Russian interference, American hysteria, and Scottish common sense

Yesterday morning, the BBC’s top story was about the Trump – Putin summit meeting. It reported:

“There has been a barrage of criticism in the US after President Donald Trump defended Russia over claims of interference in the 2016 elections. At a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Finland, Mr Trump contradicted US intelligence agencies, saying Russia had no reason to meddle.”

Within hours, Donald Trump, true to form, explained that he had not meant what he was reported as saying.

But what is much more interesting than what Trump said, or even what he thinks, is the reaction. The BBC reported the way that American politicians from right across the political spectrum had condemned Trump’s comments. They seemed particularly angry that Trump appeared to saying that he believed what Putin said about the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, rather than what the US intelligence agencies said. Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer tweeted

“For the president of the United States to side with President Putin against American law enforcement, American defense officials, and American intelligence agencies is thoughtless, dangerous, and weak. The president is putting himself over our country.”

This struck me as being absolutely idiotic. And I was not the only one. And interestingly enough, the best response I have seen comes from a Scot – former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray – someone who is very familiar with Russia.

Murray starts with the first reason why reaction of the American political community makes no sense: the fact that the American intelligence agencies are far from being a reliable source:

“Political memories are short, but just 15 years after Iraq was destroyed and the chain reaction sent most of the Arab world back to the dark ages, it is now “treason” to question the word of the Western intelligence agencies, which deliberately and knowingly produced a fabric of lies on Iraqi WMD to justify that destruction. “

He then moves to the second reason why the American establishment’s response is ridiculous: so far, no real evidence has ever been put forward to show that the Russian government interfered with the 2016 election:

“after three years of crazed accusations and millions of man hours by lawyers and CIA and FBI investigators, they are yet to produce any substantive evidence of accusations which are plainly nuts in the first place. This ridiculous circus has found a few facebook ads and indicted one Russian for every 100,000 man hours worked, for unspecified or minor actions which had no possible bearing on the election result. “

But while those are the main two points that need to be made, there are a few other things that seem relevant to me. And they all relate to the fact that what the Russians are alleged to have done pales into insignificance compared to what the American government and respected American politicians have done.

Interference in elections by US

1) America has a long history of interfering in elections in other countries. According to one study, America interfered in 81 elections in other countries between 1946 and 2000 – not to mention using coups to overthrow democratically elected governments on several occasions.

yeltsin time

2) In particular, it is no secret that the US interfered massively in the Russian election in 1996 to make sure that Boris Yeltsin got elected. Interestingly, the American president at that time was a man called . . . Clinton.

3) In 2006, a top American politician, in a conversation with Israeli journalists, had some interesting comments on the elections that had recently taken place in the Gaza Strip.

“Speaking to the Jewish Press about the January 25, 2006, election for the second Palestinian Legislative Council (the legislature of the Palestinian National Authority), [she] weighed in about the result, which was a resounding victory for Hamas (74 seats) over the U.S.-preferred Fatah (45 seats).

I do not think we should have pushed for an election in the Palestinian territories. I think that was a big mistake. And if we were going to push for an election, then we should have made sure that we did something to determine who was going to win.”

The name of the American politician who reckoned that America should have “fixed” the Gaza elections? Hillary Clinton.

4) As Craig Murray points out, the Russians are not the only ones who might have ‘interfered’ in the 2016 American election:

“There are in fact genuine acts of election rigging to investigate. In particular, the multiple actions of the DNC and Democratic Party establishment to rig the Primary against Bernie Sanders do have some very real documentary evidence to substantiate them, and that evidence is even public.”

meme-putin-hack

5) And and as Murray continues:

“Yet those real acts of election rigging are ignored and instead the huge investigation is focused on catching those who revealed Hillary’s election rigging.”

Yes, ironically what Russia was alleged to have done was to have revealed electoral malpractice in the American elections. And, even more ironically, Russia was accused of undermining or even attacking American democracy because it had allegedly revealed electoral malpractice

And that is so ridiculous, that it beggars belief. And yet thousands of Americans appear to swallow it hook, line, and sinker.

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Another King. (Or – What I like about Donald Trump)

There are good reasons for going to church twice on a Sunday, as I discovered yesterday.

As is my custom when I am in Keswick, I not only attended the morning service in Keswick Congregational Church, but also went along to their afternoon service. The pastor, James Devenish, had chosen to preach on chapter 1 of the book of Esther, which struck me as an unusual choice. I couldn’t remember having ever heard a sermon on this chapter. And I will admit since it didn’t strike me as a very interesting chapter, I wasn’t expecting an interesting sermon.

I was wrong. Very wrong.

The chapter is about Ahasuerus, King of Persia (though most modern translations of the Bible refer to him as Xerxes).

The first thing that we learn in the chapter, is that in the third year of his reign he gave a banquet for all his nobles and officials, and

“For a full 180 days he displayed the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendour and glory of his majesty.”

The second thing we are told is that

“When these days were over, the king gave a banquet, lasting seven days, in the enclosed garden of the king’s palace, for all the people from the least to the greatest,who were in the citadel of Susa.”

And the writer then tells us some of the details of what the people would have seen at this great banquet:

“There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and other costly stones. Wine was served in goblets of gold, each one different from the other, and the royal wine was abundant, in keeping with the king’s liberality.”

And third, we are told

“On the seventh day, when King Xerxes was in high spirits from wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him—Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar and Carcas— to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at.”

Those last words are important. He brought out this beautiful wife in order to display her to everyone. And this was clearly also the reason why all the golden goblets, the gold and silver couches, and the rest of the opulent furnishings were used; they were impressive to look at. Which all illustrates what we were told about the first of the two banquets: “For a full 180 days he displayed the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendour and glory of his majesty.” This was all about displaying the glory of his majesty.

The king was doing all this to show off his own power and glory. We are being shown a man who is utterly full of himself, and utterly devoted to his own power and glory. Or, to be precise, to earthly power and glory.

For some reason, as I listened to the minister explaining all this, I kept of thinking of Donald Trump. I thought “This ancient king of Persia sounds so like Donald Trump!” Maybe I’m wrong, but Donald Trump strikes me as a man who just loves to show off, a man who is utterly full of himself, and is devoted to earthly power and earthly glory. This is a man who likes to do things to display “the splendour and glory of his majesty.”

In this, Donald Trump is somewhat different from most American presidents, and indeed, most world leaders today, and most politicians in the west. Trump makes no attempt to hide the fact that he is full of himself, and devoted to earthly power and earthly glory. The others (for the most part) are all just as devoted to earthly power and earthly glory. They just know that it doesn’t look good to show off too openly, so they don’t. In other worlds, Donald Trump shows what other American presidents and world leaders (for the most part) are really like. And that’s what I love about him. He pulls away the veil, and shows us what other politicians are really like. He has brought to light what was previously hidden – at least for those who have eyes to see these things.

The sermon also suggested that the writer of Esther, in describing what the king of Persia was doing, was deliberately showing that the king was full of himself, and was laughing at him. In other words, the king was actually a rather pitiable character. And that suggests that maybe we should think of Donald Trump in much the same way – as someone we might laugh at, or better still, someone we might feel sorry for. And indeed, perhaps that is the message. Instead of being angry and protesting about Trump’s visit to Britain, maybe we should be seeing him as a rather pitiful person, and feeling sorry for him – and if we are Christians, praying for him – praying that he will see himself as he really is, and repent and turn to God. And indeed, perhaps that is the way we should generally think of world leaders and powerful politicians.

