Liza's Revenge

Reading the New York Times leaves me feeling like Dostoyevsky's Liza

Category: Uncategorized

I interview an American Photographer in Kramatorsk about life under bombs: “The civilians are dying here and something needs to happen to stop it”

This stellar interview by Vera Graziadei (@verafilatova) needs no further commentary. Please read and distribute far and wide.

Sloviansk

vgiannelakis

Goodmorning Sloviansk
goodmorning salt of the Earth!
Goodmorning Mesologgi
goodmorning martyred city
wellcome capital of Utopia!
Hello world brainless
people without mind
wolves wiped out the word “peace” from your language,
replaced with “markets”
and you agreed.

Goodmorning Sloviansk!
I did not even know where was that on the map
even though Katsonis had walked In your streets.
Unlucky Town
between lignite and pipelines built
and many other goodies wich only
leaders, thieves and presidents care for.
If you had endangered turtles, in order to see how many people care for
though a hammer and sickle on your banner, how many other
and so much more if,
even though you have the Christ as a stamp in your flag
who Christian cares for you?

Your children are buried in your ruins
who dreamed chocolates were falling from the sky
and woke up dead·
were cluster bombs
white phosphorus
the nazi…

View original post 18 more words

OPCW and the Right Way to Write Down Wrongs

The Convention for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (the “Convention”) is an umbrella instrument predicated on extensive Annexes and the rules, guidelines and principles promulgated by the OPCW Technical Directorate to define the chemical weapons (“CW”) control and verification regime (the “CW Regime”).

This draft excerpt of an upcoming analysis of the August 21, 2013 CW incident in Ghouta, Syria considers the importance of the CW Regime, and, specifically, the rules governing investigations of CW use and verifications of compliance with the Convention (compiled as the Verification Annex to the Convention).

In addition to the largely cursory protocol created specifically for the UN Investigation Mission in Syria, the following parts of the Verification Annex dictate the requirements that any investigation of CW use in Syria must meet:

  1. Part II – General Rules of Verification; and,
  2. Part XI – Investigations in Cases of Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons.

Pursuant to Article 66 of Part II (Sub-Part H – Application of General Provisions), Part XI overrides Part II only to the extent the provisions of Part XI differ from the provisions of Part XI. Combining the Parts, the following regime emerges:

In respect of collection and testing of samples:

Part II – General Rules of Verification

Collection, Handling and Analysis of Samples

57. … samples shall be analysed in at least two designated laboratories. …

58. … shall compile the results of the laboratory analysis of samples … and include them in the final inspection report  … shall include in the report detailed information concerning the equipment and methodology employed by the designated laboratories.

Part XI – Investigations in Cases of Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons

Sampling

16. The inspection team shall have the right to collect samples of types, and in quantities it considers necessary. … The inspected State Party shall also permit and cooperate in the collection of appropriate control samples from areas neighbouring the site of the alleged use and from other areas as requested by the inspection team.

17. Samples of importance in the investigation of alleged use include toxic chemicals, munitions and devices, remnants of munitions and devices, environmental samples (air, soil, vegetation, water, snow, etc.) and biomedical samples from human or animal sources (blood, urine, excreta, tissue etc.).

In respect of conducting and employing interview data:

Part XI – Investigations in Cases of Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons

Interviews

21. The inspection team shall have the right to interview and examine persons who may have been affected by the alleged use of chemical weapons. It shall also have the right to interview eyewitnesses of the alleged use of chemical weapons and medical personnel, and other persons who have treated or have come into contact with persons who may have been affected by the alleged use of chemical weapons. The inspection team shall have access to medical histories, if available, and be permitted to participate in autopsies, as appropriate, of persons who may have been affected by the alleged use of chemical weapons.

In respect of preparing reports:

Part II – General Rules of Verification

G. Reports

62. … The report shall also provide information as to the manner in which the State Party inspected cooperated with the inspection teamDiffering observations made by inspectors may be attached to the report. The report shall be kept confidential.

63. The final report shall immediately be submitted to the inspected State Party. Any written comments, which the inspected State Party may immediately make on its findings shall be annexed to it. The final report together with annexed comments made by the inspected State Party shall be submitted to the Director General not later than 30 days after the inspection.

Part XI – Investigations in Cases of Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons

D. Reports

Procedures

23. The inspection team shall, not later than 72 hours after its return to its primary work location, submit a preliminary report to the Director-General. The final report shall be submitted to the Director-General not later than 30 days after its return to its primary work location. The Director-General shall promptly transmit the preliminary and final reports to the Executive Council and to all States Parties.

