Category Archives: Russia

Nuclear dangers if INF treaty abandoned could be worse than in the 1980s

Gorbachev and Reagan sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in 1987. Source: Wikipedia.

The 1980s were an eventful time in New Zealand. Older readers may remember the Springbok tour, the behaviour of Mr Muldoon, the National Party Prime minister in the early 80s, the snap election (over a proposed nuclear-free bill), the election of Labour in 1984, the French terrorist bombing of a ship in Auckland harbour, the local terrorist bombing of the Wellington trade union centre and murder of its caretaker Ernie Abbott, and New Zealand’s proud international stance opposing nuclear weapons.

An exciting time, but a very worrying time. Even in New Zealand, we were concerned about the nuclear arms race, and particularly the buildup of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe. These were extremely dangerous as they significantly shortened any warning time of a nuclear attack to mere minutes and produced a trigger-happy situation. “Use them or lose them” became a real military strategy – and this raised the potential of a worldwide nuclear conflagration.

So the signing of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) in 1987 was very welcome. This treaty banned the deployment of such destabilising weapons in Europe and European politicians have rightly described it as a foundation of European security ever since.

Now the US is threatening to pull out of this treaty. It clearly wants to develop and deploy these class of weapons again. The Russian Federation has replied with a pledge to respond with their own weapons development. Europeans are concerned, but seemingly not US politicians.

Perhaps because the immediate threat from this class of weapons is local (even though their use would most probably trigger a worldwide nuclear conflict). The US is not immediately threatened by such missiles close to their borders like European countries are.

But isn’t this very short-sighted? After all, abandonment of this treaty could encourage the Russian Federation to set up bases for these weapons closer to the US and to buildup deployment of nuclear-armed submarines close to the US coast. This would be the only way for Russians to achieve real parity with the USA with these weapons.

Remember the Cuban missile crisis? The US responded with appropriate fear to the threat of a Soviet missile base in Cub in 1992. They were so concerned that the world watched in horror during October 1962 as their response threatened world war. One would think with that history they should understand how Europeans, including Russians, view the current US stance.

But the current situation is more dangerous

The INF treaty has prevented any reoccurrence of situations like the Cuban missile crisis. But, I think the abandonment of the INF treaty could lead to a situation more dangerous than we saw in the 1980s. For two reasons:

1: These missiles will be stationed even closer to dangerous international borders. Previously the Soviet Union had the buffer territory of the Warsaw Pact countries, eastern Europe. Now the Russian Federation has no buffer. (As a telling Twitter comment said: “It’s really a bit much for Russia to set up a country for themselves on NATO’s very doorstep!”). These missiles could be based right on their border. And correspondingly, Russian missiles could be based on the borders of neighbouring NATO countries.

Reaction times will be even shorter than in the 1980s and nuclear strategy would become even more trigger happy.

2: The international climate is more tense than in the 1980s, and specifically the USA-Russian Federation relationship more problematic.

In the 1980s there were clear ideological and political differences but the situation was recognised by both sides and there seemed to be respect for each other. A recognition that the other side had their own legitimate interests which should be taken into account.  Negotiations were possible – and indeed fruitful when it came to controlling nuclear arms.

Today there seems to be no respect. Negotiations seem impossible. Indeed, the US president gets accused of treachery if he so much as talks with the Russian president. Despite the lack of obvious ideological and political divisions, the anti-Russian hysteria in the US is much greater than the anti-Soviet fears during the 1980s.

That in itself creates an extra danger. It inhibits the necessary contacts and negotiations at a time when such contact and negotiation have become extremely important.

Negotiations and contact the key

Of course, the very success and importance of the INF treaty do not mean it has no problems or that it should not be reviewed or renegotiated. After all, it is over 30 years old. Other countries now have such nuclear weapons and are deploying them. Israel, India, Pakistan and China for example.

Pakistani Intermediate-range ballistic missile. Image sourceMissile deterrence: Pakistan tests nuclear-capable ballistic missile.

The US itself may have intentions of deploying these sort of weapons in Asia (not covered by the INF treaty) as well as along the Russian border in Europe. Deployments in Asia and the Middle East bring a new set of problems and this is an argument for renegotiation of the existing treaty or new negotiations on new treaties involving Asia and Middle Eastern countries.

Difficult I know, but a hell of a lot safer than another intermediate-range nuclear arms race and deployment.

The US claims that the Russian Federation has violated the INF treaty with the development of new weapons. The Russian Federation has made similar claims about the US. While President Trump appeared to use this claim to justify their abandonment of the treaty this is disingenuous.

Like all such treaties, the INF contains provisions for inspection and investigation of complaints. Charges of treaty violations are simply political garbage if not accompanied by formally invoking the complaint and investigation procedures. In fact, I think when complaints like this are made and the formal procedures not followed we can be sure the claims are false.

However, the answer to all these problems is surely maintaining contact, using the existing treaty negotiation processes and embarking on any new negotiations where required. All this is infinitely preferable to the alternative of launching the world into a new dangerous and very destabilizing nuclear arms race.

Is Trump the problem?

Well, the guy is a buffoon, even if a legitimately elected buffoon, and makes unexpected and stupid decisions. But I think in this case he is simply following the record and policies of ultra-conservatives in the US and UK who really seem to be pulling his strings on such matters.

The USA has a record of withdrawing from important treaties predating Trump. The USA pulled out of the anti-ballistic missile treaty in 1992. There have been ongoing problems with US cooperation in the Open Skies Inspection Treaty which helps monitor adherence to treaties like the INF.

Trump is guilty of a lot of things – but I believe it wrong to blame him for the current US political hysteria which inhibits contact between the US and the Russian Federation and the negotiation or renegotiation of important agreements.

US anti-Russian hysteria is dangerous – for the world as well as the USA

It is easy to pass off the anti-Russian hysteria in the US as simply an US foible. Nothing for us to worry about it. Just a way fo a defeated presidential candidate to explain her failures.

The anti-Russia hysteria is out of control and dangerous. Image Source: AMID ‘RUSSIAGATE’ HYSTERIA, WHAT ARE THE FACTS?

But the hysteria is real. No matter there is no evidence to support the charges made against Russia this hysteria has developed its own legs. It has penetrated into the organs of state and severely limits the ability of top state officials to carry out their responsibilities at the international level. Specifically to carry out their responsibilities in their relations with the Russian Federation.

And that affects us all. Yes, there has been a political overflow so that this anti-Russian hysteria has even infected many of our politicians and media people in New Zealand. Relatively easily as it has built on a long-standing anti-communist and anti-soviet base. (In fact, I sometimes find current critics of the Russian Federation referring to that country as the Soviet Union, or describing it as a communist country).

More concerning for me is that this hysteria is making the world a more dangerous place. It inhibits the ability of major powers to cooperate in solving outstanding international problems like the war in Syria. And such US-Russian cooperation is vital to solving these problems.

The hysteria is also making the collapse of treaties like the INF treaty much more likely. It is making it harder to renegotiate these treaties or to negotiate new ones. That is destabilising.

