Chapter 2. The ‘propaganda’ professors

Syria’s vague talk of rebels getting sarin from foreign governments or cooking it up in their kitchens didn’t amount to a credible defence against the accusations of using chemical weapons. Meanwhile Russia’s efforts to counter the UN investigators’ report with spurious claims suggested it was less than convinced by the Syrian regime’s protestations of innocence. However, some highly educated people in the west were more readily persuaded – not because of any specific evidence but because the idea that Assad was being unfairly blamed fitted their conspiratorial view of the world.

They were people who took pride in not being easily fooled and they claimed to have seen the truth through a fog of disinformation. Well aware of how governments can – and do – manipulate public opinion, they sought to warn others of the danger by highlighting known examples of trickery by western governments. But they became so suspicious of anything that appeared to be an “official” narrative that they tended to assume deception was the norm – at least where western governments were concerned. Narratives propagated by non-western governments, on the other hand, were rarely questioned.

Coupled with this was a view that blamed most of the world’s problems on American interference. It was a brand of anti-imperialism that didn’t question the legitimacy of dictators (unless they happened to be allies of the United States) and characterised local opposition to them as evidence of American “regime-change” plots.

Mark Crispin Miller was a professor at New York University who made a point of encouraging his students to think critically. When teaching his course on “Mass Persuasion and Propaganda” he would urge them to view the news media with caution and pay attention not only to what was reported but to what was not reported. Critical thinking is essential in academic work and Miller had not only taken it to heart himself but had taken it to extremes. The wariness that he urged upon his students had led him to reject things that many regard as fact. One was what he called the “official” version of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

In September 2016 a conference about 9/11 took place in New York with Miller as its master of ceremonies. Though ostensibly marking the anniversary of the attacks its real business was promoting conspiracy theories about them. In his opening remarks Miller made clear that he didn’t believe the generally-accepted version of what happened on the fateful day. “The official narrative is preposterous,” he told his audience. “On its face it is a ludicrous explanation. We don’t accept it.”

A few months later Miller spoke at another conference, this time on the subject of propaganda and “US regime change in Syria”. He began by recalling events of a century earlier and “the catastrophic success of the allied propaganda drive that brought the United States into World War One”. The British people, and later the Americans, had been “bowled over” by reports of Germans impaling babies on bayonets and cutting the breasts off Red Cross nurses, he said. There was even the story of a Canadian soldier who had allegedly been crucified by Germans. “This was the first time that a state had ever used resources of mass suasion, of propaganda, to get an entire population to support a war that they ordinarily wouldn’t have supported,” he said.

Miller went on to draw parallels between propaganda of the First World War and contemporary reporting of the conflict in Syria: “I don’t have to list for you examples of similar atrocity campaigns that we have read about in the western press – Aleppo, various chemical gas attacks, the crematorium – you know, Buchenwald, Auschwitz, right in the middle of Damascus burning up the bodies of all these Syrians ...”

Referring to American media reports of Syrian government forces using barrel bombs he suggested “barrel bomb” was simply a “meme” intended to inflame public opinion against the regime. At this, he was loudly interrupted by a voice from the audience: “Are you denying the Assad regime has dropped barrel bombs on its people? Three hundred thousand people have been murdered by that regime.” When the uproar subsided Miller replied: “I am grateful for your interruption because you have actually helped me to demonstrate my case. These stories infuriate people by design ...”

The regime’s use of barrel bombs was well documented, however, and could be seen in YouTube videos. Syrians (as well as American media) referred to them by that name because they were made from oil drums or similar containers packed with explosives. Government forces shoved them out of helicopters after first lighting a fuse. Their inaccuracy made them an indiscriminate weapon and they often killed civilians.

The ‘Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media'

In 2018 Miller surfaced again, this time on the advisory board of the “Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media”, a newly-formed organisation based in Britain which was later to play a central role in disputing the use of chemical weapons. The group consisted mainly of university professors and researchers though none were recognised authorities on Syria or chemical weapons. “At present,” the group’s website announced, “there exists an urgent need for rigorous academic analysis of media reporting of this war, the role that propaganda has played in terms of shaping perceptions of the conflict and how these relate to broader geo-strategic process within the [Middle East] region and beyond.”

