30 November 2020 — Grayzone
A new BBC podcast, “Mayday,” uses smears, gaping omissions, leaps of logic, and factual errors in a desperate attempt to repair the image of late White Helmets founder James Le Mesurier, and discredit the OPCW inspectors who challenged a cover-up of their Syria chemical weapons probe. Mayday’s producer has failed to answer the following questions.
The new BBC podcast Mayday covers the life and death of James Le Mesurier, the former UK military officer who founded the group The White Helmets, which has operated extensively in Syria’s proxy war.
The White Helmets have been marketed to Western audiences as a neutral aid organization conducting rescue operations in opposition-held cities targeted by Syrian and Russian bombings. But as The Grayzone has extensively reported, the White Helmets have worked closely with jihadist groups in Syria, and have been used as a PR tool to whitewash the proxy war against Damascus by their US, UK, Turkey, and Gulf state sponsors.
The White Helmets were established thanks to tens of millions of dollars in funding from the UK, US, and Qatari governments. Members of the organization have been filmed and photographed carrying guns and waving Salafi-jihadist flags, and have even participated in numerous public executions of citizens in militant-held territory.
A British former military officer-turned-mercenary, James Le Mesurier founded the White Helmets in southern Turkey in 2014. Le Mesurier died in an apparent suicide in November 2019 after falling from the roof of an Istanbul building where he kept an apartment and office.
Days before his death, Le Mesurier admitted to pocketing tens of thousands of dollars in donor funds and committing financial fraud to cover it up. In an emailed confession, Le Mesurier urged Western donor countries to prevent a second forensic audit which, he warned, could uncover further “mistakes and internal failures” and provide “a victory for Russia and the pro-Assad trolls.”
The BBC podcast, “Mayday,” represents a prolonged effort to salvage Le Mesurier and the White Helmets’ tarnished reputations. Despite a forensic audit and Le Mesurier’s own confession, Mayday host and BBC producer Chloe Hadjimatheou makes the implausible claim that Le Mesurier was innocent of all financial wrongdoing. In her view, it was all the result of a misunderstanding.
Hadjimatheou goes on to make the equally outlandish suggestion that Le Mesurier was at least partly driven to suicide as a result of the allegations leveled against him by Russia, Syria, and critics on social media.
It would take several lengthy articles to detail all of the falsehoods and editorial lapses in Hadjimatheou’s 11-episode series. These include false statements about The Grayzone editor Max Blumenthal – whom Hadjimatheou never contacted for comment – as well as cheap insinuations about my own reporting as well.
Here, The Grayzone is calling attention to glaring issues surrounding one particular topic: the OPCW’s scandal-ridden Douma investigation.
In an extra episode, “The Canister on the Bed,” Hadjimatheou attempts to refute the OPCW inspectors who have challenged a cover-up of their investigation into an alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma, Syria in April 2018. Hadjimatheou relies extensively on an anonymous source, identified as “Leon,” whom she claims “works for the OPCW.”
Hadjimatheou declined my request for an interview, but did agree to answer questions in writing. A BBC spokesperson also pledged to “endeavour to get you some replies.” I submitted a list of questions to Hadjimatheou and the BBC on November 24th 2020. Having not yet heard back from Hadjimatheou, I have published my questions in full below.
Should Hadjimatheou and the BBC ever respond to me, I will update this article accordingly.
Update: a BBC spokesperson responded to me on December 1, 2020, one day after this article was published. Here is the BBC’s response in full:
“There was no conflict of interest between the wider work of a freelance cameraman and the work he did for us as a researcher on this series.
Here is a comment from a BBC spokesperson which you’re welcome to reflect in your piece: ‘This series is the result of thorough journalism and meets the BBC’s editorial standards. A number of your points are based on inaccurate interpretations of the contents of the series and we would suggest listening again for clarification. As appropriate, we approached individuals where allegations were raised, inviting them as well as others to respond to what is reported in the programme. We stand by the investigation and our journalism.’”
I replied with several follow-up questions, including a request for the BBC to identify the “inaccurate interpretations” that it claims I made. I will update this piece should they respond.
