Cynthia McKinney: To my new friends in the UK

Cynthia McKinney, renowned American politician, activist and academic, is currently visiting the UK.  She has today shared some reflections on politics and media in UK via a public post on Facebook. Her words speak eloquently and powerfully, so I wanted to share them here too.

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To my new friends in the UK. Elleanne Green, Ian Jenkins, Piers Robinson, Vanessa Beeley, Sheila Coombes, Patrick Henningsen, Gilad Atzmon, Tim Hayward, and more!

What I’ve learned about politics over the last few days:

I would like to thank the organizations and individuals responsible for my invitations to join truthtellers and activists and fellow debaters in the UK. And in the process of getting to know some of you for the first time, here’s what I’ve learned.

It is clear that your country has been hijacked in very much the same way that the U.S. has been, also. Hijacked by a war mongering Cabal bent on dragging us all into interminable wars that benefit no one–absolutely no one–but them. And because you, the people who ultimately are their victims in the U.K., dared to strike back in two decisive and unexpected ways–BREXIT and Jeremy Corbyn–these warmongerers know that your spirit is not yet dead. That your hunger for sovereignty and unique identity is still alive. Thus, what are they to do? Snuff out every bit of truthtelling and dissent from their “party line.” Because we all know that if people stop and think about what is happening in the world, without the filter of war propaganda, hardly anyone will want to maim and kill other people who only want to live their lives just like we want to live ours! So, the truthtellers are spitefully targeted for comments on social media while the warmongers continue their killing and seek to expel Corbyn supporters from the Labour Party. Why?

Does this sound like people who are strong or does it sound more like people who recognize that their arguments are weak?

It is also clear that the mainstream media are complicit in the war crimes committed–past, present. That includes even your flagship media like the BBC that showed its willingness to lie by omission and cover up the truth about major events like 9/11 and its ensuing wars.

It is now, at this very moment, that all peace-loving people should continue our activism–despite the threats, intimidation, friends leaving us, our organizations imploding. You might look around at the political landscape that you once thought was verdant and recognize now that it’s filled with detritus and think that you have nothing. I can’t blame you if you do.

But also realize this, the nothing that you think you have, well, the warmongers want to take that, too.

And why? The answer is simple. Because you don’t want to go on killing the planet and humanity–and they do.

This is the epic struggle of our time. Do “We the people” define who we are and our face to the world? Or do we allow a very small group of non-representative individuals run our countries for themselves and their families as they have done already to smaller countries for generations?

We are more powerful than we realize: And while they might have all the money and we scrape by, we are rich beyond our dreams. Because we have for free what they have to buy: We have lives that are full of meaning; We know who we are and why we exist. And with all of the immense power and control that they have, they still are afraid of a few words spoken at small events. Why?

Brute force does have its limits.

At times like this, I think about Nina Simone’s song. Listen to it. Love its spirit. Remain determined. Ours is a global struggle for humanity and the Earth and, as Nina says, we have our brains and we have life.

Play Nina now; and gain strength from all those peace and justice warriors who preceded us. Our journey is important.

 

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Posted in BBC, constitutional politics, global justice, guest blog, human rights, journalism, media, Uncategorized, war | 6 Comments

Briefing Note: Update on the Salisbury poisonings

The following briefing note is developed by academics researching the use of chemical and biological weapons during the 2011-present war in Syria. The note reflects work in progress. However, the substantive questions raised need answering, especially given the seriousness of the political situation in the Middle East and UK-Russian relations. The authors welcome comments and corrections.

Authors: Professor Paul McKeigue (University of Edinburgh), Professor David Miller (University of Bath) and Professor Piers Robinson (University of Sheffield)

For correspondence:  piers.robinson@sheffield.ac.uk/+447764763350 ; Working Group on Syria, Media and Propaganda (syriapropagandamedia.org).

Key points

  • The Skripals were exposed to a phosphoroamidofluoridate compound named A-234, of high purity indicating that it was most likely prepared for research purposes.
  • A-234 or similar compounds have been synthesized at bench scale by national chemical defence labs in Russia and the US in the 1990s, and more recently in Iran and Czechia. A small quantity of A-234 from a Russian state lab was used in the murder of Ivan Kivelidi and Zara Ismailova in 1995.
  • No data on the toxicity of A-234 are available in the public domain. The police statement that the Skripals were exposed through contact with their front door is implausible as there are no known nerve agents that cause onset of symptoms delayed by several hours, and it is improbable that absorption through the skin would cause both individuals to collapse later at exactly the same time.
  • Although Russia is one of several countries that have synthesized A-234 or similar compounds, there is no evidence other than Vil Mirzayanov’s story that these compounds were ever developed (implying industrial-scale production and testing of munitions) for military use. Mirzayanov’s credibility as an independent whistleblower is undermined by his role in a Tatar separatist movement during 2008-2009, backed by the US State Department.
  • There are multiple indications that the UK is hiding information:-
    • the withholding of the identity of the compound as A-234. For example, the UK statement to the OSCE12 April 2018 states only that ‘ the name and structure of that identified toxic chemical is contained in the fall classified report to States Parties’. See also this briefing. The Chief Executive of Porton Down, in his statement 3 April,referred to the compound only as ‘Novichok’.
    • the withholding of information about its toxicity
    • the issue of a Defence Media Security Advisory notice on the identity of Skripal’s   MI6 handler and the attempt to conceal or deny his role in Orbis Business Intelligence.
    • the sequestration of Yulia Skripal.
  • The UK government’s case against Russia, stated in a letter to NATO, is based on asserting that “only Russia has the technical means, operational experience and motive for the attack on the Skripals”. Each of these points is open to question:-
    • Technical means: it is not seriously disputed that compounds such as A-234 can be produced at bench scale in any modern chemistry lab.
    • Operational experience: it is alleged that Russia has a track record of state-sponsored assassination, but this is not enough to support the assertion that “only Russia” could have enough experience to attempt unsuccessfully to assassinate two unprotected individuals.
    • Motive: No other attempted assassinations of defectors from Russian intelligence services have been recorded. Even if such an assassination campaign had been ordered, the Russian state would have good reasons not to initiate it in the first half of 2018.   In contrast there are obvious possible motives (outlined below) for other actors to have taken steps to silence Sergei Skripal at this time.

