By Ben Norton
The Huffington Post has relied on Western government officials and organizations funded by Western governments to viciously smear anti-war academics as “useful idiots” of Russia, claiming they are being “used” by the Kremlin.
Ironically, HuffPost UK has done this while its own editor-in-chief actively collaborates with the British Ministry of Defense in a program that censors journalism on behalf of “UK military and intelligence operations,” in order to protect “national security” interests.
HuffPost UK published a hit piece by reporter and senior editor Chris York on January 29 that hearkens back to the era of McCarthyite witch hunts. Titled “The ‘Useful Idiots’: How These British Academics Helped Russia Deny War Crimes At The UN,” York’s hatchet job is dedicated to destroying the reputations of several anti-war scholars who have done extensive research exposing the lies and regime-change propaganda spread by Western governments in their hybrid war on Syria.
It was York’s 12th piece attacking this small group of academics. From the perspective of the British public, a group of semi-obscure professors is an unusual source of such intense interest. However, it appears that the UK regime-change apparatus that has dumped untold millions of pounds into overthrowing Syria’s government feels threatened by their research.
York’s article relies almost entirely on the unsubstantiated opinions of European government officials and groups that are bankrolled by the United States and European governments. It also features some glaring omissions, leaving out key details and misleading readers.
HuffPost UK editor-in-chief Jess Brammar took to Twitter to promote the hit piece, claiming it shows “how a group of British academics have been used by Russia to help them deny war crimes by the Assad regime at the UN.”
(UPDATE, February 4, 2020: Mere hours after this article was published, Brammar was promoted from executive editor to editor-in-chief of HuffPost UK. This piece has been updated to reflect her promotion.)
“It’s quite a tale – please give it a read,” Brammar wrote on Twitter. The article is indeed a tale — and a tall one at that, given it dabbles in fiction with unsubstantiated hyperbolic claims based on Cold War-era propaganda tropes.
Brammar shared a quote from the piece that is attributed to an anonymous “European diplomat,” who claimed anti-war British scholars are “unwittingly and naively acting as agents of propaganda for the Russians, or actively support[ing] Russian disinformation.”
A European diplomat told us these lecturers from UK universities were either “unwittingly and naively acting as agents of propaganda for the Russians, or actively support[ing] Russian disinformation”.
— Jess Brammar (@jessbrammar) January 29, 2020
While HuffPost UK’s editor-in-chief smears dissenting academics as “agents of propaganda for the Russians,” she herself actively collaborates with a British government censorship program — as writer Caitlin Johnstone first pointed out.
Jess Brammar is a member of the Defence and Security Media Advisory (DSMA) Committee, a government initiative overseen by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) that, according to its official website, exists “to prevent inadvertent public disclosure of information that would compromise UK military and intelligence operations and methods” or potentially challenge “national security” interests.
In other words, the DSMA Committee is a group of media elites who voluntarily agree to collaborate with the British government to censor stories and information the UK military and spy operations deem inconvenient or too dangerous for the public to see.
The DSMA Committee is chaired by the director of general security policy for the UK Ministry of Defense. It includes four more government officials: the directors of national security at the MOD, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Home Office, and the Cabinet Office. They are joined by three military officials in secretarial positions, along with a government assistant.
Rounding out the committee are 17 media elites, representing major publishers such as the Huffington Post, the Times, the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, Sky News, ITV, the BBC, the Press Association, Harper Colins UK, and more.
Brammar was one of the only two members of the committee to be nominated directly by the chair and vice-chairs. In other words, the director of general security policy for the UK Ministry of Defense personally approved her seat on the DSMA Committee — a clear stamp of approval for her editorial judgment from the British military establishment.
In a report entitled, “How the UK Security Services neutralised the country’s leading liberal newspaper,” journalists Matt Kennard and Mark Curtis demonstrated how the military-intelligence apparatus cultivated The Guardian as its tool. The process began in earnest after the Guardian embarrassed Western governments by publishing secret documents leaked by National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden.
The DSMA Committee was previously called the Defence Advisory Notice (DA-Notice) and Defence Notice (D-Notice) Committee, and purports to be voluntary. Kennard dug through officials minutes of meetings held by the committee and found that the secretary implied otherwise, insisting, “The Guardian was obliged to seek … advice under the terms of the DA notice code,” and “This failure to seek advice was a key source of concern and considerable efforts had been made to address it.”