The aim, it continued, was to “encourage networking amongst academics as well as the development of conference papers and panels, articles and research monographs, and the development of research funding bids. We also aim to provide a source of reliable, informed and timely analysis for journalists, publics and policymakers.”

Presented in that way it sounded like a serious research project, but the group clearly had an agenda. Articles written by its leading members rejected almost all mainstream narratives of the Syrian conflict, especially regarding chemical weapons. Essentially, the Working Group was a bunch of activists with a penchant for conspiracy theories but its academic connections gave it an air of credibility, thus enabling Russian propaganda channels to report its views as those of “a group of independent scholars and researchers”.

The group's promise of “rigorous academic analysis” was also applied very selectively. While criticising and dissecting reports that ran counter to their political narrative, its members lauded a handful of journalists whose work – regardless of accuracy – supported their viewpoint. Among them were Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett – two “independent” reporters who often featured on Russia’s RT channel and had an enthusiastic following on “alternative” and conspiracy theory websites .

The Working Group’s convenor was Piers Robinson, a professor in the journalism department at Sheffield University, whose main research area was “organised persuasive communication and contemporary propaganda”. He had published numerous academic papers, including several on media deception during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Robinson’s search for examples of such deception led into strange territory. In one of his university lectures, posted online in a YouTube video, he could be heard railing against “attempts to manipulate our minds, our beliefs and our behaviours from what people would understand to be legitimate or mainstream media sources”. By way of illustration he cited the historic news photo of President Bush after the fall of Saddam Hussein, standing on an aircraft carrier in front of a banner saying “Mission Accomplished”. Robinson then made the astonishing claim that the banner seen in the photo “wasn’t actually there”. It had been “imposed” on the image, he said. There was no explanation in his lecture as to why the Americans would have needed to fake it, and in fact the banner was real.

Robinson had also become a dabbler in 9/11 trutherism. In 2018 he wrote a positive review of 9/11 Unmasked, a book by two prominent truthers whose work he described as “diligent and painstaking”. His name also appeared on the book’s back cover, endorsing it as “authoritative and carefully argued”. The following year he left his professorial post, for reasons that neither he nor the university was willing to discuss.

Other founding members of the Working Group were Tim Hayward, Professor of Environmental Political Theory at Edinburgh university and Paul McKeigue, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology and Statistical Genetics (also at Edinburgh).

McKeigue described himself in an email as “just an academic working in my spare time to do the investigation that journalists no longer do”. He believed there was a “stratcom” (strategic communications) operation by western intelligence agencies to trick the public into supporting military intervention in Syria. “A key objective of our little academic group is to encourage Members of Parliament, lawyers and journalists to ask questions about these stratcom activities that have not only drawn the UK into confrontation with other countries but have also been used to marginalise and smear dissenters at home,” he wrote.

In another email McKeigue described Russia as “a standard-bearer for anti-globalists”. Billionaire philanthropist George Soros was the leading exponent of globalism as an ideology, he wrote. “The goal of globalism is free movement of people and capital across national borders, and a global market. National sovereignty and the role of governments is to be minimised. Instead of the protections provided by a constitution with separation of powers between executive, legislature and judiciary the globalists promote ‘civil society’ by which they mean NGOs. Soros calls this the ‘open society’ ... The problem with globalism is that most people don’t like it, and when they have the chance (the Brexit referendum, the 2016 US presidential election) they reject it.” He added that because Russia had turned away from globalism Soros saw it as “standing in the way of what he hopes to achieve”.

McKeigue was the author of a bizarre two-part article which applied probability calculus to the question of chemical attacks in Syria. With assistance from Bayes’ theorem and Hempel’s paradox, he claimed there was “overwhelming” evidence that the reported sarin attacks in Ghouta (2013) and Khan Sheikhoun (2017) were actually “a managed massacre of captives” by rebels. The problem with this was that the outcome of his calculations depended on the input: his own assessment of the significance of various pieces of evidence. For example, he decided that the likelihood of an actual chemical attack was low – based on the absence of videos showing search-and-rescue operations.