What was the agent used?

An early report that the hospital was dealing with poisoning caused by an opiate such as fentanyl was most likely based on the initial working diagnosis. Signs of organophosphate poisoning – constricted pupils, vomiting, reduced consciousness and reduced breathing – could easily be mistaken for opiate overdose, usually a more likely diagnosis.   OPCW has stated that the BZ detected by the Swiss Federal Institute for Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Protection in one of the samples sent by OPCW was not from Salisbury but was in a control sample.

The Russian ambassador reported that on 12 March the Foreign Secretary had told him that the nerve agent used against Mr and Ms Skripal had been identified as A-234.   The OPCW report issued on 12 April did not identify the agent but stated that they had confirmed the identification made by the UK and that this identification had been included in the confidential report provided to “States parties”. On 14 April the Russian Foreign Minister stated that A-234 had been reported by the Swiss Federal Institute for Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Protection that was one of the four accredited labs used by OPCW to analyse the Salisbury samples.

Based on public reports, a ChemSpider record for A-234 has been created which assigns it the IUPAC name ethyl [(1E)-1-(diethylamino)ethylidene] phosphoramidofluoridate. Its predicted vapour pressure is very low indicating that it is predicted to be non-volatile. No information on its stability is available.   The OPCW director Uzumcu stated in a newspaper interview that the agent “seems to be very persistent,” and “not affected by weather conditions”. This was confirmed the next day by an OPCW press statement that: “the chemical substance found was of high purity, persistent and resistant to weather conditions”. Ian Boyd, the chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was reported to have stated: “The chemical does not degrade quickly. You can assume it is not much different now from the day it was distributed”.   No experimental studies of the stability of A-234 have been reported.

Who could have produced A-234 in bench-scale quantities?

It is no longer seriously disputed that, as noted in our earlier briefing, any well equipped university lab can synthesize and purify such chemicals at bench scale. OPCW reported that the agent (presumably A-234) was of high purity with “almost complete absence of impurities”.   This suggests that it was from a batch that had been synthesized for research, rather than for assassination purposes where it would be unnecessary to purify the agent.

Uzumcu stated in an interview with the New York Times that he had been told by UK officials that 50-100 grams of the agent was used.

“For research activities or protection you would need, for instance, five to 10 grams or so, but even in Salisbury it looks like they may have used more than that. Without knowing the exact quantity, I am told it may be 50, 100 grams or so, which goes beyond research activities for protection”

OPCW quickly contradicted this in a statement that “OPCW would not be able to estimate or determine the amount of the nerve agent that was used in Salisbury on 4 March 2018. The quantity should probably be characterized in milligrams”.

Who has studied A-234 or similar compounds?

Bench-scale research on the toxicity of agents that might be used in chemical warfare is entirely legitimate under the Chemical Weapons Convention, and does not have to be declared to OPCW.

Russia

Since our last briefing note, more material from the investigation of the Kivelidi poisoning has been published by Novaya Gazeta, updating the earlier article published on 22 March. The second article includes an image of the mass spectrometry profile of the sample recovered from the telephone handset, which matches that submitted by Edgewood to the NIST98 mass spectrometry database. The Russian experts who commented on the original result appear not to have had access to the mass spectrometry profile of A-234, and to have incorrectly reconstructed the structure from a best guess, based on the mass-charge ratios of the fragments, as something like the GV agent (both agents have molecular mass 224 daltons, and a 58-dalton fragment).   This establishes that Russia had synthesized this compound at bench scale by the mid 1990s, but does not confirm that it was ever developed for military use as alleged by Mirzayanov.

US

A 1997 newspaper article refers to a secret US army intelligence report referring to Russian development of A-232 and its “ethyl analog” A-234, indicating that the designation of these compounds and their structures was known to the US by this time. As noted in our last briefing note, the Edgewood lab submitted a mass spectrometry profile for A-234 to the public database NIST98, which was current from 1998 to 2001.

A patent application submitted by a US government lab in 2008 mentions “Novichoks”, but examination shows that the structures given for these compounds were the dihaloformaldoxime structures previously published as supposed “Novichoks”, not the phosphoramidofluoridates published by Mirzayanov later in 2008.   This does not indicate that the applicants were studying these compounds – most likely they included them to make their patent as broad as possible.

Iran and Czechia

A study from Iran published in 2016 reported synthesis for research purposes of a compound similar to A-234, differing from it only by the presence of methyl instead of ethyl groups. In an interview with Czech television, President Zeman stated that in November 2017 the related compound designated A-230 was studied at the Brno Military Research Institute.

Other labs

The director of Porton Down has declined to comment on whether Porton Down has stocks of A-234 for research purposes. The OPCW labs that identified A-234 in the specimens from Salisbury were most likely matching it against a mass spectrometry profile in OPCW’s Central Analytical Database.

What is known of the toxicity of A-234?

No data on the toxicity of A-234 are available in the public domain. The printout of the entry in the NIST 98 database appears to cross-reference an entry in the database RTECS (Registry of Toxic Effects of Chemical Substances) but no entry for this compound now exists in RTECS.

Why was the structure of A-234 revealed?

The structure of A-234 was revealed in a book by Vil S Mirzayanov in 2008, some 13 years after he had emigrated to the US with the story of a secret programme to develop chemical weapons of a class named “Novichoks”. During 2008-2009 the US government, with an active part for the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was encouraging the development of a separatist movement in Tatarstan. As part of this, Mirzayanov was declared head of a Tatar government-in-exile in December 2008.   The publication of his book may thus have been part of an effort to build up Mirzayanov’s status as a dissident. His role in this operation may explain why subsequent discussion of his book by OPCW delegates was closely monitored (and discouraged) by the US State Department.   Mirzayanov’s involvement in this operation undermines his credibility as an independent whistleblower.

When and where were the Skripals exposed to A-234?

