By Peter Hitchens
January 23, 2020 "Information Clearing House" - What governments learned from the Iraq war was not that such wars are stupid and wrong, but that measures must be taken to prevent an independent media from questioning them in future.
Let me explain.
A month and more after I published my first exclusive story about the censoring of official reports into the alleged poison gas atrocity at Douma, Syria, most major news organisations have not followed it. Reuters, to their credit, did confirm that one of the documents on which I relied, an internal e-mail, was indeed authentic. But as far as I know, neither the BBC nor any other major British newspaper has ever said a word about this story, apart from The Independent, where Robert Fisk, in his usual courageous fashion, took it up. He also added a fascinating new detail, which you may read here: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/syria-war-chemical-weapons-watchdog-opcw-assad-damascus-russia-a9262336.html
Tucker Carlson of Fox News has also covered it, a rare independent mind almost unique in mainstream US broadcasting.
This silence fell despite the fact that anybody who did follow the story faced no risk. Some exclusives are hard to follow because the facts are hard to confirm. Those striving to follow them have neither sources nor documents on which to rely. Of course, the fact that a major newspaper has published the story should provide some confidence. British newspapers are often jeered at, but in fact, especially on matter such as this, we cannot afford to be careless or rash. We at The Mail on Sunday obviously took very serious steps to confirm, cross-check and validate our sources and material. But in the end we had to decide whether or not to publish, on our own. Even the most persuasive stories can sometimes be wrong (ours wasn’t) and editors and lawyers have almost all experienced such things at some point in their lives. So they interrogate such stories, and their authors, very closely. British national newspapers operate in a pretty stern legal and regulatory landscape. They also have rivals keen to pounce on any errors they make. So they are very careful about such things. Of course, we also had the advantage of direct contact with sources, which others could not easily obtain.
But a very short time after our story was published, printed and online, leaked copies of the authentic documents I had seen (and on which I largely based my stories) swiftly became generally available through Wikileaks. What is more, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) made no attempt to contest what I had said or to suggest that documents were not authentic. It could not. They are. The British, French and US governments, who now face accusations that their April 2018 attack on Syria was contrary to the UN Charter, also made no attempt to deny what I had said.
An important but neglected fact: The OPCW has previously come under pressure to behave in a similar way. This is an undisputed matter of record http://bit.ly/BoltonversusBustani
It merely blustered about standing by its published (and censored) reports, a course it was only able to follow because of the flaccid, shuffling response of the rest of the western media. The whole episode was deeply dispiriting. I have now concluded that, if the Iraq War crisis were re-run with the media of 2020, the failure to find WMD in Iraq would never have got out, or - if it had done -would have been widely ignored and dismissed, and the authors of the report marginalised as ‘Saddam apologists’ .
Hence my opening words, which I now repeat. What governments learned from the Iraq war was not that such wars are stupid and wrong, but that measures must be taken to prevent an independent media from questioning them in future.
Are You Tired Of The Lies And Non-Stop Propaganda?
I have made my own private efforts to overcome this problem. I understand that for almost all western media, covering the story involves an admission of having rushed to judgement mistakenly in the past over the events in Douma. Editors are just like anyone else, and hate to do this. But generally the telling of the truth is a higher duty than saving face, and they reluctantly do it, sometimes on oblique and very belated ways.
So I contacted distinguished figures well-known to me in various parts of the British media, people of great integrity, and appealed for their help in getting the story a wider hearing. So far, I have had no success.
So what did happen next? Well, the main response has come from an organisation called ‘Bellingcat’. What exactly is this organisation? I will be restrained here. The founder of ‘Bellingcat’, Eliot Higgins, is basically a private individual without any professional journalistic background. According to this generally sympathetic profile https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/eliot-higgins-syria_n_4269417?ri18n
He dropped out of a media studies course, is a keen video gamer and once worked in the ladies’ underwear industry.
