Whistleblower versus watchdog: the political machinations over chemical weapons in Syria

One of the suspect cylinders found in Douma

An anonymous whistleblower who recently emerged from inside the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has spoken of "huge internal arguments" over one of its investigations in Syria.

The whistleblower, known only as "Alex", says he was a member of the team investigating an alleged chemical attack in Douma last year and was involved in collecting samples for laboratory analysis. He is said to be in possession of emails, text messages and "suppressed" draft reports that show "irregular behaviour" by the chemical weapons watchdog during its investigation.

The Assad regime denies using chemical weapons in Douma or anywhere else and is supported in that denial by its chief ally, Russia, along with the regime's defenders on social media. Their basic claim is that the numerous alleged chemical attacks in Syria never happened – that reports of them were simply wrong or that they were "staged" by rebels seeking to falsely incriminate the regime.

The events in Douma proved especially contentious because western powers immediately blamed the Assad regime and launched punitive airstrikes without waiting for the official investigation. The OPCW's Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) has since issued two reports on Douma – an interim report in July 2018 and a final one last March, but among those who believe in the regime's innocence the reports are seen as an attempt – retrospectively – to justify the airstrikes.

The FFM's actual conclusions, though, were cautiously worded and less than a ringing endorsement of western governments' claims. The final report found "reasonable grounds" for believing a toxic chemical had been used as a weapon and that the chemical was "likely" to have been molecular chlorine. It was also "possible", the report said, that the chemical had come from two yellow gas cylinders found at the scene.

The report made no claims about who was responsible, since the FFM's mandate prevented it from doing so. However, it did imply – without explicitly saying so – that the cylinders had been dropped from the air. If true, this would indicate that the regime was responsible because the rebel fighters did not have aircraft.

The whistleblower emerges

Last month in Brussels, Alex presented his allegations to a panel appointed by the Courage Foundation which supports various whistleblowers including WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (see previous blog post). After deliberating in "closed executive sessions" the panel then issued a three-page statement declaring themselves convinced by Alex's testimony. Other accounts have come from two journalists who attended – German freelance Karin Leukefeld and Jonathan Steele, formerly of the Guardian.

This was not the first time that dissent among OPCW staff had surfaced in connection with Douma. In May this year, a draft internal document described as an engineering assessment was leaked and posted on the internet. Written by an employee named Ian Henderson, it suggested that the two cylinders had been "manually placed" rather than dropped from the air – which could be interpreted as supporting claims that rebel fighters faked a chemical attack.

The "manually placed" theory had not been mentioned in either of the FFM's reports, leading to claims that Henderson's views had been suppressed. The OPCW later said it had been omitted because it pointed towards attribution of blame and thus fell outside the FFM's mandate. The OPCW added that the document had been passed to its new Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) which did have the power to attribute blame.

Now, following Alex's emergence as another dissenter, the Courage Foundation is calling for all inspectors who took part in the Douma investigation to be allowed to "come forward and report their differing observations" to the OPCW's governing body, the Conference of the States Parties. By chance, the States Parties are due to hold their annual conference next week and, on past form, it will be surprising if Syria or its allies don't attempt to raise the issue there.

'Irregular and possibly fraudulent'

One problem with Alex's whistleblowing is that so far he has been relying mainly on others to blow the whistle for him. He hasn't released his evidence directly to the public and everything we know about his allegations comes via third parties whose accounts differ to some extent. This makes it difficult to evaluate his claims or, in some cases, to understand precisely what the claims are.

From what has been made public so far it's clear there were strong differences of opinion among OPCW staff about how to interpret the evidence from Douma. In an article for Counterpunch, Jonathan Steele quotes Alex as saying: "Most of the Douma team felt the two reports on the incident, the Interim Report and the Final Report, were scientifically impoverished, procedurally irregular and possibly fraudulent." His article also says "all but one member of the team" agreed with Henderson's conclusion "that there was a higher probability that the cylinders had been placed manually".

Rival drafts of report

According to Alex (as related by Steele) huge arguments broke out as the interim report was prepared for publication. The first draft, written by an inspector who has not been named, ran to 105 pages and asserted that what happened in Douma was "a non chemical-related event". This, we're told, was greeted with silence from the inspector's superiors, followed by an attempt to replace his draft with "a doctored management version".

