactions between the world of the powerful and that of the powerless, all the more so because these worlds are never divided by a sharp line: everyone has a small part of himself in both - Vaclav Havel
2012, numerous American factions were pushing for U.S. intervention in Syria to bring
down the regime of Bashar Assad, who throughout the War on Terror had helped the U.S. in all sorts of ways, including
torturing people for them. But by then, Assad was viewed mostly as an
ally of Iran, and deposing him would weaken Tehran, the overarching
regional strategy of the U.S. and its allies. The prevailing narrative
was thus created that those fighting against Assad were “moderate”
and even pro-Western groups, with the leading one dubbed “the Free Syrian
to intervene in Syria in alliance with or on behalf of the “Free Syrian Army”
was a major debate in the West through the end of that year. Then-Chair of
the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry was openly discussing ways for the U.S. to aid the
rebels to bring about regime change. Sen. Joe Lieberman was saying: “I hope the international community and
the U.S. will provide assistance to the Syrian Free Army in the various ways we
can.” Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while ruling out direct military
intervention, said: “[W]e have to redouble our efforts outside of the United
Nations with those allies and partners who support the Syrian people’s right to
have a better future.”
resolution calling for Assad to step down was supported by NATO states but vetoed by China and Russia, who were concerned
that it would be depicted as a “regime change” endorsement to justify Western
military intervention. By the following year, John Kerry, by then Obama’s
secretary of state, was arguing that direct U.S. military
action in Syria against Assad — a full-scale bombing campaign — was a
moral and strategic imperative.
December 2012 — as the pro-intervention cause was strengthening — a group
of five journalists working for NBC News, including its star
international reporter Richard Engel, was kidnapped inside Syria. They were
held for five days, threatened with death, treated inhumanely, and forced to record
a video in which Engel was made to call for an end to U.S.
involvement in Syria. Scrawled on the walls of the room where the video was
recorded was graffiti of pro-Assad messages along with well-known Shiite
obvious intent was to make it appear that these NBC journalists had been
kidnapped and mistreated by Shiite forces associated with Assad. By all
accounts, the kidnappers went to great lengths to make their hostages believe
that as well, and they succeeded. Engel and his fellow captives believed
(understandably) they had been kidnapped by pro-Assad forces, only to be rescued
by brave and kind Sunni rebels who freed them. Once they were released,
NBC said at first that the journalists had
been “kidnapped and held for five days inside Syria by an unknown group,” but
Engel quickly gave numerous interviews unequivocally stating that the captors
were aligned with Assad and that he was rescued by anti-Assad forces. That then
became unquestioned fact on NBC.
one of many appearances, Engel appeared on The Rachel Maddow Show on December
21 and recounted in detail what happened. He described how he was in
“a very rebel-friendly area,” traveling with a “rebel commander” and his team,
when they were “ambushed” by “government people”: pro-Assad forces. “We knew it
was government by what they were saying,” Engel explained.
then described how the rebel commander heroically tried to sacrifice his own
life to save the journalists, but to no avail: the “pro-government forces”
brutalized, tortured and threatened the reporters and even executed some of the
we knew we were with pro-government forces. The rebel commander was saying to
them, kill me, these guys are journalists, they have nothing to do with it.
Kill me, I’m a rebel commander. Let them go …
drive from there to one of their safe houses, don’t know exactly where, but
roughly in this area up here. So it is a farm house. They take the guard, the
rebel commander’s guard out of the truck. Kill him. Execute him …
they took all of us, including the rebel commander, in the safe house. He continually
said let them go. … We were here, they wanted to move us here, to Fou’a. And
Fou’a is a place that is very hard core Shia, very loyal to the government.
It’s mostly surrounded by the rebels, it is being air-supplied by the Syrian
government. … So this is a hand-in-glove relationship between the government
and this very nasty militia group.
ordeal ended, Engel said, only when his pro-government captors accidentally ran
into a rebel checkpoint, where the rebels heroically killed some of Assad’s forces
and freed the journalists, treating them with great compassion:
know who are these guys and we talk to them a little bit and it was quite
clear they were from the rebel group and they couldn’t have been nicer to us.
