DENYING THE OBVIOUS: 12

Chapter 12: A leaked document

A couple of months after the Fact-Finding Mission issued its final report on Douma, the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media received a document that challenged the report’s findings. It was “one of those classic moments when an unassuming white envelope arrives in the post at work, and on opening, it is very much more significant than one might have anticipated,” David Miller, a professor at Bristol University and a prominent member of the group, recalled later.

The 15-page document marked “OPCW sensitive ... Do not circulate” was headed: “Engineering Assessment of the Two Cylinders Observed at the Douma Incident”. The yellow-painted gas cylinders, each more than four feet in length, had been identified in the FFM’s report as the “possible” source of chlorine in what investigators had “reasonable grounds” to believe was a chemical attack. Photos suggested both cylinders had been dropped from the air. One lay on a bed after apparently crashing through the roof and bouncing off the floor. The other was on a balcony/patio where it had apparently pierced a hole into the room below.

If the cylinders had indeed been dropped from the air there would be no doubt as to who had dropped them, because the regime had air power and the rebels did not. Since the FFM was not allowed to attribute responsibility its report talked of signs that the cylinders had “impacted” with the buildings but tiptoed around the question of how they came to impact with them. The document leaked to the Working Group, on the other hand, addressed that question directly and, based on the results of an “engineering assessment”, said the cylinders were more likely to have been “manually placed” than dropped from the air. The obvious implication was that rebels had positioned them to fake the appearance of a chemical attack.

The author of this document was Ian Henderson, a South African whose connections with the OPCW stretched back a long way. He was one of the first inspectors recruited after its formation in 1997. After leaving in 2005 he was rehired in June 2016 on a three-year contract.

Henderson was in Syria during part of the FFM's visit and his exact role there later became a matter of dispute. Henderson said he was a member of the FFM but the OPCW said he wasn’t – at least, not officially. According to the OPCW, he had been sent to Syria for what was normally a six-week posting as a liaison officer at the OPCW’s command post in Damascus, arriving towards the end of the FFM’s deployment. He remained in Syria for a further five weeks after the FFM had left.

As a part of that role, “he was tasked with temporarily assisting the FFM with information collection at some sites in Douma”, Director-General Arias said later, adding that this was “customary with all deployments in Syria”. In connection with the FFM’s activities Henderson took part in inspection visits to an alleged chemical weapons production facility, to “Location 4” (the bedroom where one of the gas cylinders had been found), and to a hospital nearby. He later went to an undisclosed location to re-examine the cylinders and apply seals to them. According to Arias, after returning to OPCW headquarters Henderson was also assigned to compile an inventory of information about the cylinders “and determine what information was needed to carry out further studies”.

Despite Henderson’s insistence that he was a “team member” of the FFM, others saw him as a loose cannon, meddling from the fringes. One sign of friction came in July 2018 when a meeting of the OPCW’s Contingency Operations Coordination Operational Network (known as COCOON) discussed carrying out further work on the cylinders. The cylinders had remained behind in Syria – in government hands because the regime said it wanted them for a “criminal investigation” – and the COCOON minutes talked about trying to access them again to take “additional measures and samples for metallurgical analysis”.

Draft minutes of the meeting were circulated later the same day with an email inviting comments. Henderson – one of 18 recipients – responded half an hour later to propose a change of wording. His amendment talked about the possibility of bringing the cylinders to OPCW headquarters or sending investigators back to Syria to examine them in more detail.

Henderson’s intervention angered Sami Barrek, the FFM’s Tunisian leader, who quickly fired off an email saying the question of ongoing work in connection with Douma “should be discussed with FFM Alpha team”. He added that a list of team members had been sent out recently and, in an apparent reference to Henderson, said: “Whom not on that list should not be involved in this matter. Thank you.”

Henderson, in his own opinion, was “clearly the most qualified team member” to investigate the two cylinders. He wrote in an email he that he had been “tasked to contribute to the review of ‘location and munition’,” and said in a memo that he had been “assigned the task of analysis and assessment” of the cylinders’ ballistics – though he didn’t say by whom.

However, the FFM had already decided to seek help in assessing the cylinders from “suitable experts” outside the organisation – a decision that it publicly announced in its interim report on Douma in July 2018. Despite that, Henderson pressed ahead with his own work on the cylinders, though he sensed that managers were trying to discourage him from continuing. “In subsequent weeks I found that I was being excluded from the work, for reasons not made clear,” he wrote. “I was also assigned to other missions. However I made clear that I would complete the work and submit my report to the FFM.”

He later described how, pressing on with his analysis of the cylinders, he “engaged engineering expertise, to get access to sophisticated engineering computational tools” for his own report. When team leader Barrek heard about this he instructed Henderson not to make contact with external third parties, though he doesn’t appear to have told him to stop the work entirely. Contrary to those instructions, Henderson then recruited university professors to assist him.

The experts chosen by the FFM were described as internationally recognised, coming from three different countries, working independently and using “different methodologies and approaches for their analyses in order to produce more comprehensive results”. Using computer modelling and other techniques, they concluded that the damage at the scene could indeed have been caused by the cylinders crashing into the bedroom and the balcony in Douma.

The experts submitted their findings to the FFM in December 2018 but Henderson was still waiting for his own results and didn’t receive them until late the following January. When they eventually arrived he drafted his report and circulated it for comments – at which point other staff became aware that his conclusions contradicted those of the FFM’s outside experts.

The gist of Henderson’s argument was that the two cylinders had probably not caused the holes in concrete that appeared to be the result of them falling from the sky. The “balcony” cylinder had been found next to one of the holes but Henderson was puzzled as to why it had stopped there and not passed through the hole. His report asserted that it would have carried enough energy to do so unless it had been dropped from an altitude well below 500 metres. Regarding the other cylinder, found in a bedroom after apparently making a hole in the roof, Henderson wrote that “it was not possible to establish a set of circumstances” where the cylinder could have passed through the hole without sustaining further damage beyond what was observed. “The dimensions, characteristics and appearance of the cylinders and the surrounding scene of the incidents,” he concluded, “were inconsistent with what would have been expected in the case of either cylinder having been delivered from an aircraft.”

Delivery problems

In mid-February 2019, after making some revisions, Henderson began trying to formally deliver his report to FFM team but his problem – as shown by leaked emails – was that no one seemed eager to receive it. By now, he was becoming anxious. If he couldn’t submit his document soon it would be too late, because publication of the FFM’s Final Report on Douma was imminent. He was also concerned at not having been offered a chance to see the Final Report in draft form. He complained: “There are some members of the on-site team at the incident location, including myself, who have been wondering if we will be requested (or given the opportunity) to review the draft report before it comes out.”

Henderson wasn’t the only one wanting to know what the Final Report would say. Governments were interested too and the OPCW was anxious to prevent any leaks ahead of publication. For that reason, access to the draft was restricted to a very small group. At the time, the organisation was also in the midst of a general tightening of security as a result of various incidents, including cyber attacks and the discovery of Russian intelligence agents attempting to hack into its wifi system.

Eventually, on the thorny question of who would receive Henderson’s document, a decision was made that he should hand it to Sebastien Braha, Chief of Cabinet in the Director-General’s office. But by the time this instruction reached Henderson, on 28 February, he had already done something else with the document. As he was not going to be available for the next couple of days, he had “dropped it off” (his own words) at the Documents Registration and Archiving (DRA) department and sent an email saying it could be collected from there.

This was an irregular use of the DRA, a secure depository that wasn’t intended for unofficial documents such as Henderson’s. On hearing what had happened, Chief of Cabinet Braha issued an ominous-sounding email saying he wanted to see Henderson “to discuss the situation, not the document. Subsequently, we will see how to deal with the document itself.” He added: “Please get this document out of DRA, as DRA is instructed to specifically NOT deal with any non-routine missions, until further instruction. And please remove all traces, if any, of its delivery/storage/whatever in DRA.”

Later that afternoon Braha sent a second email: “I have a further question that I will need to see answered, in a subsequent meeting: under whose authority was this work conducted, outside FFM authority and [a] dedicated highly secured network, by someone who was not part of the FFM?”

The following day – 1 March – the FFM’s Final Report was published, minus any mention of Henderson’s research. However, since his research was relevant to the question of attributing blame, a few days later he was summoned to meet the new Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) which was in the process of being set up specifically for attribution purposes. Shortly afterwards, in a memo to Director-General Arias, Henderson said he had been asked to “contribute to their initial briefings” on the Douma case: “I was advised by the head of IIT that they expected I would provide everything I knew of the case, and this I subsequently did.”

Henderson ended his memo on a conciliatory note saying his only interest was in “sound technical rigour” and his document had been intended as a basis for discussion:

“I must stress that I hold no opinion, interest or strong views on the technical part of the matter, nor any interest in the political outcomes. My interest is in sound technical rigour; the science, engineering and facts will speak for themselves.

“Obviously my current assessment is that the FFM report is incomplete, for reasons that will become clear once my report is properly assessed by experts. At the very least, this was intended to be the basis for deliberation within the team, involving the external experts as necessary, to reach consensus or to agree to disagree. If I am wrong I will humbly apologise for the disruption this may have caused.”

On 13 May the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media published the copy of Henderson’s document that it had received in the post, though Henderson does not appear to have been the person who leaked it to them. Two days later (and shortly before his three-year employment contract was due to expire) he was suspended and escorted out the OPCW headquarters in what was described as “a less than dignified manner”.

Among the Assad regime’s defenders the fact that the final report made no mention of Henderson’s conclusions was seen as evidence of a cover-up. In a commentary on the leaked document the Working Group claimed it was now “beyond reasonable doubt” that the alleged chemical attack in Douma had been staged. “The cover-up of evidence that the Douma incident was staged is not merely misconduct. As the staging of the Douma incident entailed mass murder of civilians, those in OPCW who have suppressed the evidence of staging are, unwittingly or otherwise, colluding with mass murder,” it said. The OPCW, meanwhile, insisted that “all information was taken into account, deliberated, and weighed when formulating the Final Report regarding the incident in Douma”.

In producing his report Henderson had access to the same data as the FFM’s outside experts. His dispute with the OPCW was not about the evidence but how to interpret it. Henderson and the FFM’s report couldn’t both be right, and as far as the regime’s defenders were concerned Henderson had got it right – therefore, in their eyes, his conclusions must have been rejected by the OPCW for political reasons.

“So it’s settled then,” Patrick Henningsen, founder of the conspiracy theory website 21st Century Wire, announced on Twitter. “The Douma ‘chemical weapons attack’ in April 2018 was a hoax – which means the US, UK and France committed military action against another UN member state based on ZERO evidence. Whichever way you cut it, that’s a war crime.”

The Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media echoed that, claiming there was no longer any doubt that the OPCW had been “hijacked at the top” by France, the UK and the US.

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