Tag Archives: Henry Jackson Society

‘Integrity Initiative’ c/o Institute for Statecraft — the UK government’s own troll farm

Update: Inside the Integrity Initiative

On Boxing Day, independent journalists Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton invited propaganda expert Professor David Miller from the University of Bristol to discuss the scandal surrounding UK government-funded think tank The Institute for Statecraft and its ‘Integrity Initiative’ on their podcast Moderate Rebels (E32).

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Last week I received a response to a parliamentary question I’d tabled asking the government if the ‘Integrity Initiative’, a so-called think tank dealing in disinformation, had received government funding. The response was stunning. I was met with the admission that in the last 18 months or so, some 2.2 million has been awarded by the Foreign Office to this organisation.

Staffed by former security and military personnel, its agenda seems to include the denigration of the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn. Their approach is to connect media with academia and politicians to influence policy in certain countries.

Leaked documents revealed numerous examples such as Pedro Baños, an army reserve colonel and author, who the Spanish Socialist Party wanted to make the country’s Director of National Security. That was before the Integrity Initiative’s Spanish cluster for involved, putting a stop to the appointment altogether.

That’s right a Foreign Office-funded British think tank stopped the appointment of a public official in a fellow European democracy. And these are the people defending freedom?

Now it seems similar tricks are being played here at home. Ben Nimmo, a core member of the Integrity Initiative’s UK cluster was even quoted in The Sun newspaper saying Russia was supporting Corbyn against his opponents both in the Labour Party and outside it. The newspaper used this to support its assertion, which had no other evidence, that “a twisted Russian cyber campaign which has back Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is aiming to sow division across the UK”.

How many other stories like this have been entirely fabricated, and with government funding too? Well we don’t know, because after I submitted a follow-up question, Minister of State Alan Duncan refused to provide any further information claiming it could “disrupt and undermine the programme’s effectiveness”.

Effectiveness at what? Interfering in the politics of other countries while undermining the leader of Britain’s opposition? Because that’s precisely what it’s doing. That’s why I’m calling for a public enquiry into the Integrity Initiative and similar information war efforts being funded by our government.

Their approach of silencing and suppressing aspects of public debate doesn’t strengthen democracy, it debases it. — Chris Williamson MP

Click here to watch a video presentation of the statement on Chris Williamson’s facebook page uploaded on December 11th.

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Even the mainstream media has been forced to give a few paragraphs to the outrageous Integrity Initiative, under which the MOD-sponsored Institute for Statecraft has been given millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money by the FCO to spread covert disinformation and propaganda, particularly against Russia and the anti-war movement. Activities include twitter and facebook trolling and secretly paying journalists in “clusters of influence” around Europe. Anonymous helpfully leaked the Institute’s internal documents. Some of the Integrity Initiative’s thus exposed alleged covert agents, like David Aaronovitch, have denied any involvement despite their appearance in the documents, and others like Dan Kaszeta the US “novichok expert”, have cheerfully admitted it.  — Craig Murray

Click here to read Craig Murray’s full article entitled “British Security Service Infiltration, the Integrity Initiative and the Institute for Statecraft” published on December 13th.

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Did Jeremy Corbyn mutter words to the effect that Theresa May is a “stupid woman”? I don’t know because I’m not a lip-reader. Neither do I care.

May is a woman and she was (as is increasingly her manner) behaving stupidly. As for the buffoons behind her, ‘stupid’ fails to do justice to their infantile efforts to divert attention from the irremediable divisions within their own ranks and the shambolic failures of this callous and inept Tory government. Given the seriousness of the current political situation, Wednesday’s Commons pantomime was more than a national embarrassment, it was an unspeakable disgrace, and ought to have been reported on as such. But what we got instead were the feeble rumblings of another smear campaign against Jeremy Corbyn.

The BBC led the way as they so often do. Thus sham allegations of misogyny against Corbyn made during the Commons debacle became headlines to every news bulletin and in the 24 hours since featured in no less than three articles. So today if you google “stupid woman BBC” you will find a full page of hits:

On the other hand, if you search for “integrity initiative BBC” a mere four of google’s hits are actually linked to the BBC and just one of those links reaches an actual article:

The reason for this disparity is straightforward. Since the release of the leaks at the beginning of November and the ensuing ‘Integrity Initiative’ scandal, the BBC has only ever published one article on the matter. An article it has since revised on no less than four occasions.

The article in question published back on December 10th is headlined “Russia hack ‘bid to discredit’ UK anti-disinformation campaign – Foreign Office” and credited to Diplomatic Correspondent James Landale, however, an earlier version was in fact released four hours prior and entitled “Foreign Office probes Russia campaign over ‘anti-Labour tweets’”. The difference between these twin versions is striking:

The original piece centres attention on the FCO’s investigation into the Institute and quotes Sir Alan Duncan saying “he would ‘totally condemn’ any UK-backed organisation ‘involved in domestic politics in that way’”.  This is strong language for a government minister. The updated version opens instead with a strident assault on “Russia state media” and asserts that it is “trying to discredit a government-funded body that works to counter Kremlin disinformation”. In this new telling the serious charges levelled against the IfS are neatly brushed over and an organisation that in different circumstances would be decried as a troll farm is instead recast as the more or less innocent victim of Kremlin villainy!

Click here to compare versions at News Sniffer.