And as I thought about the whole matter of feeling sorry for politicians, I thought of Tim Farron, who is a Christian, and who discovered, as leader of the LibDems, that there is a very real tension between the pressures that politicians face, and being true to his Christian beliefs. In resigning as leader of the LibDems, I like to think that he was showing that he knew that earthly power and earthly glory were less important to him than being a faithful Christian. I also reflected that he is a politician that one doesn’t need to feel quite as sorry for – because he is less pitiful than most of them.

But the way the sermon ended is important. We heard that there is another king – a king who is different, and who is not about earthly power and earthly glory. We heard about the true king – Jesus Christ.

And I reflected on his career, leading up to his final journey to Jerusalem, where he arrived riding on a donkey, and was hailed by the crowds – most of whom probably saw him as an earthly king. And I reflected on what happened a few days later, when he knew that God’s plan was for him to be arrested and crucified. I reflected on how, shortly before his arrest, he prayed that he wouldn’t have to go through with this, but that God’s will, not his own, should be done. And I reflected on how he was condemned to death, and jeered as he had a crown of thorns put on his head as he was led away. All very far from earthly power and earthly glory.

But that is far from being the same as no power or glory. For he promised that he would return – in power and glory. And the Bible tells us that when that happens, everyone will have no choice but to bow before him, and acknowledge that he is the real king.

And I thought about how, for Christians, our real loyalty is not to be to any earthly power or ruler, but to Christ the king. Our real citizenship is in heaven. And for now, we admit that we are aliens and temporary residents on the earth.

BBC changes their story after getting it wrong

Yesterday, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) released an interim report into the suspected gas attack that took place in Douma in Syria in April this year. As reported by the BBC,


“A chemical weapons watchdog says chlorine may have been used in April’s attack on the Syrian city of Douma.

The interim report by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said “various chlorinated organic chemicals” had been found but there was no evidence of nerve agents. Dozens of civilians were killed in the attack on the rebel-held town in the Eastern Ghouta region near Damascus. The Syrian government denies carrying out any chemical weapons attacks. Following the Douma attack, US, British and French warplanes launched strikes against government military targets.”

The BBC report, incidentally omits to mention that the attacks took place just as the OPCW was arriving in Damascus to begin their investigation. As was widely pointed out at the time, it seemed to be a case of “Bomb now. Don’t wait to find out what actually happened.”

What is most interesting about the OPCW report was that different people seemed to interpret it in rather different ways.

The headline in RT, a Russian international television network funded by the Russian government was “Nerve agents not found in samples from Syria’s Douma – interim OPCW report.

It reported 

“No traces of any nerve agents have been found at the site of a suspected chemical attack in the Syrian city of Douma, an interim report issued by the OPCW says, adding that several chlorine compounds were detected.

Various chlorinated organic chemicals were found in samples” from two locations in the Damascus suburb of Douma, which were examined by specialists from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), an interim OPCW document said. The chemicals were found in two samples taken from canisters found in Douma, the report said. The report confirmed the absence of any traces of nerve agents, such as sarin, at the site.

Technical notes in the OPCW report specify that one of its laboratories found traces of dichloroacetic acid, trichloroacetic acid, chloral hydrate, trichlorophenol and chlorophenol in some of the samples. Some of these chemicals, such as dichloroacetic acid and chloral hydrate, are known by-products of water purification. Another OPCW laboratory only reported finding “no CWC-scheduled chemicals,” meaning nothing that was banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention.”

And Labour MP Chris Williamson tweeted “#OPCW report says there was no chemical weapons attack on Douma. “

It seems that the way you read something is largely determined by the presuppositions you bring to it – the “narrative” you have accepted.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the response was the way that the BBC changed its headline overnight from “Syria war: Douma attack was chlorine gas – watchdog” to “Syria war: ‘Possible chlorine’ at Douma attack site – watchdog.”

It is fascinating that the BBC were the ones who managed to get the report spectacularly wrong. I might be wrong, but, as Chris Williamson makes clear, the BBC report, as corrected, still seems to me to be a little questionable, since it gives the impression that there was a chemical attack on Douma in April – something that we don’t actually know.