Questions for Chloe Hadjimatheou from Aaron Maté
(Questions submitted on November 24, 2020)
“Leon”, the purported OPCW source whom you interview for the episode “The Canister on the Bed”, tries to diminish and refute two highly experienced OPCW inspectors, as well as the organization’s first director general, José Bustani. But it is not clear whether Leon had any serious involvement in the OPCW’s Douma investigation – if any involvement at all – or indeed whether he is actually an OPCW official, or just a contractor. It is also unclear what his scientific credentials are.
You claim that Leon “works for the OPCW” (at 7:55). Is this something that you have confirmed independently? How did you verify that he “works for the OPCW”? Can you disclose anything about the nature of this work?
Leon’s comments suggest to me that he was not a part of the OPCW FFM team that deployed to Douma. “They had to wait for, like, two weeks,” he says of the Douma team (7:38). This indicates that he was not a part of that team. Can you confirm that “Leon” did not deploy to Douma? Assuming that he did not, what was his actual role in the Douma investigation, if any?
What is Leon’s competence to comment on the chemistry, ballistics and toxicology studies? Did you verify if he had any access to information, data, or evidence regarding the Douma investigation? If so, how?
2) Critical Omissions
Your extra episode (“The Canister on the Bed”) on the Douma incident omits critical information about the OPCW investigation that is in the public record. I hope to get your explanation as to why these omissions were made.
2A) No mention of the original, censored OPCW report, or the egregious attempts to publish a bogus report
You make no mention of the OPCW FFM team’s original, initial report, which raised serious doubts that a chemical attack had occurred in Douma but was suppressed by unknown persons. This report has been publicly available since December 2019, via Wikileaks.
You omit the fact that this suppressed report was secretively substituted with a new, doctored version, which the Organization attempted to deceptively publish unknown to the inspectors. This doctored report had key facts and findings removed, and unsupported conclusions added, for example: “The team has sufficient evidence at this time to determine that chlorine, or another reactive chlorine-containing chemical, was likely released from cylinders.” This statement was clearly untrue, as the compromise Interim report that was subsequently published on July 6, 2018 demonstrated. This doctored report has also been publicly available, via Wikileaks, since December 2019.
You also omit that one of the dissenting investigators, described by the OPCW as “Inspector B”, was the original report’s chief author, a fact that has been public knowledge (I reported it this July in The Nation, for example) for a long time. That Inspector B is Brendan Whelan is also now public knowledge; it has been the subject of public speculation for over a year and I reported it at The Grayzone last month, after he was doxxed by Bellingcat (with the help of a fake document allegedly leaked from the OPCW; more on that below).
You also failed to mention that Whelan/Inspector B protested the censorship of the initial report in a June 22, 2018 letter to the Chief of Cabinet. In this letter, published in November 2019 by Wikileaks, Whelan expressed his “gravest concern” about the doctored report that was about to be published. He alleged that it “misrepresents the facts,” thereby “undermining its credibility.” Because of this intervention, the imminent publication of this doctored report was thwarted just hours before it was due for release. The OPCW has never denied that this incident happened. Even OPCW Director General Fernando Arias, in his response (published on October 28 2020 at The Grayzone) to a letter of complaint Whelan sent to him (see below) detailing these events, does not deny the suppression and the failed attempt to publish a bogus report.
Critically, a number of key facts and findings contained in the original, censored report never made their way back to the final report. As Whelan wrote in his April 2019 letter to the DG, also published last month at The Grayzone: “Having read in detail the Final FFM Report issued on 1 March 2019, I am very concerned at the way the facts have been misrepresented and highly questionable conclusions drawn. The final report, in grand part, is the original report I had written (the same report that had been heavily redacted in June) but in which key conclusions have since been altered to contradict those of the original report. This is despite the fact that no substantive or valid new information, particularly with respect to the sampling and analysis results, has been gathered since the interim report was issued.”
Whelan’s letter also discloses that the initial report was “reviewed and agreed among 4-5 team members in mid-June” 2018. This, among other known facts, contradicts your claim that “there was a scientific consensus among investigators that a chlorine attack had very likely taken place.” Again, none of this is denied or challenged by the Director General in his response to Whelan.