Further arguments ensued and the 26-page version eventually published was basically a progress report. It described the FFM's activities, said work was continuing to assess how the cylinders arrived at their respective locations, and presented the results from the first batch of lab tests.

It reported two significant findings from the lab tests: firstly that there were no indications of a nerve agent being used (contrary to some of the claims at the time of the alleged attack) and secondly that "various chlorinated organic chemicals" had been found. It added: "Work by the team to establish the significance of these results is ongoing."

While it's easy to see the general drift of Alex's objections to the content of FFM reports, the scientific basis of his claims is far from clear, and differences between the various accounts add to the confusion. Two of his key claims, in particular, make little sense in the form they have been reported.

No relevant chemicals

One of the complaints is that when the interim report was published it did not include the inspector's assertion, made in his original draft, of a "non chemical-related event". He is said to have concluded that "the signs and symptoms" of the alleged Douma victims were "not consistent with poisoning from chlorine" and, according to Steele's article, he based this conclusion on biological samples collected from alleged victims.

Laboratory tests on the biological samples had found "no relevant chemicals" but that was an odd basis for ruling out chlorine. Although they showed no evidence of a chlorine attack there was never any expectation that they might do so. The main purpose of the biological sampling was to check for sarin (none was found) but where chlorine was concerned there wasn't a viable way of testing people for exposure to it.

While some chemical weapons – such as sarin – leave "signature" traces that can be detected through laboratory testing, detecting the use of chlorine as a weapon is much more difficult after the event. Chlorine is a very common element which occurs naturally in many different compounds and can also be introduced into the environment by various forms of human activity.

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The problem for investigators, therefore, is how to distinguish between chlorine that results from a chemical attack and chlorine that is already present for other reasons. The FFM had addressed this question during an earlier investigation in 2014 and decided that biological samples would be useless. "There are no established biomarkers in the case of exposure to chlorine," its report explained.

The situation today is basically unchanged, though the final report on Douma does mention some further developments. It says that while research studies have opened up "promising possibilities" for detecting chlorine exposure, the indications are that the relevant markers would not survive for long. This would almost certainly have been too short a time for them to be useful in the Douma investigation.

A different explanation

Adding to the puzzle, the Courage panel's analysis of Alex's presentation also says "the signs and symptoms" were "not consistent" with exposure to molecular chlorine but gives a different reason, unrelated to biological sampling.

Instead, it attributes this conclusion to toxicologists who it says were consulted by the FFM in June 2018, shortly before the interim report on Douma was published. The toxicologists are said to have based their conclusion on video evidence and witness accounts but panel doesn't explain their reasoning.

It would be surprising, though, if the toxicologists were really so sure there had been no exposure to chlorine. While some of the reported signs and symptoms could not be explained by chlorine there were others, such as a burning sensation in the chest and sore eyes, that clearly could.

The FFM itself was non-committal on this point in its final report. "It is not currently possible to precisely link the cause of the signs and symptoms to a specific chemical," it said.

'Low levels' in environmental samples

Another of Alex's complaints is that the FFM did not pay enough attention to the levels of chemicals detected in environmental samples but, again, the different accounts give a confused picture.

Referring to the FFM's final report on Douma the Courage panel says: "Although the report stresses the ‘levels’ of the chlorinated organic chemicals as a basis for its conclusions, it never mentions what those levels were – high, low, trace, sub-trace." This is not strictly true. While the FFM's report doesn't routinely talk about levels it does refer to them from time to time. It mentions "trace" levels 10 times and "ultra-trace" levels twice.

Collecting samples for analysis is said to be Alex's field of expertise and he clearly has an issue about the levels of chlorinated organic compounds (COCs) in environmental samples from Douma. Unfortunately, though, the published accounts of his complaint don't give figures.


Further reading:
Syria and chemical weapons

A compilation of blog posts and documents looking at the arguments and the evidence


Steele quotes Alex as saying: "If the finding of these chemicals at the alleged site is to be used as an indicator that chlorine gas was present in the atmosphere, they should at least be shown to be present at levels significantly higher than what is present in the environment already."

