But almost nobody dares say so
This article is in The Spectator’s January 2020 US edition.
I suspect the Third World War will begin with a claimed atrocity — probably the use of poison gas by a ‘regime’ against ‘its own people’. Such things are now the favourite way to make wars where there was peace.
Border violations went out of fashion years ago. Invasions are illegal under the UN Charter. There are no Archdukes left to assassinate. ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ will forever evoke hollow laughter. But democracy needs a popular pretext for war, and righteous mass outrage about the inhumanity of the enemy is almost invariably effective.
This is why it is rather important that the people we trust to verify such claims are honest and trustworthy. For who will verify the verifiers? Ignore this little matter and we could obliterate the world by mistake, sooner than you think.
Hence this story of one of the least-covered major scandals of the moment. Apart from Tucker Carlson on his Fox show, no journalist in the United States has even touched it yet. Things are not that much better in Europe.
It begins on April 7, 2018, when social media, quickly followed by professional news organisations, began to spread harrowing reports of mass murder by gas in the Damascus suburb of Douma. Many deaths were reported. Urgent amateur films then appeared showing the dead, horrible to behold, some of them children, many foaming at the mouth. President Trump reacted swiftly, Tweeting ‘Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria. Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world. President Putin, Russia, and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay. Open area immediately for medical help and verification. Another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever. SICK!’
In fact he did not wait for that verification. Within a week, the USA had showered Syria with missiles crammed with high explosives. France and Britain swallowed any doubts they may have had and added their own small salvoes, in the usual coalition of the sycophantic.
But then the problems began. It is actually illegal to bomb sovereign countries unless you have a clear justification. And nobody really knew what had happened in Douma. There were no independent Western sources there at the time of the alleged atrocity. They would have been killed or kidnapped if they had been, by the notoriously feral jihadi militia, Jaysh al Islam, which then held the area. The journalists who wrote so confidently about it were in no cases nearer than Beirut, 85 miles away. More of them were even more distant, in Istanbul, London and New York. The sources they quoted from the scene were unnamed and uncheckable. As for the films, there was no way of knowing for sure where they had been made, or how.
It is to resolve doubts such as this that most of the nations of the world — the USA among them — pay for the impartial verification services of Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). From its toadstool-shaped headquarters in The Hague, capital of the Netherlands, the OPCW sent a small team of experts. The jihadis were gone. The area was clear. They were able to get swift access.
By late June of that year they had compiled their report. It contained no smoking gun. Rather the opposite. There was no trace at all of sarin — despite the fact that the corpses in the films showed symptoms normally associated with that cruel gas. And there was about as much chlorine there as you might find in your kitchen. It was present only in trace elements, parts per billion, and in forms so common that it could have come from household bleach.
And then the scientists discovered that they had come up with the wrong answer. Diligent fair inquiry was not wanted at all. Thanks to a courageous whistleblower, who passed on the details, I and a small number of other journalists reported this week that a disgraceful thing happened inside the OPCW. A new report had been prepared for publication. It was a travesty of what the investigators had written. Their careful, impartial work had been trashed by persons or persons unknown. Their document had been slashed and censored to remove crucial information, especially that the traces of chlorine were tiny.
There were protests. In response, a group of three unidentified US officials appeared unexpectedly at the OPCW’s high-security building. According to one scientist present, these men simply told them that the Syrian regime had conducted a gas attack. Even after this, the struggle for truth went on. Senior officials eventually promised — after much argument — to include the key information about the tiny traces of chlorine in the report that was about to be published. The promise was immediately broken.
The document that was finally issued was conveniently vague, and major news organisations rushed to decide, quite incorrectly, that it had said chlorine gas had been used. Actually, it said nothing of the sort. We have to wonder how so many agencies, broadcasters and major newspapers all reached this wrong conclusion from these few vague words ‘Various chlorinated organic chemicals were found in samples from Locations 2 and 4’. But they did.
Now it has been established beyond doubt that the report was doctored. But most people still don’t know that, as it has barely been reported. Why is this? Is it possible that many in the media, just like many in politics, had invested so much in the original outrage that they now could not bear to find that there was, in fact, no proper evidence of the thing they had blazoned on their front pages and shouted in their bulletins? They had been furious and righteous and condemnatory. And now they were left without any proof that the thing had even happened.
We all know Hans Christian Andersen’s fable of the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’, which don’t exist, and of the little boy who cries out that the potentate is naked, and everyone in the town then joins in with the little boy. But experience in this case tells me this is all rubbish. In reality the Emperor’s secret police would have arrested the little boy and his father and told them to shut up. And of course, the imperial media would have kept quiet about the incident, providing detailed descriptions for their readers of the monarch’s sumptuous apparel. So it has been in the case of the OPCW. The whistle was blown, but hardly anyone heard it. Who is verifying the verifiers? Nobody is verifying the verifiers, who will one day take us to war — and hell — on a falsehood.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday.