OPCW Tries To Discredit Whistleblowers in Response to Douma Leaks

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) released a short report on their investigation into the many leaks that have come out since the release of their final report on a chemical attack that allegedly took place in Douma, Syria on April 7th 2018. The alleged attack was blamed on the Syrian government and resulted in an airstrike against government targets by the US, UK, and France.

The report titled "Report of the Investigation into Possible Breaches of Confidentiality" does not address the substance of the leaks or the two whistleblower’s claims. Instead, it focuses on confidentiality issues and tries to discredit the two former OPCW employees. The OPCW also released a statement by Director-General Fernando Arias on the investigation where he says the two sources "are not whistleblowers. They are individuals who could not accept that their views were not backed by evidence."

The OPCW released its final report on the alleged Douma chemical attack in March 2019, which concluded a chlorine gas attack likely occurred. Since that report came out, two whistleblowers have come forward, their comments and leaks suggest that the OPCW suppressed the findings of its experts that were on the ground in Douma to fit the narrative that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the alleged attack.

Inspector A – Ian Henderson

Two cylinders found at two separate locations in Douma were said to be the source of the chlorine gas. The idea that these cylinders were dropped from an aircraft is central to the allegation that the Syrian government was responsible, since Jaysh al-Islam, the group that controlled Douma at the time, did not have access to an aircraft.

In May 2019 the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media published an unreleased OPCW engineering assessment on the two cylinders that were found in Douma. This assessment concluded that there is a "higher probability that both cylinders were manually placed at those two locations rather than being delivered from aircraft." This conclusion was left out of the OPCW’s final report.

The unreleased engineering assessment was prepared by Ian Henderson, who the OPCW refers to as "Inspector A" in the new report on the leaks. According to the OPCW, Henderson worked with them "from June 1997 to December 2005, eventually being promoted to Team Leader. He was rehired at a lower level in June 2016 and worked at the OPCW until May 2019." Henderson may have been hired back at a lower level, but an OPCW document from February 2018 describes him as an "OPCW Inspection Team Leader."

Since Henderson’s assessment was published, the OPCW has denied that he was a member of the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) that deployed to Douma. Earlier leaks and Henderson’s recent statement to the UN shows there are two groups that can be considered the FFM. One group that deployed to Douma and another group that only deployed to Turkey known as the FFM "Core Team."

The OPCW’s report on the leaks says that Henderson was not a member of the FFM. But the report also confirms that Henderson went to Douma "in support" of the FFM because he was stationed at the organization’s command post in Damascus.

The report says Henderson "accompanied the FFM to certain sites of interest" and "assisted in taking environmental samples at a hospital and in taking measurements at one location. He also assisted in processing the cylinders. He was later assigned to conduct an inventory of the Highly Protected information collected on the cylinders and to determine what information was needed to carry out further studies."

There may be some controversy over whether or not Henderson was part of the FFM by the OPCW’s definition of the term, but it is now confirmed that Henderson did deploy to Douma and was involved in FFM activities. Henderson’s main issue with the OPCW’s final report was that it ignored the findings of the FFM that went to Douma and was mostly prepared by the FFM "Core Team" that only went to Turkey.

According to the OPCW, in July 2018, Henderson began contacting third parties about conducting an engineering study of the two cylinders without proper authorization. The basic idea of the OPCW’s new report with regards to Henderson is that he took it upon himself to prepare the engineering assessment, and it is not an official OPCW document.

These allegations against Henderson are consistent with a leaked memorandum released by WikiLeaks in December 2019. In the leaked memo dated March 14th 2019, Henderson explains to OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias that upon his return from the FFM deployment to Douma, Henderson was assigned "the task of analysis and assessment of the ballistics of the two cylinders." Henderson said he undertook the task with the understanding that he was most qualified because of his expertise in metallurgy, chemical engineering, and artillery.

Henderson goes on to say, "In subsequent weeks I found that I was being excluded from the work, for reasons not made clear." Henderson explains in the memo that he reported his exclusion to senior OPCW management and says, "I made clear that I would complete the work and submit my report to the FFM."

The allegations against Henderson are also consistent with Henderson’s recent comments to the UN. Henderson said in January, "The main concern relates to the announcement in July 2018 of a new concept, the so-called FFM ‘Core Team’, which resulted in the dismissal of all of the inspectors who had been on the team deployed to locations in Douma and had been following up with their findings and analysis."

