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Emails And Reading Comprehension: OPCW Douma Coverage Misses Crucial Facts

November 25, 2019

By Bellingcat Investigation Team

Over the weekend, WikiLeaks released an email from an employee within the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) indicating that the OPCW “misrepresents the facts he and his colleagues discovered on the ground”. This email has since been used to call into question the impartiality and effectiveness of the OPCW’s conclusion about the alleged chemical weapon attack in Douma, Syria.

However, a comparison of the points raised in the letter against the final Douma report makes it amply clear that the OPCW not only addressed these points, but even changed the conclusion of an earlier report to reflect the concerns of said employee.

Which Report?

Unusually, in the case of the Douma attack, the OPCW issued two reports. The first was an interim report of 26 pages published on 6 July 2018. The second was a final report of 106 pages, published on 1 March 2019.

The letter released by Wikileaks, dated 22 June 2018, raises concerns about a “redacted report”. The points raised in the letter are clearly not present in the interim report; however, they are present, or else are in modified form, in the final report. Therefore, it appears that the so-called “redacted report” provided a basis or early draft for the final report.

Points Raised By The Letter

Point 1

This wording used in the letter is not present in the final report. The paragraph that matches this most closely in the final report is paragraph 2.16, which states, “it is possible that the cylinders were the source of the substances containing reactive chlorine.” 

The decision to use the word “possible” in the final report is a significant change from the word “likely”, as it represents the level of confidence of the OPCW. By changing this particular phrase, the OPCW have in fact downgraded their confidence in possible conclusions about this event, which is in line with the employee’s concerns.

Point 2.1

Aside from the absurdity of claiming that “singling out chlorine gas” after an alleged chlorine gas attack in a country where multiple chlorine attacks have taken place is “disingenuous”, these points appear to have been addressed by the final report.

Paragraphs 8.6 – 8.19 in the final report include a “Discussion of analysis results”, which addresses the points raised in this paragraph of the letter, including explaining why many of the chemicals listed in this part of the letter could be excluded. It should be noted that this section is chemistry-heavy. 

Point 2.2

The final report does not use the phrase “reactive chlorine containing chemical.” Instead, the phrase “chemical containing reactive chlorine” is used, as suggested in the letter. 

Point 3

The final report does not include this mention of the gas being released from cylinders. As highlighted in Point 1, the final report concludes that it is “possible” the cylinders were the source of substances containing reactive chlorine.

Point 4

At no point does the final report describe the levels of various chlorinated organic derivatives as “high”. However, it does note in paragraph 7 of Annex 4 that these derivatives exist in the natural background, and that control samples were collected at locations not expected to have been exposed to chlorine gas for comparison.

Point 5

The final report includes a discussion of symptoms, along with an Epidemiological Analysis addressing these issues, on page 25.

It is also notable that the final report consulted “four toxicologists and one toxicologist and medical doctor” (paragraph 8.87) rather than the three toxicologists mentioned in the letter. It also notes in Annex 3 that further consultations with toxicologists took place in September and October 2018, months after this letter was written.

It should also be noted that the final report also states that the FFM redeployed to conduct further interviews between 14-22 October.

Point 6

Although it is not precisely clear what the letter is referring to here, the final report devotes extensive and detailed discussion to the modelling of the impact of the two cylinders in pages 53-64. Three independent analyses by experts in three different countries were carried out, and all reached complimentary conclusions: the damage at the impact sites is consistent with the cylinders having fallen from height (Annex 12).

It should also be noted that the engineering studies were only received by the FFM in December 2018, well after the date of this letter. As such, any discussion about the point of impact on the date of this letter would have been superseded by the studies which came later. 

Point 7

The final report contains an extensive bibliography, including peer-reviewed scientific literature.


Although this letter appears to be at least superficially damaging to the OPCW, after reading the actual reports published by the OPCW it is clear that this letter is outdated and inapplicable to the final Douma report. 

The letter refers to a “redacted report” that was either not published or was heavily updated before it became the final version of  the report. The issues raised in the letter appear to have either been addressed with further work and research, or changed to reflect the concerns of the employee who wrote the letter. 