It seems to me that the production and deployment of new intermediate nuclear missiles are very dangerous because it is destabilising. it will lead to a new “use them or lose them” military strategy and encourage trigger happiness. I can only hope that wiser heads will manage the situation until the US political hysteria disappears and sanity can be returned to international relations.

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Flight MH17 tragedy in Ukraine – new evidence

New evidence presented at Russian Ministry of Defence press conference, 17 September 2018.

In July 2014 the Malaysian Airline Flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine. All 283 passengers and 15 crew died. A Dutch-led international Joint Investigation Team (JIT) has been investigating the tragedy with the aim of determining criminal blame.

Update: Facebook took it upon themselves to censor my timeline and remove the Facebook post of my article. It seems their fact-checkers at the Atlantic Council have judged this information as “not following community standards”

Bit of a lesson there.

 

The JIT produced a preliminary report in 2016 (see But will it stand up in court?) and updated this with new evidence at a press conference last May 24. At the conference they revealed the serial number of the missile which shot down the plane and made a general appeal for people who might have information on this to come forward. At a Press Conference this week the Ministry of Defence (MOD) of the Russian Federation has responded with information from the manufacturer’s log books about this specific missile.

This appears to be the most concrete evidence to date which could be used to lay credible blame for the tragedy.

The JIT reveals serial numbers of the missile and appeals to the public for information about it.

While the JIT May 24 statement laid the blame on the Russian Federation, their evidence was rather subjective – relying on subjective interpretation of markings on vehicles in videos available online. “Open source” evidence. In contrast, the Russian MOD was specific and taken from archived information from the missile manufacturer.

In a way, this is rather unique because this information was understandably classified. Presumably, Russian officials have been active in the period between May and September locating the log books, interviewing relevant staff members from the time of production and going through the bureaucratic procedures required to declassify the material.

The new evidence

The video of the Russian MOD press conference above summarises three pieces of evidence the Russians have made available:

1: The most convincing evidence is the date of manufacture of the specific missile (December 1986) and its transport to the military unit where it was deployed. The records show it was deployed to a unit based near Lvov in the then Ukrainian Socialist Republic. It had never been returned to Russian territory.

I think that evidence is solid. The MOD spokesperson said the information has been passed onto the JIT and if they ask to inspect the archives they will be invited to Moscow to do so. He also made the point that the Russian side has asked the JIT to request the log books of the Ukrainian military unit which has been in possession of that missile and reveal its movements and location during July 2014.

2: Analysis of the video material the JIT had relied on to support their conclusion that the missile came from the Russian 53rd Anti Aircraft Missile Brigade based near Kursk in the Russian Federation. That video material had initially been compiled by Bellingcat, a suspect internet group now allied with NATO. The JIT conclusion relied on subjective tracking of markings on a BUK unit and its transporter and claimed to track it through its journey.

JIT open source video evidence supporting their conclusion that the BUK unit came from Russia

Russian experts have analysed these videos and shown problems with lighting and perspective indicating they have been faked. Something as simple as placing an image of a BUK unit into an existing video.

Their analysis seems credible, but obviously, this is the sort of thing which could be debated between experts in a court.

3: A recording of a telephone conversation made in 21016 where Ukrainian Armed Forces Col. Ruslan Grinchak refers to the tragedy in a way that implied it was caused by the Ukrainian armed forces. This person was in charge of airspace over the Donetsk region at the time of the tragedy.

This evidence relies on interpretation so is less convincing by itself.

Conclusion

The new evidence resulting from the discovery of the missile serial numbers by the JIT looks conclusive. As Russian Lieutenant General Nikolai Parshin told reporters the archives show:

“the missile was assembled on December 24, 1986, and delivered by rail to the military unit number 20/152, officially named the 223rd Air Defense Missile Brigade. It was deployed to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic’s Ternopol Region, which was part of the Subcarpathian Military District.”

Unless archive evidence in the possession of the Ukrainian armed forces can show that the missile was subsequently exported back to the Russian Federation there seems no doubt that Flight MH17 was shot down by a Ukrainian missile.

However, much more has to be done to apportion blame. There is still the possibility that this particular BUK unit was in the hands of the separatist forces in the Donetsk or Lugansk regions (although Dutch Intelligence reports at the time indicated any BUK units in the hands of separatists were not functioning -see Flight MH17 in Ukraine – what do intelligence services know?).

What is clear is that the ball is now back in the hands of the JIT, and more specifically, the Ukrainian armed forces. The JIT should now demand archived information on the locations, servicing and possession of this specific missile in the period between 2086 and July 2014.

Of course, as in other aspects of this investigation, the Ukrainian side may claim that records do not exist or have been destroyed. I do not think that is good enough and such lack of cooperation has already damaged the reputation and reliability of the JIT. Ukraine, as possibly one of the suspects, should never have been given membership of the JIT where it can influence the investigation and exert veto power over the dissemination of findings.

Perhaps reporters should now be asking the Ukrainian military to go away and find this specific missile and hold their own press conference where they can expose the serial number of the one they have in their possession.

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Novichock detection and the Salisbury tourists

Image credit: EU Today.

The Salisbury novichok poisonings are a real can of worms. Media coverage is obviously politically, rather than scientifically, driven. Social and mass media reporting is highly partisan and the scientific components and reports (which are mostly classified) can become slaves to the particular political masters. I find the whole drama a mystery and certainly do not want to tie myself to any of the conspiracy theories, official or otherwise, that are floating around. It’s probably a subject to keep well away from.

However, one aspect intrigues me – the claimed identification of novichock residues in the London hotel room used by the Russian duo, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. In particular, is the identification of the material reliable and, further, is the reporting of this identification factual and reliable?

Media reporting: This generally assumes a positive identification, although at trace levels. The Sun, for example, reported:

“Petrov and Boshirov stayed in the City Stay Hotel in Bow, East London, during their time in the UK.

Cops searching their room two months later on May 4 are said to have discovered minute traces of Novichok, a high-grade military nerve agent created by Soviet scientists.”

And later:

“police found traces of Novichok in the hotel room in which the pair stayed for two nights.”

Similarly, the Independent reported:

“Investigators later found traces of novichok in their room at the City Stay Hotel.

They said the amount was too low to present a health risk but are appealing for any hotel guests who stayed there between 4 March and 4 May to contact investigators.”

Since Petrov and Boshirov surfaced and were interviewed the media coverage has become even more partisan and the discovery of these traces of novichock is being portrayed as even more definite.

The police reportIn the absence of an official scientific report of the analyses this is the best we have to go on:

“On 4 May 2018, tests were carried out in the hotel room where the suspects had stayed. A number of samples were tested at DSTL at Porton Down. Two swabs showed contamination of Novichok at levels below that which would cause concern for public health. A decision was made to take further samples from the room as a precautionary measure, including in the same areas originally tested, and all results came back negative. We believe the first process of taking swabs removed the contamination, so low were the traces of Novichok in the room.

Following these tests, experts deemed the room was safe and that it posed no risk to the public.”