Periodically, the MOD-led committee sends out a private message to British media outlets called a D-Notice, which warns the ostensibly independent press against publishing information that would “jeopardise both national security and possibly UK personnel.”
Kennard outlined how these D-Notices have been used to muffle journalists, and prevent the publication of stories that threatened to embarrass the British government.
HuffPost UK editor Jess Brammar is at the heart of this government effort to silence critical media.
Every time @ChrisDYork reports on this group of individuals he is subject to abuse online, including being called complicit in war crimes, something I am also accused of by their supporters. We won’t stop reporting on stories like this when they need to be told.
— Jess Brammar (@jessbrammar) January 29, 2020
War stenography for Western governments
But it is not just Brammar’s ongoing, willing participation in a British military-led censorship program that makes her attempts to portray Huffington Post and her reporter Chris York as noble truth-tellers fending off attacks by a baying mob of Kremlin-sponsored abusers so hypocritical.
HuffPost UK smearing independent thinkers and critical-minded academics as Russian puppets while actively peddling regime-change talking points from Western government officials is astoundingly ironic.
In his wildly misleading article, York describes the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media (WGSPM), a collective of dissident British scholars, as “agents of propaganda for the Russians.”
The thrust of this smear piece is the unsubstantiated opinion of an unnamed “European diplomat,” who is quoted in five paragraphs viciously maligning the scholars, and whose personal partisan views are presented as absolute fact.
The HuffPost UK hatchet job provides no actual evidence that these scholars have been working with or for the Russian government. The only links to the Kremlin that York could find are hilariously thin: one Russian official praised the group, and another tweeted a link to their work.
Moreover, some of the so-called experts cited by York happen to work for pro-war organizations funded directly by Western governments.
York relies on pundit Shadi Hamid to depict WGSPM as crazy loons. Hamid works at the hawkish think tank the Brookings Institution, which is funded by the Qatari monarchy and US governments.
Hamid is also a vocal advocate for Western military intervention who has gone to absurd lengths to defend NATO’s regime-change war on Libya, which destroyed the most prosperous country in Africa and left behind a failed state that turned into a massive ISIS base and a hub for trafficking and enslavement of African refugees.
Another purported “expert” cited by York is the “open source” reporter Eliot Higgins, who smears the WGSPM as “useful idiots.”
Higgins is the founder of the pro-NATO blog Bellingcat, which is funded directly by the US government’s regime-change arm the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a notorious CIA cutout. Bellingcat is also part of a UK government-financed program backed by the British Foreign Office. And Higgins’ former employer is the Atlantic Council, NATO’s unofficial think tank, also bankrolled by Western governments as well as Gulf monarchies and the arms industry.
Further confirmation UK gov’s ‘Open Information Partnership’ is the ‘Expose Network’ from the latest #IntegrityInitiative file dump – so @EliotHiggins was indeed lying when he said @bellingcat hadn’t received “funding or information” from the FCO. pic.twitter.com/xP8507nwAE
— Kit Klarenberg (@KitKlarenberg) April 16, 2019
While HuffPost UK’s in-house regime-change cheerleader Chris York treats the Bellingcat founder as an expert, even the New York Times acknowledged in a puff piece that Higgins has no real expertise. “Higgins attributed his skill not to any special knowledge of international conflicts or digital data,” the paper noted, “but to the hours he had spent playing video games, which, he said, gave him the idea that any mystery can be cracked.”
Misleading ‘reporting’ that leaves out crucial information
In recent months, the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media published leaks from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) revealing that at least two whistleblowers complained that the UN-created organization had become politicized, accusing the management of suppressing and even reversing scientific findings under US government pressure.
The apparent OPCW suppression concerns the allegations that the Syrian government used chemical weapons in the city of Douma in April 2018, in an area occupied by Salafi-jihadist insurgents.
The US, British, and French governments claimed without evidence that Damascus had launched a gas attack in this Islamist extremist-occupied area. In response, Washington and its allies launched missile strikes against the Syrian government in violation of international law.
Numerous leaks from the OPCW have cast doubt on the unsubstantiated allegations of Western governments. Along with the WGSPM, WikiLeaks has published several batches of leaks from the OPCW, including internal emails that show signs of high-level suppression of inconvenient scientific findings about the incident in Douma.