So the Institute for Statecraft (IfS) is what precisely? It declares itself “independent” and somehow holds Scottish charity status (this is finally under investigation too). If it were not for the current scandal it would have surely remained just one of a burgeoning multitude of so-called “political charities”. But as its “Integrity Initiative” has suddenly been exposed (by whoever was behind the hack – Anonymous have claimed credit) what we discover with each fresh tranche of leaked documents is how UK government money is being diverted for nefarious purposes: not only to smear the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, but to meddle in democracies abroad. We learn in fact that “clusters” of its agents are embedded throughout Europe and beyond:

One such cluster operates in Spain, where the II [Integrity Initiative] successfully obstructed the appointment of a reservist colonel, Pedro Baños, who was preferred by the socialist government as the country’s next head of national security. Despite his strong resume – Baños was once head of counterintelligence and security for the European army – his admission on Twitter that Spain ‘would not gain anything from provoking Russia’ was apparently a stretch too far.

writes Aaron Bastani in an excellent piece for Novara Media. He continues:

The operation itself was named ‘Operation Moncloa and proved successful in less than 24 hours. Around midday on 7 June 2018, the Spanish cluster learned that Baños would soon be appointed to the role. […]

By 19.45 the Spanish cluster noted the campaign had raised significant noise on Twitter, with contacts in the Socialist party confirming the matter had been brought to the attention of prime minister Pedro Sanchez. Not long after the Partido Popular and Ciudadanos asked the prime minister to halt the appointment. They were successful.

Listed as the operatives working within its UK “cluster” we find Ben Nimmo, a fellow at the Atlantic Council – home also to Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat notoriety – and usual suspects including Edward Lucas and Anne Applebaum. Another name on the list is that of Labour MP, Ben Bradshaw:

Alongside military personnel the bedrock of the cluster are individuals working in think tanks, with Demos, RUSI, Chatham House, and the Henry Jackson Society all represented. Among the military names are high ranking officials including a captain in the Royal Navy and a colonel. On Twitter the II is followed by some interesting names, including Tom Watson, Luke Akehurst and Mary Creagh.

writes Bastani in the same piece for Novara Media, continuing:

Among the organisation’s top three ‘deliverables’ to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the first is to develop and prove ‘the cluster concept and methodology, setting up clusters in a range of countries with different circumstances’. The II is essentially a proof-of-concept in how to exert influence in an era of hybrid war where information can be a critical variable. Subsequently, its model should be viewed as mirroring that of Russia, the morphology of influencers, narrativistic ‘poles of attraction’ and the leveraging of backchannels (WhatsApp groups, text messages and email) to coordinate a front-facing response: this being composed of a ‘swarm’ on social media which synergises with legacy formats in broadcast and print.

That such an approach is being applied by a British organisation to the politics of a European neighbour is cause for grave concern – and by itself merits an enquiry. What’s worse, however, is the possibility that the same approach has been used against Corbyn’s Labour. One only need look on the II’s Twitter feed to see the low regard it holds Corbyn and his leading advisers in. Intriguingly, the organisation was founded in the autumn of 2015 – the same time Corbyn became Labour leader.

Click here to read Aaron Bastini’s full article entitled “Undermining Democracy, Not Defending It: The ‘Integrity Initiative’ is Everything That’s Wrong With British Foreign Policy” also published on December 10th.

The list of individuals associated with the UK-based cluster also includes the names of seven journalists (see update below for further information on this):

Deborah Haynes, David Aaronovitch and Dominic Kennedy all from The Times.

Natalie Nougayrède from the Guardian.

Neil Buckley from the FT.

And (like the final piece of a jigsaw fitting inevitably into place) Jonathan Marcus who is a Diplomatic Correspondent at the BBC…

As Craig Murray writes:

[But] One of the activities the Integrity Initiative sponsors happens to be the use of online trolls to ridicule the idea that the British security services ever carry out any kind of infiltration, false flag or agent provocateur operations, despite the fact that we even have repeated court judgements against undercover infiltration officers getting female activists pregnant. The Integrity Initiative offers us a glimpse into the very dirty world of surveillance and official disinformation. If we actually had a free media, it would be the biggest story of the day.

Click here to read Craig Murray’s full article entitled “British Security Service Infiltration, the Integrity Initiative and the Institute for Statecraft”.

And here to read Tim Hayward’s article “Integrity: Grasping the Initiative”.

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Update: on UK journalists named in documents

The following is republished from the “Briefing note on the Integrity Initiative” published by the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media on December 21st.

7.1 UK journalists named in documents

  • The Times – Deborah Haynes (now with Sky News), David Aaronovitch, Dominic Kennedy
  • The Guardian – Natalie Nougayrede, Carole Cadwalladr
  • The Economist – Edward Lucas
  • FT – Neil Buckley
  • BBC – Jonathan Marcus
  • Paul Canning – blogger with a focus on Ukraine, who has contributed to The Guardian
  • David Leask – Chief Reporter, Herald Scotland
  • Borzhou Daragahi – The Independent – appears as the only individual listed under ‘Turkey’ in the document xcountry.pdf that tabulates countries and election dates.

We have asked journalists listed in the documents whether they have had any contact with the Integrity Initiative. It may be relevant that the Integrity Initiative Handbook states that members of clusters are ‘to sign code of conduct & non-disclosure’.

Their responses can be grouped into four categories

7.1.1 I know nothing

  • David Aaronovitch – When asked over Twitter whether he knew of or had had contact with Integrity Initiative, Institute for Statecraft or the UK Cluster, Aaronovitch replied

I have never heard of any of these three exotic entities. I think you have been hoaxed.

  • Jonathan Marcus (BBC) – the BBC provided a statement to the Scottish Sunday Mail (print edition 16 December 2018) that

neither Marcus nor the BBC knew of the list of journalists, nor did he or the BBC consent to be part of any so-called cluster.

7.1.2 I attended a meeting or was on an email list, but was not involved

  • Borzou Daragahi:

I do receive their emails’

it goes to my junk email account’

I systematically subscribe to think tank email newsletters’

7.1.3 I am proud to be associated with them, there was nothing improper

I have not been paid by the institute. But I applaud their work in dealing with the Chekist regime’s pernicious information and influence operations.