Contents

25. The final report shall summarize the factual findings of the inspection, particularly with regard to the alleged use cited in the request. In addition, a report of an investigation of an alleged use shall include a description of the investigation process, tracing its various stages, with special reference to:

(a) The locations and time of sampling and on-site analyses; and

(b) Supporting evidence, such as the records of interviews, the results of medical examinations and scientific analyses, and the documents examined by the inspection team.

26. If the inspection team collects through, inter alia, identification of any impurities or other substances during laboratory analysis of samples taken, any information in the course of its investigation that might serve to identify the origin of any chemical weapons used, that information shall be included in the report.

Defining the Scope of the Mandate and the Ambit of the Report

One lingering misconception about the ambit of the UN Report and the underlying investigation should be addressed and corrected at the outset. Many commentators were troubled by an apparent transgression of the UN Report against the scope of the mandate given to the inspectors.

Much has been made of the fact that the mandate of the mission was limited to the question of whether CW were used in Ghouta, Syria on August 21, 2013, rather than who used them. As a result, criticisms have been levied against the UN inspectors for attempting to calculate azimuths of the purported CW delivery vehicles – data that sparked a controversy when the Human Rights Watch (“HRW”) and the New York Times (“NYT”) claimed that these azimuths, when combined, pointed inexorably to a key Syrian military base.

Both HRW and NYT alleged that the coincidence of the azimuth data was the undeniable smoking gun pointing to the culprit. The UN inspectors were, in turn, blamed for exceeding their mandate and evidencing bias that tainted their impartiality.

The fact of the matter is that the Convention, and, specifically, Part XI of the Verification Annex, calls for exactly this type of information to be included in the final report of any investigation into the use of CW agents. Far from breaching their obligations, the UN inspectors seem to have complied with Verification Annex:

Part XI – Investigations in Cases of Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons

D. Reports

Contents

26. If the inspection team collects through, inter alia, identification of any impurities or other substances during laboratory analysis of samples taken, any information in the course of its investigation that might serve to identify the origin of any chemical weapons used, that information shall be included in the report.

Although Article 26 specifically speaks about “identification of any impurities or other substances during laboratory analysis of samples taken” as an example of the kind of information that must be included in a final investigation report, the operative part of the provision reads as follows:

If the inspection team collects … any information in the course of its investigation that might serve to identify the origin of any chemical weapons used, that information shall be included in the report.

The phrase inter alia¸ a common legal latinism, gives away the mention of “impurities or other substances” as one of the possible types of identifying information that may be collected in the course of an investigation and must be included in any resulting report.

The possible azimuths of CW delivery vehicles are another such category. What is more, azimuths are the kind of data that would be collected by a careful investigator, and, accordingly, the type of information that must be presented with the final conclusions.

The inclusion of azimuth data in the UN Report, in and of itself, is not a violation of OPCW protocols. The larger concern is whether the azimuth calculations, as performed by the UN inspectors, were accurate. A body of evidence collected by the community at the Who Attacked Ghouta? blog site suggests that the UN azimuth data is flawed. It is not the purpose of this limited note to go into the details of this debate. It would suffice to say, for the moment, that the UN inspectors may well have not been duly diligent in their analysis.

Another important question is whether all available identifying information has been included in the UN Report. Answers to these questions would not undermine the appropriateness of adducing azimuth data to the UN Report, but they may, upon further consideration, raise questions about the root causes of the reductionist manner in which data has been presented.

Dissecting the Laboratory Data

OPCW Verification Annex contains key requirements for the sampling, laboratory analysis and presentation of samples in any investigation report. The following are the requirements contained in Parts II and XI of the Verification Annex:

         Inspectors’ Powers in Collecting of Samples

(a)      the inspection team shall have the right to collect samples of types, and in quantities it considers necessary (Art. 16, Part XI);

(b)      State Party shall also permit and cooperate in the collection of appropriate control samples from areas neighbouring the site of the alleged use and from other areas as requested by the inspection team (Art. 16, Part XI);

(c)      Samples of importance in the investigation of alleged use include (Art. 17, Part XI):

(i)         toxic chemicals;

(ii)        munitions and devices;

(iii)       remnants of munitions and devices;

(iv)        environmental samples (air, soil, vegetation, water, snow, etc.); and,

(v)         biomedical samples from human or animal sources (blood, urine, excreta, tissue etc.);

(d)      The inspection team shall … be permitted to participate in autopsies, as appropriate, of persons who may have been affected by the alleged use of chemical weapons (Art. 21, Part XI).

        Use of Designated Laboratories

(e)      analysis must be performed by at least two designated laboratories (Art.57, Part II)
(to recall, Meselson and Robinson require that three designated laboratories be used, and further recommend verification of any results by an independent committee)

Contents of the Final Report

(f)        final report shall include:

(i)          description of investigation process, tracing its various stages (Art.25, Part XI);

(ii)         locations and time of sampling and on-site analyses (Art.25(a), Part XI);

(iii)        compilation of the results of laboratory analysis of samples (Art.58, Part II);,

(iv)         results of medical examinations and scientific analyses (Art.25(b), Part XI); and,

(v)          detailed information concerning the equipment and methodology employed by the designated laboratories (Art. 58, Part II).