A summary of the different versions on which journalists were apparently briefed by security sources was given by the Russian embassy:-

– The Skripals could be sprayed with poison by attackers in the street (Daily Mail, 6 March, source: “Anti-terror police”).

– The nerve agent could be planted in one of the personal items in Yulia Skripal’s suitcase before she left Moscow for London. According to this theory the toxin was impregnated in an item of clothing or cosmetics or else in a gift that was opened in the house of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, meaning Yulia Skripal was deliberately targeted to get at her father (The Telegraph, 15 March, source: “Senior sources in the intelligence agencies”).

– The nerve agent could be planted in the air conditioner of the car of Skripals (Daily Mail, 19 March, source: “Security expert Philip Ingram”).

– The Skripals could be poisoned through buckwheat that Yulia Skripal had asked her friend to buy and bring for her father, because she had forgotten to pick up the grocery gifts herself (The Sun, 1 April, source: “British investigators”).

On 28 March the police announced that “at this point in our investigation, we believe the Skripals first came into contact with the nerve agent from their front door”.

Although it is possible that a nerve agent could be prepared in a formulation that would be absorbed only slowly through the skin, it is implausible that two individuals exposed through contact with the front door would have received doses that caused them to collapse suddenly and so nearly simultaneously that neither had time to call for help, at least three hours later.   It is more likely that they were attacked shortly before they were found collapsed on the park bench.

Sergei Skripal’s link with Orbis: possible motive for murder

In the first few days after the poisoning there were media reports that Sergei Skripal had been in regular contact with his MI6 handler, whose Linked-In profile had stated that he was a consultant for Orbis Business Intelligence. On 7 March this profile was deleted and a Defence and Security Media Advisory Notice was issued to caution journalists against disclosing the identity of this consultant. However at Skripal’s trial in 2007 his MI6 handler had been identified as Pablo Miller, and the link between Skripal and Miller had been described in detail by Russian opposition media on 6 March.

This link between Skripal and Orbis may be relevant to the dossier compiled by Christopher Steele, the founder of Orbis, containing derogatory information on Donald Trump’s alleged ties to Russia. This dossier had been used by the FBI to apply for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court order authorizing surveillance of Trump’s campaign. By early 2018 the unravelling of this story was creating serious difficulties for Steele and for those he had worked with. These difficulties included a referral for criminal investigation by two US Senators, a libel case in the US against the publisher of the dossier which had led to a court ruling that Steele should be questioned in an English court, and a libel case in England against Orbis and Steele.   It is not difficult to postulate a situation in which the potential for damage to US-UK relations could have provided a motive for actors on both sides of the Atlantic to ensure that Sergei Skripal would not be available to give evidence.

The UK government’s position

This was summarized in a letter from the National Security Adviser, Sir Mark Sedwill to the NATO Secretary-General on 13 April 2018.   Sedwill’s letter made several assertions that were substantiated only by “intelligence”:

  • By 1993, when Russia signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, it is likely that some Novichoks had passed acceptance testing, allowing their use by the Russian military
  • Russia further developed some Novichoks after ratifying the convention
  • During the 2000s, Russia commenced a programme to test means of delivering chemical warfare agents and to train personnel from special units in the use of these weapons. This programme subsequently included investigation of ways of delivering nerve agents, including by application to door handles.
  • In the mid-2000s, President Putin was closely involved in the Russian chemical weapons programme
  • Within the last decade Russia has produced and stockpiled small quantities of Novichoks

Appearing before the House of Commons Defence Committee on 1 May, Sedwill (11:39) extolled the government’s reaction to the Salisbury incident as “an example of the Fusion Doctrine in practice”. The Fusion Doctrine brings other government departments under the National Security Council with “the introduction of senior officials as senior responsible owners to deliver each of the NSC’s priorities”.

Sedwill’s involvement in the preparation of the now widely discredited dossier ‘Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction, released in September 2002, calls into question his credibility in making these uncorroborated assertions.   The UK government’s case as set out by Sedwill is based on asserting that “only Russia has the technical means, operational experience and motive for the attack on the Skripals”. Each of these points is open to serious criticism:-

  • Technical means: it is not seriously disputed that A-234 can be produced at bench scale in any organic chemistry lab.
  • Operational experience: it is alleged that Russia has a track record of state-sponsored assassination, but this does not support the assertion that only Russia has the operational experience for such an assassination. On the contrary, the failure of the assassination attempt, against two unprotected individuals, suggests that the perpetrators lacked the operational experience and competence that one would expect of state-directed assassins.
  • Motive: no other attempted assassinations of defectors from Russian intelligence services have been recorded. If the Russian state had decided to begin assassinating these defectors, it is unlikely that they would have chosen to start in March 2018, just before the presidential election and three months before the FIFA World Cup.   However, as noted above, it is possible to identify motives for other actors to silence Sergei Skripal at this time.

Acknowledgements

We thank Professor Rudy Richardson of the University of Michigan for advice on the toxicology of nerve agents.

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Posted in chemical weapons, guest blog, OPCW, Russia, UK Government, Uncategorized, war | 15 Comments

How The Media Reveal Inconvenient Truth About Syria

The truth is sometimes revealed through words, but more often through deeds.

The Times and several other papers recently carried alarming stories about “Apologists for Assad” to be found in social media, in independent journalism, and even in universities. Passive consumers of corporate media communications may have taken the papers’ word for it and been perturbed. The more alert, however, will have taken this conspicuous flagging of certain journalists, tweeters and academics to be a strategic communication: “these are people you must not listen to and definitely not think of emulating!” 

The response from the critically aware has been spectacularly resistant – not least on Twitter, which, ironically, was the main source of the “evidence” used in the coordinated smear campaign. The fact of a campaign, and a coordinated one, appeared obvious. Perhaps a rush to launch the attacks all at once was due to an unexpectedly quick unravelling of the authorized narrative in Syria. As the Syrian Arab Army brought Douma back under government control, the liberated citizens were bringing horrendous stories about conditions of life under the UK-sponsored “moderate rebels”, speaking of terror, humiliation, deprivation, rape, murder and forced labour. These stories, if verified, would severely undermine the mainstream narrative. As would the discovery of exceedingly inconvenient facts relating to the alleged chemical attack that recently served as justification for the F-UK-US bombing raid.