By the same token, if there was no chlorine attack in Douma the levels detected there ought to be roughly the same as in similar places that had not been subjected to a chlorine gas attack. Strangely, though, Alex appears to be claiming the levels at the scene of the alleged attack were not the same but lower – a lot lower.

According to Steele's article levels found in the two buildings under investigation were "much lower than what would be expected in environmental samples" and journalist Karin Leukefeld, who also attended Alex's presentation, writes that they were "many times less than those found in the natural environment (e.g. water)."

Readers might assume from this that the FFM had compared samples from the allegedly attacked buildings with similar samples from buildings known to be unaffected – but apparently not. Leukefeld says: "Samples from the natural environment to determine the natural content of such substances were not taken. Thus comparative values are missing" [italics added].

So, if there were no samples available for comparison, how did Alex work out that the levels in the two buildings were lower than expected? Steele gives a possible clue when he says levels of COCs "were comparable to and even lower" than the upper limits recommended by the World Health Organisation for drinking water.

The FFM's final report does make some comparison of levels, but only within the two "cylinder" buildings. It notes raised levels of some chemicals close to the suspicious gas cylinders and says a wood sample from underneath one of the cylinders "had the highest content of chlorinated organic compounds of all wood samples taken".

Tell-tale substances

Overall though, the FFM was more concerned with identifying specific compounds that could result from a chlorine attack and then trying to eliminate other possible explanations for their presence.

One potentially tell-tale substance found in wood samples from Douma was trichlorophenol which can be produced by exposure to chlorine gas. However, it can also be produced by contact with sodium hypochlorite which, as the FFM's report noted, is the main component of chlorine-based bleach.

The FFM's report goes on to suggest that chlorine gas is the more likely possibility as "there were no visible signs of a bleach agent or discoloration due to contact with a bleach agent" at the two locations investigated in Douma. However, the Courage panel's document picks up on this absence of "visible signs". It says the panel has been informed that "no such observation was recorded during the on-site inspection". It doesn't appear to be suggesting there were signs of bleaching but describes the reported non-observation of them as "tenuous and unscientific".

Alex's intermediaries: the Courage Foundation

A large part of the problem here is the way Alex has gone about his whistleblowing. He might, for example, have released his evidence to the public along with a written explanation of his grievances. That way, we would know more clearly what he is saying and what his reasoning is. Instead, he has allowed intermediaries to shape the narrative – which raises questions about his choice of intermediaries.

The Courage Foundation which organised the meeting with Alex in Brussels (and is not to be confused with a similarly-named charity which supports bereaved children) campaigns for "the protection of truthtellers and the public’s right to know", but several of its leading figures also have explicit positions on other matters – including Syria.

One of Courage's four trustees is Australian-born journalist John Pilger who, in an interview with RT last year, said there was "no real evidence" of a chemical attack in Douma and regurgitated a false Russian claim that the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury did not involve a nerve agent.

Courage's first director was former British spy Annie Machon. After resigning from the intelligence service she went on to organise a 9/11 "truth campaign" and promote a variety of other conspiracy theories. Machon is currently a member of Courage's advisory board and, following the whistleblower's presentation, she appeared on RT calling for a "new inquiry" into the events in Douma.

Another advisory board member is Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst who helped to set up Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) which disputes the Assad regime's responsibility for chemical attacks in Syria. McGovern himself has appeared on RT claiming that the sarin used in the 2013 attack on Ghouta had not come from Syrian army stocks but was "home made".

McGovern also founded Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence which presents an annual award for "truth-telling". The 2018 award went to journalist Seymour Hersh who had written several discredited articles claiming the regime was not responsible for chemical attacks in Syria.

A 'distinguished' panel

Then there's the panel appointed by Courage to meet the whistleblower. According to RT, the Russian propaganda channel, its members were "leading figures in their field" and "a very distinguished crowd", while Mint Press News (a US-based website sympathetic towards the Assad regime) described them as "international experts".

The Courage Foundation itself describes the panel as "concerned individuals from the fields of disarmament, international law, journalism, military operations, medicine and intelligence". Its website gives their names with basic details but a closer look shows they came with a lot of political baggage.