But he has attained fame, and garnered much praise, since he set up this website - and he has become famous for what he calls ‘open source’ investigation. In most cases his open sources have led him to conclude or reveal things which are embarrassing for the Russian Federation, and pleasing to the United States of America and its allies. There are exceptions, but I would say the balance runs pretty strongly that way. Mr Higgins recently gave this interesting interview https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3csy9fb
first broadcast on 11th December 2019, to Stephen Sackur, on the BBC World Service radio programme HARDtalk. The whole thing is worth listening to, but I especially recommend the passage round about 12 minutes in, which deals partly with the question of Bellingcat’s funding and whether it takes sides. But in the light of this interview, let us examine some open sources: Stephen Sackur put to Mr Higgins that his organisation had been funded by, among others, the Atlantic Council. Mr Higgins, while saying 'We do have a side', made no attempt to deny this. This was striking because in a tweet timed 11.04 PM on October 2018 he declared ‘We're not funded by the Atlantic Council, stop spreading false information. And we're not funded by Google anymore as our grant expired’.
The Atlantic Council website lists the British Foreign and Commonwealth office on its 'Honor Roll of Contributors' https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/support-the-council/honor-roll-of-contributors/ … as one of its top five donors in 2018, the most recent year to which it refers. Bellingcat's own website records under ‘funding and partnerships’ https://www.bellingcat.com/about/ that it receives help from (among others) the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The NED receives the great bulk of its funds from the US Government, and its website https://www.ned.org/national-endowment-for-democracy-ned-ndi-iri-cipe-and-solidarity-center-welcome-increased-funding-from-congress/ recorded on 21 December 2019 : 'the House of Representatives approved a spending package that increases annual funding for the National Endowment for Democracy from $180 million to $300 million. The Senate approved the measure on December 19 and it was signed into law by President Trump on Friday, December 20’.
Newspapers have their faults, as I am the first to acknowledge, but they are faults of independence. The fact that they are ungovernable can lead to them being intrusive and crude. But it is also essential if they come up against governments which are concealing or distorting the truth – or just misbehaving and unrestrained by Parliament. And that is why Thomas Jefferson once said that he would rather have newspapers without a government than a government without newspapers. Terrifyingly, we are approaching an age in which government without powerful independent newspapers is what we may well have.
Bearing these facts in mind it is interesting that the principal response to my story has come not from the OPCW or any western government, but from ‘Bellingcat’. First there was this : https://www.bellingcat.com/news/2019/11/25/emails-and-reading-comprehension-opcw-douma-coverage-misses-crucial-facts/
I rebutted this rather feeble document here
‘Bellingcat’ has since made two further attempts to challenge the leak.
….they attack a claim I have never made, and will not make, as there is no evidence for it , that the Douma deaths were a ‘false flag’ event. I am concerned solely with events for which there is or is not actual evidence, not with speculation. But I include the document so that readers have a complete picture and also because I think it illustrates Bellingcat’s failure to understand the story- which is all about the OPCW’s suppression of information it possesses.
I personally regard these later Bellingcat efforts as peripheral nitpicking, missing the whole point of the disclosure, which is, I repeat, that the OPCW has not published material which undermines the claim that poison gas was used at Douma in April 2018.
Anyway, this is just a preliminary to a major event which you will not yet have read about in any major western media. On 20th January a special session (under the Arria-Formula https://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/185-general/40088-the-arria-formula.html) was held at the United Nations in New York , which you may watch here on UN TV.
The contribution of Ambassador
Cherith Norman Chalet, Acting Deputy
Permanent Representative of the
U.S. Mission to the United Nations can be found at about 1 hour 25 minutes. It is most interesting and is transcribed below (The UK Ambassador, Dame Karen Pierce, is sitting on her left, often preoccupied with her telephone. Her contribuytion is later at 2 hours six minutes. ).
One of the witnesses to this meeting was Ian Henderson, the former OPCW chemical engineer, the only person (I think) in the whole session who had actually visited Douma itself.
Who is Mr Henderson? He is a chemical engineer and a military veteran, who served in the artillery of hs country's army , with considerable practical experience in ballistics. He worked first for the OPCW from 1997 to 2005, having risen to the post of inspection team leader, after which he left the organisation (which prefers its staff to work on brief contracts rather than for life) and went to work in the chemical industry. Very unusually, because of a shortage of expertise, he was rehired in June 2016, and worked again for the OPCW until he was suspended from duty following the leaking (not by him) of some of his work on Douma. He was the inspection team leader who developed and launched the highly intrusive inspections, of the Barzah SSRC facility, just outside Damascus. He did the inspections and wrote the reports for the two inspections prior to, and the inspection after the chemical facility, or the laboratory complex at Barzah SSRC, had been destroyed by the missile strike.