So it is that those of us who strive to get a fair hearing for the inconvenient testimonies are branded “Apologists for Assad”.

Whoever devised the smear campaign perhaps underestimated the public’s instincts of fairness and its appetite for truth. They are also up against a strong streak of decency that runs even through parts of the establishment. Thus in the same week as the attacks on us we could also hear dissenting voices from sections of society that would be especially surprising hotbeds of “Assad Apologism” (whatever that even is). They include lords of the realm, generals and admirals of Her Majesty’s armed forces, United Kingdom ambassadors, Church of England clergy, Westminster politicians, academics from world-leading universities, and even celebrities on mainstream media (apparently including The Great British Bake Off).

The smear campaign also didn’t seem to have effective personnel for the job. The poor hacks who were dispatched to rummage through people’s old twitter feeds and contrive loose chains of supposedly incriminating association seem hardly to have had their hearts in it. Understandably, perhaps, given how far outside their sphere of competence it is to engage with the careful, detailed and often highly sophisticated presentations of serious independent investigators.

Then there was downright idiocy. Riding on the bandwagon of Russophobia is an opportunistic assortment of self-styled sleuths, deploying sometimes hilarious methods of “Russian bot” identification. This has led to the fingering of the now celebrated Ian Shilling, for instance, and the already greatly celebrated Syrian chemist in Australia who goes by the handle @Partisangirl.

Hilarity aside, the campaign has revealed how serious the situation is. To listen to Ian and Mimi is to learn what ideas get equated with Russian propaganda today. I find it chilling that to share such ideas is to be regarded as an enemy in an information war with Russia –  a war that even Lord West was publicly recommended to be mindful of by a BBC interviewer last week (who warns him about his loose talk here, from 04:30).

Such a mass mobilisation of controlled information should be no less worrying than the mobilisation of armed force. It is what generates the atmosphere of acquiescence required to get a military war going.

By coordinating their concerted smear campaign, those with centralised power over information have literally revealed what they don’t want revealed. Nobody reading their words will be much the wiser about the alleged problem of “Assad Apologists”, but anyone reflecting on the mere fact of this extraordinary campaign will know that they are pointing out with neon light the people who must not be listened to and certainly not emulated.

So anybody who likes to take the media’s word at face value will not want to click any of the links below. For everybody else, they constitute a collective declaration of solidarity with what we all hold dear.

[Personal thanks go the authors and speakers linked below, but also to those many people who have shown support, whether in public or in private, and including, of course, fellow members of the Syria, Propaganda and Media working group and international advisory board. Thank you all!]

Update 28 April 2018 – There are now 37 links below, so, when I get a chance, I shall aim to provide a review of them so people can read selectively on particular themes that have emerged. A noticeable development over this first fortnight is that whereas the earlier items tended to be fairly direct responses to the specific attacks on academics, the articles and interviews appearing later have tended to involve increasing reflection on wider issues too. (Meanwhile, also in the course of this fortnight, the initial media story of the Douma chemical attack pretty much unravelled, with alleged victims appearing with doctors at The Hague to testify to their good health and an absence of chemical weapons symptoms. The corporate media have now gone rather quiet about Douma, as they already had about the Skripals.)

Standing together

Christopher Black, ‘Operation Barbarossa II Update: The Battle Will be Everywhere’ (New Eastern Outlook, 27 April 2018)

Carrie Lavender, ‘War Propaganda Is Exposed When Pearson Sharp Goes to Syria & Tells the Truth’ (27 April 2018)

Hala Jaber, ‘The Orchestrated Smear Campaign Against Journalists Reporting on Syria’ (Faultlines, 26 April 2018)

C.J. Hopkins, ‘‘The League of Assad-Loving Conspiracy Theorists’ (Counterpunch, 26 April 2018)

MediaLens, ‘Douma: Part 2 – ‘It Just Doesn’t Ring True’ (26 April 2018)

The Listening Post, ‘How the media covered the Syria strikes’ (Al Jazeera, 21 April 2018) 8 minute video report

John Wright and Tara McCormack, ‘McCarthyism in Our Time: Witchhunting the Witchhunters’, (25 April 2018) [30 mins radio recording]

MediaLens, ‘Douma: Part 1 – Deception In Plain Sight’ (25 April 2018)

Caitlin Johnstone, ‘Never Let Anyone Call You Crazy For Doubting Establishment War Narratives’ (25 April 2018)

Elijah J. Magnier, ‘Syrian Dirty War Backfires on International Media’ (25 April 2018); or, in French,  La sale guerre syrienne éclabousse les médias internationaux (25 April 2018)

Max Blumenthal, ‘Syria Controversy: Don’t Believe the Official Narrative’ (Truthdig, 23 April 2018)

Caitlin Johnstone, ‘MSM Is Frantically Attacking Dissenting Syria Narratives, And It Looks Really Bad’ (23 April 2018)

Mark GB Blog, ‘How did the media sink this low?’ (23 April)

[‘Massive mass media attacks on people who do not accept the official truth about Syria’] ‘Mahniti napadi masmedija na osobe koje ne prihvaćaju službenu istinu o Siriji’ (Balkan Express, 23 April 2018)

Craig Murray, ‘Index on Disgrace’ (22 April 2018)

‘The emergence of a Christian United Front against the war in Syria’, Voltaire Network (22 April 2018) [and the prior statement by Patriarchs since endorsed by Pope Francis]

Moon of Alabama, ‘The Media War On Truthful Reporting And Legitimate Opinions – A Documentary’ (21 April 2018)

Patrick Cockburn, ‘We should be sceptical of far-away governments who claim to know what is happening on the ground in Syria’ (The Independent, 20 April 2018)

Lissa Johnson, ‘SICK OF DYING (PART 2): Why The Skripal Poisoning, Foreign Interference Legislation And Legality Of US Interventions Are The Business Of Health Professionals’ (New Matilda, Australia, 20 April 2018)

