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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.

Conclusion

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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108 Comments

    • Jeroen

      More load of crap from Dmitry Peskovs or other RF financed trolling farms called IRA, GRU or whatever.

      Reply
    • Servus

      Thanks a for a pointer.

      Mr Hitchens,
      I tried to read your blog and encountered some really puzzling passage.

      “Bellingcat:
      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.”

      This Bellingcat quote, outlining the hypothesis that would be substantiated in the following text, triggers following comment by Mr Hitchens:

      “Bellingcat have been so anxious to trash the leak from the OPCW that they have (as many did when the attack was first released) rushed to judgment without waiting for the facts”

      Where did PH see any Bellingcat attempt to “trash the leak” , the whistle-blower email?

      On the contrary, Bellingcat attempts to prove that the whistle-blower concerns were respected by the OPCW and accounted for in the final report.. This implies that he the letter was treated as a competent, relevant and important document.

      Readers can judge for themselves.

      Do I want to read the rest of this anxious trashing ? Hardly.

      Reply
      • Peter Hitchens

        Well, Mr ‘Servus’ ( a curious pseudonym to choose) , I think that if you *did* read further you would quickly see my point, which is that ‘Bellingcat’ wrongly states that the March 1 2019 report addressed and answered the concerns of the June 22 2018 e-mail, and restores the material removed by the redaction of the original Douma report. I cannot make you read it, and wouldn’t seek to do so, but don’t you rather disqualify yourself from comment by attacking what you boast you have not read? Whereof we do not know, thereof we cannot speak, as Wittgenstein nearly said.

        Reply
        • Servus

          Mr Hitchens,
          I was simply following the structure of your analysis, that you have laid out yourself :
          “I have interleaved my comments (in black or red) with the ‘Bellingcat’ arguments (in green)”

          So, after a Bellingcat quote simply stating what their article is about, one encounters a comment :
          “Bellingcat have been so anxious to trash the leak from the OPCW that they have (as many did when the attack was first released) rushed to judgment without waiting for the facts”
          I was simply puzzled, why on earth the Belingcat’s few sentences could trigger such an emotional value judgement. So, just to be sure I did not miss something, I’ve reread the article, and well, nothing in it seems to imply any critique of the whistle-blower’s mail, on the contrary, the article implied that he was most of the time correct and his comments were respected.

          But lets read on:
          “Since ‘Bellingcat’ have not seen the original unredacted report of June 2018 (about which the memo complains) how can they possibly assert either that ‘The points raised in the letter … are present, or else are in modified form, in the final report.’
          …hm…the whistle-blower letter contains relevant quotes of the redacted document that whistle-blower does not agree with. So, this is a basis of comparison between this redacted document and final version. Here you owe Bellingcat apology for implying they did a guess work.

          Now, lets use PH way of arguing, that is; judgement and emotions first and argument later on. The good soldier Svejk relates reaction of a CK army sergeant upon seeing a giraffe for the first time: “Such animal does not exist !”.
          PH ridicules changed wording from “likely” to “possible” , it is true that in the casual use the ” the distance between ‘likely’ and ‘possible’ is small, ” . But in the context of a scientific article such terms usually have a more specific meaning. In some contexts and articles there is a glossary presented with numerical evaluations. Maybe there is such glossary or recommendations for the authors published by OPCW ?
          But typically, the difference between likely and possible would be an order of magnitude, that is “likely” is 10 times more probably to happen then “possible”.
          Hope mr PH have learned something new.

          ..and a quote, from Swedish poet E. Tégner “Det dunkelt sagda är det dunkelt tänkta” , roughly “unclear message signifies unclear thoughts”.

          Reply
    • Jeroen

      107 member states of OPCW agreed on the 2020 budget, 19 members voted aigainst it.
      Last year 99 members agreed, and 27 did not agree.

      Reply
  1. Pelle Broberg

    I would be VERY surprised if there are not at least two intelligence services behind Bellingcat. VERY.

    Reply
    • Servus

      …several unintelligent service against ?

