Syria, the BBC, and the matter of truth

A couple of weeks ago, Admiral Alan West, former First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff, was interviewed by the BBC about Syria.

I confess that I missed this one, being on holiday at the time. But I stumbled over it yesterday, and was quite amazed by it.

What Lord West said was interesting, and important. He expressed considerable scepticism about whether the Syrian government was responsible, as was claimed, for a chemical attack in the town of Douma, at that time held by rebel forces.

He said that the claim that Bashar Assad ordered the attack “doesn’t ring true,” asking “what benefit is there for his military?” He went on to say “we know that in the past some of the Islamic groups have used chemicals, and of course there would be huge benefit in them labelling an attack as coming from Assad.” He also questioned the ‘evidence’ provided by the White Helmets and by doctors working there with the World Health Organization, both of which he described as “not neutral.”

But it was what the interviewer, Annita McVeigh said, in the course of the interview that made the interview particularly significant.

She asked West about whether he thought the intelligence that the UK and France spoke about was faulty, and he replied

“I just wonder, you know we’ve had some bad experiences on intelligence. When I was chief of defence intelligence, I had huge pressure put on me politically to try and say that our bombing campaign in Bosnia was achieving all sorts of things which it wasn’t. I was put under huge pressure, so I know the things that can happen with intelligence.”

Now, that, in itself was very interesting indeed. West said, not to put too fine a point on it, that he had been urged to tell lies, in order to mislead, among others the British public, so that they would be more supportive of government policy. The implication was that the pressure came from politicians – presumably in the British government.

One would think that Anita McVeigh, who was interviewing him, might have wanted to know more. Surely that is what any serious journalist would have wanted to know. Many, no doubt, would have pounced, and asked him there and then.

Or perhaps she didn’t think that this was interesting at all. Perhaps she just assumed that this was to be expected, and politicians always encourage intelligence chiefs to lie. After all, faulty intelligence seems to have been a feature of most recent involvement in military operations overseas; think, for example, of the Iraq war, and of Libya.

And so McVeigh didn’t ask about who put the pressure on West, or what they wanted him to say.

But what did she ask?

This is where it gets interesting:

“We know that the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday, or accused a western state on Friday, of perhaps fabricating evidence in Douma or somehow being involved in what happened in Douma. Given that we’re in an information war with Russia on so many fronts, do you think perhaps it’s inadvisable to be stating this so publicly given your position and your profile? Isn’t there a danger that you’re muddying the waters?”

This has been pounced on by many commentators.

Caitlin Johnstone wrote:

Wait a minute, did that just happen? Did a BBC reporter just suggest that it could possibly be “inadvisable” for a retired naval officer to make public statements questioning what we’re being told to believe about Syria? That the conversation shouldn’t even be had? That the questions shouldn’t even be asked? Because we’re trying to win an “information war”? Did McVeigh really suggest that the intelligence of the same war machine which led us into Iraq on false pretences should not be questioned at the risk of “muddying the waters”? . . . 

It isn’t supposed to be a BBC reporter’s job to concern herself with beating Russia in an “information war”, it’s supposed to be her job to tell the truth and hold power to account.

By suggesting that winning an “information war” with Russia should take priority over critical thinking and truth telling, McVeigh essentially admitted that she is a propagandist for the western war engine. Her comments say a lot about how she sees her role at the BBC, and it’s likely that this is a culture that is being fostered within the entire outlet as well.

Jimmy Dore was even blunter:

“So someone comes out and tells the truth about war, and her journalistic reflex isn’t to ask who pressured you and who did that . Her journalistic reflex is to say “Don’t you think you should shut up about that. Don’t you think you should keep that under your hat. . . . That’s going to undermine the war.”

Then she asked “Do you have concerns, though, about perhaps giving credence to the Russians?”

In other words, instead of wanting to get to the truth about what actually happened in Douma, she was concerned that people might actually believe what the Russian government was saying. At the very least, she was saying “Surely a man in your position shouldn’t cause people to doubt what the government is saying”.

Well – if the Russian government is correct about what happened, surely people should believe them. But she seemed to think that the possibility that people would believe those who were telling the truth was worrying. She seemed to assume that the important thing was that people should believe what the British government says – whether or not it was true.

What does all this say about the culture of the BBC? What does it say about the media in Britain today? What does it say about modern British culture?

I’m not sure, but it certainly seems to me that there is an increasing trend in the west today to be more concerned to say the “acceptable” thing, and not be out of line – rather than to get at the actual truth of what actually happens. Fitting with the official “narrative” or being “politically correct” is seen as being the important thing.

And in recent years, that trend has increasingly come to control the media. Newspapers and broadcasting organisations increasingly see their task as shaping society and / or keeping people in line.

Or, to put it another way, the western media increasingly sees its job as the production of propaganda.

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Syria: the latest chemical attack story falls apart

OK. I admit that when I heard the reports of a chemical attack in Syria on 7 April, my instant reaction was to think “Here we go again”, and to be sceptical. It struck me as incredibly unlikely that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons in their offensive.

For a start, previous allegations that Syrian government forces had used chemical weapons against rebel forces have been pretty effectively debunked by the research of investigative reporters like Seymour Hersh and Gareth Porter, and weapons experts like Theodore Postol of MIT.

Furthermore, there is little military reason to use chemical weapons, whereas every time allegations are made, America threatens to launch air strikes on Syria – and indeed, Donald Trump, without waiting for investigation or solid evidence, did so at Khan Sheykoum a year ago. There was no reason for the Syrian government to use such weapons, and every reason for them not to do so. On the other hand, there was every reason for the rebels to allege that the government had used chemical weapons.

And so it has proved in this case. Only two organisations alleged that the government had launched a chemical attack in Douma on 7 April – the White Helmets, and the Syria America Medical Society – both organisations with close links to the rebels.

The case for scepticism has put out pretty effectively by Admiral Lord West in an interview on the BBCand also by Peter Ford, former British Ambassador in Syriaand by Peter Oborne in the Spectator. 

The dog that didn’t bark

What is particularly interesting is that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, in its report for the day, said nothing at all about chemicals being used. Its report merely said

“In Rif Dimashq Province 66 citizens were killed including 10 fighters of Jaysh al-Islam, they were killed in shelling and clashes in the vicinity of Douma city, and at least 56 including 19 children and 10 women were killed in intensive aerial bombardment on Douma city in the last 24 hours, and in among the casualties there are 21 civilians including 9 children and 3 women were killed as a result of suffocation caused by the shelling which destroyed basements of houses as a result of the violence bombardment that stopped about an hour ago on Douma area.”

In their comment a couple of days later, they wrote,

“The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said air strikes on Friday and Saturday killed almost 100 people. It said they included 21 who died as a result of suffocation, but that it was unable to identify the cause. “

What is interesting about this is that the SOHR is actually run by a Syrian who is currently living in the UK – someone who is a strong opponent of the Syrian government, and who has actually been jailed in Syria in the past for his activities. The fact that his initial report on the deaths said nothing about chemicals is worth noting.

Evidence?

So the quest for evidence was on. Five days after the attack, on 12 April, President Macron of France claimed to have “proof” that the Syrian government attacked the town of Douma with chemical weapons.

However, nothing about this proof he spoke of has emerged since that time. This week (on 17 April) British MP Chris Williamson said “ the evidence they are citing is even more flimsy than the ‘dodgy dossier’ [on Iraq in 2003].I me an what they’re relying on it seems to me is social media reports and hearsay,

And in America, on the same day, Congressman Thomas Massie attended a classified briefing for members of Congress which was addressed by Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff . Massie commented afterwards that: As low information briefings go, this was one of the lowest information briefings I’ve ever received. They provided no additional information other than what’s been in the 24 hours news cycle. … They didn’t convey any information that wasn’t already on the Internet.”

So whatever proof President Macron had is clearly not being shared much. His recent grilling by the French Parliament tells us that he wasn’t even sharing it with them.

In other words, there is not a lot of evidence around that the Syrian government launched a chemical attack in Douma.

Chemical attack?  What chemical attack?

What has become increasingly clear in the past week, however, it that there probably was no chemical attack.

On Monday 16th, an American reporter called Pearson Sharp visited Douma, which had now been captured by Syrian government forces. Sharp went to the area where the alleged chemical attack had taken place, spoke to over 30 residents, approaching people at random, and reported “Not one of the people that I spoke to in that neighbourhood said that they had seen anything or heard anything about a chemical attack on that day“.

Pearson Sharp works for a small, American cable news channel called the One America News Network. As such, his report didn’t exactly have a high profile, and it could be said that as an unknown quantity, he lacked credibility.

However, confirmation occurred the following day in the Independent with a report from the respected veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk (as mentioned by Peter Oborne in the article referenced above).

Fisk writes:

“I walked across this town quite freely yesterday without soldier, policeman or minder to haunt my footsteps, just two Syrian friends, a camera and a notebook. I sometimes had to clamber across 20-foot-high ramparts, up and down almost sheer walls of earth. Happy to see foreigners among them, happier still that the siege is finally over, they are mostly smiling; those whose faces you can see, of course, because a surprising number of Douma’s women wear full-length black hijab. 

He visited the “underground clinic whose images of suffering allowed three of the Western world’s most powerful nations to bomb Syria last week, and spoke to a doctor there. The doctor told him that “the patients were overcome not by gas but by oxygen starvation in the rubbish-filled tunnels and basements in which they lived, on a night of wind and heavy shelling that stirred up a dust storm. “

The doctor said:

“I was with my family in the basement of my home three hundred metres from here on the night but all the doctors know what happened. There was a lot of shelling [by government forces] and aircraft were always over Douma at night – but on this night, there was wind and huge dust clouds began to come into the basements and cellars where people lived. People began to arrive here suffering from hypoxia, oxygen loss. Then someone at the door, a “White Helmet”, shouted “Gas!”, and a panic began. People started throwing water over each other. Yes, the video was filmed here, it is genuine, but what you see are people suffering from hypoxia – not gas poisoning.”

Like Pearson Sharp, everyone in Douma that Fisk spoke to said that there had been no chemical attack.

Well, the team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has finally got to Douma and collected samples and other items. It will be interesting to see what they report. But it seems to me pretty certain that no chemical attack took place.

And finally . . .

For me, the final nail in the coffin of the allegations was another report in the Independent this week. Yesterday, Patrick Cockburn, another veteran Middle East reporter, published an article entitled “We should be sceptical of far-away governments who claim to know what is happening on the ground in Syria .”

He tells an interesting (and, I think, significant) story:

“During the bombing of Baghdad in January 1991 I went with other journalists on a government-organised trip to what they claimed was the remains of a baby milk plant at Abu Ghraib which the US had just destroyed, saying that it was really a biological warfare facility. Walking around the wreckage, I found a smashed-up desk with letters showing that the plant had indeed been producing “infant formula” milk powder. It had not been very successful in doing so, since much of the correspondence was about its financial and production problems and how they might best be resolved. It did not seem likely that the Iraqi government could have fabricated this evidence, though it was conceivable that in some part of the plant, which I did see, they might have been manufacturing biological weapons (BW).

I was visiting a lot of bombed-out buildings at the beginning of the US-led air campaign and I did not at first realise that “the Abu Ghraib baby milk factory” would become such an issue. I was more impressed at the time by the sight of a Cruise missile passing quite slowly overhead looking like a large black torpedo. But, within hours of leaving Abu Ghraib, the true purpose of the plant there had become a topic of furious controversy. The CNN correspondent Peter Arnett, who was on the trip, had reported that “whatever else it did, it [the plant] produced infant formula”. He saw a lot of powdered milk and, contrary to the Pentagon claim that the place was guarded like a fortress, we could only see one guard at the gate. Arnett did not deny the US government version that the place was a BW plant, but he did not confirm it either. He simply reported that “it looked innocent enough from what we could see”.

Even such mild dissent from the official US version of the bombing turned out to be unacceptable, producing an explosion of rage in Washington. Colin Powell, the US chief of staff, expressed certainty that the Abu Ghraib plant had manufactured BW. The US air force claimed that it had multiple sources of information proving the same thing.

Arnett was vilified as an Iraqi government stooge by the US government. “This is not a case of taking on the media,” said the White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. “It’s a case of correcting a public disclosure that is erroneous, that is false, that hurts our government, and that plays into the hands of Saddam Hussein.” US news outlets, none of which had correspondents in Baghdad, vigorously toed the official line. Newsweek derided Iraq’s “ham-handed attempt to depict a bombed-out biological weapons plant near Baghdad as a baby-formula factory”.

It took years for the official version of the bombing to fall apart. Even though I had been in the plant soon after it was destroyed, I could not prove that it did not produce biological weapons, though it seemed to me highly unlikely. Media interest waned rapidly: the best study I could find about how the destruction of the milk factory was spun by official PR is a piece by Mark Crispin Miller, from which the quotes above are taken, published in 2003.

Proof came slowly, long after public interest had waned. A Congressional report in 1993 on US intelligence successes and failures in the Gulf War revealed the shaky reasoning behind the US air force decision to bomb the site. It turned out that “mottled camouflage” had been used on the roofs of two known BW facilities. The report said: “at the same time, the same camouflage scheme was applied to the roof of the milk plant”. This was enough for the US Air Force to list it as a target. Confident official claims about multiple sources of intelligence turned out to be untrue.”

So, as I say, it seems pretty obvious that this a case of “here we go again.”  I wonder how long it will take Trump, Macron, and May to admit it.

 

Christian faith, the Bible, and the Skripal poisoning

Over the past few weeks, I have been reading slowly through the letter to the Hebrews in the Bible. This week, I came to chapter 11. And as I thought about verse 1, something struck me.

It is a pretty well known verse.  Internet data suggests that it ranks number 40 – out of over 30,000 verses in the Bible – in terms of verses read.  So we could say it is probably about the 40th most famous verse in the Bible.

It reads

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

I remember, many years ago, when I was a student, asking someone “What do you mean by ‘faith'”?” The person responded by quoting this this verse.

On one level, it’s not the world’s best definition of faith. To some extent, the writer of Hebrews is not defining faith; he is describing what it means in practice. In the New Testament, the Greek word for faith is the same as the word for belief. To have faith is simply to believe something. And so faith, in the New Testament, is simply belief – even if it is about believing something that is not controversial. If I believe that my house faces south, then I have faith that it faces south. Of course we don’t use it that way in modern English, but that is what the New Testament word for faith means.

But the way that Hebrews 11:1 describes faith, and in particular, the way it says that it is being “certain of what we do not see” is similar to the way most people use the word ‘faith’ in modern English. Or, to put it another way, most people think of faith as believing what you don’t know – or even believing what you are not in a position to know.

And as I thought about that, it struck me that most people, perhaps everybody, does that all the time. Most people, perhaps everybody, is fairly certain about things that they don’t know are actually true – and that they don’t even have much evidence for.

Why did that thought strike me? Well, recently I have been thinking a lot about current affairs and what has been in the news.

In particular, I was thinking about two things.

Iraq

The first was the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the war that followed. Wikipedia describes the reasons for the invasion like this:

“According to U.S. President George W. Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, the coalition aimed “to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people.”

Others place a much greater emphasis on the impact of the September 11 attacks, on the role this played in changing U.S. strategic calculations, and the rise of the freedom agenda. According to Blair, the trigger was Iraq’s failure to take a “final opportunity” to disarm itself of alleged nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons that U.S. and British officials called an immediate and intolerable threat to world peace.

In a January 2003 CBS poll, 64% of Americans had approved of military action against Iraq. . .

The invasion of Iraq was strongly opposed by some long-standing U.S. allies, including the governments of France, Germany, and New Zealand. Their leaders argued that there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that invading that country was not justified in the context of UNMOVIC’s 12 February 2003 report. “

With hindsight, we now know that the reasons given for the invasion were complete nonsense. Iraq did not have a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programme. The Iraqi government had no links to terrorist attacks in the west. And as for the idea that it was a war to free the Iraqi people – well, while some Iraqis may be more free, Iraq is hardly a bastion of freedom today, and for a while, several Iraqis lived under ISIS rule, which was far more tyrannical than that of Saddam Hussein. But more to the point, even if the invasion did produced a little more freedom, it also caused a huge amount of suffering and destruction, and well over a million civilian deaths. If it is in any way true that Russia “created hell on earth in Syria” – as MP Iain Duncan Smith claimed, then it is 100 times truer that America and Britain “created hell on earth” in Iraq.

The believers

And yet, most Americans supported the war initially. They believed it would be a good thing, with good outcomes. They believed that Iraq was linked with the 9/11 attacks. They believed that Saddam Hussein did have a WMD programme. And not only did they believe these things, they were often passionate about them. In short, it could be said about them that they were “sure of what they hoped for and certain of what they did not see.” They were convinced. They believed.

The same was true of the British. More importantly, it was true of MPs in the Britain, who voted in favour of the invasion by 412 to 149. What is very interesting, and worth noticing, is that MPs were significantly more likely to support the war than members of the public – 63% of MPs voted in favour and 23% voted against at a time when public opinion supported the war by only 50% to 42%. This leads me to suggest that it looks on the surface like MPs are more likely to believe things they cannot not see – or, to put it another way, more credulous. Or possibly even gullible.

Faith and the Skripal poisoning

And today, 15 years later, watching the way MPs have, with virtual unanimity, embraced the narrative about the Russian government poisoning the Skripals, it looks to me like nothing has changed. Fifteen years ago, in face of a huge amount of disinformation being circulated in Washington and Westminster about the evils of Saddam Hussein, MPs tended to believe the official line, despite the fact that there was very little evidence for any of it. Today it is the same with regard to the evils of Vladimir Putin. And again, the evidence for Russian government involvement in the poisoning is thin. But, as I say, it is actually very common for people to be “certain of what they do not see.” It is common for people to have real faith – in all sorts of things.

And it is also true that if one thinks about faith as being “sure of what you hope for”, it is very widespread. Journalist Jon Schwarz, who has written a lot about the lead up to the Iraq war, recently reflected on the way that politicians swallowed the official government line, and commented

This is how human beings work. If you want something to be true, then any purported evidence, no matter how obviously wrong or sketchy, you will jump on. If you don’t want something to be true, then no amount of evidence will convince you.

Faith – even in the modern, sophisticated, western world – is a surprisingly common commodity.

Christian faith and political faith

So what about Christian faith? Well, what struck me as I reflected on Hebrews 11:1 is that the Bible does not present Christian faith as something that should simply be taken without evidence. And in particular, that is true of the event that is at the heart of Christian faith: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

But what struck me even more was how fascinating it was to compare those two big historical questions – the modern history question which has been constantly in the news over the past few weeks: Did the Russian government order the poisoning of Sergei Skripal – and the ancient history question that many people all over the world will be reflecting on this weekend: Did Jesus Christ actually come back from the dead?

These two questions have a lot in common. They are both matters of controversy – in that neither is, at this stage, considered to be a matter of settle fact. They are both matters that intelligent people hold very strong opinions about. And they are both seen as important questions – though I think that one is actually a lot more important than the other.

And it seems to me that the big difference between them is not the fact that one is ancient and one is modern, or that one is religious and one is political (because they are both about whether a certain thing took place) – but that the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is actually much, much stronger than the evidence that the Russian government ordered the poisoning of the Skripals (though of course, new evidence about the latter may well emerge in coming weeks.)

I’ve written about the evidence that the resurrection of Jesus is a real historical event before. I have written about the case of Albert Henry Ross, who was sceptical regarding the resurrection of Jesus, and set out to analyse the sources and to write a short paper to show that it didn’t happen. In compiling his notes, he came to be convinced that it did, and set out his reasoning in the book Who moved the stone?, published under the pseudonym Frank Morison.

I’ve written about the recent case of David McIntyre, an agnostic who studied the historical evidence for years, became convinced that Jesus did rise from the dead, and became a Christian – and wrote Jesus, the Evidence

And the Bible treats it as a real historical event, and mentions the fact that there were plenty of eyewitnesses who had met and talked with Jesus after he rose from the dead.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (I Corinthians 15:3-8)

It mentions that even sceptics met him – and were convinced.

Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  (John 20:24-29)

Is more faith needed?

So, do I think we, in the modern world, need more faith? The answer is “Not really”. Yes, there are some things that are true, and we need to be more confident about them. But it is also true that we need to be wiser about what we put our faith in.

I am disturbed by the amount of faith that people in modern Britain (and America) put in the political leaders of their country, or the political leaders of their party.  I am disturbed by the amount of faith they have in the press and the media. I listen to people, and it is clear that most simply believe things without questioning them, because they hear them all the time when they turn on the news or pick up a paper.

And that is true not only of ordinary people, but of highly educated and intelligent people. And I find it particularly disturbing that it is true of Christians as much as of no religious faith – despite the fact that the Bible says “Do not put your trust in princes” (Psalm 146:3) – which could just about be translated as “Don’t trust rulers and national leaders.”

And I think, in particular, we need to remember what Jon Schwarz said:

If you want something to be true, then any purported evidence, no matter how obviously wrong or sketchy, you will jump on. If you don’t want something to be true, then no amount of evidence will convince you.

Yes, that is the way human beings work. We all have that tendency.

But it is also true that we all have in us something that actually wants to know the truth, even if it is uncomfortable.  We all have something in us that is willing to look for the truth – and even to look hard at the evidence. Yes, that desire to actually know the facts is stronger in some people than in others. But we all have it in us – somewhere.

The Skripal poisoning: Do we now have evidence that Boris Johnson is “point blank lying”?

In my last post, I said that I did not believe that Boris Johnson would actually lie.   Craig Murray, former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, says otherwise, and that we now have evidence that he did.  He points to what Johnson said in an interview with Deutsche Welle on Tuesday, and to some words in a High Court judgement that came out yesterday.  Murray writes:

Evidence submitted by the British government in court today proves, beyond any doubt, that Boris Johnson has been point blank lying about the degree of certainty Porton Down scientists have about the Skripals being poisoned with a Russian “novichok” agent.

Yesterday in an interview with Deutsche Welle Boris Johnson claimed directly Porton Down had told him they positively identified the nerve agent as Russian:

You argue that the source of this nerve agent, Novichok, is Russia. How did you manage to find it out so quickly? Does Britain possess samples of it?

Let me be clear with you … When I look at the evidence, I mean the people from Porton Down, the laboratory …

So they have the samples …

They do. And they were absolutely categorical and I asked the guy myself, I said, “Are you sure?” And he said there’s no doubt.

I knew and had published from my own whistleblowers that this is a lie. Until now I could not prove it. But today I can absolutely prove it, due to the judgement at the High Court case which gave permission for new blood samples to be taken from the Skripals for use by the OPCW. Justice Williams included in his judgement a summary of the evidence which tells us, directly for the first time, what Porton Down have actually said:

The Evidence
16. The evidence in support of the application is contained within the applications themselves (in particular the Forms COP 3) and the witness statements.
17. I consider the following to be the relevant parts of the evidence. I shall identify the witnesses only by their role and shall summarise the essential elements of their evidence.
i) CC: Porton Down Chemical and Biological Analyst
Blood samples from Sergei Skripal and Yulia Skripal were analysed and the
findings indicated exposure to a nerve agent or related compound. The samples
tested positive for the presence of a Novichok class nerve agent or closely related agent.

The emphasis is mine. This sworn Court evidence direct from Porton Down is utterly incompatible with what Boris Johnson has been saying. The truth is that Porton Down have not even positively identified this as a “Novichok”, as opposed to “a closely related agent”. Even if it were a “Novichok” that would not prove manufacture in Russia, and a “closely related agent” could be manufactured by literally scores of state and non-state actors.

This constitutes irrefutable evidence that the government have been straight out lying – to Parliament, to the EU, to NATO, to the United Nations, and above all to the people – about their degree of certainty of the origin of the attack. It might well be an attack originating in Russia, but there are indeed other possibilities and investigation is needed. As the government has sought to whip up jingoistic hysteria in advance of forthcoming local elections, the scale of the lie has daily increased.

On a sombre note, I am very much afraid the High Court evidence seems to indicate there is very little chance the Skripals will ever recover; one of the reasons the judge gave for his decision is that samples taken now will be better for analysis than samples taken post mortem.

 

The point is that Porton Down have never, ever, publicly said that they believe that Russia is the source of the agent.  They always use the phrase “Of a type developed by Russia.”  When Johnson was asked straight out “You argue that the source of this nerve agent, Novichok, is Russia. How did you manage to find it out so quickly?” he responded “they were absolutely categorical and I asked the guy myself, I said, “Are you sure?” And he said there’s no doubt.

The question in my mind was “Well, perhaps someone at Porton Down said something off the record to Johnson which went beyond the official Porton Down statement.”

Murray was asked about that – and considers it unlikely.  And, to be honest, it does seem that if Porton Down has not been prepared to publicly say that Russia is the source of the agent used in the poisoning, that it would be odd for a member of staff to say that it was to the Foreign Secretary, knowing that the Foreign Secretary would then say that “Someone at Porton Down told me this.”

It doesn’t look good.

 

 

Boris Johnson on Russia & NATO: Dishonesty or Delusion?

I listened (on Youtube to a few words spoken by Boris Johnson on Monday at NATO headquarters. 99 words, to be precise:

We share the view that the poisoning of Sergei Skripal is not an isolated case, but the latest in a pattern of reckless behaviour by the Russian State. That behaviour goes back many years. From Russia’s annexation of Crimea to cyberattacks and its involvement in the Syrian war, Russia has shown itself, the Russian State has shown itself to have a blatant disregard for international order, for international law and values, our values. Those values sit at the heart of NATO and everything that we do, which is why our NATO Allies have shown such strong and undivided support.