They were hard fighters, clearly good shots. … And then they brought us back to
the headquarters, gave us food and water, let us make a phone call. And then
they escorted us personally to the border.
days earlier, in a December 18 appearance on Maddow’s show, Engel —
after describing how brutal and inhumane his captors were — actually linked
them to both Iran and Hezbollah in response to a question from David
I think I
have a very good idea of who they 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.
talking openly about their loyalty to the government, openly expressing their
Shia faith. They are trained by Iranian revolutionary guard. They are allied
Post’s Michael Calderone details, Engel told this story in various ways in
numerous different media forums.
were ample reasons at the time to be suspicious that this was a scam
(perpetrated on (not by) Engel and his fellow captives) to blame Assad for the
abduction. There was skepticism expressed by some independent analysts — although
not on NBC News. The truly brilliant political science professor and blogger
As’ad AbuKhalil (who I cannot recommend enough be read every
day) was highly skeptical from the start about the identity of
Engel’s captors, just as he was about the pro-intervention case in Syria and
the nature of the “Free Syrian Army” generally (in August 2012 he told me:
“Syria is one of the biggest propaganda schemes of our time. When the dust
settles, if it does, it will be revealed”).
December 18 — the day the Engel story became public — Professor AbuKhalil published an email from “a knowledgeable Western
journalist” pointing out numerous reasons to doubt that the kidnappers were
aligned with Assad, including the fact that prior kidnappings had been falsely
attributed to pro-Assad forces. He argued that the Engel abduction “seems
very much like a setup, like the kidnappers wanted him to think he was taken by
Shiites.” AbuKhalil himself examined the video and wrote:
at the video and it is so clearly a set up and the slogans are so clearly
fake and they intend to show that they were clearly Shi’ites and that they are
savages. If this one is believable, I am posing as a dentist.
course, I am not saying that Engel was [in] on this plot. I think that they
were really kidnapped but that the kidnappers of the Free Syrian Army typically
lied to them about their identity, which has happened before.
knowledgeable bloggers raised all sorts of questions about
whether Engel’s captors were actually Sunni rebels posing as pro-Assad
turns out, that seems to be exactly what happened. Last night, Engel posted a new statement on the NBC
News website stating that, roughly one month ago, he had been contacted
by The New York Times, which “uncovered information that suggested the
kidnappers were not who they said they were and that the Syrian rebels who
rescued us had a relationship with the kidnappers.” That inquiry from TheNYT
caused him to re-investigate the kidnapping, and he concluded that “the group
that kidnapped us was Sunni, not Shia” and that “the group that freed us” —
which he had previously depicted as heroic anti-Assad rebels — actually “had
ties to the kidnappers.”
all fair enough. Nobody can blame Engel — a courageous reporter, fluent in
Arabic — for falling for what appears to be a well-coordinated ruse.
Particularly under those harrowing circumstances, when he and his fellow
captives believed with good reason that their lives were in immediate danger,
it’s completely understandable that he believed he had been captured by
pro-Assad forces. There is no real evidence that Engel did anything wrong in
recounting his ordeal.
same is most certainly not true of NBC News executives. In writing his new
account, Engel does not mention the most important and most incriminating
aspect of The New York Times reporting: that NBC
officials knew at the time that there was reason to be highly
skeptical of the identity of the captors, but nonetheless allowed Engel and
numerous other NBC and MSNBC reporters to tell this story with virtually no
In a very well-reported article this morning, TheNYT
states that “Mr. Engel’s team was almost certainly taken by a Sunni criminal
element affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, the loose alliance of rebels
opposed to Mr. Assad.” That rebel group is “known as the North Idlib Falcons
Brigade” and is “led by two men, Azzo Qassab and Shukri Ajouj.” Amazingly, NBC
executives knew that this was at least very possible even during
Engel’s kidnapping, and yet:
executives were informed of Mr. Ajouj and Mr. Qassab’s possible involvement
during and after Mr. Engels’s captivity, according to current and former NBC
employees and others who helped search for Mr. Engel, including political
activists and security professionals. Still, the network moved quickly to put
Mr. Engel on the air with an account blaming Shiite captors and did not present
the other possible version of events.
