At the UN Security Council, the US, UK and France were confronted with testimony from OPCW whistleblower Ian Henderson and ex-OPCW chief Jose Bustani that challenged the rationale for their bombing of Syria in April 2018. They responded by attacking and silencing the witnesses. Aaron Maté recaps the extraordinary events.
Ian Henderson, a veteran OPCW inspector who challenged a cover-up of his organization’s investigation of an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria, recently testified before the United Nations Security Council. At the meeting, Henderson was both attacked and ignored by U.S., UK, and French diplomats whose governments bombed Syria over allegations that Henderson’s censored investigation undermined. At another UNSC gathering one week later, the U.S. and its allies continued their censorship campaign by voting to block the testimony of the OPCW’s former chief, José Bustani, who had come to speak out in support of the whistleblowers.
Pushback host Aaron Maté recaps the extraordinary events with excerpts of Henderson and Bustani’s comments, as well as those of the Western ambassadors who tried to silence them.
Ian Henderson, a veteran OPCW inspector who challenged a cover-up of his organization’s investigation of an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria, recently testified before an Arria-Formula meeting of the United Nations Security Council. At the meeting, Henderson was both attacked and ignored by U.S., UK, and French diplomats whose governments bombed Syria over allegations that Henderson’s censored investigation undermined. Other briefers in the UN session were award-winning physicist Ted Postol, MIT professor emeritus and former Pentagon adviser; and The Grayzone’s Aaron Maté.
At another UNSC gathering one week later, the U.S. and its allies continued their censorship campaign by voting to block the testimony of the OPCW’s former chief, José Bustani, who had come to speak out in support of the whistleblowers.
JONATHAN ALLEN, UK: While we agree that the presidency should have space for proposed briefers these must be relevant and knowledgeable to the topic under discussion. Unfortunately this is not the case of one of today’s briefers. Mr. Bustani is a distinguished diplomat but given his departure from the OPCW many years before it considered the Syria chemical weapons file he is not in a position to provide relevant knowledge or information on implementation of resolution 2118 unlike for example the current director general of the OPCW. We would therefore request the presidency to put its proposed briefer to a procedural vote, thank you.
As the OPCW’s first Director General, Bustani experienced first-hand the costs of challenging pro-war narratives. In 2002, he was personally threatened by John Bolton and ousted as OPCW chief after he facilitated inspections that stood in the way of the Bush administration’s drive to invade Iraq.
Now, 18 years later, the US has once again tried to silence Bustani as he challenges another pro-war deception, this time in Syria. But even though the US and its allies blocked his testimony, Bustani will not be silenced: he recorded his UN statement in full for public release. In his remarks, Bustani voiced support for the OPCW inspectors and urged the current Director General, Fernando Arias, to let them air their suppressed evidence in a transparent manner.
JOSÉ BUSTANI, EX-OPCW CHIEF: At great risk to themselves, they have dared to speak out against possible irregular behaviour in your Organisation, and it is without doubt in your, in the Organisation’s, and in the world’s interest that you hear them out… If the OPCW is confident in the robustness of its scientific work on Douma and in the integrity of the investigation, then it should have little to fear in hearing out its inspectors. If, however, the claims of evidence suppression, selective use of data and exclusion of key investigators, among other allegations, are not unfounded, then it’s even more imperative that the issue be dealt with openly and urgently.
The week before Bustani’s testimony was blocked, Ian Henderson, a member of the OPCW’s Douma team, testified before the United Nations Security Council. At the meeting, Henderson was both attacked and ignored by U.S., UK, and French diplomats whose governments bombed Syria over allegations that Henderson’s censored investigation undermined.
Henderson began by asking the assembled diplomats to refrain from maligning him; to break the “impenetrable” “lockdown” on the OPCW’s Douma cover-up scandal; and to support the airing of the evidence that was suppressed.
