A whistleblower from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is accusing top officials of tampering with evidence collected at the scene of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Syrian city of Douma in April 2018.
The official, a senior scientist who collected samples at the scene, is the second with the OPCW’s Douma team to allege that evidence was suppressed. His testimony raises new doubts about the claim that the Syrian government carried out a chemical attack in Douma, which led to US-France-UK airstrikes — and with it, new concerns that the world’s chemical weapons watchdog is politically compromised.
We discuss the whistleblower’s findings with award-winning MIT Professor Emeritus Theodore Postol, whose scientific studies have also raised doubts about allegations of chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government. One of his studies was recently at the center of an academic controversy, as we also address during this interview.
Guest: Theodore Postol, award-winning Professor of Science, Technology and National Security Policy at MIT.
AARON MATÉ: A second whistleblower is raising new doubts about an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria – and with it, new concerns that a top United Nations watchdog is compromised.
Just like the first whistleblower, the new whistleblower is an official with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW. This person, a senior scientist, was on the ground when the OPCW investigated allegations that the Syrian government killed dozens of people in the city of Douma in April 2018. This allegation prompted the United States, France, and Britain to bomb three sites in Syria one week later. The OPCW later pinned blame on the Syrian government, lending justification to the US-led strikes.
But earlier this year, a member of OPCW team leaked a suppressed engineering assessment that challenged the OPCW’s conclusions. The leaked report found that the gas cylinders at the scene in Douma were likely “manually placed.” This suggested that the attack was staged.
And now another member of the OPCW team – the second whistleblower – has come forward. This whistleblower recently delivered testimony in front of a panel convened by The Courage Foundation, a journalist and whistleblower protection organization founded by Wikileaks. In a statement, the panel said: “…we are unanimous in expressing our alarm over unacceptable practices in the investigation… We became convinced by the testimony that key information about chemical analyses, toxicology consultations, ballistics studies, and witness testimonies was suppressed, ostensibly to favor a preordained conclusion.”
The panel includes José Bustani, the OPCW’s first Director General. Another panelist, veteran journalist Jonathan Steele, discussed the whistleblower’s testimony to BBC News.
Jonathan Steele: He claims he was in charge of picking up the samples in the affected areas, and in neutral areas, to check whether there were chlorine derivatives there …
Paul Henley, BBC News: And?
Jonathan Steele … and he found that there was no difference. So it rather suggested there was no chemical gas attack, because in the buildings where the people allegedly died there was no extra chlorinated organic chemicals than in the normal streets elsewhere.
And I put this to the OPCW for comment, and they haven’t yet replied. But it rather suggests that a lot of this was propaganda…
Paul Henley, BBC News: Propaganda led by?
Jonathan Steele … led by the rebel side to try and bring in American planes, which in fact did happen.
AARON MATÉ: Well, to discuss this new whistleblower’s revelations, I spoke recently to Theodore Postol, award-winning professor of Science, Technology and National Security policy at MIT. Professor Postol has conducted studies that have also raised doubts about allegations of chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government. One of his studies was recently at the center of an academic controversy, as we also discuss during this interview.
AARON MATÉ: Ted Postol, welcome to Pushback. Last time we had you on it was to discuss the revelations from a first whistleblower from the OPCW. Now we have a second whistleblower, someone who was on the ground. What is your reaction to what we’ve heard so far?
THEODORE POSTOL: Well, the second whistleblower simply confirms what the earlier report showed. And, also, I should say that I have now gone through the original, you know, the OPCW report that was provided to the UN Security Council. And there’s really…the report is pretty remarkable, because it contains all kinds of technical details that bear no relationship at all to what was claimed as a finding. It’s really astonishing. So, it appears that nobody with…who was technically literate was involved in reviewing this before it was sent out to the UN Security Council. I’m sure the Russians and Chinese are…have good people looking at this, so they know that there’s a real problem with this report. But, of course, in terms of the people on the outside, in particular the media, it looks like nobody with a serious technical experience looked at this thing, because you would immediately realize there was something very wrong with what was shown in the report as proof and what was actually the case.