He did not confirm or deny the existence of a network, responding to questions on Twitter with:

I don’t see why one lot of people have to explain being on lists compiled by another lot of people

  • David Leask – has been open about working with the Integrity Initiative. He has published two articles quoting “a spokesman for the Integrity Initiative”, one on the visit of Andriy Parubiy and one on Russian media coverage of the Salisbury poisonings. He has endorsed the output of the twitter account @initintegrity and others associated with the Integrity Initiative such as Nimmo. He responded to the release of documents with a 12 tweet thread on Twitter., acknowledging contact with the Integrity Initiative but denouncing Sputnik for ‘insinuation that I work for for or with a Nato/UK black ops’.

Leask’s description of the Integrity Initiative as ‘a network of researchers and journalists seeking to counter Russian propaganda and boost media literacy” confirms the existence of a network. In response to further questions, Leask asserted that government funding of the Integrity Initiative was ‘hardly a secret’. On this he was mistaken. The official summary of the Russian Language Programme does not list the recipient ‘implementing organizations’ stating that ‘Information has been withheld from publication on security grounds’. Although the government funding of £1.96 million for the Integrity Initiative in the current financial year is now a matter of public record following a parliamentary question, this information was not in the public domain until the documents were released on 5 November 2018. The source of funding for the Integrity Initiative was not mentioned on its public website. It would have been possible for a diligent researcher to infer the total FCO spending on the Institute for Statecraft by going through the monthly expenditure tables for the FCO, but this would not have revealed the specific funding for the Integrity Initiative programme. The accounts filed at Companies House show FCO funding of £124,567 for the year ending 23 November 2017, but not the £1.96 million awarded for the current financial year.

The Integrity Initiative documents include notes of a meeting with Leask on 27 March 2018, allegedly taken by Guy Spindler, Chief Operating Officer of the Institute for Statecraft. The main focus of the interview is on Leask’s assessment of the prospects for the Scottish independence movement. The meeting finishes with a briefing on the misuse of Scottish Limited Partnerships as vehicles for money-laundering, which Leask’s own investigative reporting has helped to expose. It is not clear whether he is aware of the unusual use of this business structure by the founders of the Institute for Statecraft.

7.1.4 No response or refusal to answer

  • Deborah Haynes – no response.
    Three of Haynes’ stories between 2016 and 2018 can be linked to internal documents of the Integrity Initiative:

    • For the visit of Ukrainian special forces officers organised by the Institute of Statecraft, a one-hour meeting with Haynes was scheduled at the Institute of Statecraft’s office in 2 Temple Place on 11 July 2016. Haynes wrote a story based on this meeting that appeared in The Times on 11 August 2016. Haynes was the only journalist scheduled for a meeting with the Ukrainian officers: all their other meetings were with military officers except for one with the House of Commons Defence Committee.
    • The draft application for MoD funding dated 20 March 2017 lists under ‘Success so far’ (for the Integrity Initiative) the lead front-page story by Haynes in The Times on 17 December 2016 with title ‘Russia waging cyberwar against Britain’.
    • A document entitled ‘Representative selection of Integrity Initiative staff 2018 presentations and media interviews on Russian disinformation and malign influence’ lists under the outputs of Victor Madeira a report in the Times on 9 March 2018 by Fiona Hamilton, David Brown and Deborah Haynes with the title “Spy mystery: Sergei Skripal’s contact with MI6 in Spain suggests links to Litvinenko case’. Victor Madeira is briefly quoted:

Victor Madeira, a senior fellow at the Institute for Statecraft in London, said yesterday that links with organised crime were entirely possible. Russia was a mafia state where organised crime and the authorities overlap, he said.

It may be relevant that Haynes is listed as an honorary member of the Pen & Sword club, whose main mission is “the promotion of media operations as a necessary and valued military skill in the 21st century.” This may be an appropriate aspiration for military officers, but not for journalists. The club has 334 members, including Steve Tatham (listed in the UK cluster), Paul Tilley and the former BBC correspondent Mark Laity. Almost all other members have a military background or are NATO officials.

  • Dominic Kennedy – In response to an email asking whether he had heard of or was involved with the Integrity Initiative, Kennedy stated that he had not read the leaked documents, but did not answer the question.

On 14 April 2018 Haynes and Kennedy launched an attack on members of the Working Group on Syria Propaganda and Media in the Times, including a front-page article, a two-page spread and an anonymous editorial. Two members of the Working Group hold posts at the University of Edinburgh. Unable to find anything tying them to Russia, Kennedy attempted to suggest that the university was under Russian influence (based on a grant from the Russian cultural institute Russkiy Mir), and even that the city of Edinburgh was a base for Russian influence (based on the presence of Sputnik’s office).

  • Neil Buckley (FT) – No response when asked over Twitter whether he had had contact with the Integrity Initiative.
  • Carole Cadwalladr – Identified in the third tranche of leaked documents as scheduled to talk at an event at the Frontline Club in early November 2018, co-organised by the Integrity Initiative and Foreign Desk Ltd. She confirmed that she had spoken at the event and did not receive a fee, but did not answer a question on whether she had been involved with the Integrity Initiative or its parent the Institute for Statecraft.
  • Natalie Nougayrede – No response when asked over Twitter if she was involved with the Integrity Initiative. She appears also in the French cluster list. In the same list, with a note that he is Nougayrede’s partner, is Nicholas Roche, whose current post is Director of Strategy at the Directorate of Military Applications of the French Atomic Energy Commission. It may be relevant that in May 2013, when she was editor of Le Monde, Natalie Nougayrede had a role in information operations in Syria. Under her direction, two Le Monde journalists acted as couriers to transfer samples provided by the opposition, allegedly from chemical attacks, to French intelligence agents in Jordan. Le Monde was then given the scoop of reporting that these samples had tested positive for sarin at the French chemical weapon detection lab at Le Bouchet.