This raises more questions, for the scientifically inclined, than the answers, seemingly, provided:

  • How many samples were taken – 2 positives is probably a low proportion of the total measurements?
  • Where were the sample sites located in the room
  • How do the low levels reported compare with the detection limits for the methods used?
  • Was the decision to take further samples based on lack of confidence in the results form the first sampling?
  • Again, how many further samples were taken and from what sites in the room?

I suspect that the two positive detections were probably false positives which the analyst had low confidence in. It is likely many samples were taken from the room so that two positives near, or at, the level of detection is not a good result. I suspect experts would challenge this evidence in court.

Absence of evidence is not proof of innocence

I should stress that in questioning the results I am not trying to argue for the innocence of the two guys. After all, a true professional would not have contaminated the hotel room. If the evidence is genuine, though, it may be more suggestive of a non-professional or non-state actor than a professional hitman.

The problem, though, at this stage is that all the other evidence made public is circumstantial and unlikely to stand up in court. The claimed positive detection of novichock-type compounds in the hotel room could be the key to a successful conviction so any doubts should be removed.

Novichock compounds

The following presents my views on the problems of detecting novichock compounds at low levels and why I think we should not accept the current media reports as positive evidence. A court would have to look very critically at the actual data and detection methods used. At the moment the political and police statements could be expressing far more confidence in the reported findings than is actually warranted by the real evidence.

An Iranian paper from two years ago, Hosseini et al., (2016) provides information on the synthesis, structure and detection of novichock-type compounds. It is probably the most up-to-date information publicly available and its citation is

Hosseini, S. E., Saeidian, H., Amozadeh, A., Naseri, M. T., & Babri, M. (2016). Fragmentation pathways and structural characterization of organophosphorus compounds related to the Chemical Weapons Convention by electron ionization and electrospray ionization tandem mass spectrometry. Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry, 30(24), 2585–2593.

The paper describes the micro-synthesis of two compounds that are listed under Schedule 2.B.04 of the Chemical Weapons Convention. These are:

  • Compound 3: N-[Bis(dimethylamino)methylidene]-P-methylphosphonamidic fluoride, and
  • Compound 4: O-alkyl N-[bis(dimethylamino)-
    methylidene]-P-methylphosphonamidate Novichok derivatives

The figure shows the chemical structures of these compounds.

The F atom in compound 3 is replaced by an organic group (R) to form the novichok derivative. As this can be either of a wide range of organic groups (the authors list nine different groups for derivatives they synthesised) the novichock-type compounds include a range of different chemicals with differing levels of toxicity.

This is why more official reports on the Salisbury poisonings refer to novichock-type nerve agents and not just novichock.

Before any clever reader decides to use this paper to synthesize their own samples of these or similar compounds I must stress the warning provided by the authors:

“It should be noted that, due to the extreme toxicity of these materials, the separation and purification of CWC-related chemical are very difficult and therefore should be carried out only by a trained professional in an efficient fume cupboard equipped with an active charcoal filtration system.”

Detection of novichok-type compounds

Mass spectrometry methods are used for detection. This involves breaking up the molecules into fragments using an electron ionizer (EI). These molecular fragments are then separated according to mass and charge and the amounts of each detected in a mass spectrometer (MS) to produce an EI-MS spectrum.

Each compound has its own “fingerprint” – a pattern of peaks defined by the mass/charge (m/z) of each molecular fragment and the relative intensity of each peak. The figure below shows the EI-MS “fingerprints” for compound 3 and the O-ethyl derivative of compound 4.

We can see why the detection of a compound relies not only on a single peak but also other characteristic peaks and their relative sizes.

For example, the largest peak (H) at m/z = 71 occurs in both compounds. This is because the molecular fragment (see the chemical structure to the right) responsible for it is produced by ionization of both compounds. So that peak cannot be used alone to differentiate between the two compounds. Identification of a specific compound requires locating all the major characteristic peaks and ensuring their relative intensities are correct.

This is straightforward where the compounds are available at relatively high concentrations and the combination of mass spectroscopy with gas or liquid chromatography helps to remove some of the background chemicals. The ability of UK experts to conclude that the type of novichok used to poison the Skripals is the same as that in the fake scent bottle used by the second victims (Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley) means that they were able to recover samples containing the nerve agent at sufficiently high concentrations.

But, at low concentrations one may simply not be able to find all the characteristic peaks, and identification using just the most intense peaks is not so reliable. For example, compounds 3 and 4 could not have been differentiated at low concentrations if all that could be detected were very small peaks at m/z =  71, 135 and 150. Yet that is the situation when searching for trace levels and one is always conscious that the peaks that are detected could be due to low levels of a completely different compound.

Conclusions

I suspect the description of the two possibly positive samples in the London Hotel as trace levels or “at levels below that which would cause concern for public health” were interpretations driven by “wishful thinking” and exaggerated confidence and not surety. After all, scientists often face such pressures when their political masters are looking for results to fit a preconceived narrative. It is easy to be persuaded in such situations. And it is tempting for both scientists and police to describe their findings in a more confident way when presenting to the media than they would during peer discussions in the laboratory or office.

My suspicions are supported by the fact that the total number samples taken from this hotel room must have been quite large so that makes the reliability of the positive values at such low levels for only two samples quite suspect (although information on locations of sampling sites would help this interpretation).

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Who is weaponising the vaccination debate?

Image credit: How To Win a Vaccination Debate

The  media are promoting a new scientific paper on the vaccination debate. Their interest is undoubtedly driven by the study’s conclusion that “Russian trolls” (and by implication the Russian state) are amplifying this debate to promote discord in the US. The title describes this as “Weaponization of Health Communication.”

I am very cynical. After all, the media loves to dramatise these matters – and scientists are not immune to the temptation of taking advantage of this and the current political environment. The data the authors present is weak and has a far more reasonable explanation than the one they assume.

Yes, I may well be called a “Russian troll” or one of “Putin’s Useful Idiots” (and it wouldn’t be the first time) for expressing these doubts. But I have read the paper and this was helpful as it provides sources enabling me to do my own checking.

The paper is:

Broniatowski, D. A., Jamison, A. M., Qi, S., AlKulaib, L., Chen, T., Benton, A., … Dredze, M. (2018). Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate. American Journal of Public Health.

That’s just the abstract but here is a link to the full text.

The paper summarises its main claim about “Russian trolls” as:

“Russian trolls and sophisticated Twitter bots post content about vaccination at significantly higher rates than does the average user. Content from these sources gives equal attention to pro- and antivaccination arguments. This is consistent with a strategy of promoting discord across a range of controversial topics—a known tactic employed by Russian troll accounts. Such strategies may undermine the public health: normalizing these debates may lead the public to question long-standing scientific consensus regarding vaccine efficacy.”

The sources

The analysis relies on subjective judgment for defining a twitter account as a bot, but it does use two publicly available lists of twitter accounts (and tweets from these accounts) defined as inauthentic or false “Russian trolls.”

These sources are:

  1. “Russian troll accounts identified by NBC news” which allegedly documented “Russian interference in the US political system” (see Twitter deleted 200,000 Russian troll tweets. Read them here), and
  2. “Accounts the US Congress identifies as Russian trolls” (see Twitter’s list of 2,752 Russian trolls).