AARON MATÉ: Well, this is why we’re talking to you now, and, you know, you raised concerns about this report, and you also raised concerns based on what the first whistleblower said, which is that the physics here just did not add up. But now you have a second whistleblower who was on the ground, who collected chemical samples at the scene in Douma, and said basically that there was no difference between chemical samples collected outside the alleged attack scene and chemical samples collected inside the alleged attack scene. More evidence, then, to those who saw…who reviewed the whistleblower’s evidence, according to the panel that was convened, that this whole thing was staged. What is your assessment of what you’ve heard so far from the second whistleblower?
THEODORE POSTOL: Well, I think it’s clear from the findings of the second whistleblower that the staging effort did not include the planting of false chemical evidence. That is to say, I’m not suggesting…what the whistleblower established is that there is…there isn’t even false chemical evidence.
In the case of Khan Shaykhun, which happened a year earlier, there was an attempt to create a false trail of samples where they had…for example, they poisoned the goat with sarin—the local people who staged that scene—and then they provided the UN…the OPCW with samples that had been tampered with. So the U…so the OPCW in that case found sarin on the samples, but, of course, it…had the samples been subjected to a proper chain of custody, they would have never found any samples because the people on the scene produced the sarin and then used it to further mislead the OPCW. Although in that case, the OPCW also should have known there was a problem, because in that case the goat that was supposedly dead at the scene had drag marks behind it, so the carcass was obviously dumped from a truck and then dragged over to the location where it was shown on videos.
In this case we have a whistleblower who was on the ground, who’s a real expert. And the whistleblower looked for evidence and couldn’t find any evidence of chemical release. So that’s further evidence of how sloppily the scene was staged. And, it also is further…is a further indictment of the OPCW for not producing an accurate report, since they clearly…I mean, there’s no excuse at any level. This expert went to the person in charge of the OPCW integrity analysis and reported this, and he was basically shut down. And there’s this other report that was obviously released, the earlier whistleblower report, which was obviously done by a real group of first-class, professional experts. And that was dismissed by this ambassador who is the head of the OPCW at the moment. And there’s no way he’s doing his job if he didn’t look at this report. So, to suggest that this report that was originally released was somehow a difference of opinion is totally ridiculous from a technical, analytical point of view. I mean, when you look at the report that was released and that this ambassador from the OPCW is defending, none of the technical findings, none of the technical analysis in the report matches what the report claims. It’s just ridiculous.
AARON MATÉ: And, so, compounding this is you have now apparently the second whistleblower who we have not heard directly from yet, but reportedly, according to WikiLeaks and the Courage Foundation which convened this panel where the second whistleblower testified, according to them the second whistleblower wants to now testify publicly, and said that he tried to bring his concerns to the top levels of the OPCW, but that he was silenced. And you mentioned chain of custody, and I think it’s important to stress why that’s so important, is because the samples and evidence that the OPCW received from Khan Shaykhun, what came from an area that was controlled by militants—militants fighting the Assad government in Syria. And, in both cases, Khan Shaykhun in 2017 and Douma in 2018, a year later, basically, both those instances, both those claims of an Assad government chemical weapons attack led to U.S. airstrikes, which is all the more reason why it’s important to subject this to scrutiny.
Let me read to you, Ted, a quote from one of the members of the WikiLeaks panel that it convened to hear from the second whistleblower. His name is José Bustani, and he is the first director general of the OPCW.
THEODORE POSTOL: Let me interrupt for a second. Bustani was considered for a Nobel Prize because of the great job he did putting together the OPCW, so he has a big interest in making sure this organization functions.
AARON MATÉ: Well, let me read you the quote. He says, “The convincing evidence of a regular behaviour in the OPCW investigation of the alleged Douma chemical attack confirms doubts and suspicions I already had. I could make no sense of what I was reading in the international press. Even official reports of investigations seemed incoherent at best. The picture is certainly clearer now, although very disturbing.”