A superficial consideration of the OPCW Verification Annex guidelines leads to a disconcerting conclusion that the UN inspectors failed the task they were assigned to do. There may have been some justification for not staying in Ghouta as long as it was necessary to perform a thorough investigation, but there is no excuse for failing to incorporate data and information specifically required by the applicable international law. Such an omission is difficult to excuse.

Failure to Secure Vital Samples

The first concern arises in respect of the UN team’s failure or refusal to retain the alleged CW delivery vehicles located in Ghouta. The OPCW Verification Annex imposes no limitation on the type or the quantity of samples that the UN inspectors could have requested, collected, transported to designated labs, and retained for analysis. Moreover, the relevant provision specifically nominates items such as “munitions and devices” and “remnants of munitions and devices” as “samples of importance.”

However, the UN Report contains no mention of analysis of the alleged CW delivery vehicles that were identified by the UN inspectors. In fairness, the Appendices to the UN Report refer to a variety of metal samples that were secured by the UN team. Nevertheless, an examination of the videos of the UN inspectors’ attendance in Ghouta makes it clear that the UN inspectors specifically refused to secure the CW delivery vehicles for further analysis and study.

Other than puzzling statements by members of the UN team that they were not permitted to transport the munitions outside Syria, no explanation has been proffered for this omission. Doubtless, if the Syrian government refused a reasonable request to analyze the suspected CW munitions off-site, this lack of cooperation would have (and should have) featured prominently in the UN Report. The UN Report contains no mention of such interference with the investigation.

Equally, despite extensive discussion of the participation of the Syrian opposition in the UN inspectors’ investigation, there is also no statement that the Syrian opposition refused a request by the UN team to secure the alleged CW delivery vehicles for further study.

The UN inspectors could have demanded custody of suspected CW weapons, and yet either made no such request to do so or have inexplicably omitted explaining why, and by whom, it was denied. We are left to wonder what exactly occurred behind the veil of silence.

Failure to Conduct Autopsies and Secure Dead Tissue

Equally as puzzling are the lack of autopsies and efforts to collect of dead tissue, whether animal or human. Leaving aside Angela Kane’s perplexing retort on Russia Today that living survivors are a better source of investigative data than the dead, the UN inspectors made no attempt to exhume victims of the Ghouta incident or to conduct autopsies of the deceased. The UN Report and public record contain no mention of any such request being made either to the Syrian government or to the Syrian opposition. Nor do we know the reason why.

Ms Kane’s comment is particularly baffling in the face of academic consensus that the bodies of those who died from exposure to Sarin present the best source of biomedical evidence of CW use (further commentary on this issue will be provided in a separate draft excerpt dealing specifically with CW and Sarin). Refusal to conduct autopsies or obtain dead tissue for analysis may have been a key error in the UN investigation of the Ghouta incident.

We are aware, however, that at least one dead animal was provided to the UN inspectors and taken away for further analysis. A BBC article describing the interactions between the UN team and several local activists makes mention of a dead chicken body being transferred into the custody of UN inspectors. Considering that dead tissue may be the best source of relevant evidence, it is difficult to understand why (1) no analysis of the available animal tissue has been performed, or, if it was, (2) no mention is made of such analysis in the UN Report.

Fatal Lack of Data in the UN Report

The paucity of relevant data in the UN Report is in direct violation of the requirements set out in the OPCW Verification Annex. Other than a cursory description of the investigation process, consisting primarily of an account of the movement of the UN team among the sites of the alleged CW attack, a record of locations and times of sampling and a summary of the results of the laboratory analysis, the UN Report contains little else.

It is puzzling why the UN Report does not include a “detailed information concerning the equipment and the methodology used by the designated laboratories,” as required by Article 58 of Part II of the OPCW Verification Annex. The omission of this critical information makes it impossible to conduct an independent review of the investigative process and the scientific methodology of the testing performed by the labs.

Paradoxically, rather than putting the laboratory results beyond scrutiny, failure to explain how the tests were performed makes the results of any such testing questionable. Thus, there is no means of understanding or explaining the obvious and palpable contradictions between the two labs in the testing of environmental samples. Similarly, the apparent unanimity in respect of biomedical testing of human samples is of little value without the corollary disclosure of the testing methodology that was used..

This draft excerpt is not meant to go into detail with respect to the chemistry and methodology of testing for CW agents. A discussion of these issues is forthcoming. It is critical to note, however, that the palpable lack of transparency underscores many other disconcerting aspects of the UN Report.