The evidence supporting their main claim is given in their Figure 1: Bots’ Likelihood of Tweeting About Vaccines Compared With Average Twitter Users: July 14, 2014–September 26, 2017. See below:

Tweets from the “NBC Russian Trolls” contain a higher incidence of vaccination keywords than tweets from the average twitter user. To be clear – this is not evidence of promotion of an anti-vaccine message (“Content from these sources gives equal attention to pro- and antivaccination arguments”). It simply shows these collection of tweets contained a higher than average reference to this polarizing subject.

I suspect a similar analysis of this collection of tweets would also show a higher than average incidence for other polarizing subjects in this collection. It is the nature of the tweet selection not evidence of a specific motive.

In fact this claim of “promoting discord” is so commonly used nowadays that it seems to have lost any meaning. Politicians now attribute this motive to much of the Russian social media – and to Russian mainstream media (eg., RT and Sputnik) news reports.

We should note that the authors did not attempt to justify the highly political allegation. They simply aligned themselves with the political message, but the senior author Broniatoski admits “we cannot say that with 100% certainty, because we’re not inside their head.”

Unfortunately, they did not consider for one moment other possible explanations for their results (that is highly unscientific and reveals a bias). I think this illustrates the power of the controlling or prominent political narrative. Anti-Russian hysteria is widespread in the US at the moment.

But there are more innocent motives for such tweets which a more objective analysis would have considered (see below).

The “guilty” tweets

I have looked through the database listing the tweets identified as from“Russian troll accounts identified by NBC news.” The incidence of reference to vaccination in the tweets from“Accounts the US Congress identifies as Russian trolls” was not much different to that for the “average user” so I did not consider them.

There were 203,451 tweets in this collection and I found about 100 (about 0.05%) included a vaccine keyword (vacc*). The paper gives examples of both pro and anti-vaccine tweets from this collection and mine were similar. These were hardly remarkable – indeed most of them were retweets. For example:

  • RT @HealthRanger: Don’t miss this: #autism-vaccine link explained by doctors!   https://t.co/L9ziemow6o  #antivax #vaccines #adhd
  • RT @ActivistPost: States are rushing to pass vaccine mandates before everyone realizes that they’re completely unnecessary at best, harmful…
  • RT @HealthRanger: Danish #documentary exposes widespread damage caused by HPV vaccine https://t.co/nuQqQ1u0XZ  #health #vaccines #antivax #…
  • RT @HealthRanger: Never inject them. #antivax #vaccines #natural #health https://t.co/oY0XLqRkdH
  • RT @pakalert: The Scary TRUTH About Vaccines (Satanic illuminati Vaccines Agenda Exposed Full Documentary) https://t.co/fxs8zOwVnV
  • RT @WorldTruthTV: Robert De Niro To Produce Film Proving Vaccines Cause Autism | World https://t.co/telXZBWPRi https://t.co/VrApvqn62s
  • RT @CobraCommans: Canadian scientists to test promising HIV vaccine on 600 volunteers @ANCParliament @My_AfricanUnion @AfricaHealthFor
  • RT @GStein269: Perry talking about Drugs and Vaccines? https://t.co/lsxJN2Udcy
  • RT @SanJosePost: #politics California’s vaccine bill passes Assembly, next hurdle: Gov. Jerry Brown
  • RT @varadmehta: Having a vaccine truther chair a commission on vaccine safety is something that merits actual outrage. But media only has o…
  • RT @blicqer: Major HIV Vaccine Trial Set to Begin in South Africa  https://t.co/fPkW3XYV32 @TheRoot https://t.co/I5iRgU42Yn

The #VaccinateUS hashtag

The paper describes the #VaccinateUS hashtag as:

“designed to promote discord using vaccination as a political wedge issue. #VaccinateUS tweets were uniquely identified with Russian troll accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency—a company backed by the Russian government specializing in online influence operations.”

Again, it did not provide any evidence to support this allegation.

The authors claim these tweets “contain a combination of grammatical errors, unnatural word choices, and irregular phrasing.” I did not see this myself – the grammar in these tweets appeared to me to be far better than the average tweets I see. The authors did acknowledge that these “messages contain fewer spelling and punctuation errors than do comparable tweets from the general vaccine stream.”

Tweets with this hashtag are about evenly divided between pro- and anti-vaccination potions (“43% were provaccine, 38% were anti vaccine, and the remaining 19% were neutral”). It occurred rarely in the quarter million tweets.

While they appear to have been specifically written by the account holders or staff at the organisation behind them, rather than simple retweets, they hardly provide evidence for a motive of “sowing discord.”

Here are some examples:

  • what will you fill when you get a disease that you could’ve been protected from? #VaccinateUS
  • if we don’t have regular chek ups and get #vaccines-what’s the point of doctors’ work? #VaccinateUS
  • open your eyes, people! It’s all government conspiracy plan  #VaccinateUS
  • our government cares only about money so it’s profitable for them to say that #vaccination is necessary #VaccinateUS
  • the production of a #vaccine is disgusting #VaccinateUS
  • #VaccinateUS FDA  state that #vaccines are safe
  • #VaccinateUS For sure #vaccines work!
  • God bless big pharma. You fools #VaccinateUS

Amplification of the anti-Russian hysteria

Ironically the charge laid at the supposed “Russian trolls” (that they seek to sow discord by amplifying existing electoral or polarizing debates) is actually typical of much of the reaction in our media to stories like this. In fact these media reports are aimed at sowing discord and promoting Russophobia. And, unfortunately, such anti-Russian amplification, or weaponization to use the language of the paper, comes from people I would have thought should know better.

This example from March for Science – a social media group formed after Trump’s election and aimed at mobilising scientists against anti-science policies of the new administration.

They are reposting an article from the Guardian (which these days leaps onto any anti-Russian argument they find). But in doing so they add their own claim:
” Study finds that 93% of tweets about vaccines between 2014 and 2017 were planted by bots and Russian trolls with the aim of sowing division.”

The 93% is the invention of March for Science as neither the paper or The Guardian provided this figure. And the study did not “find” that Russian trolls were sowing divisions – that was the prevailing assumption they started with. March for Science is simply crudely (very crudely considering their invention of 93%) amplifying the anti-Russian narrative and contributing to weaponization of social media against the Russian Federation.

Bringing this home, the NZ Facebook page Science Community New Zealand reposted the March for Science claim. Here we have social media accounts claiming to be pro-science amplifying an outright lie on social media.

Update: Science Community New Zealand has now removed the offending post – a good sign perhaps.

I am disappointed at such a naively political falsification from organisations which is meant to be promoting science. It does show how persuasive the current anti-Russian hysteria is – but it is especially disappointing to see people who should know better succumbing to it. Or, perhaps, I have been fooled and the real motives of March for Science and Science Community New Zealand have been far more questionable right from the start.

A more realistic motive for these tweets

The motive given by the study’s authors, and usually promoted in the current mainstream media narrative (sowing discord to weaken US society), really does not hold water. That strategy could more legitimately be attributed to ordinary US twitter users who indulge in tweeting on controversial subjects in far larger numbers. Anything  added by these Russian trolls is minuscule. If the Kremlin genuinely has such a strategy it should be judged a pitiful failure.