Why did you make no mention of any of this? Given that you attempt to refute the dissenting inspectors and claim that their concerns were addressed, how can you exclude the incident that set off the entire dispute: the deceptive editing and censorship of the original team report, and subsequent attempts to publish a bogus replacement?
The omission of any mention of the doctored initial report is particularly glaring in light of the fact that you include a clip of “Leon” – a purported OPCW official – claiming that “there was no tampering, there was no doctoring” (25:01). The redacted OPCW report is incontrovertible proof that there was indeed tampering and doctoring. You have thus aired without challenge a statement that is contradicted by the censorship that you ignored.
2B) No mention that all but one of the Douma team members were sidelined and replaced by a so-called “core” team
You omit that the inspectors involved in the on-site Douma investigation were sidelined and replaced by a so-called “core” team. Those sidelined included Whelan – the mission’s scientific coordinator, the chief author of the initial report, and the author of the email of protest that challenged the initial report’s censorship.
The only member of this “core” team who set foot in Douma is a paramedic with no scientific expertise. It was this “core” team — not the inspectors who deployed to Syria, including some who signed off on the original report — that produced the final report of March 2019.
This fact alone should raise an automatic red flag about the final report’s credibility.
Why did you not mention it?
2C) No mention of the toxicology assessment that doubted chlorine gas exposure
Experts from a NATO-member state conducted a toxicology review at the OPCW team’s request. They concluded that observed signs of the civilians in Douma, particularly the rapid onset of excessive frothing, as well as the concentration of victims filmed in the apartment building so close to fresh air, “were inconsistent with exposure to chlorine, and no other obvious candidate chemical causing the symptoms could be identified.” Yet this critical assessment was excluded from the final report.
Why did you omit this critical assessment, and also omit the fact that it was kept out of the OPCW’s final report?
2D) No mention of your own BBC colleague Riam Dalati’s reporting on “staged” events
Incredibly, in an episode that attempts to refute the argument that the Douma incident was staged, you make no mention of the reporting of your own BBC colleague, Riam Dalati, that the hospital scene in Douma was staged. (This omission is made throughout your entire podcast series, including in the episode that discussed the Douma hospital scene, episode 7 “Managed Massacres.”)
As you are well aware, Riam has claimed, based on six months of his own research, that the scene in the Douma hospital was staged. If the hospital scene was staged, then this automatically raises doubts about the entire incident, including at the apartment block, where Riam also said that activists were “manipulating the scene” and “[used] corpses of dead children to stage emotive scenes for Western consumption.”
The Douma hospital staging also raises serious questions about the role of the White Helmets, the subject of your series. As you report in episode 7, the White Helmets were clearly involved in the events at the Douma hospital. The fact that they took part in a potentially staged incident could implicate them in a crime. You even report yourself that the White Helmets played a role in giving witness testimony and evidence to the OPCW.
How credible are the White Helmets, and their “evidence,” if they may have been involved in staging a hospital scene used to allege a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government? Only by ignoring your own colleague’s reporting can you ignore this critical question.
Given the significance of your own BBC colleague Riam Dalati’s reporting, and its profound relevance to the topics you’re reporting on, why did you omit any mention of it?
3) “Alex’s” non-existent Wikileaks award
You strongly imply that “Alex” leaked documents to Wikileaks in return for a $100,000 reward. Did you first check with Wikileaks, as a minimum journalistic step, whether they ever paid out such a reward, and particularly if they paid “Alex”?
By the way, in trying to falsely insinuate that “Alex” received money, you misrepresented the nature of the Wikileaks offer itself. You state that it was “for any leaked material relating to the Douma incident.” In fact – quoting the actual offer – Wikileaks sought “confidential information (intercepts, reports) showing who is responsible for the alleged attack in Douma.” Wikileaks tweeted this offer out on April 9, 2018, before the OPCW investigation had even begun. It appears that it was clearly aimed at government officials who would be in a position to possess intercepts or reports assigning responsibility.
A source close to Wikileaks told me that they have not paid this award to anyone. They also said there is no record of you contacting them to inquire about whether “Alex” was paid this award.
Will you issue an update to inform your audience that you made this false insinuation?
4) Hypotheses Regarding Staging
You state: “But reading the OPCW report, it’s clear that the inspectors took the idea that the attack might have been faked very seriously. They discussed it as a scenario and tested their evidence against that possibility.”
What is your evidence for this assertion? Can you show where such an alternative was discussed in the final report?
From my reading, any statements in the original report that might suggest a faked attack – such as that the victims may have died in a “non-chemical related” incident – were removed from the final report.
5) José Bustani
You: “Bustani was the director general of the OPCW back when the Iraq War started. Then in 2003, he was removed from his position, something he believes was the result of pressure from the US. And it’s unusual for a former Director General to weigh in like this. And Leon tells me he thinks Bustani might have an axe to grind with the Americans. Even so he says Bustani isn’t in a position to comment.”
That Bustani was removed under US pressure isn’t something he “believes”, it’s a documented fact. Bustani was personally threatened by John Bolton (“We know where your kids are“, Bolton said) and the US also threatened to cut the OPCW’s budget. The International Labor Organisation, a UN agency, sided with Bustani and ruled against his “unlawful dismissal.”
Why did you omit these critical facts, and instead portray them as merely a “belief” by someone who “might have an axe to grind with the Americans”?
Leon: “The work back then was completely different from today. In those days, the main point of the OPCW was to make sure that the massive stockpiles of the US and Russia were being destroyed. There was no mission to investigate the actual use of chemical weapons. This only really started with Syria. So how can Bustani say whether things are done properly or not?”
Apart from the fact that his statement is irrelevant, Leon seems unaware that the methodologies and procedures for investigations of alleged chemical weapons uses (including large field exercises) were developed under Bustani’s watch. Bustani explained this in his recent statement to the UN Security Council (a statement that the US, UK, and France blocked him from delivering – another fact that you have managed to omit).
Quoting Bustani: “More recently, the OPCW’s investigations of alleged uses of chemical weapons have no doubt created even greater challenges for the Organization. It was precisely for this kind of eventuality that we had developed operating procedures, analytical methods, as well as extensive training programs, in strict accordance with the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Allegations of the actual use of chemical weapons were a prospect for which we hoped our preparations would never be required. Unfortunately, they were, and today allegations of chemical weapons use are a sad reality.”
Additionally, you and Leon also omit that Bustani worked with the dissenting OPCW inspectors when Bustani headed the organization. If Leon – someone whose qualifications are kept hidden, along with his actual proximity to the Douma probe – is qualified to comment on the dissenting inspectors, why isn’t the first Director General of their organization?
As someone who worked with the two dissenting inspectors, Bustani is certainly qualified to comment on their level of expertise, integrity and credibility, as he has already publicly in effusive fashion, but which you also failed to include. “They are extremely competent,” Bustani said of the inspectors, in an interview with me at The Grayzone. “All of them. In fact, they always impressed me because they were extremely professional and extremely reliable.”
6) Bornyl chloride
You: “I’m not an expert in chemistry. So I checked with actual chemists, who told me that what Mate suggests seems highly unlikely. I was told that heavily chlorinated water couldn’t have caused that chemical compound to penetrate the surface into the deeper layers of wood. Only a gas could have done that.”
This isn’t a question, but a correction. You and your sources are confused here. I never claimed that bornyl chloride was in the chlorinated water (to penetrate the wood). “Alex” never made that claim either. So you’re making a counterpoint to an argument that was never made.
I also should point out that the way that you and Leon address the bornyl chloride issue is illogical and contradictory.
At one point you say that there “was one specific piece of evidence that convinced the team that chlorine gas had been used.” You then quote Leon: “There is a chemical in wood samples, which is formed when the wood is exposed to chlorine gas. Those wood samples, they show that a chemical attack happened.”
But just a few lines later, you acknowledge something contradictory: “the report says this doesn’t definitively prove that the wood came into contact with chlorine gas, the investigators concluded, and check out the very careful language they use, that there were reasonable grounds to believe a chlorine attack had taken place and that the attack had come from the air” (14:36).