      Pelle, what makes you think so, you are not credible if you can not substantiate your claim.

      Reply
      • truthmustcomeout

        it’s obvious that bellingcat is sponsored by CIA to promote the US Agenda worldwide.
        This article is to discredit the OPCW whisleblower because it exactly reveals how the OPCW gets manipulated to produce reports suited the regime changing agenda.

        Reply
        • Servus

          « This article is to discredit the OPCW whisleblower because it exactly reveals how the OPCW gets manipulated to produce reports suited the regime changing agenda.« 

          Are you certain you reply to right topic? Or did you bother to read the article and the letter? Any words you did not understand?

          The Bellingcat analysis shows that whistleblower comments were mostly incorporated in the final document, thus accepted and respected.

          How does that discredit the whistleblower? Are you sure you understand the word discredit’?

          Reply
  2. Tracey Thakore

    I am missing the point.
    The OPCW is an international Government structure.
    What is your point?

    Reply
  3. None

    Maybe this “wikileaks letter” was released so that analysts and media could do such a rebuttal. Or maybe not and the inconsistencies are because the letter may have led to changes to the old report.

    Anyway, did you know White Helmets is a British organization?
    I hope you’re living on the ground floor and stay away from balconies.

    Reply
  4. Guy THORNTON

    Bellingcat would have one believe that the “final report” addressed the whistleblowers’ concerns.

    The whistleblowers’ main point regarding chlorine exposure was that all the associated chemicals detected were at an exceedingly low level….such as could be found anywhere….therefore there it was scientifically impossible to drawn any inference of chlorine having been used as a weapon. In fact, the levels found were in accordance with UN recommended levels for water consumption.

    Here is the conclusion of the final report:

    “the evaluation and analysis …..PROVIDE REASONABLE GROUNDS THAT THE USE OF A TOXIC CHEMICAL TOOK PLACE. This toxic chemical contained reactive chlorine. THE TOXIC CHEMICAL WAS LIKELY MOLECULAR CHLORINE.”

    This conclusion is precisely and exactly what the whistleblowers were saying was scientific nonsense. Anyone suggesting that this “final report” addressed the whistleblowers’ concerns is a fraud.

    Reply
  5. Julien

    You may say that the final report have addressed the concerns of the employee who wrote the letter but taking into account the fact that the “preliminary” or “redacted” report was written in that manner, omitting all those aspects, show how biased the investigation was in the first place. They went in with the presumption that the chemical attack took place, the perpetrator was already in their mind so they already had a preconceived ideas of what they had to write in the report before even starting the investigation. That’s what “bias” means.
    It shouldn’t have taken a letter (email) like this to make the reporter come back to his sense and rewrite the whole report. And you may say it addressed he’s concerns but actually no, there are more which remain unanswered. And changing “highly” to “possible” is really not that much of importance, I mean, they basically mean the same thing, you can not point to some subtle differences to make the whole change after such an initial bias.

    Reply
  6. dick

    I know its awful of me but I am sooo enjoying seeing Bellingcat come such a colossal cropper., and being exposed for the “analysis -to-order” frauds they are
    Thank you PH!

    Reply
  7. Guy THORNTON

    I was surprised my comment (yesterday) passed Bellingcat’s moderators. Thank you for allowing me to express my, how shall we say?….extreme scepticism.

    Of course, if there is any substance to the two whistleblowers’ complaints of, 1. the gas cylinders having likely been placed by hand, 2. there having been no chemical signs of a chlorine attack, and 3. that the symptoms presented by the “affected children” (foam coming from mouths, etc) being completely unascribable to anything we know happened………

    then we can speedily move on to declaring “game, set & match” with regard to the authenticity of the ubiquitous White Helmets….as they would obviously be the ones who placed the cylinders and foamed the childrens’ mouths, n’est-ce pas?

    I surmise that the opening of this huge can of worms on the world stage is what pushed our erstwhile hero James Le Mesurier into his terminal depression. The jig was up.

    Reply

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