But what about this shady company Internet Research Agency based in St Petersburg? I have no doubt it exists and that it is planting material in social media like Facebook and Twitter. Presumably it is also setting up non-authentic or fake accounts for this purpose.

However, the paper’s claim that it is “a company backed by the Russian government” is not supported by any evidence at all and is typical of the way our media continually falsely claims that Russian individuals and entities are connected to the Kremlin or “close to Putin” – simply because of their ethnicity.

While the company (and many similar companies indulged in similar activity) have no credible results in “sowing discord” (compared with the ordinary, authenticated users of Twitter and Facebook in the US) they do seem to be doing this for commercial purposes. These appear to be similar to the activity of the Cambridge Analytica company which acquired personal data from social media users which they then marketed to political users.

Using fake or inauthentic accounts to retweet messages, or plant original messages, in a polarizing political or health debates is one way of mining personal data. Authentic users who retweet, “like” or repost such messages reveal a preference or bias which is of interest to companies involved in marketing products and ideas. Even seeding social media with pictures and videos of cats and dogs which attract likes, retweets and reposts can help obtain information of use to commercial and political entities.

Hell, Google, Facebook and Twitter themselves are involved in mining account holder’s personal information and selling it to advertisers.

How else do we end up getting social media messages related to topics we have searched for information on, or have commented  on in social media. On the surface this appears harmless, even useful (although the continual  messages I still get offering travel insurance just because I researched the topic several months ago are rather tiring – and counter-productive as they turn me off the advertiser).

Conclusions

My main objection to this paper is its uncritical and unthinking acceptance of the prevailing political narrative. I think it shocking that a scientific study makes no attempt to question or validate the narrative it relies on.

The data is extremely weak – only someone intoxicated by the political narrative will seriously see the extremely small number of tweets and retweets they found as evidence of a “strategy of sowing discord.”

Finally, the authors make no effort to consider other more reasonable explanations for their data. That is a pity as mining personal data by Google, Facebook, Twitter, Cambridge Analytica, the Internet Research Agency and other commercial companies should concern us all. Targeted advertising is very intrusive and annoying. Targeted political influence is also no doubt occurring and should concern us.

But the old trick of blaming the Russians for these problems is diverting our attention away from the real culprits.

I guess this shows how a bad political climate and destructive prevailing narrative can influence even the most scientific researcher.

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Another BUK accident in Ukraine

Ukrainian BUK transport misses corner and ploughs into a building in the centre of Kiev. Image credit: Hromadske

It seems the Ukrainians do have problems with some of their military equipment. In particular their BUK missile systems (A BUK missile was implicated in the Malaysian MH17 tragedy in July 14 – see But will it stand up in court?).

A Ukrainian BUK missile destroyed a passenger airline (Siberia Airlines Flight 1812) in 2001 with the loss of 78 passengers and crew. Apparently as a result of an accidental firing during military exercises in the Black Sea. Now one of these systems has had an accident in the heart of Kiev during rehearsals for an independence day parade due August 24th.

‘Vlad Vash’, an eyewitness, wrote on Facebook:

“Well, there is your parade for you! First a tank nearly mowed me down, but stopped just in time. Then the very next vehicle drove into a wall.”

This just illustrates to me a huge flaw in the official investigation of the MH17 tragedy. The Joint Investigation Team seemed to start with a preconceived scenario (“the Russians did it”) and were sufficiently blinkered not to investigate alternative scenarios (see But will it stand up in court?). I have always been amazed that the investigation did not look at the BUK missiles systems held in the conflict area by both the Ukrainian army and the Donbass rebels (see my article Political interference prevents investigators from considering the “bleeding obvious”).

Accidents do happen and the Ukrainian army has a recoird of such accidents. There were also reports of poor maintenance and drunkenness among military personnel at the time. In fact, the situation in the Ukraineian army was so bad theat many soldiers defected to the rebels and the Kiev regime set up National Guard brigades manned by ultranationalist and neo-fascist groups involved in the February 24 coup. These brigades have been responsible for most of the fighting against the Donbass forces since.

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Policing social media – who is coming next and who is behind it?

Free speech and the problems of deplatforming and censorship are in the public mind at the moment. The banning of the conspiracy theorist outlet Infowars by a number of social media networks is just the latest example concerning many people – most of who, like me, do not support Infowars or Alex Jones in any way. Mind you, that does not stop supporters of this censoring claiming that we do – a claim Glen Greenwald described as “utterly obnoxious & disingenuous”

A slippery slope

The Real News video discussion with Max Blumenthal above warns that this censorship is a slippery slope – a slope along which we have already slipped well past Infowars. Blumenthal gives examples where his own media presence has been censored.

Blumenthal also warns that those doing this policing of social media are hardly humanitarians attempting to prevent hate speech. They have deep political and military origins which are driving this activity.

I find very disturbing that Facebook and the Atlantic Council are now cooperating in policing of Facebook content and in directing social media users to “approved” and “official” news sources (see Atlantic Council press release: Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab Partners with Facebook to Combat Disinformation in Democratic Elections). So we will now have a NATO-aligned “think tank” controlling information US voters, and the rest of us, get via social media. An organisation which is also strongly linked to outfits like the terrorist aligned White Helmets in Syria, the nationalist regime in Ukraine and conspiracy theorist “open sources” like Bellingcat.

Hopefully, readers will watch this video and its follow-up. I know some readers will see this as just another conspiracy theory. Apparently, they believe I am prone to such theories and urge me to wear blinkers and restrict my news sources to just the approved “official” sources.

Perhaps, instead of their outright rejection of the video above, they should critically consider the conspiracy theories they adhere to. The “official” conspiracy theories promoted by their “approved,” “official,” mainstream media sources. The conspiracy theories that get the blessing of outfits like The Atlantic Council, the Ukrainian regime and Bellingcat.

The “official” conspiracy theory promoted by the mainstream media

The video below is satirical – but really – how different is its content to the “official” “Russiagate,” conspiracy theory our mainstream media is bombarding us with every day.

Apparently, US society is really utopian – it has no problems. All the conflicts we read about are caused by those pesky Russians and their president, Putin.

Also, the video below from Syriana Analysis raises warnings about the slippery slope organisations like the Atlantic Council, are moving us down. Many people like me rely on multiple sources for information. The mainstream media (which never seems to be censored by these social media or the Atlantic Council) inevitably follows the official narrative on many issues (consider Syria, Russia, etc.). They often give fake news or misrepresent information (see, for example, Blatant misreporting of latest OPCW report on chemical weapons in Syria and The “heart of the Syrian chemical weapons programme” destroyed?). A wise person uses multiple sources, including independent or alternative media, to avoid this sort of control on information.

Hassling alternative and independent media

Syriana Analysis is one of the many sources I often check out for information on Syria. Independent sources like this rely heavily on social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to get out their message and to get financial support for their work.

Its spokesperson describes some of the hassles his organisation faces from social media bans and censorship. Many other independent or alternative media sources describe similar problems.