The fact that the redacted report stated it was “likely” the cylinders were the source of the chlorine or reactive chlorine-containing chemical, while the final report said it was “possible that the cylinders were the source of the substances containing reactive chlorine” is significant. It demonstrates that the OPCW in fact downgraded their confidence in their conclusions in order to include the doubts raised by the author of the letter.

Based on this analysis, it is clear that WikiLeaks, the Daily Mail, La Repubblica, and Stundin have failed to understand the context of this letter and the final Douma report. 

If the people covering this story had actually taken the time to read the letter and the FFM reports, they may well have chosen to publicize it in a very different manner. 

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    • dick

      If you’re depending on Occam’s razor…which itself depends on joining cherry picked dots…you have no real argument, no truthful data, just knee jerk assumption

  1. mackenzie

    You mention the Daily Mail among those organization whom you claim failed to understand the context of the letter and final report. Who are you referring to that wrote on behalf of the DM on the subject?

    • I Love Propaganda

      Peter Hitchens – he’s one of the only mainstream journalists in the UK to view this Douma ‘chemical attack’ with even an ounce of skepticism. Thanks for gaslighting us Bellend Cats – you’re the best!!!

    • Servus

      I doubt any serious person will comment on this incredible salad of Russian propaganda, seriously, even RT and Sputnik have higher quality journalism, the author runs through last 10 years of unrelated events, Magnitsky case, Huanwei hardware spying case, Echelon NSA, you name it, maybe in authors head it all is a part of the same plot, well, that certainly requires rarely encountered higher level consciousness.

      And a gem :
      “The new leak for the OPCW report was not disregarded completely. The NATO all-purpose weapon Bellingcat, a supposedly independent international investigative research network, saw itself or was forced by its financiers to respond to the WikiLeaks published email from an OPCW inspector,”

      So, now we know, Islamist-ISIS-MI6-CIA-Soros-Nato, all finance Bellingcat, do you guys really need to write all these reports, how about retiring on Bahamas ?

      • Benjamin

        Well no, the specific claim is that Bellingcat is funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (which it is), the NED itself being essentially a CIA front group (which it is).

      • Stephan Schulze

        What’s so funny on this point which is close to the truth (You guys have a really amazing kind of humor)?

        Perhaps you can (instead of spreading stories which do not stand any reality check) check Bellingcat history – founding and funding.
        Spoiler alert:
        You will find “agencies” and “organizations” (NED, OSF, ..) all over – and NO: That is not funny.

        Just try an experiment.
        What would you do if Russia or China (..or Iran or any other of the “usual suspects”) would create a Propaganda organization like Bellingcat: Provide it with enormous payments (both directly from government and through linked “friendly” organizations – you might think of them as “Russian Toll army” or “Putins Oligarch friends”), with selected and manipulated intelligence, with manpower and incredible broadcasting range.
        Wouldn’t your pulse reach critical levels in this case?

        There is a famous phrase on *actual* (i.e., the opposite of Bellingcat work) journalism – think about it:
        “Journalism must not stand with a side – even not with a good one.”

        • Servus

          “instead of spreading stories which do not stand any reality check).”
          Well how about some details, which stories and please detailed your reality check. It’s dirt cheap to just spit out some generalities. Without any details you are not credible.

          And a gem, that really compromises you, and identifies as a troll or an “useful idiot”:
          “What would you do if Russia or China (..or Iran or any other of the “usual suspects”) would create a Propaganda organization”

          Where have you been all these years, hiding in a cave ? Never heard about Russia Today, Sputnik and a flora and fauna of dubious web sites pumping out Russian propaganda in form of fabricated scoops and investigative journalism? BUT they don’t really like to provide any verifiable details .

          ..and to mention NED or OSF is like showing a cross to a vampire, you guys are just horrified. Of course again, you have some problems in formulating a more detail accusation that could enable a rational argument. So relax, what you envision as a nightmare is our actual reality.

          Bellingcat on the contrary, is as transparent as possible and their stories are verifiable, actually, lots of your friends try frenetically to stick a hole in the published reports and sorry to say, fail miserably, just like you.