Having decided that rebels carried out a “managed massacre”, McKeigue went on to give a highly improbable account of how he “would expect” them to have done it:

“Captives (most likely religious minorities or families of government supporters) would be held in readiness. Improvised explosive devices and possibly smoke generators could be placed at key locations in the town to panic the civilian population into believing they were under chemical attack. Low doses of sarin could be administered to volunteers so that they would test positive for exposure to sarin (the doses required to generate a positive test are far below those required to cause symptoms).

“Medical facilities controlled by jihadis would be ready to play their part by showing casualties, real or fake, being ‘treated’. A few actors could be prepared to play the part of bereaved parents, and provided with photos of children who were to be killed.

“Captives would be killed in improvised gas chambers, but the preferred agent would be an easily-available gas that leaves no residue, rather than sarin which would endanger those removing the bodies. A well-staffed video editing operation would be ready to edit the raw footage into clips and stills badged with the logos of various opposition media organizations. To make the video images so horrific that those viewing them would be shocked into supporting immediate retaliation against the Syrian government, the planners might choose that some children would not be killed outright by the gas but instead filmed struggling to breathe, before they were finished off by other methods.”

There was zero evidence that any of these things had happened but McKeigue persisted with his idea of “managed” massacres and gas chambers. Early in 2020, at a meeting in London sponsored by Fabian Hamilton MP and held on parliamentary premises, he suggested the people found dead in Douma following an alleged chemical attack in 2018 had also been killed in advance in a gas chamber.

Use of gas chambers was not McKeigue’s own idea. He had borrowed it from Denis O'Brien, an American pharmacologist-turned-amateur-sleuth, who literally dreamed it up. O'Brien wrote:

“I was dreaming that I was being chased through downtown Kafr Batna by a herd of goats with rigor mortis. They had pink cheeks and lips, and smelled of almonds, and they were gaining on me even though they were dead and stiff. Upon waking, I was flat on my back, staring up into the darkness trying to catch my breath, and it came to me: Cyanide!! And then it hit me again: Carbon monoxide!! Yes!!!”

O'Brien attributed this revelation to having eaten anchovy pizza before going to sleep.

A nerve agent attack in Britain

The chemical weapons issue took an unexpected turn in March 2018 when Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were found unconscious on a bench outside a shopping centre in the English city of Salisbury – poisoned by a nerve agent. As with the sarin attacks in Syria, there was one very obvious suspect.

Sergei Skripal was Russian. He had formerly worked in Russian intelligence but had also been a double agent, spying for Britain. In 2004 he was arrested by the Russian authorities, convicted of treason and sentenced to 13 years in jail. Six years later, as part of an exchange of spies, he was released and allowed to settle in Britain. His daughter had continued living in Russia but was visiting him at his home in Salisbury at the time of the poisoning.

The chemical that caused the Skripals to be hospitalised for several weeks was one of a group of nerve agents known as Novichok which had been developed in the Soviet Union. Police suspected it had been smeared on the handle of Sergei Skripal’s front door and the pair had been contaminated by touching it.

Almost immediately, suspicion fell on Russia. Over the previous 40 years several mysterious deaths in Britain and elsewhere had been linked to Russia or its predecessor, the Soviet Union. At least two of those involved murder by exotic means – Georgi Markov in 1978, stabbed with a ricin-tipped umbrella [1], and Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. Litvinenko was a former officer in Russia’s Federal Security Service who had turned into a whistleblower after discovering links between law enforcement agencies and organised crime. His investigative efforts displeased the authorities and he fled to Britain. In exile, Litvinenko became an outspoken critic of Putin, authored two books making accusations against Russia’s security services and did some consultancy work for British intelligence. He fell ill a few hours after drinking tea with two Russians at a hotel in London and died three weeks later, having been poisoned with radioactive polonium-210. It was believed that the Russians had secretly slipped the polonium into his tea. The British authorities later named the two suspects but Russia refused to extradite them.

A week after the attack on the Skripals, British prime minister Theresa May told parliament: “It is now clear that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. This is part of a group of nerve agents known as ‘Novichok’.” There were only two plausible explanations for what happened, she said. “Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.”

Russia of course denied it and launched into a disinformation exercise that was remarkably similar to the one seen over sarin use in Ghouta. Many of the westerners who had been defending the Assad regime joined in too, viewing the attack on the Skripals as yet another attempt to frame an innocent government.