Some people object to using the word “censorship” to describe this problem. They point out that even big corporations like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have a perfect right to decide how their businesses operate. That the government is not involved.

However, this is naive.

Politicians driving the censorship

Let’s not forget that the US Senate Judiciary Committee subjected these corporations to strong pressure aimed at forcing them into the role of censors. This is how Caitlan Johnson, a very wise woman, described this in her article Social Media Censorship Is Vastly More Dangerous Than The Censored Material:

“A few months ago the Senate Judiciary Committee spoke with top legal and security officials for Facebook, Twitter and Google in a very disturbing way about the need to silence dissenting voices. Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii demanded that the companies adopt a “mission statement” declaring their commitment “to prevent the fomenting of discord.” Former FBI agent and deep state lackey Clint Watts kicked it up even further, saying, “Civil wars don’t start with gunshots, they start with words. America’s war with itself has already begun. We all must act now on the social media battlefield to quell information rebellions that can quickly lead to violent confrontations and easily transform us into the Divided States of America.”

This happened on the Senate floor, right out in the open.”

I don’t think attempts to censor social media and close down independent and alternative media sources are going to succeed, at least permanently. The internet has let the genie out of the bottle. Official mainstream media and the political establishment can no longer control the information available to those who look for it.

At least I hope that genie is out of the bottle.

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Political interference prevents investigators from considering the “bleeding obvious”

Official investigations contaminated by political pressure are hardly likely to be transparent or give reasonable and rational answers to problems. Once politics is in the driving seat the political aims become the driving force behind any conclusions.

The “novichok” poisonings

Many people see this as the basic problem with the investigation of the nerve agent poisonings in Salisbury and Amesbury, UK. Political forces took this over in the very early days and used the incidents to precipitate a very serious international crisis. Claims were made without evidence – and now it is hard to see how the investigation can ever recover from such a high-level interference.

Right at the beginning, many people drew attention to the fact that these accidents occurred only kilometres away from a government defence laboratory which holds stocks of nerve agents. I did myself – see Where could you get a nerve agent in Salisbury? and Time for a serious auditing of Porton Down’s nerve agent stocks?

Surely one of the first lines of enquiry in these investigations should have been an audit of nerve agent stocks held at the Porton Down Laboratory and investigation of possible scenarios for their accidental loss or even purposeful stealing. Not to do so, and instead launch an international crisis could at best be interpreted as missing the “bleeding obvious.” At worst it could be seen as an intentional promotion of an international crisis.

Yes, I know, there will be people who claim there was no need for such an audit. That we should just trust the professionalism of the staff and security procedures in force.

Well, I am not that easily fooled. People who use this argument should read the latest Annual Report and Accounts (2017/208) from this Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. Here is a pdf copy for you.

On Page 55 a section Incident investigations  reports (my emphasis):

“We actively promote the reporting of near misses and incidents. We investigate incidents proportionately based on the potential the incident could have had as well as in balance with the actual harm or damage caused. The responsible business unit investigates all incidents classified as ‘medium’. Incidents classified as ‘high’ are subject to an independent, corporate investigation.

During the year, we had 53 incidents reported of which 42 were investigated as high potential/actual incidents19 safety, seven business, 12 HR, two whistle-blowing and two security. Six of the safety incidents were reportable to the Health and Safety Executive under RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations). Of the 11 incidents not investigated: eight were reclassified as ‘medium’ and investigated within the Division or Function; two HR allegations were dropped as on review there was no case to answer; and, the final incident was investigated by an external partner.”

Of course, such annual reports are hardly transparent. They are more likely to cover up problems than be honest about them, And the bureaucratic language helps such cover-ups.

But, if nothing else, this report shows that serious”incidents” are possible, even likely, for such a laboratory. Only a fool, or a politically directed investigator would miss out this obvious first step – checking out a local source.

Mind you, I have not seen anything official (who has?) and a final report may actually detail such an audit. Maybe investigators have been able to resist the political pressure to the extent that they did not miss this obvious first step.

Malaysian airline MH17 tragedy report

The same provision cannot be made for the “official” investigation of the Malaysian MH17 tragedy in eastern Ukraine where a commercial airliner was shot down in July 2014 with the death of all 298 crew and passengers on board. The “official” reports have been published.

I have written about the Final Technical Report in the article  MH17: Final technical report.

Readers are no doubt aware of the scenario the investigators have “gone with.” In my view, they “went with ” this scenario form early on – to the extent they put all their efforts into “proving” their favourite scenario and not objectively considering all the evidence. This for political reasons.

Investigators in the Russian Federation have complained that the official investigation team have refused to consider the information they provided on raw radar data and declassified data on the possible missile used. However, I think the negligence of the investigators was even more fundamental.

They missed completely the first obvious step, the “bleeding obvious” step of actually auditing and checking the BUK missile systems known to be on the ground in eastern Ukraine at the time. I do not argue they should not have considered other scenarios, even one as wild as a system being purposely brought across the border and returned after the tragedy all within a day. But the negligence in making the first obvious checks is so blatant one can only assume political interference.

The fact is that BUK missile systems were in the hands of both sides in this conflict at the time. The “rebel” forces had acquired these from the Ukrainian army because of capture of equipment and personnel defections (Ukrainian President Poroshenko claimed a 30% defection rate and his estimate will be low). The missiles on these systems were of an older style still in use in Ukraine but which had been replaced by modern versions in the Russian Federation.

So, an obvious first step – audit the existing BUK systems (yes, I know this would mean the investigation team would need to interact with rebel forces – but come on. This is basic – how could an independent investigator object?). Rebel territory was being mercilessly bombed from the air at the time so those forces certainly had a motive to use such a weapon. (Although the fact that Dutch intelligence had already determined the BUK system in rebel hands was inoperative may explain some of this negligence see Flight MH17 in Ukraine – what do intelligence services know?)

The Ukrainian armed forces had more of these systems and it is likely that at least some of these were operative. Given that the Kiev government was promoting an argument that the Russian armed forces may have been attempting to operate a “no-fly zone” in eastern Ukraine at the time it is easy to see how the pro-Kiev military could also have mistakenly identified a high-flying commercial airliner as a Russian military plane.

But a big problem with this investigation is that the Ukraine government was part of the investigation team. They had veto rights on the publication of findings and could easily have prevented investigation of any scenario which implicated their forces.

We should all learn to be sceptical about politically driven investigations. At least critically read the reports and not rely on media coverage – well-known for distortion and political agendas. And especially look for examples where investigators purposely ignore the “bleeding obvious.”

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Mainstream media “mob violence” over Helsinki summit

Professor Cohen is always good value and we should take these comments of his seriously. After all, there is nothing more serious today than the threat of war between the US and the Russian Federation. Yet we have politicians and the mainstream media preferring to promote this threat. They seem to want to prevent any step towards relaxing international tension and divert attention by waving their dirty domestic laundry on the international scene.

Yes I know, I will probably be attacked (again) for using a clip from Tucker Carlson and Fox. There seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to ignore or reject serious arguments because they appear on a “non-approved,” “non-official,” or alternative media. But be honest – that reaction, and the fact it is a knee-jerk one, simply demonstrates the self-censorship which people have had imposed on them.