The Human Factor – Victims and Casualties

Although the use of CW constitutes a war crime and a crime against humanity, whether or not it results in casualties, both the survivors of a CW attack and the deceased offer vital and sensitive sources of relevant information. The OPCW Verification Annex entitles inspectors to unrestricted access to eyewitnesses, to conduct any necessary interviews and record relevant testimonies, as well as to participate in autopsies (Art.21, Part XI):

(a)      the right to interview and examine persons who may have been affected by the alleged use of chemical weapons;

(b)      the right to interview eyewitnesses of the alleged use of chemical weapons and medical personnel, and other persons who have treated or have come into contact with persons who may have been affected by the alleged use of chemical weapons

(c)      [the right of] access to medical histories, if available; and,

(d)      [the right to] be permitted to participate in autopsies, as appropriate, of persons who may have been affected by the alleged use of chemical weapons

As with other information collected in the course of an investigation, data collected through interviews, medical examinations, and examination of medical histories’ must form part of the final report (Art.25, Part. XI):

(a)      a report of an investigation of an alleged use shall include a description of the investigation process, tracing its various stages, with special reference to:

(i)          … the records of interviews;

(ii)         the results of medical examinations; and,

(iii)        … the documents examined by the inspection team.

The lack of required records, such as transcripts of interviews, specific and detailed accounts of medical examinations performed and descriptions of the medical records and other documentation reviewed by the UN team is a notable omission.

It bears mentioning that an overview of the literature considered by the UN inspectors in the course of preparing their report would have been very helpful. For one, it would have elucidated the reasons behind the troubling parallels, as identified by Subrata Ghoshroy, among the UN Report and other NGO and media publications that preceded it. Lack of full and frank disclosure substantiates and justifies allegations of bias and lack of impartiality.

General Observations, Information and Data

Other categories of information should also have been made available in the final investigation report. Such data would normally include:

(a)      information as to the manner in which the State Party inspected cooperated with the inspection team (Art.62, Part II);

(b)      differing observations made by inspectors (Art.62, Part II); and,

(c)      any written comments, which the inspected State Party may immediately make on [the] findings [of the final report] (Art.63, Part II).

Faced with lack of any information that would come under the rubrics (b) and (c), one is left to wonder whether or not:

(a)      the UN inspectors were unanimous in their observations and conclusions; and,

(b)      Syria was given an opportunity to comment on the UN Report and its findings.

Even if, technically, (c) above could be considered to be inapplicable to Part XI (alleged use of CW) investigations, it is hard to accept that, given the obvious chain of custody issues and concerns regarding the integrity of the evidence identified and sampled by the UN inspectors, there would be unanimity in all aspects of the UN Report among the members of the UN team. Disclosure of dissenting opinions would have given the credibility of the UN investigation and the UN Report a substantial boost.

Finally, the lack of specific information concerning the cooperation with the investigation by the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition, such as, for instance, which of the two sides refused the request (if a request was made at all) to secure the alleged CW delivery vehicles, makes it difficult to evaluate the constraints within which the UN inspectors were forced to operate. As with testing methodology, understanding operational constraints is vital to evaluating the reliability of an investigation and its results.

Conclusion

In the normal course of events, an investigation report suffering from the types of frailties obvious on the face of the UN Report would not be accepted by the Technical Directorate or the Executive Council. Moreover, it would be duly and successfully challenged by the responding State Party, forcing OPCW to start from scratch.

In the circumstances of the international uproar and indignation arising from the August 21, 2013 incident in Ghouta, many common-sense and unambiguous legal requirements were disregarded by the UN inspectors in preparing the UN Report. In a rush to deliver results, the rigors of scientific method and the requirements of procedural fairness (otherwise known as due process) were sacrificed in favour of expediency.

There is no viable legal framework in existence that trumpets the demands of expediency over the basic principles of fundamental justice and procedural fairness. The OPCW Convention and Verification Annex are no exception to this rule. They exist to facilitate a CW control and verification regime among relatively equal State Parties, each with an acknowledged entitlement to challenge the lack of substantive and procedural fairness.

As with many creatures of international law, OPCW’s utility is derived from the agreement of its State Parties to submit to its control mechanisms. The moment that a State Party or a potential OPCW member is denied the safeguards of procedural fairness inherent in the OPCW framework and the moment that scientific method is supplanted with blind faith in the integrity of testing laboratories is the moment that OPCW will lose its value to the world.

And the Rain Came Falling

AND THE RAIN CAME FALLING

Foreword

This is a draft excerpt of what will eventually form part of my analysis of the chemical weapons attack on Ghouta, Damascus, on August 21, 2013. It is also a thought experiment initially conceived as a means of bringing to wider public attention the circumstances of what is known as the “Yellow Rain” affair – events that have become one of the foundational case studies in the field of chemical weapons research and analysis.