So, to use the language of the World Cup, it looks like it’s a case of “RT, one. BBC, nil.”


The comment on the OPCW report by Craig Murray, former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, is very interesting indeed:   

“Yesterday the OPCW reported that, contrary to US and UK assertions in the UN security council, there was no nerve agent attack on jihadist-held Douma by the Syrian government, precisely as Robert Fisk was execrated by the entire media establishment for pointing out. The OPCW did find some traces of chlorine compounds, but chlorine is a very commonly used element and you have traces of it all over your house. The US wants your chicken chlorinated. The OPCW said it was “Not clear” if the chlorine was weaponised, and it is plain to me from a career in diplomacy that the almost incidental mention is a diplomatic sop to the UK, US and France, which are important members of the OPCW. “

As I say, all very interesting.  Especially what it tells us about the BBC.

The UK’s involvement in torture – and what it says about Britain today

On Thursday, the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) published two reports about Britain’s involvement in the torture of American detainees. In the years following the 9/11 attacks, large numbers of people were seized by the Americans on suspicion of being involved in ‘terrorism’ – and many of these were subsequently tortured or otherwise mistreated.

In addition, the police and armed services of other countries, including Britain, also seized people – and instead of questioning them themselves, handed them over to the Americans for interrogation. British forces never actually used torture themselves. However, according to the ISC, (as reported by the BBC)

The UK tolerated “inexcusable” treatment of US detainees after the 9/11 attacks” and ” continued to supply intelligence to allies despite knowing or suspecting abuse in more than 200 cases.

Committee chairman Dominic Grieve said agencies knew of incidents that were “plainly unlawful”. He also explained that some of the people that Britain had arrested and handed over to the Americans were sent for interrogation

“to countries “with very dubious human rights records, where it would have been very likely that the person would be in fact tortured or ill-treated”. He said British agents working in the US reported concerns about behaviour by their American colleagues, but there “was no response at the London end” and “no questions were asked” until 

What does this tell us?

Three things are clear from all this. One is that Britain knew that torture and mistreatment of prisoners was illegal, and knew that it was unacceptable to do these things. And so they didn’t.

A second is that the American intelligence agencies and security forces were prepared to use torture, and did so. The American government came up with explanations to justify what they were doing, and claim that it was not illegal – explanations that have not impressed many other people.

(By the way, as a Christian, I am reminded of the something that I have seen happening in n the church. When people want to justify certain behaviour that the Bible says is wrong, they manage to come up with novel, convoluted, fascinating – and unconvincing – explanations of why the Bible doesn’t actually say what it clearly appears to say.)

The third is that the British, and in particular MI5, MI6, and GCHQ, did nothing about it. What was going on was unlawful. It was criminal. And it was plainly unlawful and criminal. But, presumably because it was being done by an allied government, they did nothing about it. And here, we need to remember that in some sense, MI5 and MI6 and GCHQ and the American intelligence agencies are basically about law enforcement – and bringing those who are engaged in criminal activity to justice.

And this brings us to something else. It is something that is ironic – but also highly relevant. Many of those that the British turned over to the Americans (and many of those the Americans detained), were not involvement in criminal activity. But many of those law enforcement officers were. When we see an uniformed officer leading a person in handcuffs, we tend to assume that the one in handcuffs is the criminal. Sadly, however, it is sometimes the one in uniform that is the crook.

What Theresa May says . . .

The BBC, by the way, reports Theresa May’s comments on the case:

British personnel worked in “a new and challenging operating environment” which some were “not prepared” for.  She added “it took too long to recognise that guidance and training for staff was inadequate”, and said British intelligence and the Army were “much better placed to meet that challenge”.

I must confess to finding that pretty lame. “A new and challenging operating environment”? What is she talking about? The moral relativism of the post-truth 21st century west? She can’t be talking about dealing with terrorist threats, because the terrorist threat faced by Britain in the 1970s, 80s and 90s was far greater than the one we face in the 21st century. Just look at the number of people killed by terrorist action in Britain over the years if you don’t believe that.