          So, keep up the lousy work, keep failing !!!

  2. Dick

    You say Henderson was not part of the FFM
    Nevertheless, he was there , in the words of the OPCW DG
    Update: On June 13, OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias released the text of a briefing he had given on this matter to the States Parties to the OPCW two weeks earlier. Arias did not utter the name of Ian Henderson, the long-time OPCW staff member whose name was on the leaked version of the dissident engineering report. But he confirmed that report’s author was an OPCW staff member who was “a liaison officer at our Command Post Office in Damascus,” and “As such… he was tasked with temporarily assisting the FFM with information collection at some sites in Douma.”
    And for goodness sake Louis, you can badmouth Jonathan Steele all you like for so called partisanship, but by the same token your own unwavering anti Assad stance
    then negates anything you have to say …on the matter…
    And if you are saying the FFM team had a political axe to grind, then whats to stop the OPCW leadership from also having an axe to grind.I think the jig is up , and you’ve backed the wrong horse, but ego prevents you from admitting it.
    There was no sarin, we know that now, and the samples of chlorine collected were of minimal significance. What more is there to be said?

  3. Peter Hitchens

    Absurdity. The contents of the original 105-page inspector’s report discussed in the leaked (and now authenticated) e-mail are not remotely reflected in the final (March 2019) report, most especially the points about the tiny trace elements of chlorinated chemicals, of a sort that could be found in any kitchen, found at Douma, and the toxicologists’ alarm about the mismatch between symptoms displayed by alleged victims in the videos supposedly of Douma, and the absence of any gas which would produce those symptoms at the site. Likewise the conclusions in the Henderson document, also leaked and also confirmed as authentic by the OPCW, and available in time for the final report, that the gas cylinders on the site were unlikely to have been dropped from the air, are excluded from the March ‘final’ report. Here’s a proper explanation of the significance of the e-mail (the full e-mail is reproduced at the bottom): and here is my analysis of the ‘final’ report from last Spring:
    Readers may note that I spotted, at the time. that the ‘final’ report was remarkably feeble when closely examined. This, I now think, reflects the internal mayhem at the OPCW, then undisclosed, now revealed. But it still attempted to keep alive the (in fact non-existent) possibility that chlorine gas might have been used.

    • Scott Lucas

      Mr Hitchens:

      Before shouting “absurdity”, you might consider:

      1. That having copied-and-pasted the e-mail from “Alex”, you did nothing — beyond a letter to OPCW asking for comment — to establish Alex’s role in the Interim FFM Report, to verify Alex’s claims, or to establish the OPCW process in the interim and final reports.

      2. So you know nothing of the 105-page “original report” that Alex claims. You misrepresent Alex’s “tiny trace” of chlorinated organic compounds as the findings of the FFM inspection team. In fact, analysts considered Alex’s assertion but found that the COCs were notably higher than in “normal” conditions.

      3. Similarly, you show no knowledge of the process that BellingCat documents. For example, you do not recognize that further investigation and analysis continued after the July 2018, even though Alex was involved.

      So you don’t comprehend that, although Alex was not outside the FFM process, his views were still considered by analysts as they prepared the final report, i which “likely” was changed to “possible” over the cylinder as the source of the chlorine.

      4. Because you show no comprehension of the final report, you also do not recognize other evidence cited by the FFM for use of chlorine, such as the “frost” on the cylinder.

      5. You try to cite “toxicologists” rejecting any symptoms of chlorine exposure, failing to corroborate Alex’s claim that he had support from three toxicologists.

      In fact, toxicology and statements from medical witnesses continued after the July 2018 Interim Report, with the Final Report setting out this evidence.

      6. Your citation of the Henderson memorandum as being “excluded” from the Final Report is a report, since that memorandum — considering attribution for the attack — is outside the Fact Finding Mission’s mandate. It is now part of submissions being considered by the Investigations and Identification Team, which can assign blame.

      7. Since you did no verification or corroboration of the e-mail, your assertions of “internal mayhem at the OPCW” and “non-existent possibility” of chlorine are, at best, empty polemic. Beyond that, they are propaganda whose chief function is to carry water for the Assad regime.