The original intention was to copy, reorder and, to some extent, summarize and rework the narrative of the “Yellow Rain” affair published by Mathew S. Meselson and Julian Perry Robinson in their joint effort entitled “The Yellow Rain Affair: Lessons from a Discredited Allegation,” and to put it in a format akin to an executive summary. The hope was that this exercise would generate a discussion of parallels between the lessons learned from the events of last century and the circumstances in which we find ourselves today when we consider the incident in Ghouta and its ongoing investigation.

A word of caution and clarification is necessary, however – the differences between the “Yellow Rain” affair and the events that occurred in Ghouta, and the investigation that followed, are vast. There are significant factual divergences, and the CBW compounds alleged to have been at play are nothing like one another. This discussion is not meant to insinuate that there are conspiratorial undercurrents that unite the two narratives.

As indicated above, the intent was to highlight the vital methodological, procedural and forensic lessons learned in the aftermath of the “Yellow Rain” affair and to ask the reader to ponder the events and the investigation in Ghouta in light of these lessons. I invite the reader specifically to consider, in light of the likely outcome of neglecting the lessons once learned, their importance for our understanding of the incident in Ghouta.

Throughout this excerpt, I have very liberally used the “Yellow Rain Affair: Lessons from a Discredited Allegation” piece by Meselson and Robinson, although I have tried to indicate where I am quoting directly from the original text. In the latter section, I refer primarily to the “Alleged Chemical Weapons in Syria”, a Harvard Sussex Program Occasion Paper by Julian Perry Robinson, accentuated by a methodological appendix prepared by Meselson. I have not provided proper citations at this time.

THE “YELLOW RAIN” AFFAIR

THE ALLEGATIONS

Charges of War Crimes

The charges of CBW use in Laos and Cambodia were trumpeted in the month and year of my own birth. “[In September 1981], U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig … charged Soviet-backed Laotian and Vietnamese forces with waging toxin warfare against Hmong resistance fighters and their villages in Laos and against Khmer Rouge soldiers and villages in Cambodia.”

  • (Alexander Haig, U.S. Secretary of State, address in West Berlin, September 13, 1981
  • U.S. Department of State, Special Report no. 98, “Chemical Warfare in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan,” March 22, 1982.)

The allegations were quickly brought to the attention of the United Nations. “[In November 1982,] the charges were repeated with additional details  in  [1] a  further  report  to  the  Congress  and [2] to  the  member  states  of  the United Nations.”

  • (U.S. Department of State, Special Report no. 104, “Chemical Warfare in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan: An Update,” November 11, 1982.)

Public Statements and Allegations

Following the initial accusations in the fall of 1981, in 1982, scientists examined “at least 100 samples of yellowish spots and powders from alleged attacks in Laos and Cambodia … under the microscope and, without exception, found [them] to consist principally of pollen.” Pollen became the compound of interest. Expert analysis and studies quickly followed.

In November 1982, Gay Crocker, a State Department CBW Intelligence Officer, stated that the pollen found in Laos and Cambodia was:

“commercially collected [and] the right size to be retained in the body [of a human being].”

  • (Gay Crocker, a State Department intelligence officer who chairs the Assessments and Policy Support Sub-group of the CBW/Toxin Use Working Group)

The US began to build its case build that pollen was the delivery mechanism for CBW compounds.

Shortly thereafter, Sharon Watson, U.S. MIIA Intelligence Analyst, stated that the pollen found had:

“secondary aerosol effect that can be caused by kicking up this pollen-like dust that is of a particle size that will be retained in the bronchii of the lung … a very effective way of getting [trichothecene mycotoxins] across”

Watson further insinuated that, as a CBW delivery mechanism, pollen was a “very clever, clever mixture.”

  • (Sharon Watson, an intelligence analysis at the U.S. Army Medical Intelligence and Information Agency (MIIA), later the Armed Forces Medical Intelligence Center (AFMIC))

In December 1982, Kenneth Adams, the US Deputy Representative to the UN, in an address to the United Nations, stated the following:

“We are now, however, able to isolate the components of yellow rain … There is good evidence for the presence of commercially produced pollen as a carrier and to help ensure the retention of toxins in the human body.”

  • (Kenneth Adelman, then U.S. Deputy Representative to the UN, in a December 1982 address to the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly)

Expert Reports

The expert reports prepared ultimately prepared in the course of the investigation triggered by the US allegations (briefly, the Haig and Shulz reports), were adamant that the identified pollen was contaminated with CBW, and was used as a CBW delivery mechanism. This killer pollen became known as the “Yellow Rain.”

The reports cited three main types of evidence in support of the “Yellow Rain” allegations:

  1. WITNESS INTERVIEWS of Hmong villagers describing some 400 alleged attacks between the 1975 and 1982;
  2. SAMPLES OF ALLEGED CBW, provided by people who claimed to have witnessed attacks and who stated that the samples were air-dropped poison: the so-called “Yellow Rain”; and,
  3. CHEMICAL ANALYSES confirming the presence of trichothecene mycotoxins in:
  • environmental samples from sites of alleged chemical attack;
  • biomedical samples from individuals allegedly exposed; and,
  • tissue taken at autopsy from a Khmer Rouge soldier.

Further, the Haig report cited an account given to U.S. Embassy personnel in Thailand by a Lao pilot who had defected and who, according to the report, had been directly involved in chemical warfare. This account remained uncorroborated and was later confirmed to be mostly a fabrication.

It is important to note that this mysterious pollen was ultimately conclusively determined by an outside specialist that had no relation to the area of CBRN studies and research to be bee feces.

CRITICAL CONCLUSIONS

According to Meselson and Robinson, “all  of  the  evidence  adduced  at  the  time  that  is  now public, including a large body of material declassified and provided to [them] starting in 1986 under the Freedom of Information Act supports explanations of the Yellow Rain events that involve no CBW weapons at all, beyond the use of riot-control agents.”

In other words, the so-called “Yellow Rain” was nothing more than bee feces, and had no CBW component. Both conclusive chemical weapons reports, that had confirmed presence of CBW in dozens of samples, turned out to be entirely baseless.

Furthermore, it appears that, even at the time the charges were made, and the Schultz and Haig reports were issued, the allegations were already unsustainable for a number of reasons, including the fact that the alleged CBW delivery mechanism had no such tendency to disperse as was being alleged.

According to Meselson and Robinson, from their review of subsequent attempts to confirm the conclusions of the Haig and Schultz reports,  the U.S. accusations had no credible evidence to support them:

  1. no credible or confirmed witness reports;
  2. no confirmation of an association between trichothecenes and any alleged attacks;
  3. all environmental and biomedical samples found to contain trichothecenes were false positives;
  4. no evidence in the form of a recovered  rocket  or  other  munition carrying trichothecenes;
  5. all claimed tricothecenes symptoms resulted from causes other than CBW; and
  6. no credible confirmatory defector or prisoner testimony emerged since.

For the authors, therefore “counterfactual analysis leads to the conclusion that, except for riot-control agent, CBW weapons were not used in Laos or Cambodia.”

In addition, Meselson and Robinson concluded the following regarding the “Yellow Rain” investigation:

  1. it failed to employ reliable methods of witness interrogation;
  2. it failed to employ reliable forensic laboratory investigation;
  3. it was marred by the dismissal and withholding of contrary evidence;
  4. it was undermined by the lack of independent review; and,
  5. under independent scrutiny, the evidence collected could not be confirmed or was discredited.

Despite the thorough debunking of the “Yellow Rain” claim, the US charges – that CBW were used – were not withdrawn, even when the allegations proved unsustainable.

LESSONS OF THE AFFAIR

To Meselson and Robinson, the lessons to be learned from the Yellow Rain episode are straightforward:

(1)    Reliable procedures must be used to acquire and evaluate interview evidence, including:

  1. the use of corroborative cross-checks and double-checks; and,
  2. careful avoidance of leading questions.

(2)    Chemical identification of trace components must adhere to appropriate standards for forensic analysis.

(3)    Results of chemical analyses must be corroborated by an independent laboratory.

(4)    Hypotheses must be subjected to wide consultation and objective criticism.

The authors conclude as follows:

“Failure to apply these lessons, whether through incompetence or because of political exigencies and pressures, imperils the credibility of subsequent investigations of situations in which CBW weapons may actually have been used.”

(I have taken out an extensive discussion of what went wrong with the “Yellow Rain” investigation – anyone interested should refer to the relevant articles, and I am happy to provide same from what I have collected so far)

THE USE OF CBW IN SYRIA, PARTICULARLY IN GHOUTA ON AUGUST 21, 2013

Writing in the summer of 2013, in his analysis of numerous alleged instances in which chemical weapons were used in Syria, Robinson raised many of the same criticisms he made in his commentary on the “Yellow Rain” affair.

The lack of specificity in the Western governments’ briefings on the subject was one of them. Robinson made the following point:

“[T]he pressing task of demonstrating whether there is or is not truth in the allegations necessitates more evidence than bald assertion.”

He went to conclude:

“It is not at all obvious why, [the] governments have not:

[1] publicly described

[2] for scientific audiences

[3] the analytical methods they applied to

[4] the physiological (and perhaps other) samples

[5] in which they all say they have found sarin.”

Robinson’s answer to his own question is disconcerting:

“Possibly political authorities in the accusing countries have been unable accurately to judge the reliability of chemical analytical reports.”