Alas, (presumably because his job as a CW inspector has taken him to countries which flag up security alerts on US Homeland Security computers) Mr Henderson was unable to obtain an ESTA from the US authorities, and so could not go to New York and had to give his evidence remotely. Here is a transcript of his contribution. The emphases are mine:
IAN HENDERSON’S STATEMENT
“My name is Ian Henderson. I’m a former OPCW inspection team leader, having served for about 12 years. I heard about this meeting and I was invited by the Minister-counsellor of the Chinese mission to the UN. Unfortunately due to unforeseen circumstances around my ESTA visa waiver status, I was not able to travel. I thus submitted a written statement, to which I will now add a short introduction.
I need to point out at the outset that I’m not a whistleblower; I don’t like that term. I’m a former OPCW specialist who has concerns in an area, and I consider this a legitimate and appropriate forum to explain again these concerns.
Secondly, I must point out that I hold the OPCW in the highest regard, as well as the professionalism of the staff members who work there. The organization is not broken; I must stress that. However the concern I have does relate to some specific management practices in certain sensitive missions.
The concern of course relates to the FFM investigation into the alleged chemical attack on the 7th of April in Douma, in Syria. My concern, which was shared by a number of other inspectors, relates to the subsequent management lockdown and the practices in the later analysis and compilation of a final report.
There were two teams deployed; one team, which I joined shortly after the start of field deployments, was to Douma in Syria; the other team deployed to country X.
The main concern relates to the announcement in July 2018 of a new concept, the so-called FFM core team, which essentially resulted in the dismissal of all of the inspectors who had been on the team deployed to locations in Douma and had been following up with their findings and analysis.
The findings in the final FFM report were contradictory, were a complete turnaround with what the team had understood collectively during and after the Douma deployments. And by the time of release of the interim report in July 2018, our understanding was that we had serious misgivings that a chemical attack had occurred.
What the final FFM report does not make clear, and thus does not reflect the views of the team members who deployed to Douma — in which case I really can only speak for myself at this stage — the report did not make clear what new findings, facts, information, data, or analysis in the fields of witness testimony, toxicology studies, chemical analysis, and engineering, and/or ballistic studies had resulted in the complete turn-around in the situation from what was understood by the majority of the team, and the entire Douma team, in July 2018.
In my case, I had followed up with a further six months of engineering and ballistic studies into these cylinders, the result of which had provided further support for the view that there had not been a chemical attack.
This needs to be properly resolved, we believe through the rigors of science and engineering. In my situation, it’s not a political debate. I’m very aware that there is a political debate surrounding this.
Perhaps a closing comment from my side is that I was also the inspection team leader who developed and launched the inspections, the highly intrusive inspections, of the Barzah SSRC facility, just outside Damascus. And I did the inspections and wrote the reports for the two inspections prior to, and the inspection after the chemical facility, or the laboratory complex at Barzah SSRC, had been destroyed by the missile strike.
That, however, is another story altogether, and I shall now close. Thank you.”
Here is the response of
Ambassador Cherith Norman Chalet
Acting Deputy Permanent Representative
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
‘The United States categorically objects to Russia’s blatant attempt to use a Security Council meeting to weaken the credibility of the OPCW and its findings on the Douma attack. This is a brazen disinformation campaign, waged in advance of the anticipated release of the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team’s first report. It is also one more data point in a consistent pattern of Russian efforts to exploit the platform of the Security Council to further its own political and military agenda in Syria, propping up a murderous dictator at the expense of the Syrian people.
When Russia and Syria dislike the findings of the UN or the OPCW, they use meetings like this one to undercut those organizations and the facts that they provide. We must defend the credibility and the findings of the OPCW and the UN from disinformation. If we fail to directly confront these falsehoods, the international community will be unable to help protect the Syrian people from future chemical weapons used by the Assad regime. We must not forget that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons every year since Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013.