IAN HENDERSON: I am here again at the request of some delegations who requested that I provide my personal experiences as an OPCW inspector. I will briefly clarify my situation on what I can do and can’t do. I’m attending in my individual capacity as a scientist and a former OPCW inspection team leader with 12 years of service, and I would like to stress, impartial and committed service which was recognised. I have one request for everyone attending today — is to please kindly refrain from any suggestion that my role is part of anyone’s disinformation campaign.
I speak for myself but I know there are other Douma FFM inspectors who hold the similar concerns that I do about the manner in which the investigation was controlled – locked down – and the findings reflected in the final FFM report. We believe that there is more than sufficient information out there today that has demonstrated our point that the findings reflected in the FFM report on Douma may not reflect the actual situation.
But I’m not imploring you to believe me; to implore you to believe us; that is not science. All we are saying is that surely there is sufficient information – facts out there today – that would justify a transparent technical inquiry aimed at clarifying what actually happened in Douma on 7 April 2018, and this needs to be done in a way that demonstrates scientific rigour and integrity, because that currently has not been done.
However, the lockdown on Douma remains, how can I say, impenetrable. A hope therefore remains that there’s someone with the scientific discipline and integrity to recognise that something may have gone amiss with the Douma investigation and report. Perhaps more importantly we continue to hope that there’s someone who is willing and able, someone who has the courage to do something about this. If and when that happens, we are ready to provide the impartial input of scientists and engineers and to have the facts and the findings assist on their merits.
But instead of heeding Henderson’s call, the Western diplomats at the meeting either maligned him or ignored him. Leading the way as the ambassadors from the U.S., UK, and France, whose governments bombed Syria over allegations that Henderson’s censored investigation undermined.
KELLY CRAFT, USA: Let’s recognize today’s demonstration for what it is – a stunt. The question we must ask ourselves is, why is Russia so eager to protect a regime that has repeatedly used chemical weapons against its own people? What we are seeing here today is another desperate and failed attempt by Russia to further spread disinformation, attack the professional work of the OPCW, and distract from an ongoing effort by responsible nations to hold the Assad regime accountable for its use of chemical weapons and numerous other atrocities. We have seen this performance before: it is getting old and it does not work.
NICOLAS DE RIVIÈRE, FRANCE: I just regret that today’s meeting is reduced to a disinformation exercise. Let me first of all recall the obvious: at the root of today’s discussion is the very simple and plain fact that the Syrian regime, in August 2013, gassed 1,300 men, women and children to strengthen its military hand. And this is not disputed by anyone.
In fact, the allegation is very much disputed. Then-ODNI director James Clapper and (along with other U.S. officials) told President Obama in August 2013 that allegations of Syrian government responsibility were not a “slam dunk” – a deliberate reference to the phony intelligence that led to the Iraq war. Seymour Hersh later reported in the London Review of Books on several revelations that raised additional doubts; including that the UK military lab Porter Down found the sarin found in Ghouta did not match the variety in the Syrian government’s arsenal; that U.S. intelligence concluded that Al-Qaeda in Syria obtained sarin; and that the Turkish government has multiple ties to Al-Qaeda’s possession of sarin.
The German and UK ambassadors also spoke. Both of them ignored evidence of an OPCW cover-up and maligned efforts to address the issue.
CHRISTOPH HEUSGEN, GERMANY: The Yiddish language has a word that has entered the English language: chutzpah. I know you all know what chutzpah means. I think this is what best describes today’s event. As a German idealist, when I saw that we have the OPCW on the agenda, I thought this is very good because now our Russian and Chinese friends finally have an ambition to strengthen the Chemical Weapons Convention, support the OPCW and join us in reminding the Syrian regime that they have to comply with resolution 2118 and that they have to cooperate with the IIT. But when I read the concept note, I see that our idealism is not in the right place. What is the objective here? This is what I am saying about chutzpah: Russia and China are again trying to undercut the credibility of the OPCW, present alternative facts and spread doubts in order to undercut the OPCW again. This is, unfortunately, a Russian tactic that we have seen when they are caught or when their friends are caught committing crimes or violating international law. Then they go into a counteroffensive and try to present alternative facts and defend their friends.