THEODORE POSTOL: Well, I agree completely with his assessment. In fact, I’ve already written him. I haven’t heard yet back from him. And I sent him copies of my assessment as well. And, so, I think he and this panel, which I’ve also communicated with, have those copies now and I know they’re looking at it. I’ve already had some, you know, some preliminary exchanges with them.
AARON MATÉ: Okay, so speaking of your assessment, let’s talk about a controversy that you were recently involved in. You submitted your findings. You studied the Douma attack and the available evidence. Your paper, which was co-written, I believe, with other academics, was accepted by a journal called Science and Global Security. It was due to be published, but then it came under heavy pressure, and at pretty much the last minute or even after, probably, I think, even after the journal went to press, if I’m not mistaken, the journal actually pulled your paper and did not publish it. Can you tell us about what happened there?
THEODORE POSTOL: Yes. First of all, the paper…just a minor…the paper was on Khan Shaykhun that said, we showed…the paper was a technical analysis that showed that the UN claim that sarin was released from a particular site could not possibly be true. That’s the bottom line of that technical analysis.
AARON MATÉ: And again, Khan Shaykhun is an attack in April 2017.
THEODORE POSTOL: Right.
AARON MATÉ: It led to the first Trump administration strike on the Syrian government, followed a year later by Douma.
THEODORE POSTOL: Correct, correct. Well, what happened there is the paper underwent a quite arduous referee process, at least from my point of view. They used a referee who was obviously technically incompetent, and who also looked like the referee was either a member of the Bellingcat organization or closely affiliated with the Bellingcat organization. The reason that became apparent is the referee was quoting Bellingcat throughout their attempt to discredit the article, so that was kind of an irregularity from the point of view of the journal, to use a referee that really was not technically competent and who was obviously politically biased.
AARON MATÉ: Let’s explain, let’s explain for a second what Bellingcat is. It’s a website with…
THEODORE POSTOL: Bellingcat is an organization headed by a man, Eliot Higgins, who has no knowledge of any science at all. If, for anyone who questions that, just look up Higgins/Postol debate on YouTube and you’ll see discussion, if you want to dignify it with that name, between him and me. And he has no knowledge of science. He has no interest in science. His only way of dealing with questions that are raised that have a scientific foundation is to try to insult the person asking the questions, and then sort of see if they can get them into…divert them into a fight. I refuse to do that, as anybody who looks at the panel will see. But he just went one insult after another as I focused on technical questions, none of which he could answer. So, he is a kind of a parrot of the times. I would say he’s kind of one of these strange phenomena that come out of the cesspool of the Internet, is the way I see him, and he has no expertise. He just yells very loud, and, unfortunately, he’s got the support of some media organizations that should have higher standards.
For example, this debate occurred at Golds…, Goldsmiths, University of London in October and at an organization called the Center for Investigative Journalism. And none of these people who I talked to after the debate reacted to his unbelievably unprofessional behavior. They just kept on trying to make excuses for him. To me, that’s a sign of the general decay in the professionalism of the mainstream press. And they should be ashamed of themselves for that, for reacting that way. And, as far as I know, he still is affiliated with them. I would have thrown him out of my program if he had done that in any situation. It was just totally unprofessional behavior. So…
AARON MATÉ: Let me also pause, Ted, and say that, you know, Bellingcat is not just supported by some mainstream news sources and cited by an authority there. The criticism of it also is that it receives funding from organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy, a U.S. government arm. And in the critique of Bellingcat, something I have not looked into too in-depth, but it’s out there, you can read about it, is that they basically have a pattern of parroting whatever the Western government line is when it comes to official enemies. Occasionally under heavy pressure they’ll do some cursory studies of places like Yemen, which is under bombardment by U.S.-backed forces, but generally their targets also happen to coincide with who the targets of U.S. proxy wars and U.S. regime change operations are.