I was utterly astonished. I was amazed that it was possible to get so much untruth into such a small package. It was a bit like Hillaire Belloc’s poem, Matilda.

Matilda told such dreadful lies, it made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes.

Not that Johnson told any actual lies. He knows that to do so is politically foolish. But that does not mean that what he was saying is not utterly untrue.

What Boris actually said

I’ll go through it.

We share the view that the poisoning of Sergei Skripal is not an isolated case, but the latest in a pattern of reckless behaviour by the Russian State. 

Technically speaking, this is correct. Johnson has just been welcomed to the podium by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, and is thanking him for his welcome. And the two of them do, indeed, take the same view of the Skripal poisoning.

As for the matter of whether there has been a patter of reckless behaviour by the Russian state, well, I don’t doubt that one could make a good case for it.

But whether the Russian State is, in fact, responsible for the Skripal poisoning is debatable. Does Johnson know something relevant and significant that the public have not been told? If not, it seems to me that he is jumping to a hasty conclusion – one that seems unlikely to me. And that, I think, is less than honest. It’s fair to say “I think the evidence points that way” or “I think it is quite likely.” But Johnson has gone well beyond that.

That behaviour goes back many years. From Russia’s annexation of Crimea to cyberattacks and its involvement in the Syrian war, Russia has shown itself, the Russian State has shown itself to have a blatant disregard for international order, for international law and values, our values.

Let’s start with Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Technically speaking, Johnson is quite right. It was contrary to international law. But it was done peacefully – three people died. It allowed the people of Crimea self-determination (which is more than Spain is prepared to offer to the people of Catalonia). They had a referendum, in which 96.77% of the people voted in favour of becoming part of Russia – and which is generally regarded as free and fair. Crimea had always been part of Russia until 1954, when the Soviet leadership transferred it to Ukraine. The people of Crimea did not consider themselves to be Ukrainian (most were ethnic Russians whose first language was Russian) and didn’t want to be part of Ukraine – and they were deeply suspicious of the new government in Ukraine which had been enacting laws against the use of the Russian language.

So yes, technically against international law. But on the scale of things, a bit like driving at 50 mph in a zone where the speed limit is 40 – hardly a major crime.

Then there are the cyberattacks. But these are much like the Skripal poisoning. There has been numerous allegations made about Russian cyberattacks in several different countries (see the Wikipedia article), but there is not a single case where we know for certain that the Russian government is responsible – and most of them seem pretty dubious.  And in any case, nobody is alleged to have died from any of them – indeed, it is difficult to see that they have done much harm.

And then there is involvement in the Syrian War. And yes, Russia has been involved in the war in Syria. There is nothing illegal about its involvement. It was invited in by the Syrian government, which was losing territory to Jihadist and other Islamist militias – such as ISIS and al-Qaeda (who operated under various names in Syria. The Russian military helped the Syrian government it fighting back, with the result that the amount of Syria under the control of the Jihadists is now a lot smaller. And yes, the Russian military was responsible for killing people – including civilians – but that is inevitable in modern war.

Boris Johnson says that all this constitutes “reckless behaviour” and shows “a blatant disregard for international order, for international law and values.”

How true is what he says?

It seems to me that it is pretty close to being totally untrue. Yes, there has been some disregard for international law – in Crimea. But that is very minor, and pretty harmless. Indeed, in helping people have self-determination, it could be argued that it was actually helpful. But I think that to talk about “reckless behaviour” and showing “a blatant disregard for international order,” what Johnson says is simply not true – or, at the very least, without any real evidence.

Values

As for showing a blatant disregard for international values, I have no idea what he is talking about. But he then adds “our values”. And he goes on to say

Those values sit at the heart of NATO and everything that we do, which is why our NATO Allies have shown such strong and undivided support.

Which values are these that are at the heart of NATO, its member states, and everything they do?

And this is where it really gets interesting. One of the things that Johnson highlighted was Russian action in Syria. But, as I say, Russia was there at the invitation of the Syrian government, which is perfectly legal. However, two NATO countries, the USA and Turkey, currently have troops stationed in Syria, which is illegal under international law. The Turks have invaded Syria, with allied militia, who, according to veteran Middle East reporter Patrick Cockburn of the Independent call “themselves the Free Syrian Army but actually seem closer to al Qaeda and ISIS.”

Indeed, just yesterday, Cockburn reported

“about two thirds of the people have fled from Afrin according to the U.N. About a hundred thousand are registered with the U.N., but the real figure’s probably about twice that. So you know, this is a pretty terrible condition. Particularly as Afrin was one of the most peaceful parts of Syria. It’s a very fertile area, a lot of farming land and so forth, and really nothing had been happening there during the last seven years, and suddenly the whole place is, you know, being devastated. . . . You can see film of these militiamen driving away tractors, looting the shops and so forth. And then we have these videos of the fighters, Arab fighters, saying we’re going to get rid of the Kurds, .. . . So we’re having a demographic change on a big scale in this place. Where the displaced will go, maybe they’ll get to the main Kurdish region. That seems quite likely. . . .You know, they just joined this great sort of swamp of human misery that we have in Syria. “

Furthermore, the war in Syria really got going when outside nations that were hostile to the Syrian government provided opposition militias in an effort to bring down the government – which, to use the words of Boris Johnson, shows “blatant disregard for international order, for international law”. Was Russia involved in that stirring up the war? No – but two NATO countries were. And, surprise, surprise, those two were America and Turkey – who bear a huge part of the blame for what Cockburn calls “this great sort of swamp of human misery that we have in Syria.”

Two anniversaries

It is interesting that just three days before Boris Johnson made these remarks was a significant anniversary – in fact, significant, in a way, for NATO. In 1968 the Vietnam War was raging, and American troops were actively involved in it. NATO, of course, was founded to oppose the Soviet Union, and the growth of communism world-wide, and America was fighting communist forces in Vietnam which were backed by the Soviet Union. On the 16th of March, 50 years ago last week, near the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai, at least 300 (and probably over 500) unarmed Vietnamese civilians – men, women, and children – were massacred by American troops. The American military covered up the story. It took over a year for it to come out. (I tell the story here.)

It doesn’t say much for the values of the American military.

But even more significantly, the day Johnson spoke was the 15th anniversary of the outbreak of the Iraq War, when two NATO countries, America and Britain, invaded Iraq and overthrew the government.

Daniel Larison’s comments on the Chilcot Report into that war are well worth reading.

Among other things, he says

“Many of us saw at the time that the U.S. and British governments were determined to invade Iraq and were simply searching for a pretext that would give them political cover to do so.

Chilcot says of the March 2003 invasion that “military action at that time was not a last resort.” I don’t see how anyone could have ever honestly thought it was. It is not possible for a preventive war to be waged as a last resort, and that is one reason why there is no justification for waging preventive war. The Iraq war happened to be illegal, but more important it was profoundly unjust and unnecessary. There is no excuse for the unprovoked invasion of another country, and that is undeniably what the Iraq war was. That lesson has been almost completely lost on political leaders in Washington and London, and I suspect it will be for a long time.

A few additional things should be said about the Iraq war. I have said them before, but they need to be repeated frequently so that they aren’t forgotten. Even if Iraq had retained its unconventional weapons programs as Bush and Blair claimed, attacking Iraq would not have been justified. Even if the “threat” they identified had existed, it would not have justified the invasion and occupation of another country, the overthrow of its government, and the ensuing years of devastation and bloodshed. As it happened, the pretext for the war was a lie, and the threat was non-existent, but the Iraq war would still have been a colossal blunder and enormous crime regardless.

Lies, claimed threats that were non-existent, involvement in Middle Eastern countries that happened to be illegal, and lessons completely lost on political leaders in Washington and London? That sounds familiar.

Dishonesty or delusion?

But how does it all stack up against the phrases Boris Johnson used?

“A pattern of reckless behaviour?” Check.

“. . . behaviour goes back many years?” Check.

Countries showing themselves”to have a blatant disregard for international order, for international law?” Check.

Johnson may not have technically told any lies, but what he said was so far from the truth that it astonished me.

Dishonesty? Probably. But even more so, I think it is delusion.

For it seems to me that just as self-righteousness and belief in our own personal goodness is part of the human condition – belief in the goodness and rightness of our own country is also part of our human condition – part of tribal loyalty. I think that Boris Johnson – and Tony Blair, and George Bush, and Theresa May and Donald Trump – all share that belief, as do most of us.

And one of the reasons I believe it is delusion is that it fits with the Bible’s most memorable passage about self-righteousness: The parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

The point is that people do see themselves as righteous. The Pharisee really believed what he said. He was, in short, delusional.

It is a problem we all face.