      • dick

        Initially the claims trumpeted around the world was that the Syrian ‘regime” had unleashed sarin on the innocents of Douma.This was backed up by the usual gruelling videos sent out by the White Helmets.
        Survivors who fled to Turkey were tested, but showed no signs of sarin poisoning or any other organophospate
        So sarin was ruled out
        Chlorine is ubiquitous as a water purifier in Syria.So surely some chlorine residue could be found and trumped up as a brutal gas attack?
        The fact is chlorine gas was ditched after experimentation in the first world war as being inefficient and unreliable
        But it still remains a powerful weapon in Syria, that of propaganda, designed to whip up outrage to loosen up the pursestrings for more lethal miitary aid , and perhaps the dropping of a few bombs on Damascus .Its worked a treat , up until now
        There’s been a rather unconvincing effort to whitewash this scandal at the OPCW, but its not working

        • Servus

          dick ,
          The found yellow cylinders are standard commercial chlorine products. So, it’s obvious that chlorine was suspected. Similar cylinders, some even with inscriptions that allow to identify the manufacturer were used in other sites in Syria, you can find many pictures of these in the internet.
          Do a Google search for images of “chlorine gas cylinders”.
          I’ve reread press from the 7,8,9 of April and most of it talks about “chemical weapon attack”. But very early on the chlorine was identified :
          Guardian 9 April 2018 ” culminating in Saturday’s horrific chlorine attack in Douma.”
          So your your story is false, a fabrication about change from sarin to chlorine.
          You have forgotten a real gem, Mr Lavrov, Russian foreign minister stated that the attack was organised by British secret services and While Helmets, why did you omit this? Too idiotic even for you , dick ?

          Attack took place on the April 7th, OPCW was allowed in on the 21’st , two weeks after the attack, and as mr Hitchens already found out, chlorine decomposes fast. Swedish journalist, Stefan Borg from TV4 was on site in Douma around 18th, went to the building, interviewed some people, and felt breathing irritating smell inside the shelter where many people were reported to die.

          Now comes another bizarre argument, used also by mr Hitchens.
          “chlorine could not have been used because it was deemed inefficient in WWI” . According to Wiki, chlorine killed roughly 1,500 soldiers in WWI and wounded 10,000, for me its enough….but much worse gases have been synthesised later on and replaced it.
          So, even if much more efficient gases exist, chlorine still kills, especially if released in a confined space like a shelter.

          I lost interest in reading mr Hitchens blog after these remarks, it’s not worth to bother with ramblings of a guy with such a poor judgement.

          Mr Hitches has another argument or a copy of the Russian propaganda claim “why would Syrians use chlorine, for what purpose ? It does not make sense from military point if view, it’s illogical and stupid, the fighting was already over, a peace agreement in place etc”.
          To start with, it’s not true, Swedish journalists report bombing for “third consecutive day on Sunday the 8th”, the truce came some time later.

          Second it’s just amazing that mr Hithchens can make statements on what some Syrian commanders, engaged since several years in a brutal civil war, with horrible atrocities and war crimes against civilians, own soldiers or conscripts suspected of lack of enthusiasm for Assad, may or may not find logical or militarily justified. Assumptions for such reasoning is that the others are more or less like us, so we can use ourself, our sense of logic and judgement to predict their behaviour. This is obviously false (I hope) , personally I don’t think it’s possible to get into a head of a war criminal and predict his behaviour. And one can never exclude that the decision was an error even by their own standards. BUT ruling out the attack as improbable just because we can not imagine that a Syrian commander decided something illogical or stupid (in our view) is not serious, this is not a valid argumentation, rather a show of limited knowledge / experience, egocentric and limited view of the world and well … poor judgement.

          So at this point, I stopped readying this boring blog.

          • JOhn

            Robert Fisk,journalist, also visited Douma, try to read what he has to say and before silly comments appear, he is critical about Russia and Assad, that doesnt mean he doesnt do his job properly. Reporting from the ground.

