By Aaron Maté · Jul 11, 2021
Rather than address the concerns of two veteran inspectors about a Syria cover-up, OPCW Director General Fernando Arias has attacked them with false claims. OPCW sources and newly leaked material expose Arias’ latest Western state-backed deceit.
The stated mission of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is to ensure “a world free of chemical weapons.” From his executive suite at The Hague, however, OPCW Director General Fernando Arias has been on a different mission: keeping the organization free of accountability for an explosive Syria cover-up scandal, and trying to silence two veteran inspectors who blew the whistle.
Arias has refused to address the manipulation of the OPCW’s probe into an alleged chemical attack in the Syrian town of Douma. Back in April 2018, the US, UK and France accused Syria of dropping chlorine gas cylinders that killed dozens, and bombed the war-torn country in purported retaliation. The OPCW subsequently reinforced the US-led narrative of Syrian government guilt in a public report issued in March 2019.
A trove of leaks soon exposed a deception both in Douma and then at OPCW headquarters. OPCW inspectors who deployed to Syria had, in fact, found no evidence of a chemical attack. If published, their findings would have undermined the stated pretext for the Western airstrikes, and bolstered suspicions that sectarian insurgents had staged the incident to frame the Syrian government. But senior OPCW officials doctored the team’s original report, sidelined its members, and kept its critical findings from the public. US officials were also allowed to visit The Hague and try to influence the probe in their favor.
Rather than investigate the subterfuge, the OPCW leadership – with the backing of the US and other NATO governments – has waged a public campaign against two veteran OPCW scientists who challenged the scandal from within. In February 2020, Arias denigrated the whistleblowers under the guise of an inquiry into their alleged confidentiality breaches. In a coordinated effort late last year, unknown OPCW sources laundered disinformation about the inspectors and the Douma investigation to two Western state-funded outlets, Bellingcat and the BBC. Their smear efforts included an outright hoax exposed by The Grayzone.
The latest phase of the Douma deflection campaign arrived during a June 3rd appearance by Arias before the United Nations Security Council.
In part one of this report, The Grayzone revealed how Arias put forward a new round of excuses and falsehoods to whitewash the Syria cover-up scandal and evade concrete proposals to resolve it. This follow-up article, based on OPCW sources and leaked material – some previously unpublished – exposes Arias’ latest distortions about the two dissenting inspectors.
The inspectors who vocally opposed their superiors’ deceptions are Ian Henderson, described by the OPCW as “Inspector A,” and Dr. Brendan Whelan, “Inspector B.” The two have previously responded in detail to Arias’ public attacks. They first replied to the OPCW leader in February 2020, and again in follow-up letters the next month.
Undeterred by these prior corrections, Arias chose once again to denigrate Henderson and Whelan at the United Nations. With a slew of deceitful claims, Arias demonstrated that he is willing to continue spreading disinformation about the inspectors rather than answer their concerns.
“Involved”: OPCW chief omits Douma probe’s original report
Dr. Brendan Whelan (“Inspector B”) was the first to challenge the cover-up. In his comments at the UN, Arias disingenuously minimized Whelan’s involvement in the Douma investigation, in particular the team’s interim report, and falsely claimed that the 16-year OPCW veteran had “produced” reports on a “personal” basis:
He was involved in the draft of the interim report on the FFM related to Douma. … The conclusions of the reports produced personally by Inspector B are, of course, erroneous and uninformed.
Whelan was not merely “involved in the draft of the interim report”, as Arias claimed. Whelan was the chiefauthor of the team’s original report, which ruled out a chlorine attack in Douma. Unknown OPCW officials doctored that report at the eleventh hour. They then tried to hurriedly publish a bogus version containing unfounded claims that chlorine was used as a weapon.
After a standoff over the doctoring, the OPCW released a watered-down version of the original report on July 6, 2018. This is the “interim report” that Arias is referring to, omitting the original that it replaced. (See the timeline at the end of this article for a breakdown of the Douma investigation’s four different reports, both published and unpublished.)