words, NBC executives at least had ample reason to suspect that it was
anti-Assad rebels who staged the kidnapping, not pro-Assad forces. Yet they
allowed Engel and numerous other NBC and MSNBC personalities repeatedly and
unequivocally to blame the Assad regime and glorify the anti-Assad rebels, and
worse, to link the hideous kidnapping to Iran and Hezbollah, all with no
indication that there were other quite likely alternatives. NBC refused to
respond to TheNYT‘s questions about that (The Intercept’s
inquiries to NBC News were also not responded to at the time of publication,
though any responses will be added (update: an NBC executive has refused
Williams scandal is basically about an insecure, ego-driven TV star who puffed
up his own war credentials by fabricating war stories: it’s about personal
foibles. But this Engel story is about what appears to be a reckless eagerness,
if not deliberate deception, on the part of NBC officials to disseminate a
dubious storyline which, at the time, was very much in line with the story
that official Washington was selling (by then, Obama was secretly aiding anti-Assad rebels,
and had just announced – literally a week before the Engel
kidnapping — “that the United States would formally recognize a coalition of
Syrian opposition groups as that country’s legitimate representative”). Much
worse, the NBC story was quite likely to fuel the simmering war cries in the
West to attack (or at least aggressively intervene against) Assad.
far more serious and far more consequential journalistic sin than a news reader
puffing out his chest and pretending he’s Rambo. Falsely and recklessly blaming
the Assad regime for a heinous kidnapping of Western journalists and directly
linking it to Iran and Hezbollah, while heralding the rebels as heroic and
compassionate — during a brewing “regime change” and intervention debate — is
on the level of Iraqi aluminum tubes.
very least, NBC owes a serious accounting for what happened here, yet thus far
refuses to provide one (note how, as usual, the media outlets who love to
sanctimoniously demand transparency from others refuse to provide even a
minimal amount about themselves). There were — and are — a lot of shadowy
interests eager to bring about regime change in Syria and to malign Iran and
Hezbollah with false claims. Whether by intent or outcome, that’s what this
story did. If it was not only false at the time, NBC executives repeatedly
broadcast it, but recklessly disseminated with ample reason to suspect its
falsity, that is a huge journalistic scandal.
UPDATE: About this story, Professor
AbuKhalil this morning emailed this comment about what happened here at NBC:
This is a
culture: they all were part of a charade to promote and champion the Free
Syrian Army when that very army was kidnapping innocent Lebanese Shi’ites and
killing people on sectarian grounds. They didn’t want to believe it.
passed a long an email from a Western correspondent based in the
region, asking not to be identified, who said: “Everybody knew that it was
a Sunni group tied to the [Free Syrian Army] that had
kidnapped [Engel] from the moment it happened: people were
talking about it in South Turkey, journalists, opposition people.” That’s
essentially what Professor AbuKhalil — and others — said at the time.
different note: as I noted above, Engel claimed repeatedly that the anti-Assad
rebels killed some of his pro-government captors when rescuing him. He stated
the same thing in a Vanity Fair article he wrote recounting
his kidnapping. But as The New York Times notes
today, Engel now acknowledges that he never saw a body.
UPDATE II: In addition to AbuKhalil and
the other above-cited sources, The Daily Beast’s Jamie Dettmer expressed serious doubts about the Engel/NBC
story almost immediately. Writing on December 22, he said, among other things,
that “the NBC version … omits much and is at odds with what security sources
involved in the freeing of the group say happened,” and that “the gunmen who
seized the crew may also have included rogue members of the rebel [Free Syrian
Army] – something top FSA commanders are keen to obscure.” Moreover:
security advisers were convinced that there was some FSA involvement in this and contacted wealthy
Syrian-American donors of the rebel group, pointing out that Richard had
been supportive of the uprising against Assad.
there was ample reason to doubt Engel’s belief about the identity of his
captors is proven by how many people publicly called it into doubt. That NBC’s
broadcasts reflected none of this doubt, and instead allowed a one-sided tale
that we now know to be false to go unquestioned by the entire network is bad
enough. That these executives seemed to have had ample reason to doubt the
story themselves makes it far worse than just merely “bad”: it is the type of
systematic journalistic deceit and propaganda that we have seen over and
over, almost always on the side and in service of the U.S. government’s agenda
of endless war.