Where do the interests of democracy lie? Working Group responds to UK minister’s attack on critics of the “Integrity Initiative” By Tim Hayward

19 March 2019 — Tim Hayward

The Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media has published a response to the recent attack on the group by Sir Alan Duncan.

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Response to Sir Alan Duncan’s attack on the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media

Tim Hayward, Paul McKeigue, David Miller, Piers Robinson

19 March 2019

In December 2018 we posted a briefing note on the Integrity Initiative, examining the documents that had appeared online about this ostensibly charitable programme funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). For an online article on the exposure of the Integrity Initiative published on 6 March 2019, Sky Foreign Affairs editor Deborah Haynes interviewed Sir Alan Duncan, Minister of State at the FCO. In response to a question about the Working Group in which she named the four authors of this response, Sir Alan was quoted as saying:

These academics dotted around the UK, whenever there is something pro-Russian, row in behind it in a coordinated way … We should not be taken for a sucker. We should realize what these people are doing together against our interest and against the interests of democracy more widely.

The phrase “whenever there is something” indicates that Sir Alan is referring not just to the December briefing note but to earlier posts from the Working Group, which include briefing notes on alleged chemical attacks in Syria (August 2018) and on the Salisbury poisonings (May 2018).

We provided Haynes with the following response, which she quoted (leaving out the first paragraph and the reference to alleged chemical attacks in Syria in the second paragraph):

  1. As Deborah Haynes’s involvement with the Integrity Initiative is well-documented, we expect her to make a full disclosure of this in her reporting on this semi-covert programme.
  1. The briefing notes that we have written on alleged chemical attacks in Syria and on the Integrity Initiative have been carefully researched and supported in detail by references to original sources. If Sir Alan Duncan or anyone else believes that they can rebut these, we should welcome criticisms that show, with evidence, where we are wrong.
  1. Sir Alan’s assertion that we are working “against the interests of democracy” is beneath contempt. We note that last December in response to a question about the Integrity Initiative from the Shadow Foreign Secretary he misled the House of Commons.

We are encouraged to learn that our posts are drawing the attention of government ministers, and we are grateful to Sir Alan for helping to promote them. We reiterate that if Sir Alan, or any other government minister wishes to respond to these posts, they should prepare a rebuttal that sets out, with direct quotations from what we have written, where we are wrong.

Instead of attempting a rebuttal, Sir Alan has resorted to smears about our allegedly “pro-Russian” activities and an unsubstantiated but menacing assertion that we are working “against the interests of democracy”. As we noted briefly in our original response to Deborah Haynes, it is Sir Alan who has undermined a fundamental principle of parliamentary democracy by misleading the House of Commons (as set in the Annex to this note). The Ministerial Code reiterates long-established practice in stating that:

It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.

Annex

Below we document four recent occasions on which Sir Alan has misled the House of Commons either by an outright falsehood which he failed to correct, or by answers that, without actually stating falsehoods, would mislead anyone who did not check the original sources.

1. Misleading answer to a question from the Shadow Foreign Secretary about FCO funding for the Integrity Initiative programme (12 December 2018)

The Integrity Initiative’s Twitter account had been used to attack the Leader of the Opposition and his staff. In response to an Urgent Question from the Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry, Duncan stated in the House that FCO funding of the Integrity Initiative:

does not fund any activity within the UK; nor does it fund the management of the integrity initiative’s social media account.

Thornberry responded immediately in the House, and followed up with a letter to Duncanpointing out that the documents showed that domestic UK activities were a stated objective of the Integrity Initiative and that its social media activities were included in the budget submitted to the FCO. We can find no record of Duncan apologizing for misleading the House in this exchange.

2. Misleading answer to a question about use of the FCO’s Russian Language Programme to fund domestic propaganda (10 December 2018)

In our briefing note on the Integrity Initiative, we set out how Duncan’s answer to a parliamentary question had concealed the fact that the initial government funding for the Integrity Initiative, which did not target Russian speakers, had been provided from an FCO-led programme that the government had described to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in July 2017 as having a remit to counter disinformation and provide reliable information in the Russian language. After setting this out in detail, we concluded that “It is difficult to read Duncan’s answer as anything but an attempt to mislead without actually telling a lie.”

3. Misleading answer to a question about the Prime Minister‘s assertion on 16 April 2018 that Russia and Syria had delayed the visit of OPCW inspectors to Douma following the alleged chemical weapon attack (17 September 2018)

On 16 April 2018 the Prime Minister had stated that the OPCW team “is currently being prevented from [visiting Douma] by the regime and the Russians”. In response to a question asking the Prime Minister to provide the evidence for her assertion, Duncan answered:

The team arrived in Damascus on 14 April, following an invitation from Syria which was supported by Russia, but their deployment to Douma was delayed for a week until 21 April. The Director General of the OPCW reported that they had been prevented from deploying to Douma by Russia and Syria, who cited security concerns.

Although the Director-General‘s note on 16 April had stated that “The Syrian and the Russian officials who participated in the preparatory meetings in Damascus have informed the FFM Team that there were still pending security issues to be worked out“, this was clarified in a letter on 18 April and in the Interim Report which made clear that the risk assessment by the Syrian and Russian authorities was “shared by the representative of the United Nations Department of Safety and Security“ who had insisted that a reconnaissance visit should be undertaken before the FFM could deploy to Douma.

Thus even if the Prime Minister’s statement, based on the DG’s statement on 16 April, was made in good faith, Duncan’s answer, given after the later documents had clarified that it was not “the regime and the Russians” that had delayed the team’s deployment, was misleading in its failure to correct the Prime Minister’s statement.

4. Misleading answer to a question about the status of OPCW’s questions on the Barzeh site before it was attacked on 14 April 2018 (13 September 2018)

The Prime Minister had stated on 16 April that 76 of 107 missiles were targeted on the research centre at Barzeh, a surprisingly large number for an undefended target, and at variance with other accounts that most of the missiles were directed against Syrian military airfields. In a question tabled on 10 September 2018, the government was asked whether it had been aware that Barzeh had been inspected by OPCW and reported to be clear of chemical weapons just six months before the attack on 14 April 2018. Duncan’s answer stated that OPCW “continues to report that gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies remain in Syria’s account of its declaration”. A close examination of the timeline, however, shows that the Syrian government had responded promptly to a “non-exhaustive list of questions” from the OPCW Director General on 29 January 2018 and that OPCW had issued an updated list of follow-up questions on April 10th, only four days before the US-led attack. Duncan’s statement, which by omitting the timeline gave the impression that Syria had failed to respond to the concerns raised by OPCW, could reasonably be judged misleading.

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