The OPCW has never denied the Original Report’s authenticity, challenged its contents, or refuted the fact that that there was an underhanded attempt to issue a doctored version. This appears to be why Arias is now trying to tacitly invalidate the original team report by falsely dismissing it as something that Whelan “produced personally.” As Arias knows, the report was assigned to Whelan, and his final product was peer viewed by other team members.
Arias and other OPCW officials have never explained why they believe that the conclusions of the Whelan-drafted report were “erroneous and uninformed.” By contrast, it is Whelan who has vigorously documented the OPCW’s errors and outright fraud. This started immediately upon discovering the attempted deception. On June 22 2018, Whelan sent an email of protest to senior management expressing his “gravest concern” about the doctoring of the original report.
Whelan’s intervention thwarted the publication of that bogus version. But it also led to him being effectively sidelined, having only a token involvement in further work. The investigation also became more tightly controlled. In the wake of Whelan’s dissent, OPCW management, still determined not to publish the Original Report, moved to issue the new interim report, while trying to lend an appearance that the report doctoring was being addressed. The reality, as this article will demonstrate, was far different.
Leaks reveal how interim Douma report replaced censored original
After ignoring the existence of the original report and Whelan’s involvement in it, Arias went on to claim that Whelan ultimately agreed with the conclusions of the published Interim Report that replaced it:
He confirmed in writing, and we have the document, to senior management… that he agreed with the interim report conclusions.
It is not clear why Arias insists on making this irrelevant and inconsequential observation — he doesn’t say. Whelan has never claimed he disagreed per se with the published Interim Report to which Arias is referring. Instead, Whelan challenged the censorship of his Original Report; and then, nine months later, took issue with the Final Report that was published after he was no longer with the organization. It appears that Arias is trying to insinuate that if Whelan “agreed with the interim report conclusions,” then that somehow invalidates the concerns he raised about the fraudulent process before and after it was published.
Whatever his reasoning, Arias’ claim is deceptive and, in fact, based on a false premise. Whelan could not have agreed with the “conclusions” about the Douma incident in the published Interim Report, simply because it did not have any.
The absence of conclusions was a result of direct instructions from the Douma Team Leader. Following the censorship of the Original Report and Whelan’s thwarting of the Doctored Report, a new draft was then prepared. In a previously undisclosed July 2nd email obtained by The Grayzone, the Team Leader decreed that no “conclusions or hypotheses” could be included in this replacement version.
“As the investigation is ongoing, the status update [Interim Report] will not include conclusions or hypotheses,” the Team Leader wrote. It would, he said, “be limited to” descriptive details such as security arrangements, number of samples analyzed, lab results, numbers of witnesses, and methodologies.
In the same email, the Team Leader directed Whelan and two colleagues to “meet tomorrow and draft this document.” These two colleagues had not deployed to Syria, and were members of the so-called “core team” that excluded most of the inspectors who were on the ground.
Whelan agreed to this watered-down version on certain conditions. As he would later tell Arias in a letter of April 2019, he accepted the drastically curtailed report provided “there were no factually incorrect statements or conclusions contained in it.” He also insisted on including a highly significant fact about the chemicals found in the Douma samples. An OPCW Designated Laboratory had detected only trace levels of common chlorinated organic compounds – no higher than might be expected in a normal environment – at the scene.
Whelan was also led to understand that the censored facts and findings would later be re-incorporated into the final version, whenever that would come. In a previously leaked July 5th email to Whelan and other team members, the Team Leader in fact acknowledged that there were “important facts that we decided not release in this interim report.”
With these conditions, the new interim report — despite omissions of other key information — would at least be an honest account of events. But ultimately, none of Whelan’s conditions were satisfied.