Claire Connelly, ‘When the press attacks – the Times’ & BBC’s war on truth’, (Renegade Inc, 20 April 2018)

Caitlin Johnstone, ‘What Are “Assad Apologists”? Are They Like Those “Saddam Apologists” Of 2002?’ (Medium 20 April 2018)

Julie Hyland, ‘Murdoch’s Times witch-hunts academics for questioning UK government’s Syria lies’ (World Socialist Web Site, 19 April 2018)

Hala Jaber, ‘In my entire career, spanning more than three decades of professional journalism, I have never seen MSM resolve to such ugly smear campaigns…’ (Twitter thread, 19 April 2018)

Open Letter to The Times on Assad and Academic Freedom, (not published by The Times, signed by twenty academics unconnected to those attacked by The Times, 18 April 2018)

Phil Hammond, Syria: stop asking questions (OpenDemocracy 17 April 2018)

Academic Freedom? — ‘Syria Working Group’ Attacked By The Times (posted in Intel Today 16 April 2018)

Gavin Ashenden, ‘Syria, censorship and ‘The t/Times’ (14 April 2018)

 

Reference, links and discussion page, from ACLOS:

‘April 2018 attack on dissent’ (A Closer Look On Syria)

 

The academics respond in first person:

Tara McCormack, interviewed on BBC Newsnight (25 April 2018)

Tim Hayward, ‘Academic Freedom And Setting An Example’ (20 April 2018)

Tara McCormack, ‘Syria, The Times, and Free Speech‘, (Spiked, 19 April 2018)

‘”Assad Apologists”: media attacks academics over dissenting posts’, RT news video, with Tara MacCormack (18 April 2018)

Piers Robinson, ‘UK Academics Questioning Western Foreign Policy in Syria’ (Sputnik, 17 April 2018)

Piers Robinson, International mainstream media ‘failing’ audiences (Newstalk ZB, New Zealand – audio – 17 April 2018)

Piers Robinson, The smear attack on a small group of academics shows they have the government concerned (Sputnik – audio – 16 April 2018)

Louis Allday, Twitter thread (14 April 2018)

Tim Hayward, ‘Attacked by The Times’ (14 April 2018)

 

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Nadiya Hussain, vilified for criticising Theresa May over air strikes on Syria

 

Posted in disinformation, journalism, media, propaganda, Russia, UK Government, Uncategorized, war | 18 Comments

A Staged Chemical Attack In Douma? A note on the evidence so far

This week has seen the release of interviews with doctors and children (here and here) who appeared in the video, widely circulated in the Western media, that showed a distressing scene in a clinic in Douma. In that scene, doctors were allegedly treating victims of a chemical attack. However, their own witness testimony now points to a staging of the scene.

But should we trust that testimony?

An article published yesterday in The Intercept (Robert Mackey, ‘Russia sows doubts over chemical attack in Syria, aided by pro-Trump cable channel’) states a meaningful challenge:

There was no way of knowing if any of the medical personnel who spoke to the reporters in the presence of government minders had been coerced into making those statements by threats from Assad’s secret police, the mukhabarat, to harm their families — as the head of the largest medical relief agency in Syria told The Guardian they were.

Certainly, the bona fides of the witnesses and their statements are quite properly a matter for rigorous evaluation. (In the case of young children, I am somewhat unsure exactly what tests of veracity are needed or ethically appropriate,[1] but I entirely accept the general principle of treating witness statements with due caution.)

The rest of Mackey’s article, however, pursues quite other themes. And since the loose construction of the article could allow a hasty reader an impression that its other material somehow challenges the witness evidence of staging at the clinic, I shall just point out that it does not.

In particular, what could be misleading to the unwary is the significance of this separate point made in The Intercept:[2]

Two enterprising reporters, Seth Doane of CBS News and Stefan Borg of TV4 Sweden, slipped away from their government minders and managed to find the building where the attack took place and interview a man who said he had survived the attack but lost his wife, mother, and brothers to gas.

We need to be clear that this refers to a different question, namely, what happened at a place where deaths occurred. It has no necessary connection to anything that living witnesses at the clinic have said. In fact, I believe, the onus would be on someone who wants to claim the two sets of evidence are linked to establish the link. (Incidentally, in assuming the veracity of the testimony from the man interviewed at the house, Mackey rather relaxes his earlier standards of rigorous scepticism, since he does not ask whether this witness may have had some inducement, whether what he says is entirely reliable, or whether he is even exactly who he is presented as being. However I shall set aside these questions too, and with all due respect to the bereaved.)

There is a simple point to make. The question of what caused the deaths of people found at a house, and the question of what caused the children to be inside the clinic at the time of filming, are two distinct questions. The truth of any statement related to one has no necessary bearing on the truth of any statement related to the other. The evidence from doctors and patients at the clinic does not eliminate the possibility of the use of chemicals elsewhere, by some as yet to be established party.[3] It does, however, tend to weigh in favour of the hypothesis that the scene at the clinic was staged.

Notes

[1] The article also suggests there could be reasons for questioning the veracity of the boy’s testimony. I make no objection to rigorously testing the veracity of the statement on the video, within ethical bounds. I do think there could be ethical objections to the suggestion, attributed by The Intercept to Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry’s spokesperson, ‘that the boy should be brought to the United Nations to testify.’ [Update: Having checked the attribution, I think Zakharova was simply making a rhetorical point about whose testimony would be worth hearing.]

[2] While not wishing to be rude, I do feel that much of the article is presented in rather prejudicial terms. When it comes to assessing credibility of evidence it makes reference, for instance, to ‘[u]nfounded conspiracy theories about the White Helmets, concocted by Syrian and Russian state media’, where the link to ‘conspiracy theories’ takes you to Bellingcat, itself a Western funded ‘think tank’ with a very clear information mission.