THEODORE POSTOL: Well, they’re…they have no scientific credibility at any level that I can see. Anything that I’ve looked at in detail—there’s a lot of stuff they’ve done, so I can’t say that everything is a problem. But I can say everything that I’ve looked at that had a scientific component has been just ridiculous. Not even…not even close. I mean, the only way to describe it would be ridiculous.
They do have a guy, this guy, Eyal Weizman, who’s at the Center for Investigative Journalism, who has done some interesting work. Now, Weizman has no technical capabilities, but he is good at forensic evidence, that is, things you can photograph. But even he has been involved in things that, I must say, I was troubled to see. For example, some of the work he did on Douma looks…doesn’t look accurate, doesn’t look like it’s been…things were not to the proper scale, for example, in diagrams. So, they led to…they gave a misleading impression. And that wasn’t science, but, you know, it might be manipulation of actual data.
AARON MATÉ: You know, I don’t want to go too far afield, but, you know, this reminds me that the OPCW, when it talked about…when it was defending its fact-finding process and its analysis of Douma, it mentioned that it consulted with outside experts. This was after the first whistleblower came out and said that its conclusions were wrong and had contradicted the own findings of their own experts, that the same expert who leaked that first analysis that was suppressed. Which makes me wonder: do you think it’s possible that the OPCW itself relied on people from Bellingcat?
THEODORE POSTOL: I’ll bet you a nickel they did. The report on Khan Shaykhun, the earlier event, mimicked a Bellingcat…a fraudulent Bellingcat rendition of what happened. It was so close that they even used Bellingcat images in the OPCW report. So, these people, who I want to underscore, by any serious professional measure have no technical expertise, none, are misrepresented as experts. So, I think we will find…we would find that they were a significant input into the Khan Shaykhun analysis. And, I couldn’t help but notice in the first whistleblower report on Douma, which was an extremely professional report, very neutral in its tone, at one point said something that only a professional who’s totally disgusted would have to put in that report. They actually call…they talked about, just a one line where they talked about other “so-called experts.” No serious professional…if I were at odds with another professional’s understanding of the problem, of a problem, and I thought that it was a professional interpretation but I disagreed with it, I would never describe them as a “so-called expert.” I would describe them as an expert who I have a different…who I have a different understand…who’s reached a different conclusion, and here’s why I disagree with that conclusion. But I would never call them a “so-called expert.” And I think that these people were so fed up, we saw that creep into their report.
AARON MATÉ: Hmm, hmm. Okay, bring us back, then, to what happened with your report. So, you have submitted it to this prestigious journal; it’s undergoing peer review. After that happens, then a referee comes in, as you were talking about before, and you’re suspecting here that there’s some involvement, or some reliance on Bellingcat.
THEODORE POSTOL: I think this referee was no doubt associated with Bellingcat in some way, if not in Bellingcat. No doubt. And the referee brought up all kinds of things that were totally unrelated to the article. And the referee was meandering and contradicting themselves at different points in their referee report. So, I was so befuddled on how to address it, I decided to simply sit down and write a tutorial on all the issues the referee brought up. Because it would have been shorter to write a tutorial that showed that the referee’s foundations didn’t exist, that all the analytical points [that] were being raised didn’t exist, rather than point-by-point responding, because some of the points contradicted earlier points, and it would have been an incoherent response just as the referee’s report was incoherent.
So, I produced a 43-page document, and the document is available to the public because I’ve made it available. I can’t make available the referee’s report because that’s supposed to be confidential. But I wrote this report in response. That’s my report, so I’ve made it available, and anybody who wants to read it can see the kinds of issues that this referee brought up, which were nonsense. And…I’m sorry…
AARON MATÉ: Well, I want to be clear, this is after your report was peer-reviewed, right?
THEODORE POSTOL: Well, this was the peer-review process.
AARON MATÉ: Okay, this was the peer…okay.
