Chapter 13: ‘Alex the Whistleblower'

In October 2019 a former member of the OPCW’s Fact-Finding Mission surfaced in Brussels claiming to have emails, text messages and “suppressed draft reports” showing irregularities in the conduct of the Douma investigation. Identified only by the pseudonym “Alex”, he claimed that evidence from Douma had been manipulated to reach a “pre-ordained” conclusion.

The implication of this – to quote the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media – was that the investigation had been “nobbled”. As with the earlier leaking of the Henderson document, defenders of the Assad regime saw it as evidence that the findings of the FFM’s report on Douma were not only wrong but had been deliberately falsified, thus providing justification – retrospectively – for the airstrikes launched by western powers in response to the alleged chemical attack.

Alex presented his evidence at a private meeting with an invited panel. The panel – whose composition ensured he would be given a sympathetic hearing – unanimously declared themselves convinced by his presentation and issued a three-page statement outlining their belief that the conclusions of the FFM’s Douma report were flawed and bore little relation to the facts.

Alex’s presentation and the publicity surrounding it had been orchestrated by the Courage Foundation [1], an organisation closely linked to WikiLeaks. The foundation’s stated aim was to support “truthtellers” and the public’s right to know, and one of its activities was to raise funds “for the legal and public defence” of people identified as whistleblowers. However, a surprisingly large number of its leading figures also disputed the chemical attacks in Syria and favoured a variety of other conspiracy theories.

One of the Courage Foundation’s trustees was Australian-born journalist John Pilger who had previously stated, in an interview with Russia’s RT channel, that there was “no real evidence” of a chemical attack in Douma and, in the same interview, repeated a false Russian claim that the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury did not involve a nerve agent. Later, amid mounting evidence that Iran had accidentally shot down a Ukrainian airliner, he tweeted that the story was a lie just before Iran admitted it was true.

Sitting on Courage’s advisory board was former British spy Annie Machon who had also served as its first director. After resigning from the intelligence service she had gone on to organise a 9/11 “truth campaign”. Following Alex’s presentation, Machon appeared on RT calling for a “new inquiry” into the events in Douma. Among the other 18 advisory board members, five were supporters of the American group Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) whose co-founder, Ray McGovern, had previously appeared on RT claiming that the sarin used in the 2013 attack on Ghouta was “home-made”.

The panel chosen to hear Alex’s presentation had a similar complexion, though the Courage Foundation described them as “concerned individuals from the fields of disarmament, international law, journalism, military operations, medicine and intelligence”. Representing both “disarmament” and “medicine” was Helmut Lohrer, a board member of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, who wanted sanctions against Syria to be lifted. Representing “international law” was Richard Falk, an emeritus professor at Princeton University who had written the foreword to a book by a prominent 9/11 truther and had accused the US authorities of an “apparent cover-up” in connection with the attacks on New York and Washington. “Journalism” was represented on the panel by Kristinn Hrafnsson, editor-in-chief of Wikileaks. “Military operations” were represented by John Holmes, a retired British army officer who was a board member of the British Syrian Society, sitting alongside President Assad’s father-in-law, Fawaz Akhras. Representing “intelligence” was Elizabeth Murray, a member of VIPS. The sixth panel member was Günter Meyer, director of the Centre for Research on the Arab World at the University of Mainz who had previously argued that Assad should remain in power. In the words of a reporter for Russia’s RT channel they were “a very distinguished crowd”.

There was also a seventh panel member who did not attend the presentation but after being briefed on its contents described the evidence as “convincing”. José Bustani, a 74-year-old Brazilian diplomat, was the OPCW’s first director-general after its formation in 1997 but he had been ousted from his post after falling out with the Americans during the run-up to war in Iraq. The US State Department accused him of confrontational and abrasive behaviour and poor administrative and financial management but according to Bustani the real reason was that he had been having discussions with Iraq about joining the Chemical Weapons Convention. This was something the US didn’t want to happen because it would have weakened American claims about the supposed threat from Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. The US brought matters to a head by threatening to cut off its financial support for the OPCW – which at the time accounted for 22% of the total budget – until Bustani stepped down. Intimidated by that, a special session of the states parties voted 48-7 to dismiss him. Bustani later took his case to a tribunal, alleging wrongful dismissal, and was awarded substantial compensation. He had since appeared on RT airing grievances about his sacking, and later criticising Britain’s investigation of the Skripal poisoning affair.

Athough the FFM had issued its Final Report on Douma in the previous spring, Alex’s emergence triggered a campaign to reopen debate about it. Based on his presentation, the Courage Foundation’s panel called for everyone involved in the investigation to “come forward and report their differing observations in an appropriate forum of the States Parties”.

As it happened, the annual meeting of the OPCW’s Conference of the States Parties was just a month away and, ahead of the meeting, the Courage Foundation organised an open letter addressed to all delegates, endorsing the panel’s call. The letter had 16 signatories in addition to the panel members – among them film director Oliver Stone, professor Noam Chomsky, professor Theodore Postol (who had previously disputed chemical attacks in Syria), the British former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey (a member of the Global Network for Syria pressure group), five members/supporters of VIPS (William Binney, John Kiriakou, Ray McGovern, Scott Ritter and Coleen Rowley), plus two members of the Courage Foundation (John Pilger and Annie Machon). When the states parties eventually met, Syria put forward a proposal echoing the Courage Foundation’s call for open debate about Douma but only six other countries supported it: Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela, Belarus and Nicaragua.

What the documents showed

Alex was a rather odd kind of whistleblower. He issued no statements directly to the public and seemed content to let others blow his whistle for him. Initially, everything that was known about his allegations had come through intermediaries – the Courage Foundation’s panel, plus two journalists, Jonathan Steele and Karin Leukefeld, who had also been invited to attend his presentation. Although Alex was said to be in possession of documents, a month passed without any sign of them. For the first few weeks this made independent scrutiny of his claims difficult, but it didn’t prevent his supporters on social media from treating them as established fact.

The first document appeared online towards the end of November and was followed by nine more at intervals over the next few weeks – all published by WikiLeaks. In the ensuing arguments attention focused mainly on an initial draft report of the Douma investigation which according to Alex’s supporters had been suppressed by OPCW chiefs for political reasons.

The leaked draft, running to 115 pages, described the FFM’s activities on Douma and the evidence it had compiled. As in the version eventually published, it said no evidence of sarin or other nerve agents had been found and dismissed claims about two sites which according to the Syrian government had been used by rebels for making chemical weapons. “The overwhelming evidence was that the activities at both locations were related to the production of explosives,” it said.

On several other points, though, the draft was inconclusive. Although tests on samples had found chlorinated organic derivatives which are not naturally present in the environment – indicating they “had been in contact with one or more substances containing reactive chlorine” – the draft did not identify a specific chlorine-containing chemical.

The draft also left several questions relating to the cylinders unresolved – suggesting further study by experts would be necessary – and saw an “inconsistency” between use of chlorine gas and the symptoms observed among the alleged victims. It said the team had considered two possible explanations for the incongruity: that the victims were exposed to some other toxic chemical (as yet undetected) or that “the fatalities resulted from a non-chemical-related incident”. It added: “The team has insufficient evidence at this time to be able to formulate an authoritative conclusion in either regard. To this end, the investigation remains on-going.”

The principal author of this draft was a member of the FFM called Brendan Whelan who said later that he had worked on it “independently, with some input from team members”. His colleague, Ian Henderson, also contributed two sections.

Like Henderson, Whelan had been one of the OPCW’s earliest employees. Originally from Ireland and with a PhD in chemistry, he had joined the organisation in 1998, rising to the position of Team Leader. He left in December 2011 but was rehired in September 2015 on a three-year contract which, at the time of the Douma investigation, was coming to its end.

The OPCW didn’t normally offer permanent employment, since it regarded itself as a “non-career organisation”. Staff were usually recruited on a three-year contract with possible one-year extensions up to a total of seven years. The aim was to avoid creating an entrenched bureaucracy and to keep pace with technical developments by having a continuous flow of new technical expertise coming into the organisation. With a relatively high turnover of staff it was also possible to spread employment opportunities across a wider range of countries over time. One of the disadvantages, though, was that it became more difficult to retain a core of institutional knowledge.

There was only one mention of Whelan’s previous work activities on the OPCW website – in connection with a presentation to the Scientific Advisory Board that he gave in 2017 on ways of resolving ambiguous results from chemical sampling. His talk appears to have gone well, prompting one OPCW staffer to post a photo on Twitter, describing it as a “fantastic presentation” by “the inimitable Dr Brendan Whelan”. In a subsequent letter, Whelan wrote that he had been “solely responsible for developing and providing training to inspectors on the chemistry of chemical weapons and their analysis, having researched and written three books on these subjects for in-house use”.

However, the Douma mission was the first time Whelan had been assigned to the FFM and he had not done the requisite training for a deployment in the field. As a consequence of that, he was not allowed to go to Douma itself and instead worked at the OPCW’s Command Post in Damascus. While in Damascus, according to his own account, Whelan “took charge of overseeing the scientific planning” of the investigation, including “identifying the best types of samples to take and where to collect them”. Besides working on the draft of the FFM’s report, he sent updates to head office on progress of the investigation, liaised with Syrian government officials and (ironically, as it turned out) served as the mission’s confidentiality officer.

Whelan formed an unfavourable impression of the FFM’s Tunisian team leader, Sami Barrek – a relative newcomer to the OPCW – and later complained that the Douma mission had been “characterised by poor planning and execution, an absence of communication between the team leader and the team, a monopolisation of certain information by the team leader, an intolerance for views on alternative hypotheses, and a general exclusion from the investigative process of most of the FFM team’s members who had been to Syria for the duration of the field mission”.

Considering the number of unanswered questions in the initial draft it was scarcely surprising that OPCW chiefs decided to release parts of it in the form of a short Interim Report but to hold back the rest pending further analysis. In the circumstances there was nothing particularly odd about this decision but once it became public knowledge the initial draft acquired almost mythical status as a source of suppressed truths: according to claims on social media it been “redacted”, “doctored” and “censored”. Before the draft was leaked, “whistleblower” Alex had also fuelled the hype surrounding its alleged contents. He was reported as claiming the draft described Douma as “a non chemical-related event”, when it actually said “a non chemical-related incident” was one of the possibilities considered in connection with the reported deaths – and on which the FFM had reached no authoritative conclusion. The draft had also not ruled out a chemical attack.

According to the Courage Foundation’s panel, Alex had also accused the OPCW of “disquieting efforts” to prevent its inspectors from raising legitimate concerns, highlighting irregular practices or even expressing differing views. However, emails published later in support of his claim proved something of a let-down. If “huge internal arguments” were taking place around this time, as Alex claimed, the emails didn’t really show it. While there had clearly been differences of opinion over how to interpret the evidence from Douma and how to present it in the report, as far as OPCW chiefs were concerned, there was nothing irregular about that – it was part of a normal (and healthy) discussion process.

The version of the Interim Report proposed by managers was essentially an update on the investigation’s progress. Its 34 pages were based mainly on the original draft but omitted large sections of it – primarily those where more work was considered necessary. On seeing a copy of the proposed version, Whelan fired off an email to Bob Fairweather, the Director-General’s chief of cabinet. “Many of the facts and observations outlined in the full version are inextricably interconnected and, by selectively omitting certain ones, an unintended bias has been introduced into the report, undermining its credibility,” he wrote.

Whelan went on to complain that in the proposed version some “crucial facts” from the initial draft had “morphed into something quite different to what was originally drafted” and cited three of them specifically. The proposed version said that chlorine or another reactive chlorine-containing chemical was “likely” to have been released from two cylinders found at the scene but Whelan argued that while the cylinders might have been the sources of the suspected chemical there was “insufficient evidence to affirm this”. The proposed version also referred to “high levels of various chlorinated organic derivatives” in environmental samples but Whelan said “high” was likely to overstate the situation. Finally, he said talk of a “reactive chlorine-containing chemical” in the revised version was technically wrong and a more accurate term would be “a chemical containing reactive chlorine”.

In view of the claims by Alex’s supporters that the OPCW had systematically suppressed internal debate, it might be assumed that Whelan’s textual criticisms were ignored – but in fact they were not. Although the phrases that he objected to were omitted from the version of the Interim Report that was eventually published they reappeared in the Final Report with Whelan’s amendments incorporated. The Final Report described the cylinders as a “possible” source of the chemical rather than a “likely” one. It avoided describing the levels of chemicals found in the samples as “high” but noted that some levels (close to the suspicious gas cylinders) were higher than others and it adopted Whelan’s preferred phrase about substances “containing reactive chlorine”.

Additional leaked emails showed members of the investigation team discussing last-minute changes to the Interim Report with team leader Barrek one or two days before it was published. In an email to Barrek dated 4 July 2018, one team member proposed adding a few lines about the gas cylinders found in Douma, including a sentence saying: “Work is on-going to assess the relative damage to the cylinders and the roofs as well as the provenance of the cylinders and their possible trajectories.” An hour later another team member chipped in, suggesting “possible trajectories” of the cylinders should be changed to “provenance” or “how the cylinders arrived at their final resting places”. “Possible trajectories”, the emailer said, implied the cylinders were flying out of the sky – “which at this stage we are not necessarily concluding”.

Barrek appeared to accept that and replied that he was also inserting a sentence at the end of the summary section saying: “The FFM still needs to clarify some of the details and to this end, the investigation remains on-going.” There may have been further discussion not recorded in the leaked emails, because the sentence actually published was slightly different. It said: “The FFM team needs to continue its work to draw final conclusions regarding the alleged incident and, to this end, the investigation is ongoing.”

It was clear from the discussion in these emails that investigators were worried about news media jumping to unwarranted conclusions or others misconstruing the findings to suit a political agenda. In the words of one of the emails: “It’s because the stakes are so high that we have a responsibility to guard against misrepresentation, by both sides.”

Another area of contention recorded in the emails was over chlorinated organic chemicals (COCs) which had been detected at trace levels in some of the samples from Douma. There were differences of opinion as to whether it mattered that the chemicals were only traces and what, if anything, should be said about them in the Interim Report. In the end, it was decided not to mention “traces” but to say that work was continuing “to establish the significance” of the COCs detected.

One of the peculiarities of this affair was that by the time “whistleblower” Alex surfaced more than a year later making his claims about suppression of the initial draft the FFM had published its Final Report on Douma and most of the allegedly censored material could be found there, either in its original form or modified in the light of further research and deliberation. It also appeared that Whelan’s concerns had been allayed in the meantime. According to the OPCW “he expressly confirmed in writing that he – as well as the other members of the FFM who were involved in drafting the report – had agreed on the Interim Report that was released”.

A meeting with toxicologists

Whelan left the OPCW at the end of his contract a couple of months after publication of the Interim Report … but not without creating a further document that inspired more claims of suppression when eventually leaked. It concerned a meeting with toxicologists on 6 June 2018. Early in the Douma investigation the OPCW had told the Syrian authorities of its intention to exhume bodies. The Syrians didn’t refuse but their reply was discouraging – it raised legal and other complications – and as time went on the OPCW began to have doubts about pursuing their request.

Two months after the events in Douma, OPCW staff sought advice from a group of toxicologists. They wanted to know what information might be gleaned from exhuming the bodies and, in particular, whether this might reveal any evidence of exposure to chlorine gas. The toxicologists advised that for a variety of reasons, including the time since burial, “there would be little use in conducting exhumations, as the chances of gathering evidence would be almost impossible”.

Following that, the plan for exhumations was abandoned. In the circumstances it was a sensible decision, though the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media later voiced suspicions about what it described as the OPCW’s “failure to proceed with exhumations”. In line with its claim that rebels had carried out a “managed” massacre of captives the group argued that exhumations could have allowed the bodies to be identified even if they did not establish the cause of death. Identification “would have been critical”, the group said, in determining whether those who claimed their relatives had died in Douma were telling the truth.

The OPCW’s meeting with the toxicologists lasted about an hour and after the discussion of exhumations it turned to the question of possible chlorine use. The toxicologists were shown photos and videos of alleged victims and asked whether the signs and symptoms they saw were consistent with exposure to chlorine. Whelan’s account of the meeting said:

“The chief expert summed up his conclusions by offering two possibilities that included on the one hand a real chemical attack and on the other, the possibility of the event being a propaganda exercise. He elaborated on the possibilities.

“With respect to the consistency of the observed and reported symptoms of the alleged victims with possible exposure to chlorine gas or similar, the experts were conclusive in their statements that there was no correlation between symptoms and chlorine exposure.”

The document added that the toxicologists had gone on to consider what other chemical might be “consistent with the symptoms observed and their rapid onset” but “the only possibility that came to mind was some highly experimental and toxic carbamates ... however they had low confidence in such a possibility.”

Details of the discussion became public when Whelan's account of the meeting was posted online by WikiLeaks, along with some related emails, and caused much excitement among Alex’s supporters since they cast doubt on the use of chlorine.

The June meeting with the toxicologists had been intended as an informal discussion and at the time no-one was assigned to take minutes. It was not until a couple of months later that Whelan – one of the four OPCW staff attending – decided a record was needed for the files and on 20 August 2018, shortly before leaving the OPCW, he sent a draft of his account to the other three, with an accompanying email which said:

“To keep a formal record of our meeting with the toxicologists we had in June I've compiled a summary of what I recall and had jotted in my notes ... Can you have a look and let me know if there is anything you think might be inaccurate or absent.”

One of the attendees at the meeting – Sami Barrek (leader of the Douma investigation team) – apparently did not reply. Soumik Paul (OPCW head of Health & Safety) replied suggesting a couple of minor changes and Marc-Michael Blum (head of the OPCW laboratory) sent a more detailed reply which played down the significance of the toxicologists’ remarks about the possibility of Douma being a propaganda exercise:

“I find the summary in minutes misleading that the other side in the end offered a conclusion with two possibilities: real chemical attack or staged. All we ‘gave’ the experts were open-source videos and photos – so their insight was (and had to remain) limited.

“That the possibility of a staged attack was raised is part of required scientific scepticism but was in my opinion mainly fuelled by the fact that the circumstances of death for the victims do not match chlorine rather than corpses arranged for propaganda purposes.

“Regarding the observed symptoms I would write that they were not matching the chemicals listed by you but would remove “other known toxic gases” and rather put that no obvious candidate chemical causing the symptoms could be identified.”

To this, Whelan responded:

“Thanks Marc for your comments. I've addressed all three, I hope, in the minutes. I've reworded the two possibilities to make the language more neutral. For accuracy, I think it’s important to have a record of their comments though, as it was a point raised by them. In addition to showing them open source videos, we did also brief them on the scenario and informed them of symptoms and times of onset reported by witnesses.”

When the minutes were leaked more than a year later Alex’s supporters seized upon them as reinforcing the idea that the Douma investigation had been nobbled. Their complaint was that the FFM’s Final Report mentioned subsequent consultations with toxicologists in September and October 2018, but not the June meeting recorded in Whelan’s document.

The consultations cited in the Final Report involved five toxicologists described as “all versed in chemical weapons or toxic industrial chemical exposure” but the results were inconclusive. In the words of the Final Report: “Based on the information reviewed and with the absence of biomedical samples from the dead bodies or any autopsy records, it is not currently possible to precisely link the cause of the signs and symptoms to a specific chemical.”

Alex’s supporters preferred the version set out in Whelan’s minutes of the June meeting and accused the OPCW of cherry-picking – listening to some toxicologists while ignoring others. However, the most immediate purpose of the June meeting had been to seek advice about exhumations and it appeared not to have been regarded as a full-scale “expert consultation” about the likely cause of deaths. In the related email correspondence Blum pointed out that the toxicologists had been given limited information and suggested they might not have had the most appropriate qualifications: three were clinical pharmacologists with a background in medical protection from chemical weapons and the fourth was a bioanalytical and toxicological chemist.

One intriguing puzzle on the sidelines of this affair was that while the WikiLeaks version of the documents identified Barrek, Blum and Paul – three of the four OPCW staff at the meeting – Whelan’s name had been redacted. In fact, there was no mention of him in any of the other leaked documents: all occurrences of his name or email address were blanked out while the names of others were often left visible.

The reason for this later became clear. It was to protect the identity of “Alex the whistleblower” – whose real name was Brendan Whelan.

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[1] This is not to be confused with The Courage Foundation UK, a British-registered charity which supports bereaved children.