JONATHAN ALLEN, UK: We’ve been presented with so-called evidence of OPCW malpractice by individuals who were not fully party to investigations, could not accept that their views were not backed by the evidence and who then breached their confidentiality obligations to the OPCW. We’ve been subjected to lengthy conspiracy theories from journalists whose twitter feed reveals all the council members need to know about the supposedly independent nature of their reporting, and from academics whose theories have been dismissed by their better qualified peers.
Aaron Maté and MIT Professor Ted Postol responded to Allen’s comments.
AARON MATÉ: There was a lot of comments today from certain member states that there is an effort here to denigrate the OPCW. I just want to echo Ian Henderson in saying that I’m not here to denigrate the OPCW. I’m here to defend the OPCW from exploitation.
And it is telling that you have two veteran celebrated inspectors from the OPCW — one of whom is here today, Ian Henderson — coming to you with serious concerns, proposing a very simple proposal. Which is that given the controversy, given the conflicting claims, and facts, that these inspectors be granted the opportunity to meet with the Director General along with the rest of the douma team who actually went to Syria.
And anybody who fails to support that proposal, I have to wonder about why.
There was talk from the British ambassador, Ambassador Allen — he made reference to my Twitter account. And said for some reason, [that] my Twitter account has some bearing on the reliability of my reporting. I’m flattered Mr. Allen that you pay attention to my Twitter account. I’m not sure what it has to do with whether or not the OPCW was compromised, but regardless I would encourage you to — at minimum — pay as much attention to my Twitter feed as to the actual OPCW scientists who went to Syria, wrote a report, and had their report censored — and now want to present their findings to the OPCW in a transparent matter.
TED POSTOL, MIT PROFESSOR EMERITUS: I have not in my experience seen such a disservice to international law as I have witnessed here today. The UN is an important international vehicle for enforcing international law and if you people are not interested in facts, then there can be no justice. Fooling around with these statements, which I’m very familiar with because I’ve seen them over many years, and not knowing your basic facts is – I must say, I’m not trying to hide my outrage.
And if I sound angry, I am because I believe in the UN and I believe in the OPCW and frankly the way you guys have behaved today, I don’t think you believe in those organizations. I’ll stop here.
Ian Henderson concluded the session by expressing his disappointment at the Western diplomats who refused to engage with allegations of an OPCW cover-up. He also made new revelations about the exploitation of the OPCW to lodge allegations against Syria.
IAN HENDERSON: This was quite an eye opener to me. Far from be it my role to castigate the distinguished excellencies, delegates, colleagues, but I’d have to say I’m bitterly disappointed, and having being around for long enough I did not necessarily expect anything different. There was no discussion. It was a series of political statements, and from both sides, and from my point of view, propaganda. But this is the world that we live in. This is the world that I was posed with in my time with the OPCW.
My role here now is to defend the OPCW and the technical secretariat. I’d like to make that very clear. Disinformation campaigns discrediting the OPCW – this has from my point of view got nothing to do with that.
I notice that there is still, and since day one on the Douma investigation there has been, no willingness or desire whatsoever to even contemplate the fact that there could be some science, facts and engineering that demonstrate an outcome contrary to the FFM report. To this day, no one, not one person – other than attempts from some anarchistic journalists – no one formally has approached me and said, “Can you tell me your experience of what happened,” with the exception of one. After the Douma FFM report was released, there was something of a crisis in the technical secretariat. This was prior to the upcoming leaking of my engineering report. So prior to that, we were deciding what to do. I made it clear that the findings of the FFM reports were not supported by science or engineering, and I can make that clear to anyone who is interested in that. I was then invited by a delegation from one of the Western states’ parties and I provided a full briefing. At the end of that briefing the gentleman said, “This is really serious. This is very big. It will certainly go higher. This will go very high.” But then he said by way of apology, he said, “But of course, you realise we won’t be able to do anything about this.”
