Whistleblower: OPCW suppressed Syria chemical evidence after US pressure

A second whistleblower from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has come forward to accuse top OPCW officials of suppressing critical evidence.

The evidence undermines allegations that the Syrian government committed a chemical weapons attack in Douma in April 2018 — an allegation that prompted US-led airstrikes. The second whistleblower also says that three US officials took part in pressuring the OPCW. We speak to veteran journalist Jonathan Steele, the first reporter to interview the second whistleblower.

Guest: Jonathan Steele, journalist, author, and The Guardian’s former chief foreign correspondent.

Read Jonathan Steele’s article at Counterpunch: “The OPCW and Douma: Chemical Weapons Watchdog Accused of Evidence-Tampering by Its Own Inspectors.”




AARON MATÉ: Welcome to Push Back. I’m Aaron Maté.

We have been covering the unfolding scandal at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Two whistleblowers from the OPCW have come forward to allege that top officials suppressed evidence collected at the scene of an alleged chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government in the city of Douma in April 2018.

The evidence that was collected, these whistleblowers say, undermine the claim that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack. But that evidence was never made public. The second whistleblower recently gave testimony at a panel convened by the Courage Foundation.

And I’m joined now by the first journalist to interview that second whistleblower. Jonathan Steele is a veteran journalist and the former chief foreign correspondent for The Guardian.

Welcome, Jonathan Steele, to Push Back. You recently spoke to the second whistleblower. Talk to us about his position and his main revelations.

JONATHAN STEELE: Well, he was one of the members of the team of fact-finders, called the Fact-Finding Mission, which was sent to Syria after the alleged gas attack. And he was the man in charge of deciding what samples to pick up from the ground and in related buildings, and to decide how to collect them. And so, it was a very senior position. They checked in two buildings particularly, one which had a cylinder on the roof and the other which had a cylinder on the upper floor of a nearby building, just below a hole in the roof.

Now, the rebels claimed that these two cylinders contained chlorine gas, had been dropped from Syrian government helicopters, that’s why they were in the position where they were found. But there was doubt over that. There was also doubt over the question of whether there had actually been any gas at all.

The first whistleblower, his evidence was leaked in the report in March this year, and he came to the conclusion in which he said – I spoke to him on the telephone – he came to the conclusion which was accepted by everybody except one other member of the team, that there was a higher probability that these cylinders had been placed manually in the place where they were found, rather than being dropped from helicopters.

Well, the new whistleblower was not dealing with the cylinders as such; he was dealing with whether there was gas in the environment. Now, chlorine gas degrades very rapidly, so by the time the inspectors got to the ground, which was about two weeks after the alleged gas attack, it would have evaporated and disappeared. But that didn’t mean there was no possibility of finding out if gas has been used. Because, while it degrades, it contaminates or acts with other chemicals that are in the natural environment. And so, you can test for the…what are called chlorinated organic chemicals, COCs, to see whether the levels are different from what you find in the natural environment, in drinking water, or in the households or in the ground.

And they took these samples, when they got back to The Hague – to the headquarters of the OPCW, which is in Holland in The Hague – they were sent off to two designated laboratories to be analyzed. And this whistleblower waited eagerly to hear what the conclusions were. And weeks went by, nothing happened, and he then discovered that management had received the results. It hadn’t passed them on to him or the other members of the team. And he also found out that the levels of COCs, chlorinated organic chemicals, in the samples picked up in these key buildings, were lower, lower than those found in the natural environment.

So, this suggested there couldn’t have been a gas attack, because you would have expected them to be higher, not lower. He also discovered that a report was going to be issued, which would not contain his findings or his analysis but would claim that the levels were not lower than in the natural environment. In other words, the lab tests would be totally ignored, and he complained to higher management about it.

AARON MATÉ: And what did management tell him when he complained?

JONATHAN STEELE: Well, he complained initially to the director-general of the OPCW, the top person, who said that they should look again and produce a different report, not the management report that the whistleblower got sight of.

But while they were preparing this new report, he and colleagues insisted to the head of the fact-finding team, who was also actually another Tunisian called Sami Barrek, that they must include the lower levels of COCs in the report, otherwise this would be distorting the lab analysis that they’d just received. And they got promises that that would happen. But then two days before the report came out, he discovered that, after all, they had not included the lower levels of COCs, and that came out in the interim report in July last year.

And then in March this year, the final report was published, which again excluded the low levels of COCs. And so, they concluded – the whistleblowers have concluded on the basis of the results – that there had not been a chemical-related event. They didn’t go so far as to say that the issue had been staged. In fact, nor had the original report of the cylinder examination in the previous year had said that. But the inference could be drawn: if there wasn’t a chemical gas attack, how had these cylinders got to the position that they’d got?

AARON MATÉ: Well, the first report – the one that was suppressed and ultimately leaked, it was authored by Ian Henderson – said that the inference could be drawn that the cylinders were manually placed. Suggesting…he didn’t say this part, but after saying that, if you say the cylinders are manually placed, that suggests then that the attack is staged.