As a result, he turned to credibility, rather than reliability, as a yardstick for measuring the strength of the allegations that were being made prior to the August 21, 2013 incident:

“[R]ecognising that the truth is not yet available [let us] focus instead on the question of credibility.”

In considering the usefulness of a credibility assessment, it is critical to consider the methodology that would support its use. How does one determine credibility outside the confines of a court of law and the strictures of common law practice?

Although I would argue that, where crimes, whether domestic or international are alleged, legal standards are the only applicable tools, Robinson does have a point about the court of public opinion.

“The existence of the better explanation makes it that much easier to believe the allegations.”

Robinson makes an excellent point, when he says that it is not plausible to argue that Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons is a manifestation of Syria’s campaign to probe “the resolve of the outside powers who might intervene.”

On the other hand, the alternative explanation, that the small-scale use of chemical weapons witnessed prior to August 21, 2013 is guided by Syria’s new CW-use doctrine to

“incapacitate rebels and force them out of strategic areas, while keeping deaths among their ranks limited”

fits neatly into the logic and factual, tactical and strategic matrices of the Syrian civil war.

This account largely fits all previous incidents of alleged CW use (with the exception, possibly, of the Khan-al-Assal event). It does not describe the logic of the incident that occurred in Ghouta on August 21, 2013.

The Ghouta incident was neither “small-scale”, nor did limit the number of deaths among the rebels or the civilians (if mainstream accounts of the death toll are to be accepted as accurate). It does not appear to conform with the posited limited use doctrine.

Moreover, the Ghouta attack appears tailor-made to put the resolve of outside powers to the ultimate test. In other words, it seems to be designed to do what seemed implausible a mere few months ago.

We are left wondering what “better explanation” would make it “easier to believe the allegations” being made against the Assad regime in relation to the August 21, 2013 attack.

The fact is, those explanations may well exist:

(1)    It could have been an accident.

And yet, military accidents usually result in deaths among the attackers, rather than those being attacked. Moreover, an attack on the scale being alleged to have occurred in Ghouta required substantial preparations. The necessity of substantial preparations eliminates the possibility that the attack was accidental or unintentional.

(2)    It could have been a miscalculation.

However, if some plausible calculations of the total volume of Sarin deployed in Ghouta (such as, for instance, an estimate put forward by Dan Kaszeta) are to be believed, a theory that would posit a miscalculation involving one (1) ton of Sarin is simply not credible.

(3)    It could have been a rogue element in the regime, such as

(a) Assad’s brother, who is believed by many to be a psychopath capable of mass murder (or possibly plotting to supplant his commander-in-chief);

(b) a rogue faction either desiring to trigger a war with the United States, a doomsday-scenario on the scale of what Aum sought to perpetrate in Japan; or

(c) a rogue group seeking to undermine the Syrian regime.

Neither scenario passes the litmus test of “better explanation” that would cement the foundations of its credibility. Throughout the crisis, Assad retained unchallenged control over his government and military apparatuses, and all signs suggest that he has further reinforced his grip on power since.

No challenger, individual or group, emerged to contest Assad’s dominance and seize the opportunity to stage a coup in the immediate aftermath of the August 21, 2013 attack, when Assad’s power was at its weakest, or has appeared since.

Even if we accept that the there was no opportune moment, and that the crisis was rapidly overcome, there were no signs of or conditions that would foment dissent in the Syrian regime prior to August 21, 2013. In fact, the military gains made by the SAA prior to the Ghouta attack would have dissuaded any misguided attempt at an internal rebellion. The Syrian regime would face extinction if it were to fracture. Its relentless march against the rebels and its own citizens is what has maintained its integrity to date.

Seeking the solace of credibility in arguments reliant on idiosyncratic pathologies of one individual or on myopically alien fantasies of an ultra-hawkish group thirsting for a showdown with the world’s remaining superpower is beyond the confines of these ruminations.

Other arguments may well fit the bill, but they are not immediately apparent. The fact is, the August 21, 2013 attack is difficult to reconcile with the mostly neat (however monstrously so), even-keeled, methodical, and doctrinal approach of small-scale CW incidents described by Robinson.

To an impartial observer this assessment would suggest that the August 21, 2013 incident stands alone (nothing more, for the moment) – it does not fit into the existing pattern of CW use, nor can it be explained using existing models of warfare in the Syrian civil war. Nor does it have its own, inherent, “better explanation” that would allow us to disregard the question of reliability of evidence in favour of credibility of a meta-explanation, in the manner proposed by Robinson.

PHYSICAL EVIDENCE FROM GHOUTA

As a result, we are left with physical evidence collected by the UN investigators as the only tool that we can rely on in the court of public opinion. The foremost requirement of evidence at law is reliability. Unreliable evidence is not admissible, and no exception exists to circumvent this basic rule.