In its first report of the affair, Russia’s RT channel picked up on the fact that emergency services initially suspected the Skripals had been overcome by fentanyl, a powerful opiate. While saying it was unclear whether the couple had taken the drug or merely been exposed to it, RT continued:

“The highly addictive synthetic opiate has been linked to a sharp increase in overdoses in the US and has also resulted in dozens of deaths across the UK. The drug has repeatedly made headlines as part of the so-called ‘opioid crisis’, especially after famous American singer/songwriter Prince died from an accidental overdose of fentanyl in April 2016.”

RT went on to quote Annie Machon, a former British intelligence officer, as saying that comparisons with the Litvinenko case were premature:

“This just might be some sort of a drug incident. There have been numerous stories over the last couple of years in the UK of the spread of the synthetic cannabinoid called ‘spice’ which seems to create the same sort of symptoms that were reported in this case. Or indeed the spread of synthetic opioid problems, particularly across America but also in the UK too, which leads to death.”

Had it not been for the “potential” Russian connection, she added, the story “would have been reduced to local news reporting”.

Machon was a frequent interviewee on RT and also wrote articles for its website. She had worked for MI5, Britain’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency, though she had later become disaffected and resigned. A biographical note on RT’s website described her as having “a rare perspective” on the inner workings of governments and intelligence agencies, but it didn’t explain exactly how rare her perspective was. Since leaving MI5 she had helped to organise a 9/11 truther group and, among other things, claimed the 1994 bombing of Israel’s embassy in London had been carried out by Israel itself.

As with the chemical attacks in Syria, Russia was happy to promote multiple conflicting theories about the Skripal affair – almost any theory that did not implicate Russia. These mostly favoured “false flag” explanations, as in Syria, but this time with the British government, rather than Syrian rebels, accused of fakery. However, Russia struggled to find plausible reasons why the British government might have done it. One suggestion from the foreign ministry was that Britain was “unable to forgive Russia for winning the right to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup in a fair struggle”. There were also suggestions that Britain had done it in order to damage President Putin ahead of his expected re-election.

On Sputnik Radio, meanwhile, former British MP George Galloway described Britain’s reaction to the poisoning as “similar to its headlong rush to war with Iraq in 2003”. Galloway told listeners: “I think this will go down with the Gulf of Tonkin incident as one of the great hoaxes, with the most serious implications in all of history.”

The Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media had been formed little more than a month before the Skripals were poisoned – with the result that the first article posted on its website was not about Syria but about Russia. It cast doubt on the existence of a Russian Novichok chemical weapons programme, suggesting that others could easily have made the nerve agent:

“As the structures of these compounds have been described, any organic chemist with a modern lab would be able to synthesize bench scale quantities of such a compound. Indeed, Porton Down [the British government’s military research laboratory] must have been able to synthesize these compounds in order to develop tests for them. It is therefore misleading to assert that only Russia could have produced such compounds.”

The Working Group’s comments were reported shortly afterwards by Sputnik News and Robinson, as the group’s convenor, was interviewed by both RT and Sputnik. Speaking on RT, he quickly shifted to the deception over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, citing it as the reason to be wary of the Novichok allegations: “We've been here before where [a] British government has made very bold, certain, claims of course in the run-up to the Iraq war ... After years of inquiries and research into it we know that information and intelligence was manipulated and distorted and was used to present Iraq as a much greater threat than it actually was.”

Making excuses for Russia became more difficult a few months later when police issued a series of CCTV images of two Russian agents suspected of carrying out the Salisbury attack, together with details of their itinerary, and the Bellingcat investigative website identified them by name. Undaunted by that, Craig Murray, a blogger who disputed chemical attacks in Syria, accused the British police of faking evidence about the Russian suspects. Murray had formerly served as Britain’s ambassador to Uzbekistan but turned to political activism after becoming disillusioned with the diplomatic service. His claim of fakery was yet another example of the “giveaway mistake” conspiracy theory as seen earlier in Libya and in connection with the “premature” YouTube videos of the Ghouta massacre.