And so, perhaps it is me who is deluded. Perhaps Boris Johnson is right, and what I have written above is completely mistaken. If so, I hope I will be prepared to listen when you gently point that out.

The Skripal poisoning 3: The weakness of the UK’s case for blaming Russia

The fact that I have posted 3 posts this week on this subject will tell you that I think it is important. Of course, I’m not the only one – it seems to be the main headline on the BBC News website most of the time as well.

I have updated both my last two posts after posting them, and decided that this time, I would just write a new post with my updated thoughts.

I am still perplexed about why the government, and most politicians, seem to be so confident that the Russian authorities – and, indeed, Vladimir Putin himself – are responsible. What do they know that I don’t?

My question answered

So when the BBC posted a short video yesterday entitled “Poisoned ex-spy: Why does UK think it was Russia?

I pounced eagerly and watched it, to find out what I was missing.

To my surprise, the answer was “not much”.  In fact, it left me thinking “Is that it? They are drawing conclusions from that? Seriously?”

The four factors that the BBC gives are:

1) The Nerve agent involved. Scientists at Porton Down have identified it as what is called a novichok. Now this is a type of nerve agent which was specifically developed by Russia. it was supposed to have been destroyed, but it is possible that they kept some stocks. now that doesn’t necessarily absolutely prove it was Russia, because other countries could have potentially synthesized or made their own copy, but there are other series of issues which point to likelihood. Russian involvement

My comments:

a) To be pedantic, it was not developed by Russia – it was developed by the Soviet Union, and manufactured not in Russia, but in Uzbekistan.

b) that doesn’t necessarily absolutely prove it was Russia, because other countries could have potentially synthesized or made their own copy” – Why didn’t he just say “That doesn’t necessarily absolutely prove…” Why not just “That doesn’t prove”. The fact that it was developed in the 1980s and the recipe has been widely known for years, means it doesn’t prove anything at all. Indeed, it seems to several people that the last thing the Russians would do was use something that was associated with Russia – but something that someone who wanted to make it look like Russia would have chosen to use something like a Novichok.

c) Craig Murray posted the following yesterday. Actually, the whole of his post is very interesting, but I’ll just quote this bit.

I have now received confirmation from a well placed FCO source that Porton Down scientists are not able to identify the nerve gas as being of Russian manufacture, and have been resentful of the pressure being placed on them to do so. Porton Down would only sign up to the formulation “of a type developed by Russia” after a rather difficult meeting where this was agreed as a compromise formulation. …

To anybody with a Whitehall background this has been obvious for several days. The government has never said the nerve agent was made in Russia, or that it can only be made in Russia. The exact formulation “of a type developed by Russia” was used by Theresa May in parliament, used by the UK at the UN Security Council, used by Boris Johnson on the BBC yesterday and, most tellingly of all, “of a type developed by Russia” is the precise phrase used in the joint communiqué issued by the UK, USA, France and Germany.

When the same extremely careful phrasing is never deviated from, you know it is the result of a very delicate Whitehall compromise. My FCO source, like me, remembers the extreme pressure put on FCO staff and other civil servants to sign off the dirty dossier on Iraqi WMD . . . She volunteered the comparison to what is happening now, particularly at Porton Down, with no prompting from me.

Well, it seems to me that the nerve agent at all does not in any way make it look like Russia is particularly likely to be responsible.

The motive: This was a man who was deemed a traitor in Russia- there is a view in Russian intelligence that traitors should be hunted down as punishment and also as a message to others.

My comment. Funny how the BBC omitted to point out that Skripal didn’t need to be hunted down. He was caught and arrested in Russia in 2004, and in 2006 was sentenced to 13 years in prison. He was released in 2010, when he was pardoned by the Russians, and moved to Britain. The Russian government had already punished him and sent a message to others. They had a chance to deal harshly with him – they didn’t. Why, eight years after his release, would they kill him? What did they have to gain? I can’t see it. As I have already argued, it is difficult to see that they had a motive.

Track Record: Russia has a track of going after dissidents and former most famously there is Alexander Litvinenko , a former Russian security officer based in the UK – who was killed in that case by Radioactive polonium. In that case, an an independent public enquiry led by a judge found it highly likely that Vladimir Putin himself had given the orders for that.

My comment: First, notice that the inquiry found that it was “highly likely” that the Litvinenko was killed under Putin’s orders. So we don’t actually know that. To argue that it is highly likely that Skripal was killed by the Russians on the basis of the fact that it was highly likely that Litvinenko was seems pretty weak to me.

Furthermore, as Mary Dejevsky points out, not only is the Russian government’s role in the killing of Litvinenko uncertain, there are key differences between his case and that of Skripal – not least, as I say, the fact that Skripal was arrested, punished, and freed by the Russians, whereas Litvinenko fled the country.

Any other explanation? – So if you put all that together – the means used, the motive, the track record,- that collection of facts is why the government assesses it as highly likely that the Russians were involved. And so far, there’s not really a clear other hypothesis which would explain Sergei Skripal was targeted in Salisbury.

My comment: So, because you can’t come up with another explanation that satisfies you, you jump to conclusions? It seems to me that when someone does this, it if often a sign that they had pretty much made up their mind already.

Political reactions

The evidence that we are being told about, it seems to me, does not look at all convincing at this point. And we are not being told that there is more to come. I actually wonder if the OPCW report will throw much more light on the matter.

But there are three reactions from MPs that I think are worth commenting on.

Iain Duncan Smith said

Russia is as close to being a rogue state as any. It . . . has created a hell on earth in Syria and is, even now, overseeing worse action.”

That is a startling assertion. The terrible things that are happening in Syria are a result of the war there – and the main reason that the war got started and became utterly horrific was the fact that various nations actively supported Islamist rebel groups like ISIS, al-Nusra, and their various accomplices and allied. Those nations that supported the Jihadists – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the USA – are the ones largely responsible for the “hell on earth” that Syria became. Russia was involved in helping the Syrian government fight them. The fact that Iain Duncan Smith blamed Russia tells me that he is someone whose opinion about Russia is utterly worthless.

And, I guess while we are on the subject of states that create “hells on earth” in other countries, which two nations created a hell on earth by their invasion of Iraq in 2003? And guess who was the Conservative Party leader at the time – who supported the invasion? Yes, it was Iain Duncan Smith. In fact, Wikipedia tells us that In November 2001, he was one of the first politicians to call for an invasion of Iraq.

Boris Johnson said

“We think it overwhelmingly likely that it was [Putin’s] decision to direct the use of a nerve agent on the streets of the UK, on the streets of Europe, for the first time since the Second World War.”

Well, I don’t – but I think the interesting thing is that Russian’s response was to say that the accusations against Mr Putin were “shocking and unforgivable”.

The word “unforgivable” jumped out at me – since I believe strongly in forgiveness. But I also believe that forgiveness requires repentance. And so I wondered if Boris Johnson would be prepared to apologise if it became clear that Putin probably had not been involved in the decision – or even if it looked increasingly uncertain that he was. One of the big questions about this whole matter is whether the people who are speaking with such vehemence against the Russians at the moment would be prepared to change their minds if the evidence suggests that they are wrong – or if they will never do that, no matter what the evidence points to.

And the matter of evidence brings us to Jeremy Corbyn, who, among other things has said,

“The attack in Salisbury was an appalling act of violence. Nerve agents are abominable if used in any war. It is utterly reckless to use them in a civilian environment.

Our response as a country must be guided by the rule of law, support for international agreements and respect for human rights. Our response must be decisive, proportionate and based on clear evidence. “

And he asked the Prime Minister some good questions:

“If the government believe that it is still a possibility that Russia negligently lost control of a military-grade nerve agent, what action is being taken through the OPCW with our allies? I welcome the fact that the police are working with the OPCW.

Has the prime minister taken the necessary steps under the chemical weapons convention to make a formal request for evidence from the Russian government under Article IX(2)?

How has she responded to the Russian government’s request for a sample of the agent used in the Salisbury attack to run their own tests? Has high-resolution trace analysis been run on a sample of the nerve agent, and has that revealed any evidence as to the location of its production or the identity of its perpetrators? “

It seemed to me like Corbyn was the adult in the room for saying those things. But simply asking those questions got him booed in the Commons.

Despair and Hope

I must confess that at this point, I despair over this country, its political leadership, and its mass media. The hysterical reaction to Skripal’s poisoning shows either complete stupidity, or utter blindness, or shocking dishonesty – or some combination of these things. Oddly enough, I am not sure how much this is shared by the rest of the country. I have not heard many people commenting, but I was told yesterday of a conversation between two teachers in a local high school in which one expressed scepticism about Russian involvement – and the other didn’t seem to disagree.