"International law", for example, was represented by Richard Falk, an emeritus professor at Princeton University who has previously claimed there are "well-evidenced doubts" about the 9/11 attacks.

Representing "military operations" was John Holmes, a retired army officer and board member of the British Syrian Society which is run by President Assad's father-in-law, Fawaz Akhras.

Representing "intelligence" was Elizabeth Murray, a member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) and Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence (see above).

Representing "journalism" was Kristinn Hrafnsson, editor-in-chief of Wikileaks.

Representing both "medicine" and "disarmament" was Dr Helmut Lohrer of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Lohrer doesn't appear to have had much previous involvement with Syria but in 2015, at the height of the war, he signed a statement calling for sanctions to be lifted. "Maintaining the embargo," the statement said, "means being an accomplice to genocide".

In addition to these there was Günter Meyer, director of the Centre for Research on the Arab World at the University of Mainz, who is a long-standing Assad supporter.

The seventh and most notable panel member (or perhaps half-member, since he didn't attend the presentation in Brussels) was José Bustani, who served as director-general of the OPCW between 1997 and 2002.

Bustani, a 74-year-old Brazilian, clearly has knowledge of the organisation but his term as director-general ended in recriminations, so he can't automatically be assumed to take a dispassionate view. He was ousted from his OPCW post at the behest of the United States and later won compensation for unfair dismissal. He has since appeared on RT airing grievances about his sacking, and more recently criticising Britain's investigation of the Skripal poisoning affair.

Dissenters over-ruled

Complaints about the way the Douma investigation was handled come with a subtext: that the OPCW is not an objective body, at least where Syria is concerned. The usual presumption among its critics is that the Douma reports – despite their cautious conclusions – were manipulated to help justify US-led bombing.

In Steele's article, Alex describes how staff who questioned the claims of a chemical attack were sidelined, cut out of the loop and over-ruled. Assuming this is true, the question is what it means. Was there interference from outside the organisation or had managers simply concluded that the dissenters were wrong and lost patience with their grumbling?

Steele cites two incidents that point to possible interference. One was when a senior colleague allegedly told Alex: "First floor [management] says that for the OPCW’s credibility we have to have a smoking gun."

The other occurred when Bob Fairweather, the OPCW's Chief of Cabinet, invited several members of the drafting team to his office. Steele writes:

"There they found three US officials who were cursorily introduced without making clear which US agencies they represented. The Americans told them emphatically that the Syrian regime had conducted a gas attack, and that the two cylinders found on the roof and upper floor of the building contained 170 kilograms of chlorine. The inspectors left Fairweather’s office, feeling that the invitation to the Americans to address them was unacceptable pressure and a violation of the OPCW’s declared principles of independence and impartiality."

OPCW regulations say staff "shall neither seek nor accept instructions from any government or from any other authority external to the organisation". While the drafting team clearly thought the Americans were attempting to give them instructions, the Americans would presumably claim they were merely giving information in line with their duty under the Chemical Weapons Convention to cooperate with the OPCW "and in particular to provide assistance to the Technical Secretariat" (of which the FFM was a part).

Facing the pressure

Whatever the Americans were up to, though, they were not the only players in the game. Just as the Douma investigation was getting under way, four Russian intelligence agents were caught in a car park next to the OPCW headquarters trying to hack into its wifi system.

Also, while the FFM was busy in Douma collecting samples, Russia staged a spectacle which was clearly intended to put pressure on the investigators. At a news conference in The Hague it paraded alleged witnesses – including a small boy – who all claimed there had been no chemical attack. This had more value as propaganda than as evidence because of suspicions that the "witnesses" were not speaking freely.

The pressures that chemical weapons investigators can face were described in 2017 by Edmond Mulet, head the the UN's ill-fated Joint Investigative Mission: "We do receive – unfortunately – direct and indirect messages all the time from many sides telling us how to do our work. And some of those messages are very clear in saying that if we don't do our work according to them – these different visions – then they will not accept the conclusions of our work."

In a chemical weapons investigation, and especially one as contentious as Douma, pressures of this kind were to be expected. But the OPCW has built-in safeguards which are supposed to help it resist them – so the real issue is not whether it faced such pressures but whether it succumbed to them. And so far, the evidence doesn't prove that it did.