So, putting aside your skewed definition of “the team” – which requires excluding the actual team that deployed to Syria in favor of the “core” team that did not (see “2B” above) – which one is it? Was the team “convinced… that chlorine gas had been used”, or did they only conclude that there were “reasonable grounds” to believe so?
This also contradicts your statement at the end, where you state that “all the evidence needs to be seen together, not in isolation” (29:13). Again, which is it? Was it that “one specific piece of evidence” – the wood samples, or was it “all the evidence… seen together, not in isolation”?
Contrary to what you and Leon claim, the presence of bornyl chloride does not confirm the presence of chlorine gas. As the original report states, it merely indicates that the wood was exposed to hydrogen chloride, which can come from chlorine gas but can also come from other benign sources.
This is why the final report also acknowledged the uncertainty about what the wood samples were exposed to: “Based on these findings alone, it cannot be unequivocally stated that the wood was exposed to chlorine gas, rather than to hydrogen chloride or hydrochloric acid.” It is curious then that Leon is now trying to revise the final report’s own words, and now tell your audience that the wood samples “show that a chemical attack happened.”
If you had been willing to acknowledge the initial, censored report, and Whelan’s letter to the DG expressing his concerns, you might have been able to catch Leon’s egregious error.
7) Note Verbal
Quoting you: “But here’s something interesting: the OPCW leaker Alex has spent time and energy disputing the idea that there was ever chlorine gas released from those canisters in the two apartment buildings. But when the OPCW reached its conclusions, the Russian and Syrian states didn’t dispute those findings. I’ve managed to see their notes verbale. Those are the responses from member states to the final conclusions of the OPCW. And the OPCW answers all the Syrian and Russian representatives’ questions. But at no point do either the Russian or the Syrian states argue about the Bornyl Chloride found in the wood samples, or the idea that chlorine gas was present at both locations. And maybe that’s because in the document I’ve seen, it’s made clear that the Syrians were given samples from all the evidence gathered in Douma. And so they know the facts of what that evidence shows” (33:03).
Your attempt to suggest here that Russia and Syria “didn’t dispute those findings” that “there was ever chlorine gas released from those canisters in the two apartment buildings” is deceptive.
First, you falsely insinuate here that you are seeing some kind of damning secret document – “I’ve managed to see their notes verbale”; “…in the document I’ve seen.” But anyone can “manage” to see the notes verbale – they’re freely available on the OPCW website. And reading the Russian note verbal, you’ll see that it undermines your characterization:
“The Russian Federation does not challenge the findings contained in the FFM report regarding the possible presence of molecular chlorine on the cylinders. However, the parameters, characteristics and exterior of the cylinders, as well as the data obtained from the locations of those incidents, are not consistent with the argument that they were dropped from an aircraft. The existing facts more likely indicate that there is a high probability that both cylinders were placed at Locations 2 and 4 manually rather than dropped from an aircraft. Apparently the factual material contained in the report does not allow us to draw a conclusion as to the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon. On that basis, the Russian Federation insists on the version that there was false evidence and on the staged character of the incident in Douma.”
So Russia does not challenge the claim that there is a “possible” presence of molecular chlorine in the cylinders found in Douma. And that is for obvious reasons: no one has argued that there was no possibility of a chlorine presence. The issue is whether there is evidence to demonstrate that chlorine gas was used as a weapon with any level of confidence. Hence why Russia said – which you omitted – that “the factual material contained in the report does not allow us to draw a conclusion as to the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon,” and that it believes that “that there was false evidence” and a “staged character of the incident in Douma.”
This is clearly contradictory to your claim that Russia and Syria “didn’t dispute those findings” that “there was ever chlorine gas released from those canisters in the two apartment buildings”, because “they know the facts of what that evidence shows.”
8) Repeating Bellingcat’s dubious claims
Your deceptive and false claims, outlined in sections 6 and 7, happen to mirror the dubious claims recently published by Bellingcat, a website funded by NATO member states. Another supposed OPCW source tried, via Bellingcat, to launder the same deceptive arguments that you have made: that the bornyl chloride constituted a smoking gun (section 6, above), and that Russia and Syria did not challenge the report’s findings (section 7, above).