But I am concerned – very concerned – about our governing classes – and the media, who do a huge amount to shape the way people think. And when I heard that the political leaderships of the US, Germany, and France, were embracing the UK government’s position, it made it even worse.

What am I, as a Christian, supposed to think?

Well – 3 passages from the Bible have come to mind.

1. I suppose Hebrews 11:13 should be obvious, because it appears at the top of this blog:

they admitted that they were aliens and temporary residents / foreigners / strangers on earth.

When I listen to these politicians, I wonder what planet they live on. But perhaps it is me that is out of step, and that I don’t really belong.

2. But those are not the words that actually came to my mind first. Rather, I thought of some words from Psalm 46:6. I thought of them as they are found in Sing Psalms:

“The nations are in disarray”.

Usually, that is translated something like “The nations rage”. The word used literally means to make a lot of noise, and “Nations are in uproar” seems to be a good translation.

What should Christians think?  What does the psalm make of the fact that nations are in uproar? Where is God in all this? The Psalm tells us:

“He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

3. In a sense, that is the final word. But I can’t resist adding some words from the prophet Isaiah (2:4):

He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

I may despair of our political leaders. But I don’t despair.

Truth, Justice and Naboth: a Biblical incident and politics today

It is an interesting thing that the Bible tells us of a surprising number of miscarriages of justice. When an innocent person is accused and goes on trial, they generally end up being found guilty. Sometimes, we are told about the trial in some detail – as in the trials of Jesus before Herod and Pontius Pilate, or the trial of Stephen before the Sanhedrin. Sometimes we don’t hear anything about the trial. In the case of Joseph, we just hear of the accusation and the imprisonment.

The trial of Naboth

But the Biblical trial I have found myself thinking about most in recent years, as I read the news and consider current events, is the trial of Naboth. The Bible keeps it brief, and leaves the details to the imagination – but the picture it creates in my mind is vivid.

The story, briefly, is that Jezebel, wife of Ahab, the king of Israel, wants Naboth dead. So she sets Naboth up.

“She wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal, and she sent the letters to the elders and the leaders who lived with Naboth in his city. And she wrote in the letters, “Proclaim a fast, and set Naboth at the head of the people. And set two worthless men opposite him, and let them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out and stone him to death.” And the men of his city, the elders and the leaders who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. As it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, they proclaimed a fast and set Naboth at the head of the people. And the two worthless men came in and sat opposite him. And the worthless men brought a charge against Naboth in the presence of the people, saying, “Naboth cursed God and the king.” So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death with stones. ” (I Kings 21:8-13)

Basically, the accusations are made, and without investigation of the allegations, or indeed any kind of investigation – with no corroborating evidence – the people who are present decide that Naboth must be guilty of this terrible crime, and he is executed without delay.

And the picture that forms in my mind is of everybody being utterly shocked – and convinced of Naboth’s guilt. After all, he faces not one, but two accusers. What he is said to have done horrifies them. It’s obvious that he must be guilty.

And I keep thinking about this because so often I see this sort of thing in current affairs. If enough allegations are made, people start to believe them – presumably because ‘there is no smoke without fire’. Build up a person as an evil villain – or a country as an evil country – and then when yet another accusation comes in against him (or it), people will believe it. It works every time. Especially if the person is different from us, or the country is foreign – and one which we don’t have a historically good relationship with.

This week in Parliament

Which brings me back to the story of the day. Yesterday, I watched excerpts of Monday’s debate in Parliament about the Skripal poisoning case. The Prime Minister said:

“There are only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on March 4. Either this was a direct act by the Russian State against our country. Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.””

The obvious response, it seems to me was “Really?   Surely there could be other explanations that you and I have not thought of?  And where is the evidence that nerve agent came from Russia?  OK, it was developed by the Soviet Union 30 years ago, but the recipe is now known throughout the world.”

But that wasn’t what MPs were saying. Instead there was a chorus of disapproval.  (Do they have inside information that the rest of us don’t have?)

Iain Duncan Smith, Conservative MP:

Russia is as close to being a rogue state as any. It occupies Crimea, it has helped occupy eastern Ukraine, it has created a hell on earth in Syria and is, even now, overseeing worse action. This is a country locking up its members of the opposition. We’ve learnt this lesson before, if we appease a country like this, then we [can] expect even worse.”

Chris Bryant, Labour MP:

I don’t suppose there’s a single member of this house … that is surprised President Putin would resort to violence because he’s done it so many times before. 334 killed in Beslan massacre, 170 killed unnecessarily in the Moscow theatre siege, 299 killed in the M17 airplane that was brought down by the Russians. Countless journalists, countless people who’ve stood up to him as political opponents in other countries around the world, murdered by him, and yes, Sergei Magnitsky.”

Tom Tugendhat, Conservative MP

This, if not an act of war, was certainly a warlike act by the Russian Federation and this is not the first we’ve seen… Now is the time to call on our allies, to call on the EU which has worked with us so well on sanctions, on NATO and particularly on the US, to ask what they will do to assist us when we are in need?”

Rupa Huq, Labour MP

Business cannot go on as usual. Can the Prime Minister take this opportunity to tighten the loopholes that do exist in the system, concerning money laundering, so that From Russia with Cash, doesn’t turn into From Russia with Blood?”

And on and on it went, with no dissenting voices. Even Jeremy Corbyn’s slightly different take didn’t amount to serious dissent.

I found the whole thing horrifying.

Having made the accusations, and provided no real evidence, the British government asked the Russians to give evidence that they were innocent.  That is a very odd way to pursue truth and justice.  And the task of providing evidence of your innocence when you haven’t been given any real evidence of your guilt sounds pretty challenging.  It’s hardly surprising that the Russians didn’t do.  And so action to punish Russia has been taken.  

Naboth syndrome strikes again.

Truth and Justice

I wrote about this a couple of days ago, with my initial thoughts – see here, if you want to read it. But as my concern and curiosity grew, I kept reading. And what I read disturbed me. I found that there were other people who agreed with me – though, curiously, none were MPs. And they were not exactly well represented in the coverage given by the BBC and the mainstream media.

My basic concerns are the matters of truth and justice. These are things that the Bible puts a high value on. It tells that when God gave his people laws at Mount Sinai, he gave them instructions about dealing with accusations. Hence it speaks (Deuteronomy 25:1) about people coming to court and the judges deciding between them, with the job of acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty. God warns his people (Exodus 23:7) “Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked.” And the prophet Isaiah (5:23) rails against those who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right.

And so the facts need to be investigated and assessed carefully – in order to get at the truth. The fact that God had to warn them about false charges, and the fact that Isaiah speaks against those who pervert justice tells us that people are very prone to getting it wrong – and not just because of honest mistakes.

And what happened to Naboth tells us how very true that is.

And human nature has not changed at all since his day.

Truth tellers and inconvenient facts

At the beginning of 2017, I wrote a blog post entitled “A look back at 2016: are we living in a post-truth world?

I reflected on the dishonesty in the media, and my search for those who seemed honest.

And I wrote about:

four writers who have impressed me over the course of the year. I don’t agree with everything they say, but they are independent minded, and strike me as being knowledgeable and honest.

Since posting my thoughts on the Skripal affair on Tuesday, I discovered that two had expressed opinions on the subject.

The first was Philip Giraldi – a former counter-terrorism specialist and military intelligence officer – who has a PhD from the University of London in European History, and spent eighteen years working for the CIA in Turkey, Italy, Germany, and Spain (and is fluent in Turkish, Italian, German, and Spanish).

Giraldi, interviewed by RT, commented:

I think what we are seeing here is she is making a political point.  She essentially is responding to the media in Britain which is going hysterical on this story.  And also I think she is hoping to hurt president Vladimir Putin by making this statement shortly before the Russian elections. She also said “it appears to be.” “It appears to be” is a rather non-specific expression, which means they don’t know. And I would also add that if this were Russian military grade nerve agent, the two people involved in this would be dead and there would be about 100 more people dead in the vicinity of this. So the whole story does not make a lot of sense, and as you say, it invites analysis that says “How would the Russians be so stupid to do something like this if they really intended to do it and keep it secret?”

The second is Craig Murray – former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, who complained to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that intelligence linking the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to al-Qaeda was unreliable, immoral and illegal, as it was thought to have been obtained through torture – and after making these complaints, was removed from his post.

Murray has written a lot on the subject. Yesterday, I linked to his post Russian to Judgement 

One interesting point he makes is that

It is worth noting that the “wicked” Russians gave Skripal a far lighter jail sentence than an American equivalent would have received. If a member of US Military Intelligence had sold, for cash to the Russians, the names of hundreds of US agents and officers operating abroad, the Americans would at the very least jail the person for life, and I strongly suspect would execute them. Skripal just received a jail sentence of 18 years, which is hard to square with the narrative of implacable vindictiveness against him. If the Russians had wanted to make an example, that was the time.