It is not clear if Henderson was ever officially assigned to the task of analyzing the cylinders. The OPCW report on the leaks says, "In late 2018, the FFM consulted three independent experts in mechanical engineering, ballistics, and metallurgy, who utilized specialized computer modeling techniques. The FFM continued to collect and analyze facts and evidence related to the Douma incident through February 2019." The idea is that Henderson was not involved in further research that these three independent experts conducted, so his report did not use all the evidence. But this raises the question, why did the OPCW use outside experts that never went to Douma instead of using their own that was deployed there?

Henderson denies being the source of the leak to the Working Group, but told OPCW management that he was happy his engineering assessment came out. The OPCW report says, "There is insufficient evidential basis to find that Inspector A disseminated his assessment to the (Working Group) website." The OPCW is still accusing Henderson of giving confidential information to people who did not have a need to know such information. The report says Henderson enlisted the help of professors from an unnamed university and shared confidential information with them, although Henderson says he only gave them open-source information.

Inspector B – "Alex"

In October 2019, the Courage Foundation hosted a panel in Brussels that heard testimony from an OPCW whistleblower. Among the members of the panel was the OPCW’s first Director-General Jose Bustani, who was ousted from his position in 2002 by the Bush Administration for the sin of negotiating with the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein.

After hearing testimony from the whistleblower, Bustani said, "The convincing evidence of irregular behavior in the OPCW investigation of the alleged Douma chemical attack confirms doubts and suspicions I already had. I could make no sense of what I was reading in the international press. Even official reports of investigations seemed incoherent at best. The picture is certainly clearer now, although very disturbing."

This whistleblower became known as "Alex" after Jonathan Steele used that pseudonym for him in a story published by Counterpunch in November 2019. Alex said he was a member of the Douma FFM and accused the OPCW of suppressing evidence found by the team. Alex’s comments corroborated the conclusion reached in Henderson’s leaked engineering assessment. Steele wrote, "Assessing the damage to the cylinder casings and to the roofs, the inspectors considered the hypothesis that the cylinders had been dropped from Syrian government helicopters, as the rebels claimed. All but one member of the team concurred with Henderson in concluding that there was a higher probability that the cylinders had been placed manually."

In the OPCW’s new report on the leaks, they refer to Alex as "Inspector B." The report says, "Inspector B first worked for the OPCW from July 1998 to December 2011, eventually being promoted to Team Leader. He was rehired at a lower level in September 2015 and worked at the OPCW until August 2018." This puts Alex’s service to the OPCW at about 15 years, which is even longer than Henderson’s.

The OPCW claims Alex was a member of the FFM, but stayed at the OPCW command post in Damascus. The report reads, "Having been selected to be a member of the FFM for the first time, Inspector B traveled to the Syrian Arab Republic in April 2018. However, he never left the command post in Damascus because he had not completed the training required to deploy to the field." It may be true that Alex did not visit the sites in Douma with the FFM, but it looks like he was considered a member of the team. And remember, Henderson’s main issue with the OPCW’s final report on Douma was that it was written by people who never even went to Syria to investigate, let alone Douma.

Both Steele’s story and an email published by WikiLeaks show that Alex took great issue with the way the OPCW altered a draft interim report that was prepared by the Douma FFM. In December 2019, WikiLeaks published the interim report drafted by the Douma FFM and the highly altered redacted version for comparison. The redacted version excluded most of the scientific work and drew a vastly different conclusion.

For example, the original interim report drafted by the FFM says, "Although the cylinders might have been the sources of the suspected chemical release, there is insufficient evidence to affirm this." The redacted version that Alex took issue with in his email says, "The team has sufficient evidence at this time to determine that chlorine, or another reactive chlorine-containing chemical, was likely released from cylinders." This conclusive language was removed from the final interim report that was eventually published on July 6th 2018, but most of the Douma FFM’s work remained excluded.

A line in the interim report that was Alex’s main concern says, "Various chlorinated organic chemicals were found." According to Alex, chlorinated organic chemicals (COCs) are found naturally in any environment. Samples needed to be taken at the locations where the cylinders were found, other parts of the buildings, and out in the street to properly analyze the COCs.

Alex told Steele, "if the finding of these chemicals at the alleged site is to be used as an indicator that chlorine gas was present in the atmosphere, they should at least be shown to be present at levels significantly higher than what is present in the environment already."