We have already examined the requirements of reliability discussed by Meselson and Robinson in relation to the “Yellow Rain” affair. Robinson’s consideration of the Syrian example betrays no change in his opinion. Meselson’s appendix to the paper makes the following points (drawn, again, from the lessons learned in the aftermath of the “Yellow Rain” investigation, as well as from practices developed by the OPCW):

  1. even highly regarded national laboratories participating in the Official Proficiency Tests overseen by the Technical Secretariat of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have, on occasion, reported false positives and false negatives. (a fact that can be verified conclusively by perusing the Technical Directorate’s periodic Performance Assessment reports); and,
  2. to have high confidence in laboratory evidence for the presence of Sarin or other chemical warfare agents or their distinctive breakdown products in environmental or biomedical samples, the following is mandatory:

High Confidence Analysis

  1. Use of multiple laboratories (of which there should be at least two and preferably three) is required.
  2. All participating laboratories must conclude without reservation that the agent or its distinctive breakdown products are present in the provided samples.
  3. The laboratories used must have excellent prior records in such analysis.

Blanks and Controls

  1. The analyses must include suitable blank samples and control samples in matrices similar to those of the field samples.
  2. The blanks and controls should be provided by an outside laboratory (one not doing the analyses).
  3. Analyses of blanks and controls should be interspersed with analyses of the environmental and/or biomedical samples of interest.
  4. The identity and provenance of all samples should be unknown to the laboratories doing the work.

Methodology

  1. Laboratory findings should be based on two different generally accepted methods of analysis based on different physical principles.

Independent Review

  1. Laboratory methods and findings should be reviewed by an independent group of technically qualified and experienced experts with unimpeded access to laboratory personnel who had done the analyses and to their laboratory records.
  2. High confidence requires unanimous approval by the review group.

Implicit in these requirements is that the entirety of information regarding the analysis performed must be made available to the public and to those performing independent review. This includes:

  1. complete information regarding methodology used;
  2. complete data received as a result of analysis performed; and,
  3. complete description of the processes and verification mechanisms.

The fact is, most of the methodology outlined by Meselson has been ignored by the UN, starting with the use of blanks, and ending with the “high confidence analysis” – the requirements of the latter have not been met by the vast majority of environmental samples that have been analyzed. Even where it has been complied with in form, only the bare minimum was fulfilled. And, as a result of complete lack of transparency about methodological processes and data, the results submitted by the UN are unverifiable.

Based on the rules expounded by OPCW, in its Appendices, the directives of it Technical and Scientific Directorates, and other methodological discussions that exist in literature, we are entitled to conclude:

No evidence currently at play, whether supplied by the UN, NGOs, or national governments meets the legal requirements of reliability.

Nor does the available evidence meet the standards of reliability proposed by Meselson and Robinson in their “Yellow Rain” discussion or in Robinson’s recent overview of CW use in the course of the Syrian civil war. The reason is simple – virtually every one of their recommendations has been disregarded by the investigators, including those appointed by the UN and OPCW.

What is unfortunate is that we do not know whether the analyses performed were scientifically sound. What we do know is that there is no transparency to the evidence being presented.

Meselson and Robinson do not go into detail about methodology and science in their discussions. Their direct involvement in the “Yellow Rain” affair taught them one critical rule, a lesson we would be well served to heed:

Evidence that is not transparent is evidence that is not reliable.

And, as we know from the mandates of legal process and substantive law, unreliable evidence is no evidence at all. Where no evidence exists, there is no case, however difficult that may be to accept for those of us who cannot countenance war crimes and crimes against humanity going unpunished.

What is even more disturbing is the answer Robinson gives to why evidence that led by Western governments has been so lacking in scientific data, description of methodologies, and explanation of procedural techniques:

“Possibly political authorities in the accusing countries have been unable accurately to judge the reliability of chemical analytical reports.”

When the UN investigators fail to include the data they found and discuss the analytical methodologies they used, are we to conclude they also “have been unable accurately to judge the reliability of [their] chemical analytical reports”?

Moreover, and more globally, in the absence of a credible explanation of what happened on August 21, 2013, and faced with lack of reliable evidence, we are powerless not only to make decisions that are ours to make, but also to understand the decisions being made on our behalf.

BIBLIOGRAPHY                                                                                           

The Yellow Rain Affair: Lessons from a Discredited Allegation

by Matthew S. Meselson and Julian Perry Robinson

http://belfercenter.hks.harvard.edu/files/Meselsonchapter.pdf

Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria

by Julian Perry Robinson

Harvard Sussex Program Occasional Paper, Issue 04, June 26, 2013

http://www.sussex.ac.uk/Units/spru/hsp/occasional%20papers/HSPOP_4.pdf