Click here to read the full briefing note at the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media website.

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Additional:

On December 22nd Afshin Rattansi interviewed John Pilger for a special end of year Going Underground episode. In the first half they discuss the Integrity Initiative and what it reveals about the lack of true integrity in journalism. In part two topics range from the genocide taking place in Yemen, the “canonisation” of George Bush Sr., and Donald Trump:

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Filed under Britain, Craig Murray, John Pilger, Spain

illegal bombing in the name of justice: Syria, Trump and the latest WMD accusations – part 2

Reposted below before my own thoughts and analysis is the full statement released today by Chris Nineham of the Stop the War Coalition.

Gesture Bombing – the Causes and Consequences of a Pointless Airstrike

Theresa May’s cynicism is so deep it’s hard for us comprehend. There was quite simply no possible good outcome from this bombing in the Middle East, even from our rulers’ warped perspective. People will surely have died, the war will be prolonged, it will have done nothing to control chemical weapons and tensions with Iran and Russia will have risen. International law is unambiguous that these strikes were illegal too.

But no matter, Trump has been obeyed and May thinks she looks tough on the world stage. Not really though. It’s too obvious she is frightened of parliament, which is reconvening on Monday and that she is taking orders from Washington. It is also clear that the US’s position in the world is weakening.

Deadly Decline

This action has been shaped by the failure of Western policy in the Middle East. It is not true that the West has been doing nothing in Syria over the last few years. Britain was involved in covert ops before 2015 and regular bombing raids since the vote in 2015. According to Airwars, the West has been involved in more than 50,000 bombing raids in Syria in the last four years, killing thousands of civilians. But their basic plan, to use the Syrian opposition to secure regime change by arming them and providing them with military back up, has been unsuccessful. The project of getting rid of Assad has been abandoned for the time being.

The bombing of Libya in 2011– an intervention most strongly promoted by Britain and France – was clearly a catastrophe. Sold as a humanitarian operation, it ended with 50,000 dead, brutal regime change and complete state failure. Even Barak Obama has said later he regretted sanctioning it. Before that there was Iraq. The invasion and occupation did untold damage to the country and the wider region. That intervention more than anything is the root cause of the current chaos in the Middle East. But it was also a failure from the point of its main protagonists in Washington and Whitehall.

The West’s failure to pacify and secure the country allowed the US’s main enemy in the region, Iran, to strongly increase its reach and influence. Its demonstration of the limits of US power has encouraged other powers to flex their muscles in the region. The resulting interventions in Syria by Russia, Turkey Saudi Arabia and others have of course only increased the death and destruction.

Calculated Killing

So, angry but more and more impotent, the Western powers this time have settled for gesture bombing, and gestures don’t impress anyone. But periods of imperial decline are inherently dangerous. There is no way the US is going to passively accept reduced influence in the Middle East. In so far as there is a Western strategy, it is the attempt to roll back Iranian influence through support of the emerging alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel and thus to reassert control over the region. Assad’s consolidation is only going to encourage a vigorous pursuit of this project. Next time Trump and his most loyal ally are likely to get more serious.

Domestic Damage

Back home this irresponsible and pointless attack will further undermine what is laughingly referred to as May’s authority. What is so heartening – and something that has limited her options from the start – is that the vast majority of people have complete contempt for this kind of calculated killing. All the opinion polls published so far show big opposition to these strikes despite almost blanket support for them in the mainstream media.

The crucial thing is that we continue to build on and to mobilise this opinion. Once again people have shown their willingness to stand up against war. Many thousands have lobbied their MPs, in Stop the War we were notified of 30 protests around the country on Friday – there were no doubt many many, more. A crowd of hundreds closed Whitehall in London. This Monday night in London from 5.30pm we will be back on the streets outside Parliament the day it reconvenes. There will be other protests around the country. Tell your friends, neighbours and workmates protests matter. No to war – yes to democracy.

Click here to read the same article on the Stop the War Coalition website.

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One year ago, America rushed to judgment to condemn Assad for an alleged sarin attack at Khan Sheikhun:

On April 11, the White House released a declassified four-page report meant to prove its case against Assad and serve as a belated justification for the Tomahawk attack on Syria’s Shayrat air base.

The report, which was authored not by US intelligence agencies but by the White House under the supervision of national-security adviser H.R. McMaster, says that “The United States is confident that the Syrian regime conducted a chemical weapons attack, using the nerve agent sarin, against its own people in the town of Khan Shaykhun in southern Idlib Province on April 4, 2017.” 1

Given the undue haste to pin the blame on Syrian forces, many were justifiably suspicious of US claims. Veteran investigative journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winner, Seymour Hersh; former CIA case officer, Philip Giraldi; former UK ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford all spoke out as you can read in this previous post. Meanwhile, Professor Emeritus of Science, Technology, and National-Security Policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Theodore Postol, who had previously served as a scientific adviser to the chief of naval operations at the Pentagon produced a painstaking analysis of the White House report. Here is more from the same The Nation article quoted above:

Postol’s exhaustive critique of the White House report notes that “The only undisputable facts stated in the White House report is the claim that a chemical attack using nerve agent occurred in Khan Shaykhun, Syria.” And yet, according to Postol, “the report contains absolutely no evidence that this attack was the result of a munition being dropped from an aircraft. In fact, the report contains absolutely no evidence that would indicate who was the perpetrator of this atrocity.” […]

“In order to cover up the lack of intelligence to supporting the president’s action, the National Security Council produced a fraudulent intelligence report.” Postol concludes that the “report is completely undermined by a significant body of video evidence taken after the alleged sarin attack and before the US cruise missile attack that unambiguously shows the claims in the WHR [White House Report] could not possibly be true.”