Furthermore, Theresa May seems to be saying that the problem was in the “guidance and training” that staff received. Er, no. What was happening was plainly illegal – not to mention morally unacceptable. And they chose to keep it quiet instead of making it public. Surely it must have been obvious to anyone with much of a conscience that this needed to be made very public, and stopped. But they kept their mouths shut.

This is not a “guidance and training” problem – it is a moral problem. And it tells us a huge amount the culture of the British (not to mention the American) intelligence agencies, and the moral standards of the people who work in them.

. . . and what Craig Murray says

Well, having read what the BBC had to say, and thought the thoughts that I wrote in the lines above, I turned to Craig Murray.

Murray was the British ambassador to Uzbekistan found himself in conflict with his superiors in the UK Foreign Office when he complained repeatedly to them that intelligence received by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from the Uzbek government was unreliable because it had been obtained through torture. He stance against torture got him sacked. Hence Murray was one of those who testified to the IFC. However, he says that “The report includes disappointingly little of my evidence.

Murray, as an insider, was even more unimpressed than an outsider like me:

“Even I was taken aback by the sheer scale of British active involvement in extraordinary rendition revealed by yesterday’s report of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. Dominic Grieve and the committee deserve congratulations for their honesty, integrity and above all persistence. It is plain from the report that 10 Downing Street did everything possible to handicap the work of the committee. Most crucially they were allowed only to interview extremely senior civil servants and not allowed to interview those actively engaged in the torture and rendition programme.

Theresa May specifically and deliberately ruled out the Committee from questioning any official who might be placed at risk of criminal proceedings – see para 11 of the report. The determination of the government to protect those who were complicit in torture tells us much more about their future intentions than any fake apology.

In fact it is impossible to read paras 9 to 14 without being astonished at the sheer audacity of Theresa May’s attempts to obstruct the inquiry. . .

It is worth reflecting that the Tory government has acted time and time again to protect New Labour’s Tony Blair, David Miliband, Jack Straw and Gordon Brown from any punishment for their complicity in torture, and indeed to limit the information on it available to the public. The truth is that the Tories and New Labour (which includes the vast majority of current Labour MPs) are all a part of the same elite interest group, and when under pressure they stick together as a class against the people .

Murray’s contribution, by the way, was basically about the Foreign Office: “We heard evidence from a former FCO official, Craig Murray, who suggested that “there was a deliberate policy of not committing the discussion on receipt of intelligence through torture to paper in the Foreign Office”.

In other words, the Foreign Office was keen to keep things hushed up. However, thanks to Murray, they came to light.

Murray concludes:

“For over a decade now the British government, be it Red Tory or Blue Tory, has been refusing calls for a proper public inquiry into its collusion with torture. The ISC report was meant to stand in place of such an Inquiry, but all it has done is reveal that there is a huge amount of complicity in torture, much more than we had realised, which the ISC itself states it was precluded from properly investigating because of government restrictions on its operations. It also concluded in a separate report on current issues, that it is unable to state categorically that these practices have stopped.

The Blair and Brown governments were deeply immersed in torture, a practice that increased hatred of the UK in the Muslim world and thus increased the threat of terrorism. Their ministers repeatedly lied about it, including to parliament. The British state has since repeatedly acted to ensure impunity for those involved, from Blair and Straw down to individual security service officers, who are not to be held responsible for their criminal complicity. This impunity of agents of the state is a complete guarantee that these evil practices will continue.”

These things are not exactly good news. I guess there are, however, a couple of crumbs of comfort for those of us in the UK. The first is that our parliamentary system gave us this report, bringing some of the truth to light. The second is that bad as they may be, at least and our governments and intelligence agencies come out of this looking better than those of the USA.

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.

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.