          • Servus

            re: Robert Fisk,
            I’m reading Robert Fisk’s articles since decades, the reason is that he has biases, different from mine and I like to check if I haven’t missed something important; if my biases did not make me blind.
            Fisk reporting from Douma is curious for me…
            The Douma changed hands from a repressive and brutal Islamist militias to repressive and brutal Syrian army, with documented record of war crimes against civilian, that have been in Doula already two seeks. Mr Fisk is not a naive person but pretends that he can just walk around and talk to people and gather testimonies and everybody will talk with him without fear. He is surprised that nobody knows anything about the gas attack. To me, the most likely explanation is that his witnesses think that it’s best for them not to know anything. Syrian official position, backed by Russian OPCW representatives is that the chemical attack took place but it was a false flag operation, which gives another indication that there is something wrong with the Fisk’s report.
            Fisk is not a naive apprentice journalist, at least, he should have given some background and context. But reporting without assessing credibility of testimonies is a conscious manipulation.

            Probably with the same batch of journalists’ visit organised and supervised by Syrian army, was Swedish journalist Stefan Borg from TV4.
            He met with a person who claimed that his wife, children and mother in law were gassed in one of the buildings. Mr Borg relates of conflicting stories he has heard, how different from Mr Fisk …

          • Servus

            …what even more surprising, Fisk in his video and report from round 18 April 2018 did not say if he even came close to the attacked buildings, does not say if he visited these either.

            … and this was an obvious priority target for any present journalist …

        • DDTea

          You’re not seriously suggesting that tap water could be mistaken for environmental residues after chlorine gas, are you? No, this is simply not possible. Not at all. This would take *A LOT* of tap water. A flood, basically. And we see no evidence of a flood or water damage anywhere.

          Chlorine gas was dispersed in WW1 by old fashioned line-dispersal: line up a bunch of barrels, several long tons of it, and open them into the wind. In Syria, chlorine gas is being dropped by helicopter or deployed by rocket artillery. This is a *MUCH* more efficient way of targeting the gas. And make no mistake: chlorine gas is very efficient and lethal in confined spaces. A small chlorine accident at Buffalo wild wings killed 1 employee and injured several recently.

          • dick

            Here you go DDTea, be my guest
            “The whistleblower told journalist Jonathan Steele that the levels found “were comparable to and even lower than those given in the World Health Organisation’s guidelines on recommended permitted levels of trichlorophenol and other COCs in drinking water.”

            “Had they been included, the public would have seen that the levels of COCs found were no higher than you would expect in any household environment”, the whistleblower said.”
            You’re on a hiding to nothing I’m afraid

          • dick

            I’ll leave you with this
            The whistleblower told journalist Jonathan Steele that the levels found “were comparable to and even lower than those given in the World Health Organisation’s guidelines on recommended permitted levels of trichlorophenol and other COCs in drinking water.”

            “Had they been included, the public would have seen that the levels of COCs found were no higher than you would expect in any household environment”, the whistleblower said.

          • Sean Lamb

            From your article:

            “After the employee mixed the cleaners, their eyes started burning and they quickly left the kitchen as the smell from the two cleaning products spread through the restaurant……..Overcome, the manager also left the building. Emergency crew found him outside the restaurant and transported him to the hospital, where he later died.”

            Which obviously hasn’t happened in this case. It is always sad to see people who do have the benefit of extensive scientific knowledge, use it to deceive rather than enlighten people less fortunate than themselves.

        • Michael

          Chlorine is used all the time in Syria – by SAA, Daesh and probably Jaish al Islam itself (against apostate Kurds in Aleppo) Indeed, Obama declared explicitly that chlorine was not a chemical weapon in order to avoid dealing with it. Your mistake is that the modern use of chlorine is the same as in the trenches of WW1 – to kill people. It is instead used for psychological shock, in open areas. The victim is not killed but will be unwilling ever to face it again.

      • JustPassingThrough

        The FFM does not cite “frost” on the cylinder as evidence, you have made that up.

      • Peter Hitchens

        Mr Lucas says things which he knows ( from Twitter exchanges with me) to be baseless. there is a word for this.

        I have never said that I ‘do not recognize that further investigation and analysis continued after the July 2018, even though Alex was involved.’