The article also mentions, darkly, ‘Sharp has not explained how he managed to convince the Syrian government to give him a visa to report in the country’. I don’t claim to know the answer, and don’t normally expect such information to be part of a report! But presumably Sharp got it in much the way that the other journalists, whose work the article cites, did. (In fact, I could name half a dozen friends there at the same time who had also managed it, including Alison Banfield and Mike Raddie from BSNews.)

[3] The Intercept piece cites a report from Associated Press, which includes this:

‘The AP visited a two-room underground shelter where Khaled Mahmoud Nuseir said 47 people were killed, including his pregnant wife and two daughters, 18-month-old Qamar and 2 1/2-year-old Nour. A strange smell lingered, nine days after the attack.

Nuseir, 25, said he ran from the shelter to a nearby clinic and fainted. After he was revived, he returned to the shelter and found his wife and daughters dead, with foam coming from their mouths.

He and two other residents accused the rebel Army of Islam of carrying out the attack. As they spoke, government troops were not far away but out of earshot. Nuseir said a gas cylinder was found leaking the poison gas, adding that he didn’t think it was dropped from the air because it still looked intact.

Separately, the AP spoke to a medic who was among those who later were evacuated to northern Syria. Ahmed Abed al-Nafaa said helicopters were flying before the attack and when he reached the site, people were screaming “chlorine.” He said he tried to enter the shelter but was overcome by a strong smell of chlorine and his comrades pulled him out.

The accounts contradict what the Syrian government and Russia have reported: that there was no gas attack in Douma.’

 

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Posted in chemical weapons, disinformation, journalism, media, Syria, Uncategorized, war | 5 Comments

Academic Freedom And Setting An Example

This post is based on a letter I wrote in reply to someone who has known me as a teacher. I have responded to her as one concerned citizen to another, but with her student experience in mind. We agreed it would be an idea to make the response available to anyone else who shared similar concerns. 

On Saturday 14 April 2018, The Times newspaper took the extraordinary – and I think unprecedented – step of publishing, on its front page, in its leader column, and in a further two-page spread, a sustained attack on what it denounces as “Apologists for Assad working in universities”.

You might wonder why The Times was doing this, and also perhaps why now. But first you might like to know: am I an Apologist for Assad? Simple answer: “No, and nor are any others in the group that is being attacked”.[1] Still, you may wonder, “what about these tweets that have been mentioned?” Well, one was misreported[2] and one was misinterpreted,[3] but it is true that a certain hashtag appeared in a brief cluster of tweets a year ago, like this one from 17 April 2017: ‘More questions need to be asked about alleged evidence of sarin in #SyriaHoax debate’.

The tweets do seem to be the sum total of evidence presented for alleged apologism. The tweets, I would further point out, are a personal matter. No allegations concern any of the group’s professional activities of research work or teaching. They do not even touch on my quite numerous personal blogposts on Syria. (So one might seriously wonder how on earth a handful of obscure year-old tweets of mine came to be more important for The Times to share with its readership on 14 April 2018 than the fact that France, US and UK were in the process of bombing Syria.)

As for the hashtag #syriahoax, as you see from the example above, this, for me, was intended to highlight a topic, a question, a debate.[4]

As The Times is clearly aware, the question is topical again, a year on. If you have seen the recent video and images from Douma circulating in the Western media, you could be forgiven for regarding as an established fact that, on 7 April 2018, President Assad of Syria had committed an appalling war crime by using a chemical weapon against his own people.[5] The press and TV news channels suggested that Theresa May and presidents Trump and Macron had sufficient evidence to justify bombing Syria. To ask questions about this would make you, at least according to The Times, a ‘useful idiot’ echoing Russian propaganda.

When a group of respected academics starts to affirm it reasonable to ask questions, and even sets about doing so – as the working group has – we find ourselves branded as “Apologists for Assad!” 

But it is not only academics asking questions.

Lord Alan West, former First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy, this week expressed deep scepticism about the alleged chemical attack in Douma. Would that make him an “Apologist for Assad”? Well, the BBC interviewer did appear to caution him about expressing such scepticism in public. (Perhaps it’s worth reflecting why a journalist is seeking to discourage a member of the House of Lords asking questions? Aren’t journalists supposed to be interested in asking questions?)

Major-General Jonathan Shaw, a former chief of the British armed forces was actually interrupted by his Sky News interviewer when he began to articulate scepticism(Was this interruption really due to a glitch in the scheduling?)

A key point that both those senior military figures made was that while Assad had a strong reason not to throw away his advantageous military position by bringing the wrath of NATO down upon him, the armed militant groups in control of Douma had a very strong motive to accomplish exactly that.

Scepticism has been heard in public from others too. They include former weapons inspectors, former ambassadors, established journalists, filmmakers, US senators, and even Fox News’s Carlson Tucker.[6]

But if the ‘rebels’ had a motive, is there any evidence they had the means and opportunity to be responsible for the event in Douma? Independent journalists like Vanessa Beeley, who, as I write, is on the ground in Douma, have uncovered potentially significant evidence, but since she is also criticised in The Times, I don’t just now want to occasion any accusation of being a ‘useful idiot’ by citing her evidence. (I do happen to have great respect for her, however, so this bracketing is simply for the present purpose.) It is now not just independent journalists who are presenting evidence. With Douma back under the control of government, several more mainstream correspondents have been interviewing witnesses on the ground. Numerous citizens who live around the site of the alleged bombing have been telling them they were aware of no gas attack.[7] Doctors interviewed at the clinic say they had no patients presenting with symptoms of a chemical attack. The patients were suffering from breathing difficulties due to the thick dust of living in sheltered quarters, they say, exacerbated by the impact of an explosion. The doctors telling us this have apparently been identified by name and position,[8] and some of them are identifiable on screen in the official media video of the event.

It is not only doctors from the official video that can now be heard. In this interview, a little boy, clearly recognizable from that video, explains how he and other kids (who were in perfect health) had been herded from outside into the hospital whereupon they started having water splashed over them. They had no clue what was going on, he says. You can watch the child as he now recounts this and decide what you think for yourself.[9]

Yet maybe all of this evidence of a possible fake has somehow been constructed as part of an elaborate propaganda exercise? That would be a reasonable question to ask. But is it any less reasonable to ask questions about the mainstream Western media’s account of the evidence? That is all I have ever tried to do, as have the others who belong to the working group on Syria, Propaganda and Media (SPM). To ask questions about what we are being told is not to ‘apologise’ for anyone.