That’s the situation I faced and I continue to face to this day. Out of all the statements made today, I believe I’m the only one who has spent a lot of time in Syria, including in Damascus and in Douma and other locations. I have had an involvement in all three of the Syria operational missions: the DATs, the SSRC and the Douma FFM.
Now I don’t want to be naïve or overly cynical, but I noticed that many of the political statements were cut and paste, and that’s the way things work, that’s to be expected. But I do sympathise in a way. That’s your job, and I can understand the panic caused by the possibility that there is a clear science, engineering, facts and information that called into question the Douma FFM investigation. Why? Because that’s the only one, the first and only investigation where we, the OPCW inspectors, actually got to the site of the alleged incident, and we did our work.
Now thank you for some of your commendations for the impartiality, the professionalism and the difficult work often in dangerous circumstances. We did experience that in many missions, including Douma, but we are apparently not included under that because the Douma FFM report was written by one person who’d only been to Turkey and another who had not deployed anywhere.
Let’s look at – try and get – some positivity. What could be done to fix the situation? What did I experience that was clearly in my view a problem? It’s not with the OPCW. It’s not with the technical secretariat. It’s a fantastic organisation and there are hundreds of impartial committed staff members who’ve made it the success that it is.
However, in the Syria mission it has very clearly evolved into something different from what it should be. First of all, the Syria missions are run by a handful of staff who report to the office of the Director General through the Chief of Cabinet, who reports – I have to say in my experience through observation – to some of the key Western delegations, and obviously the US Permanent Representative plays a leading roll in that.
The first thing to fix is that the Syria missions need to be subjected to the same professional peer review as the rest of the work of the technical secretariat. The single line of control through the Chief of Cabinet – the former being British and the current French – reporting directly to influential delegations cannot be allowed to persist, so that’s the first thing to fix it.
The second thing is the reliance of the FFM and the JIM and the IIT on carefully selected external experts who remain anonymous and whose work is selectively cherry-picked by the FFM, IIT or JIM, to serve the generation of a result that has generally, if not always, been the expression of an opinion from those individuals as to what they thought was the most likely outcome, hence the use of the words that ‘it’s reasonable to believe that this is the most likely situation,’ and hence the problem with Douma, where for the first time there is a clear volume of scientific, engineering, and procedural facts and information that will be used, can be used, to prove otherwise.
Which leads to the third thing to fix, is that these investigations in Syria need to have set a more realistic minimum standard of evidence. Now I put “evidence” in inverted commas. This is information, data, materials, open source or whatever, and these minimum standards need to be supported by science; and it’s transparent science, not the selective excerpts from opinions provided by carefully selected anonymous experts.
I think I probably said more than I should already and my request remains out there. Don’t believe me but just take it seriously enough to believe, as was the case in Iraq in 2002. I had a light-hearted bet on Iraq. My view was, no, sanity will prevail. We in the WMD intelligence information area, we know what the case is and it must prevail, it must get through at some stage. I lost the bet because it didn’t and I hate to say I see the same sort of thing happening now. But again, as I said, the lockdown has become impenetrable, and it probably will remain that way.
So one or two final remarks. When I reviewed the DAT dossier during the preparations for the first inspections of the SSRC, having been around for much longer than many other people, and having been in the starting group of team leaders in the secretariat in 1997, we were faced with all of the initial declarations from the possessor states. The level of inconsistencies, discrepancies, in their declarations, I found to be roughly the same as the questions I saw having been raised by the DAT on the Syrian declarations. There were mistakes. They were things that should have been declared and were only declared under pressure, such as ricin programme, and there were some aspects about the pinacolyl alcohol and soman detected in the SSRC, but none of these reached the level that would have, in the earlier days, have triggered this years of questioning and to and fro on these so-called inconsistencies, omissions, in the declaration. I will share with you some of the wording that was used by various people in the secretariat in reference to the DAT dossier. The wording was “Keep the file open.” That was the primary thing. Keep the file open, keep the pressure on. Now I’m not going to pretend I have the political nous to interpret exactly what that meant to who it was raised by but in the absence of any progress I see being made I think I’ll leave that thought with you. Thank you.