HuffPost UK’s Chris York did not even mention WikiLeaks in his wildly misleading article. Instead, York falsely asserts that there “is no reliable evidence to support the theory” that the alleged Douma gas attack was staged by the Salafi-jihadist insurgents on the ground.
Conspicuously absent from York’s article was the smoking gun that arrived in the form of testimony at the United Nations Security Council by former OPCW inspection team leader and engineering expert Ian Henderson.
In January, Henderson told the UN via video that OPCW management had suppressed the fact-finding mission (FFM) team’s findings on the ground in Douma. (Henderson had wanted to testify in person at the UN, but the US government did not give him a visa.)
“We had serious misgivings that a chemical attack had occurred,” Henderson explained. The former OPCW expert added that his months of research “provided further support for the view that there had not been a chemical attack.”
A former OPCW inspection team leader and engineering expert told the UN Security Council that their investigation in Douma, Syria suggested no chemical attack took place. But their findings were suppressed and reversed
Read more here: https://t.co/HI028MZl0k
— The Grayzone (@TheGrayzoneNews) January 22, 2020
In his article, York completely avoided mention of Henderson and UN testimony, in a very egregious and misleading oversight. And this striking omission appears to be intentional, because on Twitter, York later condemned Henderson, along with the other OPCW whistleblower who goes by Alex, claiming they are “wrong.”
The fact that York would conveniently leave out Henderson’s UN testimony — the most important, and scandalous piece of evidence yet of OPCW chicanery — while publicly smearing him on Twitter shows that the methodology of the reporting itself is clearly biased, sloppy, and unprofessional.
Citing dubious regime-change activist ‘Leila al-Shami’ as an ‘expert’
Chris York’s attack piece is also self-referential. In one especially dubious sentence, he claims the WGSPM “has previously been accused of ‘whitewashing war crimes.’” To support this grave accusation, York links to an article he himself wrote in 2018, which is essentially a mimeograph of his latest attack.
This 2018 smear piece accusing the WGSPM academics of “whitewashing war crimes” attributes the outrageous accusation not to a legal expert on war crimes but rather to Leila al-Shami, who has spent years lobbying for foreign intervention to violently overthrow the Syrian government.
Al-Shami is, in fact, the pen name for a mysterious British activist whose credentials are impossible to validate. According to Robin Yassin-Kassab, the co-author of her book “Burning Syria,” Leila al-Shami “is the pseudonym of another British Syrian who worked in Syria in the human rights field before the” war broke out in 2011.
For years, al-Shami has refused to show her face on camera. Hosts routinely ask the audience not to take photos, and during a 2016 event at NYU’s Kevorkian Center, attendees were forbidden from filming al-Shami’s talk “for security reasons.”
In a June 2017 interview with Spain’s El Nacional (in which she and Yassin-Kassab wrongly forecasted a partition of Syria), al-Shami was photographed turning away to hide her face. She claimed that she could not be seen publicly “for security reasons.”
However, during an April 2016 event at New York City’s New School, al-Shami was photographed and filmed while on stage. Video of the talk was published by Flatiron Hot News, a local culture publication.
Al-Shami is best known for marketing the cause of regime change in Syria to the Western left, painting it as a glorious grassroots struggle for participatory democracy, while branding its leftist opponents as crypto-fascists and “idiots.”
Her book, “Burning Country,” contains no on-the-ground reporting, relying instead on reports by and about opposition activists largely funded by the US government and Gulf monarchies such as the White Helmets and Raed Fares.
While al-Shami claims to have “been involved in human rights and social justice struggles in Syria,” the human rights group she supposedly co-founded, Tahrir-ICN, appears to be an empty shell that consists of a few barely active social media pages and a dormant blog.
Chris York’s reliance on a shady figure like this further highlights his misleading tactics. By citing regime-change activists as credible experts while heaping scorn on his subjects with passive-voice phrases like “have been accused of,” he disguises his own opinions as objective reporting.
Under the leadership of editor-in-chief and British security state collaborator Jess Brammar, York’s brand of dubious, highly partisan reporting is not only tolerated at HuffPost UK; it is encouraged.
York’s hit piece on the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media was, in fact, his 12th attack on the small band of dissident academics. Desperate to suppress inconvenient facts about the dirty war on Syria, some powerful forces have found reliable stenographers at the HuffPost UK.