The Nation spoke to Postol over the weekend.

“What I think is now crystal clear,” he said, “is that the White House report was fabricated and it certainly did not follow the procedures it claimed to employ.”

“My best guess at the moment is that this was an extremely clumsy and ill-conceived attempt to cover up the fact that Trump attacked Syria without any intelligence evidence that Syria was in fact the perpetrator of the attack…. It may be,” he continued, “that the White House staff was worried that this could eventually come out—a reckless president acting without regard to the nation’s security, risking an inadvertent escalation and confrontation with Russia, and a breakdown in cooperation with Russia that would cripple our efforts to defeat the Islamic State.”

“If that is not an impeachable offense,” Postol told The Nation, “then I do not know what is.”

Click here to read the full report written by James Carden published in The Nation.

Since this time there has been the UN OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) report which claimed to be “confident” that Syria had been responsible for the release of sarin at Khan Shaykhun. On the face of it then, the US were correct in their original assessment, and this is how the incident is now reported on. What is seldom reported on is how experts were not permitted to visit the site, and so the JIM report relied instead on samples gathered by the very militants that controlled the area. It is vital to understand that no independent experts ever visited the site.

Back in 2013, Reuters reported that:

Assertions of chemical weapon use in Syria by Western and Israeli officials citing photos, sporadic shelling and traces of toxins do not meet the standard of proof needed for a U.N. team of experts waiting to gather their own field evidence.

Weapons inspectors will only determine whether banned chemical agents were used in the two-year-old conflict if they are able to access sites and take soil, blood, urine or tissue samples and examine them in certified laboratories, according to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which works with the United Nations on inspections.

That type of evidence, needed to show definitively if banned chemicals were found, has not been presented by governments and intelligence agencies accusing Syria of using chemical weapons against insurgents.

“This is the only basis on which the OPCW would provide a formal assessment of whether chemical weapons have been used,” said Michael Luhan, a spokesman for the Hague-based OPCW.

Luhan adds:

 “The OPCW would never get involved in testing samples that our own inspectors don’t gather in the field because we need to maintain chain of custody of samples from the field to the lab to ensure their integrity.” 2

[bold emphasis added]

So we see how just four years on, the OPCW was quite clearly in breach of its own technical standards with respect to ensuring a chain of custody. Furthermore, as the OPCW itself made clear in its legal framework to the mission to Khan Sheikhun:

The scope of the FFM [OPCW Fact Finding Mission] mandate does not include the task of attributing responsibility for the alleged use. 3

Other criticisms of the report are based on technical details that are explained in detailed reports here  and here.

In short, last year’s allegations that Syrian forces released sarin gas at Khan Sheikhun remain unsubstantiated. In any case, allegations of Assad’s use of sarin have since been quietly dropped by the US administration, as Secretary of Defense James Mattis conceded as recently as February this year:

The U.S. has no evidence to confirm reports from aid groups and others that the Syrian government has used the deadly chemical sarin on its citizens, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday [February 2nd].

“We have other reports from the battlefield from people who claim it’s been used,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon. “We do not have evidence of it.” 4

Click here to read the full AP report entitled “US has no evidence of Syrian use of sarin gas, Mattis says”.

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Last Thursday [April 12th], the same James Mattis was called by Congress to speak before the House Armed Services Committee. In his testimony he said that the US and its allies “don’t have evidence” to support the latest allegations although “we certainly have a lot of media and social media indicators that either chlorine or sarin were used”.

What he had seen in other words is that same footage we have all seen. Video showing people – mostly very young children – being hosed down with water in an unknown location, and also the more macabre roving camera footage showing close-ups of corpses lying on top of one another inside what appears to be an apartment.

All of this video footage along with initial reports appeared quite suddenly on social media platforms having been uploaded by a small assortment of “pro-opposition” sources: the al-Nusra front terrorist-affiliated White Helmets and the so-called Douma Media Centre as well as the more grandiosely named Syrian American Medical Society Foundation (SAMS) which is closely associated to USAID and is US State Department funded. It was SAMS that reported on Saturday April 7th:

“Amidst continuous bombardment of residential neighbourhoods in the city of Douma, more than 500 cases – the majority of whom are women and children – were brought to local medical centers with symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent”.

This lack of credible sources presents us once again with reasonable grounds for doubt. But even leaving aside the questionable origins of the material, it is not at all clear what we were actually seeing or even whereabouts these events took place.

I shall not dwell on the details of the videos but it is evident the children shown are obviously in distress. They may well be in shock from conventional airstrikes or possibly suffering from smoke inhalation due to subsequent fires. We simply don’t know. More chillingly, it is also possible that these children are the victims of those who appear to be first responders – certainly it would not be the first time that children have been used as props in staged events:

What we do know for certain, however, is that the area under attack was under the control of the Saudi-backed Jaish al-Islam (“Army of Islam”), a terrorist faction that is responsible for committing many atrocities including the execution and torture of prisoners and the alleged use of chemical weapons. It is also known that Jaish al-Islam – a group that is well known for using hostages as human shields – held literally thousands captive in its basement prisons:

The rebel group has more than 3,500 prisoners and hostages in its prisons in Douma, Rami Abdulrahman, the director of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, told Reuters.

Furthermore, the targeted area where the alleged attack took place was literally on the brink of recapture by government forces:

An agreement has been reached to release all prisoners held by Syrian rebels controlling the eastern Ghouta city of Douma in return for the fighters’ leaving the city, Syrian state television reported on Sunday, citing an official source.