To that end, the United States stands firmly behind the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission’s (FFM) March 1, 2019 report. The FFM found that there are reasonable grounds to conclude that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon took place. The conclusions of this report also support what the United States and others have said many times before: the Syrian regime is responsible for this heinous attack on April 7 of 2018. But in addition to Douma, we should never forget the horrific nerve agent attack by the regime on Ghouta in 2013, killing over a thousand innocent men, women and children, or the attacks which released toxic substances in Talmenes in 2014, in Sarmin in 2015, and of course, the sarin attack at Khan Shaykhun in 2017, all committed by the Assad regime. These are the facts, full stop.
The independent and impartial work of the OPCW FFM team should be commended. Their investigative work on Douma was professional, thorough and comprehensive. The team conducted a thorough evaluation and analysis of all the information gathered, including testimony and evidence from witnesses, environmental and biomedical samples, and toxicological and ballistic analyses from experts. There is no basis for the Russia and Assad regime to question the validity of the FFM report. The reality is that the regime sought to undermine the investigation by delaying the entry of investigators to Douma, so that Assad can clean up the crime scene and tamper with evidence. In fact, it is Russia and the Assad regime that lack credibility on this issue due to their deliberate and long-running effort to obstruct the work of the inspectors.
We must not forget that Syria has deliberately used chemical weapons as a military tactic to clear civilians and the armed opposition from territory outside of their control, as we have seen in Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Sarmin, and Khanh Shaykhun. Once the territory is cleared, Russian forces move in to help the regime forces solidify their control and, meanwhile, use disinformation and diplomacy to try to shield the regime from being held accountable by the international community.
It is unconscionable that, despite the brave efforts undertaken by the OPCW FFM to obtain the information necessary to conduct its investigation, Russia would later call into doubt the results. This is appalling treatment of an organization Russia claimed to support in the Security Council Presidential Statement we adopted, by consensus, just this past November. We must not be fooled by theatrics or meetings designed to sow confusion about whether chemical weapons are being used in Syria, and who is the culprit – it is the Assad regime.
Disinformation and distractions like today’s meeting hosted by the Russian Federation only serve to shield the Assad regime from being held accountable by the international community and perpetuate impunity. Russia has no credibility on the issue of chemical weapons. Not only has Russia assisted the Assad regime in covering up chemical weapons attacks in Syria, but as the Salisbury attack made clear, Russia continues to possess and use chemical weapons itself.
The United States is committed to holding the Assad regime accountable for its chemical weapons attacks as evidenced by our Congress passing the Caesar Act just last month. Accountability and the prevention of further chemical weapons attacks in Syria are central to the Security Council’s efforts to help facilitate a political solution to this conflict in line with Resolution 2254. Accountability to end impunity and prevent future uses are needed to build a new, reformed system of government in Syria that is responsive to the needs and the aspirations of the Syrian people. To do so, we must also ensure that Resolution  is fully implemented so that Assad no longer possesses chemical weapons.
The United States must also take the opportunity to correct the record on the work of the Syrian Civil Defense volunteers, commonly known as the White Helmets. The United States is proud to support the vital, life-saving work of the White Helmets who risk their lives day-in and day-out to rescue their fellow Syrian civilians from attacks by the Syrian and Russian forces. These courageous White Helmets have saved over 100,000 lives – over 100,000 lives since the Syrian conflict began in 2011. These false accusations leveled here today by the Russia Federation and their briefers are false. They are disinformation. And, they are a worrying sign that the Syrian authorities and Russia are continuing to target White Helmets for future attacks.
We call on all members of this Council and the broader membership to reaffirm their support for the Chemical Weapons Convention and the work of the OPCW in the face of baseless attacks by Russia and the Assad regime. We look forward to the fulsome and evidence-based consideration of the IIT Report in this Council in the coming days.
The British official attitude is summed up in this tweet from Karen Pierce, UK ambassador to the UN
(her speech is at 2 hours 6 minutes) :
Today we heard the Russians trying to deny facts that have been established by an independent body, trusted by the international community to do its work,
. This is frankly a shameful response to the very real horrors on the ground in #Syria.'
Can these dismissals really be justified in the light of what Mr Henderson has said?