        I have never called my source ‘Alex’ – this is a name used in a story on ‘Counterpunch’ by Jonathan Steele’, to which I referred in my own story. The assertion that I ‘did nothing — beyond a letter to OPCW asking for comment — to establish Alex’s role in the Interim FFM Report, to verify Alex’s claims, or to establish the OPCW process in the interim and final reports’, is baseless. I have of course not revealed my source to Mr Lucas. No journalist would. Nor have I described to him the actions I have taken to verify my information, as these are none of his business. The authenticity of the e-mail has been confirmed by the OPCW to Reuters, so I see little point in discussing this matter further. But I had good reason to be confident of my facts before publication. Does Mr Lucas really think a a major national newspaper would just publish without checks? What , in any case, is the point in questioning the verification methods of a journalist whose story has turned out to be right? I know ( as I think he does) that further disclosures are likely which will confirm my story. That does not allow Mr Lucas to tell these untruths, especially as I have repeatedly set him right on Twitter, challenging him for evidence of his claims which he has not provided. Yet he continues to repeat his baseless (and as it happens quite untrue) charge that I ‘ did no verification or corroboration of the e-mail’. This is just disreputable, especially in an academic. One might expect it from some howling anonymous yahoo on the web, but not from a senior academic at a major university. .

        So is the foolish attempted smear that I am ‘carry[ing] water for the Assad regime’. My record of critical disgust towards the Assad regime (see ) is a lot longer and more consistent than that of either the UK government, which invited Assad to Buckingham Palace in 2002, or the US government which rendered an innocent man to Damascus to be tortured in Assad’ s dungeons in the same year.

        Many other facts will become clear in the days and weeks to come which will confirm the original report in the Mail on Sunday. I find Mr Lucas’s attempts to pretend that this is not a real story rather pitiable. And if his behaviour over this were not so dishonest and unpleasant, I would pity him. The more he posture sin this way, the more foolish he will look at the end of this.

    • Louis N. Proyect

      It’s so funny to see Peter Hitchens having the same relationship to Russian war crimes in Syria as an apologist that his brother had to American war crimes in Iraq. What is the common thread? Islamophobia.

      • Peter Hitchens

        Where have I apologised for any war crimes? Nowhere and never. The subject under discussion is whether such a crime took place., My later brother was, alas, credulous about propaganda claims made to confect a war which he wanted to take place. I was not credulous or trigger-happy then, then, and I am not now. If Mr Proyect would argue rationally, rather than dealing in smears, he would grasp w that the question under discussion is the truth of claims made to bring about war.

      • Benjamin

        You, an idiot: “I think maybe we shouldn’t be lying and plotting to destroy Muslim majority countries.”

        Louis Proyect, brain genius: “ISLAMOPHOBE!”

  4. henry balfour

    for some long time now, anything that Bellingcat tries to deliver by way of ‘investigative reporting’ just turns to slush under scrutiny. How and why these people deliver the slush became obvious once their connections to ‘one side of the argument’ became clear. Will Lie For Money.

  5. Benjamin

    You, an Islamophobic bigot: “I think we should maybe not lie and plot to destroy a Muslim majority country.”

    Louis Proyect, brain genius: “ISLAMOPHOBE!”

  6. remo

    “Likely’ and ‘possible’…
    reminding us of //CIA “Notice to stations” activating MOCKINGBIRD assets to “Guard against the illicit Transformation of Probability’ into ‘Certainty’ public doubt of the official Warren Commission narrative.
    In this case; from probability to certainty this bulls.hit attack was staged by James’s bulls.hit band of badly-acted britproppers, now authenticated by a bulls.hit final report.
    Is ‘likely or possible’ ‘supported by the facts’ evidenced on the ground ?
    This important leak identifies Not; but also identifies the nuance of propaganda. The swing and sway of IIO word play leading us to outcome.
    Of later ‘modelling’ giving the official stamp.

    The bell ringing around this cats neck,
    is that this Leaked email HAD to be written at all;
    not that the OPCW final report was changed to reflect it.
    (Somebody other than James, killed LeMesurier.)


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