According to the agreement, Jaish al-Islam fighters will leave Douma for the northern city of Jarablus, near the borders with Turkey, within 48 hours, the source added.

There was no immediate comment from Jaish al-Islam, which control the city. 5

Indeed, almost immediately after the video footage had been released the area was retaken by Syrian and Russian forces who entered the site without protective gear. And though reports that the Red Crescent likewise confirmed it found no evidence of chemical weapons were later retracted, as Antiwar.com points out:

That the Red Crescent operates a hospital in a city supposedly inundated with wounded and didn’t get a single patient with confirmed exposure, however, is very noteworthy. 6

A detailed overview of the sources which first broke the news of this alleged attack was put together by independent journalist Caitlin Johnstone.

She comments:

So to be clear, we’re being asked by these people to believe that Bashar al-Assad launched a “mass casualty chemical attack”, the thing which would provoke the wrath of the US war machine, just as Trump was seeking a withdrawal from Syria and just as Assad was approaching victory in Douma. We are being asked to ignore the fact that the area is crawling with actual, literal terrorists, to ignore the western empire’s extensive history of using lies, propaganda and false flags to manufacture support for military aggression, to ignore the extremely suspicious western funding and terrorist ties of the White Helmets who are circulating these photos and information, and to ignore the fact that Syria has been a target of imperialist regime change for many years. We are being asked to ignore all that and believe instead that Assad spontaneously began acting against his own self-interest so that he could kill children for no discernible reason.

It says so much about the power of western media psyops that this has a strong chance of being believed. 7

Click here to read the full article entitled “New Syrian Chemical Weapons Attack Being Reported By All The Usual Suspects”.

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On Tuesday 10th, former UK ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford, was afforded a live interview with BBC Radio Scotland. Here’s what he told presenter Gary Robertson:

Gary Robertson: There’s a lot of tough talk on both sides here. I wonder where you think it will lead us.

Peter Ford: Well I greatly fear it will lead us to the edge of Armageddon. It’s time to take a deep breath and consider where we’ve got ourselves into as a result mainly of hysteria and distortion.

The worst case is that Trump does launch off with some very unwise multiple attacks on Syria. And given that Russian forces are deeply embedded with Syrian forces – in particular air defence – it’s highly likely that scores of Russian soldiers will be killed. If anyone thinks that Russia will take that just lying down I think they need to think again. Russian planes in the last twelve hours have been buzzing UD destroyers in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Please – I think everybody needs to take a deep breath before something truly horrible occurs affecting the security of us all including in this country. We have forces in Syria. The government don’t like to talk about this, but one was sadly killed two days ago revealing the extent of our existing military involvement in Syria. So at the very least our own forces would be exposed to grave danger.

GR: Indeed it’s not just the UD President though who’s appalled by what they’ve seen in terms of these pictures coming from Douma. We’ve had condemnation from President Macron, likewise from Prime Minister Theresa May too. If it isn’t the sort of military action that you’ve just outlined there, what should be the response to this use of chemical weapons if it’s proved.

PF: The correct response is obviously – and I think a child could see this – to get inspectors on to the alleged site of the alleged offences. And in fact in the last few hours Russia has offered to provide military escorts for inspectors from the recognised body in this field: the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Warfare.

GR: And if it’s proved then what – because, of course, we know that Assad has form on this. We’ve had investigations previously and there has been fairly conclusive proof that chemical agents have been used.

PF: I don’t think that Assad is in the least worried that the inspectors would find out his guilt because he’s probably not guilty at least on this occasion. I mean we have to engage our brains as well as our emotions here. Not be stampeded by those videos which are described as being unverified but which by dint of being repeated over and over and over again come to acquire a spurious credibility.

We have to ask ourselves what are the sources of the information on which we’re in this stampede to war. They are twofold – and I’m sorry but the media are falling down on the job of investigating this – the sources are the Syrian American Medical Society, which is a pro-Islamist propaganda outfit based in the United States…

GR: So are you saying these pictures are being staged? Are you saying that people haven’t died?

PF: Yes, yes, in all probability the incidents have been staged. Come on, we know how easy it is to fake images for the internet. Look at the images – anybody could stage those. And then the second source is supposed to be the so-called first responders. Who are the first responders? In this case they are the White Helmets, which is another pro-Islamist jihadi propaganda outfit.

GR: This is an awful lot of effort to discredit Assad isn’t it?

PF: Please let me finish this important point. The witnesses to these terrible events are people who themselves were involved in beheadings: literally picking up the body parts. And we choose to give credence to testimony from these alleged first responders.

GR then interrupts before PF is allowed to continue.

You don’t allow. The BBC does not allow questions of important details to be addressed.

GR: We have a short period of time. I’m trying to probe what you’re saying. The point surely is that Assad’s reputation is already dented. What would be in the interest of these people to stage these events?

PF: Is that not obvious? A child can see that the intention was to produce the hysteria and now the military action that we are on the point of taking, risking our own safety. What the jihadis have done is jerk our leash.

And frankly for one I think it’s pretty disgusting that we are allowing ourselves to have our own leash jerked by these Islamist fanatics. This is what’s going on and ask yourself how has it profited Assad?

Please engage with your brain. Answer the question: how has Assad benefitted from all this mayhem? In fact it’s rebounded against him. Why would he do such a thing when he was already winning [and] the battle for Eastern Ghouta was virtually over? Why would he choose this moment to do the one thing that was guaranteed to pluck defeat for him from the jaws of victory?

*

On Wednesday 11th, erstwhile political opponents Peter Hitchens and George Galloway discussed the build up to war in Syria and the potential repercussions:

*

So just why did Trump, Macron and May launch a barrage of cruise missiles towards Damascus at a cost of multiple millions that might otherwise have been usefully invested in our terribly underfunded public services at home? The corporate media which has been screaming for “a response” wants us to believe that it is because these leaders care so much about the people of Syria and especially the children. Opinion polls in Britain, however, reveal that only a minority are quite so easily deceived.

