Bellingcat smears OPCW whistleblower, journalists with false letter, farcical claims

Bellingcat claimed to have uncovered a letter that disproves OPCW inspectors and journalists who challenged the censorship of a Syria chemical weapons probe. But in one of many falsehoods, Bellingcat’s “letter” was in fact only a draft that was never sent — and only further exposes the cover-up.

Bellingcat, the NATO member state-funded website that has participated in a propaganda effort to accuse Syria of a chemical weapons attack in April 2018 and justify the US-led bombing that followed, has published a new falsehood-ridden attack on an OPCW whistleblower whose suppressed findings exposed the pro-war deception.

According to Bellingcat, a leak that it has obtained not only “proves that a chemical attack did occur,” in the Syrian city of Douma in April 2018, but also, “shows that any notion of a cover-up at the OPCW is false.”

Contrary to Bellingcat’s account, the website has only added a new chapter to the OPCW cover-up scandal by publishing an article beset with multiple demonstrable falsehoods and outlandish or unsupported claims. It also features an effort to dox and discredit a veteran, highly-regarded OPCW inspector who challenged the censorship of his team’s investigation.

The anonymously authored Bellingcat article’s problems begin with its very premise, which turns out to be false. The article is based on excerpts of a leaked draft letter that, Bellingcat claims, was sent in June 2019 by OPCW Director General Fernando Arias to Brendan Whelan, a member of the OPCW’s Douma team. 

However, The Grayzone can reveal that the text that Bellingcat published was never actually sent to Whelan. Indeed, the text of the letter featured by Bellingcat was actually an unsent draft that Whelan never received. This fact dismantles the heart of the NATO state-backed website’s argument.

Dr. Whelan, a 16-year OPCW veteran, first challenged the censorship of his team’s investigation in June 2018, weeks after the OPCW team returned from Syria. A series of leaks show that Whelan and the other OPCW inspectors who deployed to Syria found evidence that undermined allegations of a chemical attack in Douma. Yet their data was suppressed, and, when the censorship was challenged, the inspectors were removed from their own investigation. 

The cover-up coincided with pressure on the OPCW from the U.S. government, which had bombed Syria, along with the UK and France, in April 2018 based on the pretext that the Syrian government was culpable. The OPCW’s final report in March 2019 omitted the suppressed findings and strongly implied Syrian government guilt.

According to Bellingcat, the purported letter from Director General Arias to Whelan is a silver bullet that absolved its initial findings and resolved all the questions surrounding the Douma investigation in one fell swoop. The letter “proves that a chemical attack did occur,” Bellingcat claims, and also “shows that any notion of a cover-up at the OPCW is false and confirms that the organisation acted exactly as it was mandated to.”

In addition, Bellingcat tries to suggest that Whelan, Wikileaks, and several media outlets including The Grayzone have somehow engaged in reckless malpractice, or even a conspiracy, by withholding the damning letter that the band of NATO state-funded digital sherlocks have managed to expose.

That would be an extraordinary feat for any set of leaks, let alone one that amounts to a grand total of just five paragraphs. But Bellingcat’s sweeping declarations are, in reality, based on a series of falsehoods — starting with the premise of the article itself. 

Bellingcat’s “letter” is actually an unsent draft

According to Bellingcat, the letter was “drafted by several members of the OPCW in June 2019 and then sent by the director general of the organisation, Fernando Arias, in reply to” Dr. Whelan.

Bellingcat false letter claim
Bellingcat falsely claims that the OCPW Director General sent its draft letter to Whelan, and insinuates that Wikileaks may have withheld a letter that it could not have possibly received.

This claim is completely false. Arias did send a letter to Whelan in June 2019, but it is not the one Bellingcat published. Arias’ actual letter does not contain any of Bellingcat’s text – not even a single sentence. The Grayzone has obtained the actual letter that Arias sent to Whelan and has made it available in full here.

Actual Aris letter to Whelan
Actual letter sent by OPCW Director General Fernando Arias to OPCW inspector Brendan Whelan in June 2019.

The actual letter that Arias sent to Whelan is easily distinguishable from the screenshot that Bellingcat published – and falsely claimed was sent by Arias. 

Text of draft letter falsely claimed by Bellingcat to have been sent by OPCW Director General Fernando Arias to OPCW inspector Brendan Whelan in June 2019. This letter was not sent.

Bellingcat did not publish its draft letter in full. In an email, and in multiple Twitter posts after the email went unanswered, The Grayzone asked Bellingcat whether or not it attempted to verify with the OPCW that the content of the letter it published was actually sent by Arias to Whelan. Bellingcat did not respond. (It did however, quietly correct an error that The Grayzone pointed out on a separate claim that falsely characterized Whelan’s expressed views). The OPCW Public Affairs office also did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Ironically, after the initial publication of its article, Bellingcat staffers took to Twitter to boastfully proclaim that journalists who have reported on the OPCW leaks were either “played” by their sources, or worse, deliberately chose to withhold the supposed damning OPCW draft letter that Bellingcat got its hands on.

“The reply from the OPCW DG was never published: either Whelan never leaked it, or those who published these leaks, such as @Wikileaks, chose not to,” Bellingcat wrote. “In either case this decision deliberately excluded a vital part of the story that clearly demonstrates Whelan’s claims were wrong.”

“This letter shows there was a clear attempt to obscure the truth of what happened in Douma on 7th April 2018. The only question that remains is whether @wikileaks, @couragefound, @ClarkeMicah, @aaronjmate et al were fooled, or whether they participated in obscuring this truth,” Bellingcat added.

“Aaron Mate of @TheGrayzoneNews confirms he DID NOT receive a crucial email exchange from his source for the Douma OPCW Leaks that would have completely debunked the claims he’s been making for the last two years, even speaking about it at the UN,” Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins wrote in a tweet that he pinned to his profile page. The Grayzone’s journalists, Higgins alleged, “fail to publish key pieces of correspondence that run counter to the narrative they’re trying to push, that’s all.”

“The people and orgs mentioned in the piece, Peter Hitchens, Aaron Mate, Robert Fisk, Wikileaks, the Courage Foundation and others have been caught red handed either practicing ‘journalism’ of the most shoddy kind, or participating in a cover-up of a chemical attack,” Bellingcat’s Nick Waters wrote. “Mr Maté got played by his source because he didn’t do proper due diligence,” Waters added.

In the end, the Bellingcat staffers’ attempt at mockery backfired in embarrassing fashion. The website erroneously claimed that the letter it published was sent to Whelan, and then tried to scold Whelan and journalists based on that false premise. The Bellingcat article notes that its published text is based on a “draft version of a letter.” Bellingcat mistakenly believed that the “draft” it obtained was actually sent.

In other words, Bellingcat was played by its source, did not do proper due diligence, or both.

A new attempt to cover up the cover-up

The fact that Arias did not actually send Whelan the draft text that Bellingcat published raises a series of possibilities. Given that it was drafted but never sent, one is that Arias’ office did not have confidence in the draft text’s assertions about the Douma probe.

However, although the Director General decided not to send the text to Whelan, it can at least be assumed that it does have the backing of the “several members of the OPCW” that Bellingcat claims drafted it, along with the “OPCW scientists” who provided “input.”

Whatever the case, the draft text in no way supports the grandiose conclusions that Bellingcat draws from it.

According to Bellingcat, the text “proves that a chemical attack did occur,” in Douma and also “shows that any notion of a cover-up at the OPCW is false and confirms that the organisation acted exactly as it was mandated to.” Even if all of the draft text’s new assertions were somehow correct, they still could not possibly support such a sweeping interpretation.

In regards to a cover-up, the Bellingcat draft text does not address, let alone challenge, a single concern that the inspectors have raised about the manipulation of their investigation

According to the inspectors, and as documented in the leaks from the OPCW, the Douma team’s initial report was doctored and kept from the public; key evidence was suppressed; key conclusions were re-written to suggest that Syria was guilty of an attack; a US delegation tried to influence them; and – after the censorship came under protest – all of the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) members who conducted the investigation in Syria (except for one paramedic) were sidelined and replaced by a so-called “core team.”

The Bellingcat draft letter excerpt does not address any of these revelations. It is illogical then for Bellingcat to claim that the draft text “shows that any notion of a cover-up at the OPCW is false and confirms that the organisation acted exactly as it was mandated to.” Not only was the draft text never sent, it does not address a single allegation about the many ways in which the investigation was compromised.