JONATHAN STEELE: Right. Because of course the rebels were in charge of the area at the time of the alleged gas attack. About a week later they lost control of it. I mean, they’d lost control of a large part of Douma already. The final bit they lost, and they all escaped, many of them went to Turkey. And so, by the time the Syrian government came in there, it was reasonable and safe for the inspectors to go in.

By the way, in all the OPCW investigations of chemical gas attacks by the Syrian government, this was the first time that they’d been allowed to go in on the ground, because when the rebels were in control of areas, even though they claimed there had been gas attacks, it was not possible for the OPCW to go in. Either they decided not to go in or they decided security was not good enough for them to be able to go in. So, this Damascus…Douma episode was crucial. First time inspectors had been committed to go into the area and pick up samples from the ground where the gas attack was allegedly taking place.

AARON MATÉ: And just to specify, when you say the rebels, the group that controlled Douma at the time was a Saudi-backed, Saudi-funded extremist militia called Jaysh al-Islam, and…

 JONATHAN STEELE: Jaysh-al-Islam, which means in Arabic the Army of Islam.

AARON MATÉ: Right. And the reason why this story is all the more significant is because this…the allegation that there was a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government prompted, for the second year in a row, airstrikes by the US, also along with Britain and France. And now we are hearing two whistleblowers say that the rationale for those strikes was wrong.

But on that point, you have a stunning detail in your article on this, about the second whistleblower’s claims, where you report this. I’ll read it.

You’re talking about Bob Fairweather, who was the chef de cabinet at the OPCW, a high-ranking official there, and you’re describing the attempts by the whistleblower to have his samples…have the samples included and to have all the evidence weighed. And you write this:

“On July 4 there was another intervention. Bob Fairweather, the chef de cabinet, invited several members of the drafting team [from the OPCW] to his office. There they found three US officials who were cursorily introduced without making clear which US agencies they represented. The Americans told them emphatically that the Syrian regime had conducted a gas attack, and that the two cylinders found on the roof and upper floor of the building contained 170 kilograms of chlorine. The inspectors left Fairweather’s office, feeling that the invitation to the Americans to address them was unacceptable pressure and a violation of the OPCW’s declared principles of independence and impartiality.”

That’s from Jonathan Steele’s piece on this.

So, Jonathan Steele, talk to us about that. We have an intervention here by three unnamed American officials.

JONATHAN STEELE: Well, it’s pretty much exactly as you read out from my recent article.

AARON MATÉ: You know, it’s interesting, the panel that heard the second whistleblower’s testimony included José Bustani, the fir…the founding director-general of the OPCW. And Bustani is famous because he was basically forced out of his job by the US, and John Bolton infamously threatened him.

JONATHAN STEELE: That’s right. He was the first director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which only started in 1997. And they were, at that time, the US was at that time, obviously ramping up the pressure against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. And the OPCW had started discussions with Baghdad, with Saddam Hussein’s people, about whether Iraq would join the Chemical Weapons Convention. Various countries were joining; took some time for different countries to come on board. And the US apparently – and we can only speculate the reasons – but the US apparently thought that this would undermine its case that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, if he voluntarily agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which obviously includes the pledge that you don’t have chemical weapons and that you’ve destroyed them all.

So, this would have undermined the case for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and John Bolton was very keen that Bustani stop the negotiations with Iraq. And Bustani initially refused, and they eventually forced him out and told him he had to resign. And so [they] allegedly threatened to take pressures on his family. They said, “We know where your children live.” At that stage his children were actually living in New York City.

AARON MATÉ: And now 16 years later we appear, based on what you report here, to have another case of US pressure, political pressure, on the OPCW for a majorly consequential event that involves US military force.

Jonathan Steele, you’re a veteran journalist. Are you surprised so far by the lack of global attention to this story? It seems like a major scandal. Two whistleblowers at the world’s top chemical weapons watchdog alleging potential fraud.

JONATHAN STEELE: Well, I am rather surprised, because, I mean, people are not afraid to criticize US foreign policy, or British foreign policy, French foreign policy, in general. So, it’s not as though it’s a taboo subject to criticize the big powers for the way they operate. But, somehow, I think in this Syrian case – because Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, has been so heavily demonized, plus Russia being demonized under Vladimir Putin, and Putin is of course an ally helping to protect the Syrian government – it seems that they are considered to be so evil, so wicked, that anything that takes the pressure off them a little bit is difficult to analyze and to investigate by the mainstream media, it seems. I mean, I can only speculate why they didn’t want to do it. That’s my guess.

AARON MATÉ: Well, there’s been widespread bipartisan support spanning across the political spectrum into the left, into left-wing circles, for the proxy war that raged for so long in Syria, and a real refusal, I find, to look at the reality on the ground.

But look, let me ask you, as someone who covers this now, along with anybody else who comes forward on this issue, you’re going to be attacked and smeared as an apologist for the Assad government. So, let me ask you, what are your thoughts on the government, on the Syrian government?