But as I exposed, the Bellingcat ploy turned out to be a hoax. A purported OPCW letter that made these claims, which Bellingcat claimed was sent to Whelan, was in fact, at best, only a draft that was never actually sent, or at worst a fake from someone outside the OPCW.
The fact that Bellingcat’s text was never sent to Whelan suggests that the OPCW itself might not even stand behind the arguments that Bellingcat’s source and your source, Leon, have each made.
Were you aware of the Bellingcat letter fraud before you published an “extra episode” that made the same dubious claims, and does it give you any pause about airing them?
My hope is that you did not knowingly take part in promoting the deceptive Bellingcat/Leon claims that you aired, and that you will now endeavor to confront your source(s) about how you were misled.
The Bellingcat connection here also raises another issue. The chemist who you interviewed in your attempt to refute me, Andrea Sella, did not actually challenge anything that I have said. But more importantly, Sella has previously contributed to Bellingcat’s attempts to prove that chlorine gas was used in Douma. Did Bellingcat play any role in connecting you with Sella?
9) Researcher with a conflict of interest
The Mayday: Intrigue credits state that Abdul Kader Habak conducted “Arabic translation and additional research.” According to Mr. Habak’s Facebook page, he has worked for the UK-led contractor ARK from 2013 to 2019. This poses a serious conflict of interest.
According to a 2018 report from the British journalist James Harkin in The Intercept, ARK “branded the White Helmets and provided its training and equipment.” ARK was also “funded by the U.S. State Department and the British Foreign Office.” Harkin additionally reported that “ARK was also gathering intelligence on Islamist groups in [Syria], and those reports were being privately forwarded by a British Army liaison officer to U.S. Central Command, with an email recommending additional funding for the organization’s filmmaking arm.” I believe that your researcher, Mr. Habak, worked for this film-making arm in Syria.
As The Guardian recently reported, James Le Mesurier – the subject of your “Mayday” series – previously worked for ARK, before taking the White Helmets project with him to his venture, Mayday Rescue.
And as my colleague Ben Norton at The Grayzone has reported based on leaked documents, ARK has also played a critical role in branding and marketing not just the White Helmets, but Syria’s Salafi-jihadist armed opposition:
In a leaked document it filed with the British government, ARK said its “focus since 2012 has been delivering highly effective, politically-and conflict-sensitive Syria programming for the governments of the United Kingdom, United States, Denmark, Canada, Japan and the European Union.” ARK boasted of overseeing $66 million worth of contracts to support pro-opposition efforts in Syria.
…ARK played a central role in developing the foundations of the Syrian political opposition’s narrative. In one leaked document, the firm took credit for the “development of a core Syrian opposition narrative,” which was apparently crafted during a series of workshops with opposition leaders sponsored by the US and UK governments.
…The firm even oversaw the PR strategy for the Supreme Military Council (SMC), the leadership of the official armed wing of Syria’s opposition, the Free Syrian Army (FSA). ARK created a complex PR campaign to “provide a ‘re-branding’ of the SMC in order to distinguish itself from extremist armed opposition groups and to establish the image of a functioning, inclusive, disciplined and professional military body.”
ARK admitted that it sought to whitewash Syria’s armed opposition, which had been largely dominated by Salafi-jihadists, by “Softening the FSA Image.”
…The leaked documents show ARK ran the Twitter and Facebook pages of Syria Civil Defense, known more commonly as the White Helmets. ARK took credit for developing “an internationally-focused communications campaign designed to raise global awareness of the (White Helmets) teams and their life saving work.”
All of this poses a major conflict of interest. The White Helmets is the topic of your podcast. Your researcher, Abdul Kader Habak, worked for a UK government contractor, ARK, that, among other things, branded the White Helmets; ran the White Helmets’ social media accounts; promoted the White Helmets to the public; and [may have] used the White Helmets to gather intelligence for the UK and US militaries.
Were you aware of your researcher’s work for ARK, and ARK’s critical role in establishing and promoting the White Helmets – the very topic of your series? What steps will you be taking to address this serious conflict of interest?