The Russians had the opportunity to kill him then. Why wait until after pardoning him, after he has spent 10 years in the UK?

And Murray concludes with the words

“I witnessed personally in Uzbekistan the willingness of the UK and US security services to accept and validate intelligence they knew to be false in order to pursue their policy objectives. We should be extremely sceptical of their current anti-Russian narrative. There are many possible suspects in this attack. “

Since then he has published another piece, about the weakness of the evidence with regard to the nerve agent that was apparently the cause of the poisoning.

The evidence that was presented in Parliament, it seems, is far from pointing in the direction that Theresa May says it does.

1) Porton Down has acknowledged in publications it has never seen any Russian “novichoks”. The UK government has absolutely no “fingerprint” information such as impurities that can safely attribute this substance to Russia.
2) Until now, neither Porton Down nor the world’s experts at the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) were convinced “Novichoks” even exist.
3) The UK is refusing to provide a sample to the OPCW.
4) “Novichoks” were specifically designed to be able to be manufactured from common ingredients on any scientific bench. The Americans dismantled and studied the facility that allegedly developed them. It is completely untrue only the Russians could make them, if anybody can.
5) The “Novichok” programme was in Uzbekistan not in Russia. Its legacy was inherited by the Americans during their alliance with Karimov, not by the Russians.

On that subject, see also this link by two professors at Sheffield University., which points out that “Synthesis at bench scale of organic chemicals such as the purported “Novichoks” is within the capability of a modern chemistry laboratory.

The narrative falls apart: the hysteria remains

The narrative of Russian government involvement is falling apart all over the place.

Except of course, in the media and among politicians. There, hysteria rules supreme, and interest in looking at the evidence and seeking the truth seems to have disappeared.

And as for justice? Well, it’s Naboth all over again.

It is worth remembering, however, that while, at the time of his trial and condemnation (almost 3,000 years ago), Naboth was the one seen as the evil villain – history has remembered Jezebel as the real criminal. 

 

Postscript: :  Based on Craig Murray’s latest post, and this Youtube report from RT, it looks like we may be on the way to getting evidence, and it’s all in the chemistry – which seems to be what the British government’s case is based on.   Samples of the chemicals used are being sent to the OPCW for analysis.  Their report should be helpful for getting to the bottom of this.

Russia hysteria hits the UK: Why I remain sceptical about the Skripal poisoning

The narrative of the evil Russians and their involvement in all kinds of malevolence around the world – and especially in Western Europe and America – has had a fresh boost in Britain this month.

On the 4th March, Sergei Skripal a Russian spy, who became a double agent and worked for the British intelligence services, was found slumped on a bench in Salisbury city centre in Wiltshire, together with his daughter Yulia. It quickly became apparent that they had been poisoned, and suspicion immediately fell on the Russian government.

Yesterday, the hysteria got ramped up as, according to the BBC

Theresa May told the Commons that the poison used in the attack was a military-grade nerve agent developed by Russia. She said it was part of a group of nerve agents known as Novickok. “Either this was a direct action by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of its potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others,” she said.

The PM warned that if there was no “credible response” by the end of Tuesday, the UK would conclude there has been an “unlawful use of force” by Moscow.

Apparently, there is no time to waste.

The Prime Minister says that the government is “highly likely” that Russia is responsible. It seems that pretty well everyone in Parliament, and described it as an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom.

I am remain sceptical, which undoubtedly makes me an oddity – or worse. Why?

Motive

Why would the Russian government do this? What would they gain from it? It makes no sense, and Putin is not an idiot. He considers his moves carefully, avoids being dramatic, and seems to be a pretty cautious and shrewd operator – compared to some western leaders I could mention.

Timing

If the Russian government wanted to do this to punish Skripal for his treachery, why do it now – when Russia hysteria is at its height in the west?

Evidence

And of course, there is the matter of evidence. The only evidence I am aware of is that the Russian government will not have liked Skripal, and that the agent used to poison him was developed by the Russian government.

The record of Parliament

The fact that this hysteria is largely coming from Parliament should cause us to be very sceptical. Parliament’s record of jumping to conclusions based on intelligence that turned out to be dodgy in recent years has been pretty poor. And when the person being accused is already someone who has been built up as an evil villain, Parliament seems to be particularly keen to jump to conclusions – conclusions that turn out to wrong.

Think for example about Saddam Hussein, Iraq, and the 2003 invasion.

Or think about Gadaffi, Libya, and the British intervention in 2011. Remember what the 2016 Parliamentary report said about it?  Here are three quotes:

1) “the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence.”

2) “In short, the scale of the threat to civilians was presented with unjustified certainty.”

And, perhaps most significantly, the quotation from Amnesty International:

3. “much Western media coverage has from the outset presented a very one-sided view of the logic of events, portraying the protest movement as entirely peaceful and repeatedly suggesting that the regime’s security forces were unaccountably massacring unarmed demonstrators who presented no security challenge.”

In short, not only were the governments of Britain and France saying things that were highly misleading, but it was also the case that much Western media coverage of Libya was highly misleading.

Sound familiar? The hysteria over the Skripal poisoning looks suspiciously like a case of “Here we go again.”

And the fact that over the past two years, Theresa May has been particularly prone to Russia hysteria, judging by her utterances, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in her objectivity.

One final comment

And anyway, if it is so very horrifying for the government of one country to carry out targeted assassinations of people in other countries – especially when they kill hundreds of civilians in the process – why is our government so very friendly with the country which is the world leader in that activity?

And if you want to know which country is the culprit, see here, here, and here.

Postscript

Since writing the above, I have read this interesting piece on the subject.  Again, he focuses on the question of motive.

For more on the subject, see:

this blog post by somebody who lives in Salisbury, and

this very interesting article by Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, which is where the Soviet Union produced Novichok.   According to Wikipedia:  “Since its independence in 1991, Uzbekistan has been working with the government of the United States to dismantle and decontaminate the sites where the Novichok agents and other chemical weapons were tested and developed.”

UPDATE:  I’ve posted further thoughts here.

Don Carson on the danger of idolatry in political allegiance – (and some thoughts of my own)

I’ve recently posted some words of Don Carson on politics, taken from his lectures on Revelation, given around 1995. Today I’ve got some more, based on his comments on Revelation 17:1-2:

Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgement of the great prostitute who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth have become intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.

After explaining that the great prostitute, is identified a few verses further on as “Babylon the great” and who we are told “sits on seven hills”, is clearly imperial Rome, Carson then comes back to the words about the kings of the earth committing adultery with her, and asks “How do you commit adultery with an empire?”

This is what he has to say:

What is meant, of course, is that Rome saw herself so much as at the center of everything – fostered pagan worship, demanded god swaps, demanded finally that the emperor himself be worshipped as God, almighty, saviour, divine, lord of lords, king of kings. So in that sense that every nation that was allied with Rome was in principle bound up with idolatry. It couldn’t be any other way. And because the whole ethos of the empire was empire first, everybody else second, then to be committed to the emperor, to be committed to the empire, was to be committed to that which was holding itself to be number one over against the living God. It was intrinsically a faithless relationship, it was intrinsically an evil thing. That is what it is really saying.

Now of course it is understandable that the Christians would see it peculiarly that way when their most serious persecution came from this source. But the essence of the idolatry is not that they persecuted Christians; the essence of the idolatry is that they demand the allegiance that should belong only to God so that in principle wherever you find any system of thought or any political structure or any party that demands the kind of allegiance that belongs only to God, you have exactly the same kind of idolatry taking place, and it has taken place many times in world history.

This is basically about the way that people worship many things that we ought not to worship – we make idols of them – and the Bible uses ‘adultery’ as a metaphor for idolatry, because it involves being unfaithful in a relationship.

Idols are not merely statues of gods. In ordinary day to day conversation, we speak of pop idols and sporting idols. I suppose there may be times when ‘idolising” some popular hero may be unhealthy – but rarely does it become so serious as to become what the Bible would consider to be idolatry – largely because those ‘idols’ don’t demand “the kind of allegiance that belongs only to God”. The Roman Empire, and the Roman Emperor did.

Hence Carson’s comment:

“wherever you find any system of thought or any political structure or any party that demands the kind of allegiance that belongs only to God, you have exactly the same kind of idolatry taking place.”

It seems to me that if you look around the world (and if you look at history) for things that demand the kind of allegiance that belongs only to God – you will find that the systems of thought that demand that kind of allegiance are usually classified as religions – e.g. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam – and usually have gods that they do call gods.