Particularly in this case where Professor Cohen is not given any space on the “liberal-approved” mainstream media to present his highly sensible views.

The worst aspect of all this is the diversion of public opinion from what should be the substance of such summits.

What is this media hysteria and bullying, and self-censorship, doing? It is preventing consideration of the real content of this important international summit.

No discussion of real issues

Where is the media discussion on questions (and possible moves towards agreement on these questions) like a return to the Start Nuclear Treaty, the danger presented by stationing anti-ballistic missile systems in Europe, problems created by US withdrawal from the Iran Treaty and the Paris climate change agreements, provision of security for Israel, settlement of the war in Syria, humanitarian aid to the victims of that war, the fight against terrorism, a treaty on cyberwar, etc., etc? Things that really matter and affect the future of this planet and its people.

Why is it that US journalists at the Summit press conference showed absolutely no interest in these substantive issues? They were simply there to fight out their non-acceptance of the 2016 election result.

I think this is disgusting. Instead of attempting to prevent war and to do something substantial to reduce international tension the US establishment is carrying out their dirty domestic partisan warfare in public. We have a media-intelligence agency coalition fighting with a President who (maybe wisely) refuses to take the fight head on. A strong president might be expected to take on an intelligence establishment which has become partisan and is actively constricting his actions. Instead, he appears to mumble and backtrack like a coward.

No sensible person would ever claim to have full confidence in the US intelligence establishment – come on, look at their record.

A media created smokescreen

But meanwhile the real interests of people in the US, and indeed the world, get ignored by a compliant media.

And groups and commenters on social media get sucked in by this circus like easy fools.

Come on, there are real problems in the world – the Trump circus is a diversion imposed on you by the US media-political-intelligence establishment. An establishment which still works, behind the smokescreen they have created, to impose their diktat on the world.

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Blatant misreporting of latest OPCW report on chemical weapons in Syria

BBC caught out promoting fake news about OPCW report

The Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reports no evidence of banned chemical weapons use by the Syrian government in Douma last April. This conflicts with the strong claims of NATO states and most of the mainstream media at the time. It also shows that the illegal missile attacks by France, UK and USA (FUKUS) on Syria at the time (see The “heart of the Syrian chemical weapons programme” destroyed?) were completely unjustified.

While the NATO governments involved have yet to respond to the OPCW report (let alone make apologies for their actions) many mainstream media outlets seem determined to continue promoting fake news when it comes to Syria. Some major news outlets have completely misrepresented the OPCW findings.

OPCW has problems but got this one right

I have commented on some earlier OPCW reports on Syria and have found them unconvincing, biased or relying only on terrorist sources (see Another shonky OPCW chemical incident report on Syria and Chemical weapons use in Syria UN report flawed by political bias).

However, this one is a bit different. It is an interim report on the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma, Syria, last April. This incident got a lot of publicity with France, UK and USA declaring they had evidence which proved there had been an attack using sarin. This alliance (FUKUS) was sufficiently confident with their “intelligence” to order an illegal missile attack on several sites in Syria. (see The “heart of the Syrian chemical weapons programme” destroyed?)

This interim report is also different because the area of alleged attack was soon liberated by Syria and Syria, together with Russian Military Police and the UN Office for Project Services, was able to stabilise the area and enable inspectors from the OPCW to take samples and interview people in the buildings which had allegedly been attacked. A big difference to earlier reports which had relied only on “open sources,” and the testimony and samples provided by the White Helmets – a group affiliated with the jihadists and which actively campaigns against the Syrian states and has a history of false reporting.

While this is only an interim report some conclusions are clear (paragraph 2.5 in Summary):

“No organophosphorus nerve agents or their degradation products were detected, either in the environmental samples or in plasma samples from the alleged casualties.”

Media coverage

I have yet to see any response from NATO governments, particularly those comprising the FUKUS attack group. A sharp contrast to their vociferous accusations at the time of the alleged incident.

However, it appears that much of the mainstream media, and some of the sources it relies on, will draw unwarranted conclusions from this interim report to support their narrative.  For example, Al Jazeera claims Interim OPCW report finds proof of chlorine used in Syria’s Douma.

That is an outright lie. It did not give any such proof or even make that claim.

There is also this from the BBC:

Again an outright lie – the report found nothing of the sort.

Reuters are going with Chemical weapons agency finds ‘chlorinated’ chemicals in Syria’s Douma. Mind you this headline is a “correction” – “(Corrects to “various chlorinated organic chemicals” instead of chlorine).” Technically correct but misleading.

Sky news is claiming Chemical attack confirmed in deadly Douma strikes, but OPCW finds no evidence of sarin. Again wrong. No evidence of sarin but also no evidence presented of any chemical attack at all.

ABC also misrepresented the OPCW report claiming Chlorine used in Syria’s Douma, no trace of nerve agent, Interim OPCW report finds.

The NZ Herald was more neutral in their report Watchdog reports on alleged Syria attack behind airstrikes.

On the other hand the Xinhua Chinese news agency correctly reported Various chlorinated organic chemicals found in samples from Douma attack sites: OPCW, and RT correctly reported Nerve agents not found in samples from Syria’s Douma – interim OPCW report saying (in its second sentence ““Various chlorinated organic chemicals were found in samples” from two locations in the Damascus suburb of Douma.”

And I get the impression most of the “alternative” media sources I see on social media are reporting the OPCW findings correctly. So what was that about “Fake News” and the strong recommendations we get to wear blinkers so that we do not see alternative news sources?

Bellingcat also misrepresents findings

Eliot Higgins, who runs the Bellingcat organisation which provides “open source” information often used by western governments and media, also misrepresents the OPCW report. His organisation is responsible for initiating the story that the MH17 flight was shot down in eastern Ukraine by a Russian BUK unit especially imported for the occasion (and exported immediately afterwards).  Bellingcat is also responsible for many of the claims of chemical weapons used by the Syrian government.

Higgins tweeted:

What is the basis for misleading reports of chlorine use

The OPCW report mentions chlorine only twice – in this paragraph describing the original open source and media reporting of the alleged incident (paragraph 3.1 in Background):

So, no evidence of chlorine use found by the OPCW team. Those making this claim will point, in justification, to the fact that “chlorinated organic chemicals” were found at a few of the examined sites (paragraph 2.5 in Summary):

“Various chlorinated organic chemicals were found in samples from Locations 2 and 4, along with residues of explosive.”

Many of the commenters I have seen on social media who resort to this to prove their claims of chlorine use seem not to understand the chemical differences involved or to argue that traces of any chlorinated organic chemicals must mean chlorine had been present.

Surprisingly, the OPCW did not draw any conclusions from the presence of these chemicals and are still attempting to establish their significance. I would have thought their job was to show if the trace levels found were at all unusual for environmental samples.