THEODORE POSTOL: And immediately, immediately after receiving my 43-page report, the journal accepted the article. Now, my assumption at the time was that this was okay. Sometimes an article is controversial, and so what an editor of a journal might actually do is choose a big critic of the article, and just so the editor can see what the critic can put out as a critique. And then the editor can then see the response by the authors of the article. And then, since the editor is an expert themselves—certainly is the case with Science and Global Security; all the editors are very well-trained scientists. I know them personally. So, they can look at this. And, so my reaction, when they just immediately accepted the article, was, well, they looked at this referee report, they could see it was nonsense, they could see my response was totally cohesive and answered every one of the questions, so they just said okay, let’s go ahead.
So, then, all of a sudden, I think it’s like five or six months later, they decide…so this report is accepted for publication. I want to make it clear. This has been refereed and accepted for publication. And then four or five months later, all of a sudden I get a phone call, and they say they decided they can’t publish it because there was something…has nothing to do, they emphasized, has nothing to do with the science of the article. So, this raised my concerns, too. I said, if it has nothing to do with this, with the science in the article, how can you possibly change your mind about an article that was refereed and accepted by the journal? So, they had this inexplicable argument that somehow the process of refereeing had to be a double-blind review. That is to say, neither side should have known who the other was. Well, one…the referee obviously knew who I was. But I didn’t know, I still don’t know who the referee was. And, so, because the process is not double-blind, somehow they can’t accept the article, they can’t publish the article.
It’s the most…it’s a truly ridiculous argument. Really, all anybody has to do now with Science and Global Security to stop the publication of an article that they don’t want to see published is to, somehow, if they get chosen as a referee, reveal that they know the authors of the article. And this is doubly crazy, because when you are refereeing an article, you’re often a specialist in the field who is asked to be a referee because you’re a specialist. So, very commonly, in all scientific review processes the referees know who the author is. There’s an attempt to shield the authors’ identities and the referees’ identities from each other, and that’s okay, there’s nothing wrong with that. But the idea that the referees never know who the author is is ridiculous, you know. If you were reviewing [James] Watson’s paper on the double helix, you would know who wrote that paper, because you would have to be a deeply-involved expert in the field of crystallography at the time and studying the structure of the gene, and, you know, so…
AARON MATÉ: In your case, you’ve been very vocal about…on this issue and you’ve produced reports already that certainly have been widely distributed and discussed.
THEODORE POSTOL: Absolutely. There’s no way that anybody involved would have not known that I was an author on that paper. So…
AARON MATÉ: What do you think happened? What do you think…who do you think brought this pressure on the journal?
THEODORE POSTOL: Well, I honestly don’t know what happened. Let me…let me say that I was…I was a member of the editorial board of that journal, probably for about thirty years, and I immediately resigned from the editorial board. And I told them that, and I think they believed me, because they know who I am. I told them that if this article had nothing to do with me, if I was not a co-author and they did this to any arti…on any article, I would resign from the editorial board, because I think the editorial board…inadvertently, I don’t think they’re being dishonest. Maybe with themselves they’re being dishonest. I think they’re honest…they honestly believe what they’re telling me. But I think what probably happened is they saw all this noise. And I don’t think…I don’t think the editors were aware of the vitriol of these people. And they were probably taken aback and then just said that “we don’t want to get pulled into this.” Well, I have news for them: they have been pulled into it.
AARON MATÉ: Yeah, because part of the problem here is the people who have promoted the proxy war in Syria, promoted things like U.S. military intervention, have done a very good job at conflating what they deem to be…what they define as support for the Assad government, which is an official U.S. enemy, [with] skepticism of the available evidence and being opposed to using military force on false grounds, as in the case—if indeed these chemical attacks were manipulated—as would be the case of Douma and Khan Shaykhun, with people like Bellingcat, in the service, I think, of promoting U.S. foreign policy goals and Western foreign policy goals, [who] have done a very good job of making that conflation.