Among the photos issued by the police were two separate images showing each of the Russian agents arriving in Britain at Gatwick Airport. The background looked the same in both photos: each man was seen walking though a confined space with screens on either side. From this, Murray deduced they had both been photographed – separately – in exactly the same spot. The photos also carried a timestamp and Murray noticed that on both of them the time was the same: 22 minutes and 43 seconds after 4pm. Since it was obvious that both men could not have been in the same spot at exactly the same second Murray concluded that police had doctored the photos but neglected to adjust one of the timestamps, and he announced this discovery on his blog.

As with the Ghouta videos, though, there was a straightforward explanation. Passengers arriving at the airport were routed through a series of parallel channels where they were individually photographed by CCTV cameras. Murray was unaware of this and wrongly assumed both men had been photographed in the same spot when in fact they were walking side by side through different channels.

Patterns of denial

The information war over Syria took place mainly on the internet where it had the potential to reach a wide audience and almost anyone could join in. On a more limited scale, though, its precursors could be found in previous conflicts where academics and others denied or minimised atrocities and rejected the generally-accepted version of events. Mass killings by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during the 1970s were one example and the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 during the war in former Yugoslavia was another. In both those cases, some of the arguments deployed were remarkably similar to those heard years later in connection with Syria: although reports of the atrocities were well-documented, dismissing them as propaganda supported the deniers’ political narrative of western imperialism and media complicity.

Regarding the bloodbath in Cambodia, various authors and academics suggested the death toll had been inflated so as to demonise the Khmer Rouge and distract from the consequences of US meddling in the region. American bombing had certainly wreaked havoc and contributed to the rise of the Khmer Rouge but that didn’t absolve the Khmer Rouge of responsibility for the enormous bloodshed that followed.

Reviewing three books about Cambodia in 1977, American scholars Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman found fault with two of them which (as it turned out) had given a broadly accurate picture of the horrors. The third book took a more sympathetic view of the Khmer Rouge and was, according to Chomsky and Herman, “a carefully documented study of the destructive American impact on Cambodia and the success of the Cambodian revolutionaries in overcoming it.”

The book in question was Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution, by George Hildebrand and Gareth Porter. Porter initially defended his position, saying in testimony to the US House of Representatives: “I cannot accept ... that one million people have been murdered systematically or that the government of Cambodia is systematically slaughtering its people.” Subsequently, though, he conceded that the Khmer Rouge had “imposed unnecessary costs on the population of Cambodia”. Many years later was quoted as saying he had been guilty of “intellectual arrogance” and that his view of Cambodia had been coloured by his view of Vietnam: he had been right about Vietnam, “so I assumed I would be right about Cambodia” [2].

In their review, Chomsky and Herman complained that Hildebrand and Porter’s book had been almost totally ignored by the American press while the other two books had been widely discussed. “What filters through to the American public,” they continued, “is a seriously distorted version of the evidence available, emphasising alleged Khmer Rouge atrocities and downplaying or ignoring the crucial US role, direct and indirect, in the torment that Cambodia has suffered. Evidence that focuses on the American role, like the Hildebrand and Porter volume, is ignored, not on the basis of truthfulness or scholarship but because the message is unpalatable.”

Chomsky and Herman subsequently produced a book of their own which included a lengthy chapter on Cambodia. Allegations of genocide had been used “to whitewash western imperialism” and “to lay the ideological basis for further intervention and oppression”, they wrote, adding: “We have seen how the western propaganda system creates, embroiders, plays up, distorts, and suppresses evidence according to imperial needs.”

Herman took a similar line on the conflict in former Yugoslavia, and the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in particular. There was no doubt that executions had taken place, and that many Bosnian Muslims had died during the evacuation of Srebrenica and its aftermath, he said, but evidence that 8,000 men and boys had been slaughtered was “problematic, to say the least”. Describing the story of the massacre as “the greatest triumph of propaganda to emerge from the Balkan wars”, he argued that it served several political agendas – those of “the Bosnian Muslims, striving to get Nato to enter the Bosnian struggle more actively, the Croats, who needed a demonisation of Serbs to carry out their own ethnic cleansing plans ... and the Clinton administration, under attack for a failure to intervene more actively on behalf of the Croats and Muslims and searching for an excuse to do so.”

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[1] Markov was a Bulgarian dissident. His assassination was reported to have been carried out by the Bulgarian secret service with assistance from Russia.

[2] Brinkley, J: Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, p 49.