As a chemist I do not find the OPCW detection of traces of these chemicals at all surprising. For example, the report mentions the presence of “dichloroacetic acid, trichloroacetic acid” in samples of concrete debris, wood fragments, a water tank wood support, and some clothing.  But these chemicals are common in drinking water and even groundwater (see the Background document for development of WHO Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality, Dichloroacetic Acid in Drinking-water ). Some of the chemicals found are common chlorinated compounds in treated wood (e.g. bornyl chloride and 2,4,6-trichlorophenol as mentioned in a footnote to Annex 3 of the OPCW interim report).

So, in fact, the identified chlorinated organic chemicals are what one may expect from such samples or especially samples taken from areas where explosives have been used.

This OPCW report is still of dubious scientific quality

I find a lot wrong with this OPCW report – but first the positive.

It followed (mostly) the OPCW guidelines for on-site inspection and sampling. This is a sharp contrast with the earlier OPCW reports on Syria where investigators relied on samples and testimony from jihadi affiliated groups like the White Helmets and their associates. This was possible because Douma had just been liberated and the Syrian Government and Russian Armed Forces made an immediate request for the OPCW to send their own observers to check media claims. (Although, given their willingness to trust jihadi-linked groups based in a terrorist-controlled area it does seem strange that the OPCW was unwilling to send their investigators to those areas and rely on terrorist guarantees for security in past investigations. Although, I am being sarcastic. Even in the case of Douma the OPCW team, was concerned about attacks from suicide bombers which seem to operate freely in the terrorist-held areas).

But have they learned?

In paragraph 5.1 describing their activities and timeline the OPCW say:

“Following reports in the media of the alleged incident on 7 April 2018, the Information Cell of the Secretariat immediately informed the FFM team and initiated a search of open-source information to assess the credibility of the allegation. The major sources comprised news media, blogs, and the websites of various non-governmental organisations. The assessment by the Information Cell was that the credibility of the allegation was high. Based on this information, the Director-General initiated an on-site investigation.”

Will the OPCW learn from this specific incident. In  previous reports they stopped at “The assessment by the Information Cell was that the credibility of the allegation was high” – and they would have this time of the Syrian, Russian and UN military had not provided them the security they required for onsite inspections.

The OPCW assessment was that the credibility of the jihadi-connected groups was “high.” Their own inspections showed they were mistaken. Will they be more careful with such claims in the future?

This question is important as NATO countries at the UN Security Council earlier this year effectively prevented adoption of mandatory on site inspections for UN-related chemical weapons investigations. At the OPCW the NATO countries have also pushed through a policy enabling the OPCW to go beyond its investigatory role and carry out a political role of apportioning blame.

The science is shonky

I find it incredible that the report should simply list identification of traces of chlorinated organic chemicals without either providing some sort of indication of the concentrations involved or comparing levels with measurements from  control samples – taken from areas outside the alleged attack area. This is a basic scientific mistake.

Those who wish to claim that the presence of chlorinated organics “proves” chlorine was used in this area could well be right. But only if the concentrations of these chemicals was much higher than normal for environmental samples.

I really can’t help thinking that this shoddy reporting of the science is a political trick enabling the report to be misrepresented. The OPCW is, after all, an international body and subject to the same sort of political manoeuvring we have come to expect from all such international bodies.

Interviews in country X!

The report states (paragraph 8.17:

“The FFM team interviewed a total of 34 individuals; 13 of these interviews were
conducted in Damascus and the remainder in Country X. Analysis of the testimonies is ongoing.”

Two issues for me here:

1: 13 interviews in Damascus – where most witness could have been found and 21 interviews in “Country x?” What this means is that more people from the defeated jihadi groups and their families were interviewed than those remaining in Douma who may have been less motivated to lie.

2: Country X! really? This is meant to be an intelligent report – not a spy thriller. There is absolutely no reason to be so coy about the location of the people interviewed. This is just childish.

I should note that the defeated “rebels”/terrorists and their families were given the opportunity to be transported to Idlib (still in terrorist hands). This has been a common feature of settlement agreements as areas are liberated. Of course, many choose to stay – even those who had been actively fighting with the militants. There is usually a provision for fighters to formalise their citizenship and even join the Syrian Army.

Many of the “rebel” fighters and members of affiliated organisations travel from Idlib into neighbouring Turkey – and further on. Why is the OPCW afraid to reveal the location of their interviewees in Turkey or other countries? Are they concerned this might reflect on the reliability of their testimony?

The warehouse and chemical production facility.

The Syrian government also asked the OPCW to investigate a chemical production facility and warehouse they had found deign liberation of East Ghouta and Douma. They believe these had been sued by terrorists to manufacture chemical contain weapons. (Similar facilities had been found in East Aleppo where terorists appeared to be adding chemicals to projectiles used in their “hell cannons.”

Only one paragraph was devoted to this inspection – paragraph 8.16: Warehouse and facility suspected of producing chemical weapons:

“At the warehouse and the facility suspected by the authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic of producing chemical weapons in Douma, information was gathered to assess whether these facilities were associated with the production of chemical weapons or toxic chemicals that could be used as weapons. From the information gathered during the two on-site visits to these locations, there was no indication of either facility being involved in the production of chemical warfare agents or toxic chemicals for use as weapons.”

That is all – no details. No inventory of chemicals held at the sites. No sign of what the warehouse and production facility was actually used for.

Now, I can accost the Syrians may have been completely wrong in their suspicions about these sites – after all that assessment was made by military officers on the ground in the heat of battle, not chemical weapons experts. But I find the lack of information frustrating, even suspicious.

Were any cylinders of chlorine present at these sites. After all, if politically motivated commenters and media wish to misinterpret the presence of normal traces of chlorinated organic chemicals in collected samples why should they not also be forced to consider stocks of chlorine held in terrorist controlled areas -even if their declared use was innocent.

Conclusions

At last, and OPCW report on Syria actually based on factual evidence, the samples and interviews collected by the OPCW on site. A great advance over earlier reports based on “evidence” from terrorist-connected sources and social media or “open sources.”

But I wish the OPCW was more serious in reporting their scientific findings. Reporting traces of chlorinated organic chemicals without any indication of concentrations and comparison with normal environmental samples is shoddy work laying their information wide open for misrepresentation and distortion. Given the current geopolitical struggles and the way international organisations can be manipulated, I can’t help feeling this shoddy reporting was possibly intentional.

Despite these weaknesses, I think this report shows what is possible. It does show that the military action taken by FUKUS last April was not only illegal it was either based on poor intelligence and, more likely, based on claims these governments knew to be false. It is always good to see such blatant political and military hypocrisy exposed.

However, the weaknesses in the report show that more must be done to improve the scientific quality of OPCW work and reduce political influence on that work. This aspect is important because the recent changes giving OPCW a role in apportioning blame for alleged attacks open up that organisation to being so politicised it will lose all credibility.

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Magical World Cup Gala Concert

I have attended several concerts in public squares during European summers and always enjoyed them. Great atmosphere.

But thanks to international broadcasting and modern smartphones I woke up this morning to this concert and it was magical.

Red square on the day before the opening of the world cup. International singers and performers. Beautiful music and an appreciative international audience.

And finishing with beautiful fireworks and the bells of the Spassky Tower.

Incredible.

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