THEODORE POSTOL: This guy Higgins…this guy Higgins, actually, during this panel discussion, which I think anybody who’s really interested in this should look at it, it’s just…because it’s amusing as well as revealing. At one point in this panel discussion, he tells me that he finds me disgusting because I’m aiding war criminals [to] get away with mass murder. Now, it didn’t occur to him as I was… because I responded to that, that just because Assad is a war criminal, which I think he is, Assad is a war criminal, no question about it. Just because Assad is a war criminal doesn’t mean that there weren’t other criminals who actually caused this particular…who are actually responsible for this particular event.
So, calling the situation as you see it is what we try to do in our courts. Now, the courts are highly imperfect, as everyone knows, but what you try to do is judge the evidence in a particular court case. You may think the person in the court case is a murderer, but your job may be to determine whether or not they committed a particular murder. And if they committed another murder, they ought to be tried for that and convicted. But, this idea that, because you think they committed another murder, they must be found guilty for a murder that hasn’t been proven. To me it’s against international justice. If you’re going to have a system of international law, the UN needs to make sure that it has evidence to support its claims. Because people are going to stop showing any respect for international law if this is the way they’re going to go about business. That’s my real concern. My concern is respect for international law and the UN in the long run. The UN has failed in this particular case.
AARON MATÉ: And, as we wrap, there is a[n] upcoming summit of the OPCW in late November. The, according to the Courage Foundation, which convened the panel featuring the new whistleblower, this whistleblower wants to speak, wants to address this convention. Do you think that will happen? And do you have any hope that this revelation, and now with the weight of not just experts like yourself but the founding director general, José Bustani, of the OPCW, do you think that could be enough to make a change here, to bring sufficient pressure on the OPCW to be accountable and to respect the findings of its own experts?
THEODORE POSTOL: If it doesn’t happen, all I can say is, shame on the OPCW. And, also, shame on the UN, including the secretary-general of the UN, who should step in here and make sure that all voices are heard. I’ve actually had informal side discussions and I’ve indicated that I would like to go and talk to this group at the OPCW. And I really want to go and I’m able to go. I’m, you know, I’m just a hop, skip and a jump away in Boston and I’d be happy to go.
AARON MATÉ: Let me add, too: shame also on, I think, Western media that has completely ignored this story. You have an explosive case where you have two whistleblowers from the world’s top chemical weapons watchdog blowing the whistle, and blowing the whistle right now is a big topic in Washington. Blowing the whistle and pointing to potential fraud to produce a result that ultimately justifies U.S. military action. And even here you have, you know, even on the adversarial progressive side you have media outlets ignoring this story, and I find that shameful as well.
All right, so we’re gonna wrap there. Ted Postol is professor emeritus of Science, Technology and National Security at MIT. Professor Postol, thanks very much.
THEODORE POSTOL: Thank you. Appreciate the opportunity.
In the original interview, Professor Postol incorrectly stated that Bellingcat accused the authors of a study that Postol co-wrote as being paid by the Chinese and the Russian governments. This was an erroneous statement, and the transcript has been edited to reflect that error. Statement from Postol:
During this video interview I was thinking about an article by Eliot Higgins, “Simulations, Craters and Lies: Postol’s Latest Attempt to Undermine the Last Vestiges of his Reputation,” when I mixed up one of the article’s many insulting allegations with a statement instead made in the comments. I was not correct that Higgins accused me of being paid by the Russian and Chinese governments – the statement was instead made in a comment at the end of the article by one of his supporters. While I take responsibility for this error, I am surprised Mr. Higgins thinks that such an error would adversely affect his reputation when he addresses scientific analysis by calling the authors liars and saying that “[the moral consequences of their work] is absolutely disgusting.”
Aaron Maté is a journalist and producer. He hosts Pushback with Aaron Maté on The Grayzone. He is also is contributor to The Nation magazine and former host/producer for The Real News and Democracy Now!. Aaron has also presented and produced for Vice, AJ+, and Al Jazeera.