I shall sign off with a personal thought. Students in higher education have a special opportunity, and encouragement, to think critically about the world and its ways. Their confidence in doing so could be compromised by having the reputation of their teachers called into question. So I want to emphasise that SPM members, notwithstanding the attempt to smear them, face no allegation of having failed their students, nor their research community, nor their institutions.[10] The Times appears to have wanted to make an example of SPM group members for challenging the version of contemporary history the paper is ready to authorise. The group members, by contrast, want to set an example, by trying to ensure that the record of contemporary knowledge is as faithful as one might hope in a democratic society. After all, if academics don’t do that, will anyone? If we – the profession with the greatest freedom of thought and expression – are intimidated into restricting our attention to ‘authorised’ questions, what kind of society do you think we are heading for?

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Syrian Students, Tishreen University, Lattakia (15 April 2018 )

Notes

[1] The working group’s current membership:

Louis Allday (PhD candidate, SOAS University of London)

Professor Emeritus Oliver Boyd-Barrett (Bowling Green State University, United States of America)

Dr T.J. Coles (Plymouth Institute for Peace Research)

Professor Tim Hayward (University of Edinburgh)

Divya Jha (PhD candidate, Communication, Media and Journalism research group, University of Sheffield)

Adam Larson (Independent Researcher)

Jake Mason (PhD candidate, Communication, Media and Journalism research group, University of Sheffield)

Dr Tara McCormack (University of Leicester)

Professor Paul McKeigue (University of Edinburgh)

Professor David Miller (University of Bath)

Professor Piers Robinson (University of Sheffield) Working Group Convenor

Simone Rudolphi (Sunderland, MA student)

Dr Greg Simons (Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Uppsala University)

Dr Florian Zollmann (Newcastle University)

The International advisory Board (currently under development):

Christopher C.Black (International criminal lawyer)

Dr David Blackall  (University of Wollongong, Australia)

Dr Nathan Coombs (University of Edinburgh)

Dr Christopher Davidson (Durham University, United Kingdom)

Professor Philip Hammond (London South Bank University)

Professor Richard Jackson (University of Otago, New Zealand)

Professor Richard Keeble (University of Lincoln)

Jan Oberg Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research

Dr Sonia Mansour Robaey (Independent Researcher)

Professor Mark Crispin Miller (New York University)

Dr Sami Ramadani (Retired Academic)

[2] I explained this in my initial response posted on the day The Times attack occurred:

‘I don’t think The Times article has been scrupulously fair on its front page when it refers to some claims I retweeted, because it fails to mention that they were being quoted as the reference for the following words of my own:

“Witness statements from civilians and officials in Ghouta raise very disturbing questions about the conduct of ‘rebel’ factions who had been in control. Questions also concern who and what has been supported by UK FCO.”

I have not claimed to verify the witness statements that prompted the questions, but since the witnesses are due a degree of respect, I believe, those questions arising from them can reasonably be aired, without prejudice to the question of their truth.’

[3] This tweet, from a year ago, was given an unintended interpretation by the journalist who contacted me, so I simply deleted it, as is my practice when unclarity is pointed out to me. (The tweet had received 23 engagements, including any at The Times office, when I deleted it. Those who engaged at the time, I presume, being followers of my account, would have been unlikely to mistake my intention.)

[4] More generally, I have never made claims to knowledge about controversial events in Syria. I have just tried to assess the basis of claims – the evidence, assumptions, methods, and so on – that appear in reports of events. That is something academics do, and I do it in my blogposts as a concerned citizen. It all started when I found myself unsure, as explained in this link, ‘Who to believe about Syria?

[5] I am aware that it will be said “not only in Douma!” It will be said he has a record of such allegations being made against him. That is true, but similar questions apply to all of them, and meanwhile we have a specific incident at hand that has been used as a specific justification for bombing Syria. (For extensive discussion of critical questions concerning all of the allegations over the years, see the comprehensive resource A Closer Look On Syria.)

[6] For a list of sceptics who have been heard in the mainstream media, along with other relevant materials, see my blog post Chemical Attack in Douma: a false pretext for escalating war against Syria? As new reports are coming in daily just now, I am updating it regularly.

[7] See for instance the interviews in this video published 18 April 2018:

‘OAN’S Pearson Sharp refutes MSM reports of alleged Syrian chemical attack’. For more, see the ongoing updates on my post ‘Chemical Attack in Douma: a false pretext for escalating war against Syria?

[8] https://twitter.com/timand2037/status/986582834457411585

[9] https://yadi.sk/d/cTNQs9kM3UYTbe

[10] Because I am speaking only for myself here, I have not mentioned some other aspects of The Times’ coverage that affect others of the group. We are currently taking advice on them.

 

Posted in chemical weapons, disinformation, human rights, journalism, media, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war | 22 Comments

Attacked By The Times

Today I find myself on the front page of The Times, as one of the members of the recently formed academic working group on Syria, Propaganda and Media.

Members of the working group have so far published just one item, a research note on the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury. Although still work in progress, the piece, Update to briefing note “Doubts about Novichoks” has been well-received by academics and serious commentators. It has been singled out by Cornell University’s Professor of Organic Chemistry, David B Collum, as the most definitive work on the novichok nerve agent scandal.

According to the Times, the group is “spreading pro-Assad disinformation”. In fact, the group is scrupulous in its analysis and presentation of information, which stands always open to correction, as any academic work in progress does. The group is not “pro-Assad”.

Speaking for myself, I am simply “pro-” getting at the truth. If I make a mistake, I always stand to be corrected and endeavour to learn from the correction. So, in response to criticism of one of my posts last year, for instance, I took it down and re-wrote it. Twitter is an area in which I am on a learning curve, since misunderstandings so easily arise when thoughts are compressed into a few words that are easily taken out of context. Certainly, now that my twitter feed has been brought to wider public attention, I do invite any reader to point out anything there that needs correcting.