Other than that, the only bodies that tend to demand that kind of allegiance are political bodies – sometimes parties, but more often nation states. Most parties, at least in multi-party countries, know that party members can leave – so they rarely make serious demands on them.

In other words, the danger comes from nation-states, which have power over their citizens – like Imperial Rome in the days when Revelation was written.

And I think there is a real danger of allegiance to one’s nation becoming idolatrous. People believe that it is good to be loyal to one’s country. Patriotism is usually considered to be a virtue. But loyalty to one’s country often becomes loyalty to its leaders and their policies – particularly when it comes to their foreign policies. When the leaders of our country are in dispute with the leaders of another country, it is generally considered a patriotic, and hence good, to support the leaders of our country – and bad to support the leaders of the other country.  We tend to believe the utterances of the leaders of our country rather than what the leaders of other countries say.  It is sometimes that we say “my country, right or wrong.” It is more often the case that we just assume that our country is right, because we believe what our leaders say in times of crisis – whether or not there is any evidence for it. And so we do what our leaders demand – no matter how foolish, or even wrong it is.

And once we get to that point, it seems to me that we have crossed the boundary into idolatry – or, to use the Biblical metaphor, spiritual adultery.

Whether Carson would agree, I can’t say, of course.

Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the hypocrisy of the UK and the US

Two closely related stories have been in the news in the last few days.

The first is the ongoing battle over East Goutha, in which the Syrian government has been seeking to retake the rebel-held enclave, leading to more than 900 reported civilian deaths.

Syrian rebels – and their rich friends

Who are these rebels? A useful article in Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster, lists them.

1. Jaysh al-Islam, or Army of Islam, a Saudi-backed coalition which aims to replace the Assad government with a Syria based on Sharia, or Islamic law.

2. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, or Organization for the Liberation of the Levant, is also known as the covert Syrian version of al Qaeda. The organization believes in using violence to implement an ultraconservative religious doctrine.

3. Faylaq al-Rahmanor is allied with Qatar, possesses American BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles, and has allied with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.

4. Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki movement: The Harakat al-Din al-Zenki, or the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, is a Sunni Islamist group based in Aleppo. In June 2016, a video of the group circulated showing its members beheading a 15-year-old boy. The video received obvious attention, not only due to the cruelness of the action but also the fact that during that time the United States had financially backed the organization.

5. Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya: The Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, or Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant, aims to also form an Islamic state in Syria based on Sharia.

In other words, they are a pretty unpleasant bunch.  Indeed, in practice, these groups are not very different from ISIS – and there is evidence that fighters move to and fro between some of them and ISIS.  And their record in the enclaves they control is pretty horrific – especially towards anyone who is not a Sunni Muslim.

The Syrian government has received a lot of criticism for the number of civilians that it has killed in Ghouta, and there is no doubt that it has killed plenty of civilians – and that its behaviour has been less than impeccable.

However, there are certain things that need to be remembered –

1) The rebels in Ghouta have been indiscriminately bombing civilian areas of Damascus for months.

2) The estimates of the number of deaths in the enclave come via the rebels – and so should be treated with caution.

3) In practice, the rebels are not very different from the forces of ISIS that held Mosul and Raqqa – where US bombing is estimated to have killed a lot more civilians than have died in the recent attack on Ghouta.

4) The Syrian government didn’t start the war. The rebels did, by taking up arms. Indeed, a lot of the rebel fighters are Islamists from outside Syria, and evidence suggests that countries that are hostile to the current Syrian government – e.g. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and yes, even the US – by financing and arming rebel groups – are the ones who started the war – and thus all the civilian suffering that the war caused.  See here, here, and here.

Well,  the American goverment was not slow to criticise the Syrian government’s actions in Gouta.  The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley said

“It’s time to take immediate action in the hopes of saving the lives of the men, women, and children who are under attack by the barbaric Assad regime”.

Boris Johnson was only slightly gentler:

The House should never forget that the Assad regime – aided and abetted by Russia and Iran – has inflicted the overwhelming burden of [the] suffering [in Syria]. Assad’s forces are now bombarding the enclave of Eastern Ghouta, where 393,000 people are living under siege, enduring what has become a signature tactic of the regime, whereby civilians are starved and pounded into submission.

For countries that were involved in destabilising Syria and causing the war, to then complain about the government killing civilians seems just a little hypocritical. It’s bad enough when they are not only partly responsible for that war, but also armed and funded extremists. The fact that they killed plenty of civilians in Raqqa and Mosul makes the hypocrisy even worse.

But this all pales into insignificance compared to what Saudi Arabia has done to Yemen in the past three years – and the British and American response to that action.

The Prince’s visit

Which brings us back to the second story in the news: the official visit to this past week to the UK of Mohammed bin Salman , the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia – generally acknowledged as the man in real charge of the running of the country – and in particular, it’s foreign policy.

He became defence minister in March 2015, and one of his first acts as was to launch a military campaign in Yemen. In that campaign, Saudi Arabia has repeatedly bombed civilian targets, always blithely denying it or saying it was a mistake – and has imposed a blockade on Yemen which has caused thousands of deaths of hunger and disease among the civilian population.

And on top of its arming Jihadists in Syria, and its actions in Yemen, there was the astonishing story last year of how Saudi Arabia basically lure Saad Hariri, the prime minister of Lebanon to Saudi Arabia, and then seized him and forced him to resign. 

So – here we have someone who has been involved for years in war crimes in Yemen, supporting Islamist terrorists seeking to overthrow a secular government in Syria, and indulging in the most bizarre and unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of one of a tiny number of democratic countries in the Middle East. And yet he is welcomed to the UK, and treated with great honour.

And that’s not all

And the Saudi government’s behaviour at home is not much better. It is the only country in the world which practices the public beheading of convicted criminals. It forbids its citizens from becoming Christians. It bans the selling of Bibles. And it tolerates no church buildings on its territory.

The government also had close links to the 9/11 hijackers.

In short, Saudi Arabia is a country which has an appalling record at home, as well as an appalling record abroad, among other things supporting Islamic extremists trying to bring down an internationally recognised non-Islamic government; basically lying to the prime minister of another country in order to kidnap him and force him to resign; and imposing a blockade on Yemen which has caused thousands of deaths of hunger and disease. And yet, in the words of the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry,

today the architect of that Saudi intervention in Yemen – crown prince Mohammad bin Salman – will visit Britain, and will receive the red carpet treatment from the Tory government, as if he were Nelson Mandela. This is the man behind the rolling blockade of Yemen’s rebel-held ports, preventing the supply of essential food, medicine and fuel to Yemeni civilians, and – on all the available evidence – breaching international law by using starvation as a weapon of war.

The man who –, in an equally flagrant breach of the Geneva convention, authorised the destruction of Yemen’s agricultural and food infrastructure in the early stages of the war, with systematic air strikes on farms, dairies, food factories and markets.

The real scandal

But the real scandal is the involvement of the British and American governments in Saudi war crimes in Yemen. The UK government has repeatedly supported the Saudi invasion.  Theresa May, speaking to Parliament this week, said

“Their involvement in Yemen came at the request of the legitimate government of the Yemen, it is backed by the United Nations Security Council and as such we support it.”

Well, the first part of that statement is true enough – it is the internationally recognised government that Saudi Arabia is supporting – though the argument seems a little strange considering that Britain and America have had no qualms about bringing down the internationally recognised government of Iraq, and helping to bring down the internationally recognised government of Libya, and, in the case of at least America (and Saudi Arabia as well), trying to bring down the internationally recognised government of Syria.

However, when she said “. . . it is backed by the United Nations Security Council and as such we support it”, her statement was seriously misleading. She was referring to UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which was passed in 2015 and recognised the Hadi government, while calling for all Yemeni parties to the conflict to “end the use of violence”. The Security Council did not, in any way, back Saudi involvement in Yemen, which was the impression that the Prime Minister seemed to be attempting to give.

But it is not so much the fact that Saudi Arabia intervened that is the point. It is not even just the war crimes. It is the fact the despite the continual bombing of civilian targets, and despite the fact that the outcry against these war crimes has been going on since early in the Saudi bombing campaign, the UK and the US continue to supply Saudi Arabia with the bombs and weapons for the job – and the US even refuels the Saudi aircraft carrying out the bombing.

And you just know that if it was the Syrian government doing what the Saudi Arabians were doing – the British and American governments would be taking action. Yes, the Syrian government’s offensive in Ghouta is killing hundreds of civilians  (just like as American bombing did in Mosul and Raqqa).

But if Syria were doing what the Saudi Arabia is doing to Yemen – the British and American governments would not just be complaining. They would, at the very least, be dropping bombs on Syrian government positions.