If Trump and May really wanted to perform a grand humanitarian gesture then they would have been far better served in ending support to the Saudi regime’s murderous assault and blockade of Yemen that is now causing widespread famine and the most terrible outbreak of cholera. Instead they recently welcomed the Crown Prince in extended visits before signing new contracts for arms sales. Alternatively, they might have sanctioned Netanyahu’s government, forcing it to bring a halt to the massacre taking place on the border with Gaza where more than a thousand of peaceful protesters have been wounded and dozens more killed by the live ammunition of Israeli snipers. But instead of taking the moral high ground they chose predictably to bomb an already war-torn country to the sole benefit of western defence contractors and the arms industry, and for furthering shared Anglo-American-Saudi-Israeli geopolitical interests.

The corporate media do not want you to worry about the geopolitical context. They want you to overlook the fact that when the very same western powers carried out the illegal “shock and awe” campaign to oust Saddam they shamelessly led the propaganda offensive. That they also cheered on Nato as it provided air cover for terrorist militia that quickly swarmed across Libya. And obviously they hope everyone forgets about Wesley Clark’s infamous statement of Pentagon plans to bring about regime change in “seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.”

Yesterday’s fireworks over Damascus achieved nothing at all for peace, but did transfer a little more wealth from the public purse (the poor) into the hands of the arms manufacturers and other defence contractors (the rich). It also left people across the entire world a little less safe than before.

*

Additional: the return of John Bolton

Until now Trump has proved himself to be the great blusterer and for this we ought to be grateful. Yes, he talked tough to North Korea, but instead of following through with his threats he eventually gave way to Kim Jong Un and agreed to negotiate instead. Thus, the coming war with China was back on ice and all who care about the already perilous state of world affairs could breathe a small sigh of relief. Likewise, having unleashed a nearly atomic-sized explosion, the so-called MOAB (“Mother of all Bombs”), on the villagers and goatherds of Afghanistan, with this vile experiment completed, Trump returned to overseeing his country’s conventional and everyday devastation by drones. And again, following last year’s alleged chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhun, Trump instantly launched a tremendous barrage of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Shayrat airbase. Then, having publicly beaten his chest to the satisfaction of the corporate media, he left the US military to continue its pursuit of regime change by less overt means. Under Trump, in other words, it has been business as usual regarding the “war on terror”, occasionally interspersed by a few more exceptional and shocking instances of long-distance slaughtering. However, all this happened before John Bolton returned to the White House again.

A draft-dodger who once confessed “I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy” 8, John Bolton has always been highly dependable whenever it meant sending others off to die. Even by the bellicose standards of the Bush Jr administration, Bolton was an exceptional warmonger. For instance, in a speech to the Heritage Foundation back in May 2002, he told the assembled:

Beyond the axis of evil, there are other rogue states intent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction – particularly biological weapons. Given our vulnerability to attack from biological agents, as evidenced recently in the anthrax releases, it is important to carefully assess and respond to potential proliferators. 9

“Beyond the axis of evil… Other rogue states”? It transpired that there were as then three main targets circled on Bolton’s hit list: these were Libya, Syria and… wait for it… Cuba. So did anyone else seriously believe that Libya, Syria or Cuba represented an existential threat to America due to these purported arsenals of biological weapons? And does anyone seriously believe Bolton believed so either? The very idea is actually a measure of the mounting hysteria in the months following the 9/11 attacks. It also gives a useful insight into the sociopathic mind of John Bolton.

Aside: Incidentally, although al-Qaeda and Iraq were both separately accused of perpetrating the post-9/11 anthrax attacks it was later discovered that the strain originated from a US defence lab. After wrongly suspecting bioweapons researcher Steven Hatfill who was afterwards awarded damages of $5.82 million, the FBI turned attention to senior bioweapons scientist Bruce Edwards Ivins. No formal charges were ever filed against him and no direct evidence has been uncovered but while under investigation Ivins apparently committed suicide.

Two years later, Bolton went gunning for Iran both publicly and privately:

Bolton’s high-profile advocacy of war with Iran is well known. What is not at all well known is that, when he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security, he executed a complex and devious strategy aimed at creating the justification for a U.S. attack on Iran. Bolton sought to convict the Islamic Republic in the court of international public opinion of having a covert nuclear weapons program using a combination of diplomatic pressure, crude propaganda, and fabricated evidence.

Despite the fact that Bolton was technically under the supervision of Secretary of State Colin Powell, his actual boss in devising and carrying out that strategy was Vice President Dick Cheney. Bolton was also the administration’s main point of contact with the Israeli government, and with Cheney’s backing, he was able to flout normal State Department rules by taking a series of trips to Israel in 2003 and 2004 without having the required clearance from the State Department’s Bureau for Near Eastern Affairs.

Thus, at the very moment that Powell was saying administration policy was not to attack Iran, Bolton was working with the Israelis to lay the groundwork for just such a war. During a February 2003 visit, Bolton assured Israeli officials in private meetings that he had no doubt the United States would attack Iraq, and that after taking down Saddam, it would deal with Iran, too, as well as Syria. 10

Click hear to read the full article by Gareth Porter entitled “The Untold Story of John Bolton’s Campaign for War With Iran”.

In short, John Bolton will stop at nothing to start a war and according to the testimony of Jose Bustani, the first director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) during the lead up to Bush’s war on Iraq:

“I got a phone call from John Bolton – it was first time I had contact with him – and he said he had instructions to tell me that I have to resign from the organization, and I asked him why, he said that [my] management style was not agreeable to Washington.”

When Bustani refused to resign, saying he “owed nothing” to the US, Bolton told him:

“OK, so there will be retaliation. Prepare to accept the consequences. We know where your kids are.” 11

Bolton’s admirers say he is a foreign policy realist akin to Kissinger and so different to the bona fide neo-cons who refrain from dropping American bombs unless in the service of spreading human rights and democracy. And if you think I’m joking then read this extract taken from an article published by the Henry Jackson Society:

For Bolton, the liberation of Iraq was coincidently about universal moral concerns, usually a ruinous basis for any state’s foreign policy (look at Somalia, he says). Fundamentally, Saddam was destroyed because he posed an unacceptable risk to U.S. security – a risk that could be lessened. The democratisation of his one, long-time fiefdom is undertaken because the odds of a democracy threatening U.S. security are far less. The enfranchisement of women across the Middle East may well be a happy consequence of his removal but it is not an issue that keeps Bolton awake at night. William Kristol, on the other hand, a far more eager intervener, wants us to believe that women’s rights are basic to America’s global mission. For sure, Kristol likes Bolton, but this does not make Bolton a neocon. 12

So according to the Henry Jackson Society, the preeminent British neo-con foreign policy think tank, Bolton correctly foresaw that Saddam “posed an unacceptable risk to U.S. security.” Again, who actually believes this nonsense? And who beyond the corridors of the neo-con/humanitarian-bomber establishment has swallowed any of the lies of such hypocrites as Kristol or Blair? Aside from associates of HJS, scarcely anyone believed the cant that set the stage for the downfall of Saddam even though the media did its utmost to manufacture public consent by uncritically repeating the lies long before Bush and Blair took us to war anyway.

Today another war is looming and Bolton has the ear of Trump. Trump who blusters and tries to look tough in vain attempts to prove to a disconnected audience that the US Commander-in-Chief is in control and knows what he’s doing. He is neither. On foreign policy as on domestic issues, he is quite obviously clueless and in the thrall of the corporate elite, and now with Bolton behind him, the chickenhawk neo-cons are ruling the roost.

*

1 From an article entitled “The Chemical-Weapons Attack In Syria: Is There a Place for Skepticism?” written by James Carden, published in The Nation on April 19, 2018. https://www.thenation.com/article/the-chemical-weapons-attack-in-syria-is-there-a-place-for-skepticism/ 

2 From an article entitled “’Evidence’ of Syria chemical weapons use not up to U.N. standard” written by Anthony Deutsch, published in Reuters on April 26, 2013. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-crisis-chemical-weapons/evidence-of-syria-chemical-weapons-use-not-up-to-u-n-standard-idUSBRE93P0UG20130426

3 https://www.opcw.org/fileadmin/OPCW/Fact_Finding_Mission/s-1510-2017_e_.pdf

4 From an article entitled “US has no evidence of Syrian use of sarin gas, Mattis says” written by Robert Burns, published by AP News on February 2, 2018. https://apnews.com/bd533182b7f244a4b771c73a0b601ec5

5

The rebel group has more than 3,500 prisoners and hostages in its prisons in Douma, Rami Abdulrahman, the director of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, told Reuters. Five prisoners were released on Wednesday, after earlier departures by Jaish al-Islam fighters.

From a report entitled “Jaish al-Islam to leave Douma in return for releasing prisoners published by Reuters on April 8, 2018. https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-ghouta-negotiati/jaish-al-islam-to-leave-douma-in-return-for-releasing-prisoners-idUKKBN1HF09Z

6 From an updated article originally entitled “Red Crescent Says No Evidence of Chemical Attack in Syria’s Douma” written by Jason Ditz, published by Antiwar.com on April 9, 2018. https://news.antiwar.com/2018/04/09/red-crescent-says-no-evidence-of-chemical-attack-in-syrias-douma/

7 From an article entitled “New Syrian Chemical Weapons Attack Being Reported By All The Usual Suspects” written and published by Caitlin Johnstone on April 8, 2018. https://medium.com/@caityjohnstone/new-syrian-chemical-weapons-attack-being-reported-by-all-the-usual-suspects-bb52e9a4f982

8

“Though Bolton supported the Vietnam War, he declined to enter combat duty, instead enlisting in the National Guard and attending law school after his 1970 graduation. ‘I confess I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy,’ Bolton wrote of his decision in the 25th reunion book. ‘I considered the war in Vietnam already lost.’”

From an article entitled “Bolton’s conservative ideology has roots in Yale experience” written by Sam Kahn, publuished in Yale Daily News on April 28, 2005. https://web.archive.org/web/20100924032144/http://www.yaledailynews.com/news/2005/apr/28/boltons-conservative-ideology-has-roots-in-yale/

9 Beyond the Axis of Evil: Additional Threats From Weapons of Mass Destruction originally presented to the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC on May 6, 2002. http://www.disam.dsca.mil/pubs/V24-4%20PDF%20Files%20By%20Author/Bolton,%20John%20R.,%20Axis%20of%20Evil.pdf

10 From an article entitled The Untold Story of John Bolton’s Campaign for War with Iran” written by Gareth Porter, published in The American Conservative on March 22, 2018. http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/why-a-john-bolton-appointment-is-scarier-than-you-think-mcmaster-trump/ 

11 From an article entitled “’I give you 24 hours to resign’: 1st OPCW chief on how John Bolton bullied him before Iraq War” published by RT on April 7, 2018. https://www.rt.com/usa/423477-bolton-threat-opcw-iraq/

12 From an article entitled “John Bolton is not a neocon” written Tim Lynch and published by the Henry Jackson Society on July 20, 2005. http://henryjacksonsociety.org/2005/07/20/john-bolton-is-not-a-neocon/

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