Incidentally, I don’t think The Times article has been scrupulously fair on its front page when it refers to some claims I retweeted, because it fails to mention that they were being quoted as the reference for the following words of my own:

“Witness statements from civilians and officials in Ghouta raise very disturbing questions about the conduct of ‘rebel’ factions who had been in control. Questions also concern who and what has been supported by UK FCO.”

I have not claimed to verify the witness statements that prompted the questions, but since the witnesses are due a degree of respect, I believe, those questions arising from them can reasonably be aired, without prejudice to the question of their truth.

A question thoughtful readers will likely be asking is why The Times has gone the trouble it has to give such prominence to a small group of critical academics.

In the early hours of this morning, as I looked at the front page prepared by The Times, news was coming in of the military attack taking place in Syria. That attack – whose legality under international law, I believe, stands to be clarified – was “justified” on the basis of exactly the kind of claims that the academic working group is subjecting to critical assessment. Such claims have been questioned by many people, including senior British military figures. The fact that people who aim to provide support to the questioning are attacked in a major news outlet is itself a matter of concern.

 

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Front page of The Times on the morning US and UK forces were bombing in Syria.

 

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Monbiot On Syria (the shorter read)

My latest article being quite a long read, some key points are excerpted here (from How We Were Misled About Syria: George Monbiot of The Guardian).

George Monbiot has consistently declared himself morally opposed to military intervention in Syria; he is demonstrably aware of US-UK capacities for perfidiousness; and he knows how the media can manipulate news reports. Despite that, he criticises those of us who challenge the arguments of interventionists. I have sought to understanding his reasoning.

After reading through Monbiot’s writings on Syria between 2011-2017, and also having had some debate with him more recently, I find his stance to have been quite consistent over time. (There was just one occasion when he stunned even otherwise sympathetic readers by comparing jihadist terrorists in Syria with fighters of the International Brigades against Franco.)

His settled moral posture is based on principles of Just War Theory. He opposes military intervention in Syria because some of the necessary conditions for a just recourse to arms are not fulfilled. These particular conditions, however, are such that could in principle be met if only the intervening forces were sufficiently determined and scrupulous in their approach to getting the job done. The job itself, as Monbiot has consistently regarded it, is overthrowing the ‘Assad regime’. If that could be done cleanly enough, in his view, it would be right to do it.

Overthrowing Assad is, for Monbiot, a Just Cause. And a Just Cause is the one crucial condition for a Just War that cannot in principle be met simply by would-be interveners committing themselves to fulfil it. For whether ‘Assad must go’ is not a question that is legitimately theirs to decide: there needs to be a real moral case based on egregious facts on the ground. That is why Monbiot’s contribution to the public debate is so significant, for he has made the indispensable argument. Given his reputation for treating ethical questions seriously, Monbiot’s view in this matter will have carried greater moral weight than that of an overt interventionist would.

In the full article I undertake a more detailed analysis of his writings, but here I shall focus on two concluding arguments.

My first argument concerns the burden of proof. Any appeal to just war principles must acknowledge that the burden of proof rests on the party contemplating military action. Yet Monbiot has persistently accepted condemnatory claims about Assad and his government that are unsupported by available evidence while disregarding evidence that would support contradictory inferences. An instance was the peremptory judgment of Syrian government responsibility for the chemical incident at Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017. I attempted to engage him in debate about this, and Paul McKeigue offered very careful analysis of the incident in guest posts (this being the most recent). So I claim that Monbiot cannot credibly deny his judgement in the matter was questionable, if only because informed people have formulated very clear questions. 

My second argument does not rest on showing Monbiot has failed to rebut some reasonable objections. The argument is that a Just Cause for foreign military intervention in Syria has not been proven for the reason that it cannot be proven. It cannot be proven because the principle of just cause cannot be applied to the situation in Syria.

The criteria of a just war apply in a situation where a people can legitimately take up arms against the forces of an aggressor. In the context of intervention, the taking up of arms is vicarious, but it is still done for the protection, and on behalf, of the people under threat. The point, then, is that before we can apply just war criteria, we have to have a situation that they can apply to: there has to be a threatened people and a threatening force.

In the case of Syria, a very elementary question concerns the identities of the two parties. Monbiot invariably insists that Bashar Al Assad is the aggressor, and on this basis Monbiot supposes that, if and when the Just War conditions are met, intervening against Assad is permissible. Yet a simple fact is that Assad is not and could not conceivably be an aggressor single-handedly. Assad and his government have an army; that army is drawn from the Syrian people; and that body of Syrian men and women has remained loyal for seven hard years of fighting. So the very first question any would-be interventionist must ask is this: under what conceivable conditions could that body of loyal Syrian men and women be regarded as an aggressor against the Syrian people? I do not know what Monbiot supposes on this score as I am not aware of his ever having explained where the Syrian army stands in his framing of the situation in Syria. I have not been able to track down any mention by him of it.

My argument is that sufficient reason for opposing military intervention against “Assad” is that he is literally not an aggressor against the Syrian people, and nor could his government or ‘regime’ be. For the possibility of even arguing there is a just cause of intervention in Syria, it would have to be claimed that the Syrian Arab Army is an aggressor against the Syrian people. I cannot conceive how anyone could decently make such a claim.

The Syrian government and the people living under that government in Syria take the view that foreign military intervention in the Syrian Arab Republic would be illegitimate under any circumstances whatsoever. Syria has the rule of law under a constitution, and, imperfect as it may be, its imperfections are for Syrians to deal with. Both international law and human morality are on their side.

To suggest there is any justification for foreign powers to intervene for the purpose of ‘regime change’ in Syria is to mislead the public. Because I believe Monbiot has suggested that, I have felt an obligation to engage in this extended critical analysis of his contribution to public opinion formation about Syria.

 

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Ghouta, March 2018, with Syrian Arab Army, Syrian civilians, and Syrian president.

 

 

 

 

 

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