Whelan outlined his concerns about the compromise of his investigation and the flaws in the OPCW’s final report in two letters, sent in March and April 2019. It was these letters that Arias’ actual letter to Whelan came in response to. Whelan’s letters are nearly identical, with the April letter excluding some information unrelated to any scientific concerns. The Grayzone is publishing Whelan’s April 2019 letter for the first time. It can be accessed here.

Comparing the OPCW’s response to Whelan — both in the letter that Arias actually sent to Whelan and in the draft text that Bellingcat falsely claimed Arias sent to Whelan — shows that none of Whelan’s concerns about the manipulation of his probe were addressed.

A desperate doxxing 

If anything, the Bellingcat draft only adds weight to allegations of an official cover-up. What’s more, the malicious tactics deployed by a site founded by a self-described video game expert fond of telling critics lewd insults reflects a mounting sense of desperation. 

In an explicit and deliberate violation of Whelan’s privacy and confidentiality, Bellingcat not only named him but identified him as “Alex”, the whistleblower who privately shared his concerns about the cover-up with a panel convened by the Courage Foundation in October 2019. 

During his tenure, Whelan was considered the OPCW’s top expert in chemical weapons chemistry. He played such a senior role in the Douma investigation that he led the probe’s scientific component and authored its initial report. In a presentation to the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction at the OPCW shortly after returning from Syria, it was Whelan — not the nominal Douma team leader — who briefed the Member States about the mission, The Grayzone can reveal.

Bellingcat not only violated Whelan’s privacy by publishing his name, but lodged a demonstrably false accusation that he may have concealed “evidence.” As this article shows, Whelan never received the draft letter text that Bellingcat published. 

Given that Bellingcat’s source was clearly someone with access to draft OPCW documents, it is fair to conclude that an official from within the organization has used Bellingcat as a public relations tool to malign Whelan and intimidate other OPCW inspectors.

Vindicating the dissenting inspector and further invalidating the final report

While the draft text published by Bellingcat does not address the OPCW’s cover-up, it does address a few scientific concerns that Whelan expressed about the Douma probe’s final report – albeit briefly, in just three paragraphs.

Based on this, Bellingcat drew the risible conclusion that this brief excerpt of an unsent draft letter “proves that a chemical attack did occur” and “established that a chemical weapon was used.” 

It is an outrageous claim for a number of reasons. First, the unsent draft letter text addressed only a fraction of the dissenting inspectors’ scientific concerns. Second, if proof of a chemical attack existed, it would not have appeared for the first time in an unsent draft letter from the Director General to a dissenting inspector, and months after the final report was issued. It would or should have been documented in the Final Report itself – and in fact, it was not.

Further, the draft letter’s scientific claims contain an illogical and incoherent rationale.

According to the draft text, after Whelan left the OPCW for good in September 2018, an OPCW designated lab developed “techniques that allowed the OPCW to conclude chlorine gas had been released in the building in which the Syrian civilians died.”

Although no details are given of what these purported new techniques consisted of, the letter claimed that they were based on detecting so-called “chlorinated pinene compounds that have been shown to form in certain types of wood that have been exposed to chlorine gas.” As a result, “This laboratory’s analysis of wood samples taken from Douma indicated that the wood indeed had been exposed to chlorine gas.” (emphasis added)

What makes this argument so confusing and absurd is that no wood samples were ever analyzed after Whelan left the OPCW – or for that matter, after the Interim Report was published in July 2018. (This can be verified, for anyone wishing to check, by comparing Annex 3 of the Interim Report with Annex 5 of the Final Report, entries 6,8, 9, 12,18 and 7,12, 14, 22, 30 respectively). 

Therefore, regardless of if a new technique was developed after Whelan’s departure, it was never used to analyse further wood samples, and could not have added anything new to the evidence since the Interim Report.

In reality, a technique for detecting chlorinated pinene compounds (specifically bornyl chloride) in wood had already been developed by May 2018 when the first batch of analysis results were received by the OPCW, and before Whelan was sidelined. The original suppressed report, which Whelan authored, and the published Initial Report of July 2018 demonstrate this. The reports also show that bornyl chloride was detected in one wood sample from the basement of Location 2 (an apartment where one of the gas cylinders was found, and where scores of dead bodies were filmed) by one of the Designated Labs (source: Original suppressed report, Annex 5, entry 8; Interim Report, Annex 3, entry 8).