JONATHAN STEELE: Well, I think the Syrian government is a pretty hardline government, and it’s determined to smash the rebellion that began in 2011. And, increasingly, as the war has become militarized, the opposition started to take arms from abroad, and Jihadi fighters have come in from abroad. It’s degenerated into what you called, rightly, a proxy war, and there’s brutality on both sides.

I think the Syrian government has behaved pretty badly, with detentions and torture of people. That seems to be pretty well-documented. And they are bombing from the air. But it’s no worse, I think, the bombing from the air, from what British and American planes have done in Raqqa. If you look at pictures of Raqqa after it was liberated from IS, you see complete streets and residential areas flattened, just as Aleppo, eastern Aleppo, is flattened and Homs was flattened. So, I think the use of air power by both sides in this terrible proxy war in Syria has been pretty much the same on both sides.

AARON MATÉ: The whistleblowers, both of them, say that they want to testify at an upcoming session of the OPCW. Can you talk about what concerns they want to bring to that session, which is happening later this month, and whether you think they’ll be allowed to do so?

JONATHAN STEELE: Well, there’s…in the statutes of the OPCW, it is said that inspectors have the right to register dissent and disagreement, without any fear of adverse consequences to their careers or to their liberty or their promotion prospects and so on. And so, they really want to just exercise their right to express dissent from the official report as it came out, both the interim and the final report. And to speak to all the 193 member states of the OPCW, which is holding its annual conference starting on November the 25th.

And it seems a fairly reasonable demand. I mean, the whistleblower that I heard in Brussels last month had a very impressive PowerPoint production, which probably he would like to show if gets permission to do it in The Hague in a week’s time. But I don’t know whether they…they’re going to be given permission to do that or not, because the same people who’ve distorted this report will probably not want any public dissent to be had at the annual conference.

But let’s wait and see. There is mounting pressure from public opinion and from media, the alternative media pretty much, and I think individual letters have been written by the Courage Foundation people to all the member states, inviting them to ask for the whistleblowers to give their evidence. And one of the signatories of that letter is José Bustani, the first director-general of the OPCW, who we already just discussed earlier in this interview.

AARON MATÉ: Right. Also, Hans von Sponeck, the former UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq. Also, Noam Chomsky, the MIT professor, and others.

One thing that you also report that I wanted to ask you about is that the whistleblowers made concerns noted in emails to top officials at the OPCW, and you report that they were asked to basically return those emails or to delete them?

JONATHAN STEELE: They were, and they did do that. And I asked Mr. Fairweather by email whether he could explain why that was done, but he didn’t reply.

AARON MATÉ: Do you know if the whistleblowers have the original copies of the emails that they sent, that made their concerns known?

JONATHAN STEELE: I don’t know. I mean, they told me they complied with requests to…the call to send the emails back, so I don’t know exactly what happened.

AARON MATÉ: But this is key because this could basically bury a paper trail that shows that these whistleblowers expressed their concern and their rejections.

JONATHAN STEELE: Yeah, the paper trail would be important. So would the discovery of the actual documents, the initial report written by the whistleblower, the redacted report that was supposed to replace it, and then the third report which was an edited one before the final report, the interim final report that came out in July last year. I mean, we did ask. And I asked, specifically to the whistleblower, whether we could see his report. He declined to do that for reasons which he didn’t explain. But I hope that at some point there’s documents of those reports that will also be published.

AARON MATÉ: Finally, Jonathan Steele, in speaking to the second whistleblower, what was your impression of him? Do you think that he wanted to do it in this way, or was he hoping that this could be resolved internally?

JONATHAN STEELE: He was definitely hoping that it would be resolved internally. And so was Ian Henderson, who wrote the report about the gas cylinders having been more likely placed manually on the ground in Douma.

I think the point…basic point is – and I’m glad you asked the question – is that these are professional scientists. They’ve worked for many years at the OPCW. They wouldn’t have been sent to Syria to pick up evidence if they’d had strong political views of one kind or another. They just feel annoyed that professional scientific conclusions have been rejected in favor of politically-biased answers which favor the foreign policy agenda of certain powerful Western states. They feel that the science has been corrupted.

AARON MATÉ: And finally, you reached out to the OPCW and you asked them to respond to the whistleblowers’ claims. What did…what did they tell you?

JONATHAN STEELE: Well, again, as with Mr. Fairweather, they did…they just didn’t respond. There was plenty of time, like, I wasn’t rushing them, there’s plenty of time, and they still haven’t responded. So, I don’t know what conclusions you draw from that.

AARON MATÉ: Well, we’ll leave it there for now and continue to cover this story. Hope you’ll come back to join us, Jonathan Steele. Jonathan Steele is a veteran journalist, the former chief foreign correspondent for The Guardian, and the first journalist to interview the second whistleblower who has come forward in the OPCW scandal. Jonathan Steele, thanks very much.

JONATHAN STEELE: Thank you for having me.