According to Steele’s article, the results of the samples were not shared with most of the Douma FFM. But Alex said one inspector did get to see the results and found the COCs were lower than he would expect to see in environmental samples.

Now back to the OPCW’s report on the leaks. The report reads, "Inspector B (Alex) was involved in the drafting of the interim report on the Douma incident. After having voiced some initial concerns about the draft interim report, he expressly confirmed in writing that he—as well as the other members of the FFM who were involved in drafting the report—had agreed on the interim report that was released."

The OPCW claims Alex and other members of the FFM agreed on the version of the interim that was published. Steele’s article says that after the request to publish the full interim report drafted by the FFM was denied, Sami Barrek, the Douma FFM team leader, was put in charge of replacing the doctored version.

Steele writes, "During the editing four of the Douma inspectors, including Ian Henderson, the engineering expert, had managed to get Barrek to agree that the low levels of COCs should be mentioned. On the day before the new publication date, July 6, they found that the levels were again being omitted."

WikiLeaks published a series of emails in December 2019. One of those emails, dated July 5th 2018, was from Barrek to multiple recipients that said, "After reflecting on the second to last sentence in par 2.5, I decided to remove the detail we discussed 2 days ago about the concentration."

Barrek’s email seemed to trouble its recipients. The first response to Barrek reads, "Isn’t there a danger that leaving out the reference to concentration, is going to allow some readers to arrive at a simplistic conclusion. Presence of chlorine/chlorides ‘therefore it was an attack.’" One of the more dramatic emails asks, "Can we take it then that you are unilaterally deciding to remove this fact from the report against the recommendations of the team?"

So, it is possible that Alex reluctantly agreed to the version of the interim report that was published on July 6th 2018. Or, the version that the OPCW says Alex agreed to in writing could have been the version that was agreed upon a few days before, the one that included the COCs levels. Either way, the media latched onto the line in the interim report that says, "Various chlorinated organic chemicals were found" as proof that a chemical attack happened in Douma.

The OPCW’s main allegation against Alex in the new report is that he left the organization in August 2018, but still continued to pester OPCW employees about the Douma investigation and disclosed confidential information. The report reads, "Despite Inspector B’s (Alex’s) separation from the Organization and his agreement with the interim report, he continued to approach members of the Secretariat to discuss confidential information regarding the Douma investigation that was classified as Highly Protected at the time it was disclosed. Some of these staff members did not have a need to know the confidential information that Inspector B disclosed to them."

The OPCW alludes to the idea that Alex might be the source of Henderson’s engineering assessment to the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media. The report says, "A month before Inspector A’s (Henderson’s) assessment appeared on the (Working Group’s) website, Inspector B (Alex) referred a staff member to an article critical of the OPCW’s final report on Douma that was published on the same website." But the report ultimately concludes, "There is insufficient evidential basis to find that Inspector B (Alex) disseminated Inspector A’s assessment to the website."

OPCW Director-General’s Statement

After summarizing the OPCW’s report on the leaks, Director-General Arias says, "Firstly, Inspectors A and B are not whistleblowers. They are individuals who could not accept that their views were not backed by evidence. When their view could not gain traction, they took matters into their own hands and committed a breach of their obligations to the Organization.

"Their behavior is made even more egregious by the fact that they had manifestly incomplete information on the Douma investigation. This is due to the fact that they both had no involvement in the last six months of the FFM investigation, when most of the analytical work took place. As could be expected, their conclusions are erroneous, uninformed, and wrong."

Like the report, Arias’ statement does nothing to dispute either Alex’s or Henderson’s claims or the substance of the leaks. The fact that they were not included in the last six months of the FFM investigation is Henderson’s whole point.

With Arias stating that Henderson and Alex are not whistleblowers, it may cost them whatever sort of whistleblower protection they would have under international law or within the OPCW itself. The report says, "Inspectors A and B both signed secrecy agreements with the OPCW and were therefore aware of their confidentiality obligations." The secrecy agreements apply "for the duration of employment and remain in effect following separation from service."

The legal action the two whistleblowers may face shows what a great risk they took. Both Henderson and Alex are OPCW veterans who could have just moved on to their next assignment, but instead, bravely spoke out. If what they say is true and most members of the Douma FFM agree with their conclusions, more leaks will likely come out, and it will be harder for OPCW management to explain away this potentially enormous scandal.

Dave DeCamp is assistant editor at Antiwar.com and a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn NY, focusing on US foreign policy and wars. He is on Twitter at @decampdave.