In neither of these reports is the presence of chlorinated pinene (bornyl chloride) considered a definite indicator of exposure of the wood to chlorine gas. According to the original report, it merely indicates that the wood was exposed to hydrogen chloride, which can come from chlorine gas but can also come from other benign sources. 

No consideration was given in the final report to alternative possible sources of hydrogen chloride apart from chlorine gas. The failure to consider alternate hypotheses is one of the many concerns that Whelan’s letter raised to Arias about scientifically flawed, if not fraudulent, methods evident in the final report. It is also the very reason that the Original report states that: “The exact identity of the active chlorine-containing compound was not determined,” and why the published Interim Report concludes that work to establish the significance of finding various chlorinated chemicals at Locations 2 and 4 “is ongoing.”

In fact, the final report also acknowledged the uncertainty about what the wood samples were exposed to: “Based on these findings alone, it cannot be unequivocally stated that the wood was exposed to chlorine gas, rather than to hydrogen chloride or hydrochloric acid.” (paragraph 8.10) This is inconsistent with the claim made in Bellingcat’s draft OPCW text that “the wood samples taken from Douma indicated that the wood indeed had been exposed to chlorine gas.”

The Grayzone can also reveal that Whelan, despite being sidelined from the investigation, undertook further work on the source of the chlorinated chemicals after the Interim report was issued. 

Whelan reported his findings at an open presentation to OPCW Inspectorate and Verification staff, including the Director of Inspectorate, in July 2018. In his presentation, Whelan demonstrated that chlorinated compounds found in the Douma samples are commonly present in the environment in such media as chlorinated water and wood preservatives. One of the key chemicals, trichlorophenol, which had been considered a “smoking gun” chemical that had been detected in some wood samples was now shown to be a common-place chemical found in such commodities as wood preservatives.

The FFM “core” team ignored this information and continued to claim it was a “signature” chemical in their final report. “The presence of chlorine-reactive species is based primarily on the detection of bornyl chloride and/or trichlorophenol,” the final report states. (para 8.9) Whelan protested this point in his letter to the Director General in April 2019. 

Remarkably, the draft text published by Bellingcat acknowledges that Whelan’s objection was correct. The draft text stated: “Your letter further refers to 2,4,6-trichlorophenol as being used erroneously as an indicator of chlorine exposure, and you rightly point out that this chemical can be present for a variety of reasons that do not require chlorine gas exposure.” Assuming that the OPCW Director General stands behind this unsent claim, then the OPCW has now conceded one of Whelan’s objections to the final report. 

Bellingcat’s draft OPCW text contains another revealing statement. In his April 2019 letter, Whelan pointed out that “that no background samples were analysed to put the detection of the chlorine-containing compounds in context.” The draft text attempts to rebut Whelan by stating: “Whether background samples were analysed or not has no bearing on this very clear evidence.” 

This astonishing claim is based on the false premise that it could be assumed that there were no chlorinated organic chemicals in the background in Douma. This was despite the explicit acknowledgement in the Final Report itself that because many chlorinated organic chemicals existed in the natural background, “it was important to gather control samples.” (Annex 4, paragraph 7) If it was so important to gather control samples, why would one not bother to analyze them?

An imaginary Syrian-Russian confession

After misinterpreting the draft text and drawing a sweeping interpretation without subjecting it to any scientific (or rational) scrutiny, Bellingcat went on to suggest an equally absurd conclusion. According to Bellingcat, their OPCW leak “also reveals that at a diplomatic level behind closed doors, the Russian and Syrian governments have both agreed with the conclusions of the OPCW report.”

It is worth considering the implications of this statement. Is Bellingcat – which has vigorously challenged Russia and Syria’s denials of Syrian government culpability in Douma – now actually asserting that these same governments secretly declared themselves guilty of a murderous chemical attack? Why then, one might wonder, hasn’t anybody revealed this shocking admission of guilt in the more than two years that the alleged Douma attack has been fought over in public?

To support this outlandish claim, Bellingcat shared the final two of the five draft paragraphs that it obtained. The draft text – written in Arias’ voice, but never actually sent by him to Whelan — stated:

I would further like to point out that the conclusion of the final Douma report is not in question. No State Party has questioned the conclusion that there are reasonable grounds to believe that a toxic chemical was used as a weapon in Douma.

This includes the Syrian Arab Republic and the Russian Federation, which in recent weeks have each sent us comments and questions on the final Douma report in notes verbale in which they themselves have indicated their agreement with the conclusion of the final report. These notes verbale, as well as our replies to them, have been made available to State Parties.

In convincing themselves that this vague, unsent text somehow proves an admission of guilt on Russia and Syria’s part, Bellingcat has also failed to understand that both government’s views have not been confined to “a diplomatic level behind closed doors,” but have instead been made public in the notes verbal (a formal diplomatic communication) that the draft text refers to, and that anyone can access.

Russia and Syria’s notes verbal, available on the OPCW’s website, do not challenge the claim that there is a possible presence of molecular chlorine in the cylinders found in Douma. But the documents also raise a number of other objections, including to a point that Bellingcat believes Russia admitted to. According to the note verbale, Russia told the OPCW that “the factual material contained in the report does not allow us to draw a conclusion as to the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon.” 

Moreover, suppose in Bellingcat’s fantasy world that Russia and Syria have suddenly declared themselves guilty of a chemical attack in Douma: what would that have to do with claims by the inspectors that their allegation was covered up? The inspectors wrote their initial report, and protested its censorship, well before the notes verbal and an unsent draft letter that Bellingcat ludicrously spun as a confession of guilt from the Russian and Syrian governments.

Believing that they have caught Russia and Syria admitting to a crime, Bellingcat then suggested that their imaginary confessions raised doubts about a recent UN Security Council session where this reporter testified. The two draft paragraphs cited above, Bellingcat states, “further casts the UN event at which [Aaron] Mate spoke as a public relations charade designed by the Russians as a disinformation exercise.”

With a staggering array of errors in just a single article – starting with a false premise and culminating in a delusional claim that Syria and Russia have issued secret confessions of guilt – it is the NATO-state funded outlet Bellingcat that has committed one of its biggest disinformation exercises to date.

“Bellingcat was somewhat discredited”

That Bellingcat published falsehoods and unsupported, outlandish claims is not out of character. Although it portrays itself as an “open-source” investigative website, Bellingcat is in fact a Western government-backed outfit that frequently publishes factually challenged articles about designated NATO adversaries, including Russia and Syria.

Bellingcat’s financial backers include the National Endowment for Democracy, a U.S. government organization founded by Ronald Reagan’s CIA chief, Bill Casey. (“A lot of what we do today was done covertly twenty-five years ago by the CIA,” the NED’s first director, Allen Weinstein, told the Washington Post in 1991). It is unclear how much money Bellingcat has received from the NED, as both organizations refuse to disclose it. Bellingcat takes in an even far greater sum from other Western governments and cut outs, including the Dutch Postcode Lottery. Bellingcat describes itself as a partner in the Open Information Partnership (OIP), a program of the UK government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, FCO. It is unclear what this partnership entails, and whether it involves funding.

Even Bellingcat’s own partners have privately raised doubts about its credibility. A leaked assessment produced for the UK FCO concluded that: “Bellingcat was somewhat discredited, both by spreading disinformation itself, and by being willing to produce reports for anyone willing to pay.”

Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins has also been caught in a potential lie about another partnership with the OPCW itself. As of at least September 2019, Bellingcat claimed on its website that the OPCW was one of its “partners.” However in February 2020, Higgins suddenly announced on Twitter that Bellingcat’s claim of an OPCW partnership was wrong, and the result of a “copy & paste” error. Bellingcat, Higgins claimed, had mistakenly “copy and pasted the list of names from another document and didn’t mean to leave it in… We’ve not collaborated with the OPCW, apologies for the confusion, totally my fault.”

Yet when Bellingcat published the “corrected” list, only one organization was now missing: the OPCW.

Higgins has never explained what the supposed “another document” was, nor how it could be that every one of the groups that Bellingcat said was a “partner” in September 2019 was still a partner in February 2020 — except for one organization, the OPCW. Higgins’ “correction” happened to come one day after Bellingcat published an attack on the OPCW whistleblowers that identified Whelan by name.

Now Bellingcat has once again attacked Whelan, with an error-ridden screed distinguished only by the magnitude of its falsehoods, and embarrassment. 

Correction (1/03/2021): This article incorrectly stated the source of a leaked UK government appraisal about Bellingcat. The appraisal was authored by the Zinc Network, not the Integrity Initiative. The error has been corrected.