When Arias now claims to “have the document” where Whelan “confirmed in writing” that he “agreed with the interim report conclusions,” he is omitting several critical facts. For one, even Whelan’s “confirmation” contained a significant concern that the other members of the team were prevented from reviewing the report. And after Whelan reservedly consented to the report, the Team Leader unilaterally removed the finding about trace levels of chlorinated organic compounds detected at the scene.
The “document” to which Arias refers is in fact not even a document, but an email. The exchange began on July 2nd, when Whelan wrote to Chief of Cabinet Bob Fairweather – the deputy to then-OPCW Director General Ahmet Üzümcü (Arias would take over a month later) – with a request about the pending Interim Report.
“I would kindly like to request that before the interim report on D[ouma] is issued, that all members of the FFM team be consulted by you to ensure that each one has had the opportunity to review the version to be released,” Whelan wrote.
Whelan was clearly invoking the dispute over the doctored original report, and the deceitful attempt to rush it out for publication unbeknownst to the Douma FMM members. Fairweather did not provide a direct response. Instead, he evaded Whelan’s request by replying: “I would have hoped that over the last two weeks the team have been able to map out the way forward with handling the report.”
The following day, Fairweather followed up to ask Whelan if the team had agreed on “mapping the way forward.” Whelan responded that he had in fact been kept out of the loop, and had been instructed to help produce the new Interim Report on the basis of the “redacted” doctored report that he had protested two weeks earlier.
When Arias now claims to “have the document,” he is referring to this email. Arias did not mention that Whelan’s comment was made in passing, and contained the significant caveat that the other team members – specifically, all who had gone to Syria — had been excluded.
Arias not only omitted this context, but also omitted a critical alteration that occurred two days later. On June 5th, the eve of publication, the Team Leader unilaterally removed the language about the extremely low levels of chlorinated chemicals. This last-minute edit deprived the interim report of a crucial piece of evidence that could undermine the case for a chemical attack. It also amounted to a significant change to the report afterWhelan had offered his qualified agreement. When Whelan protested this decision, the Team Leader responded: “I would like to remind you that I can take unilateral decisions.”
In short, Whelan’s superiors secured his tenuous agreement, and then made a unilateral edit over his objections.
In this context, the interim report emerges as a stalling measure for the officials behind the cover-up.
Published two weeks after Whelan’s June 22nd email of protest and just two months before his scheduled OPCW departure in September 2018, the watered-down document – with the Original Report’s inconvenient facts excised – opened the door for the future return of the doctored findings once the original chief author was gone for good. As The Grayzone has previously reported, the Team Leader even took a six-week vacation following the publication of the Interim Report – returning one day after Whelan’s last day on the job.
The email chain between Whelan and Fairweather shows that the dissenting inspector feared a rigged outcome. In addition to seeking a chance for the team to review the interim report, Whelan also asked if, in the future, he would have the opportunity to review the final report, which would likely be published after his scheduled departure from the OPCW in September.
In response, Fairweather pointed out that “once we leave OPCW we leave behind our work and responsibilities. I shall have no involvement with the report after I leave.”
Whelan’s apparent worry about the final report proved to be well-founded. That report, released in March 2019, baselessly concluded that there was “reasonable grounds” for chlorine gas use in Douma, and disingenuously excluded the evidence that undermined this narrative.
“For the first time…”
In another attempt to disparage Whelan, Arias highlighted the fact that Douma was his first FFM mission, and that he did not enter the Syrian town with other team members:
[Whelan/Inspector B] participated in an FFM investigation for the first time, but only in a limited capacity: he could not be deployed in the field, as he had not completed some of the inspector’s trainings.
It is true that Douma was Whelan’s first FFM investigation. But Arias omitted that the same is true for at least two other members of the team, including the deputy team leader.
More importantly, the Douma mission was the first OPCW on-site FFM for everybody on the team. Previous FFM teams who investigated allegations of chemical use by Syria had only operated from outside Syria, particularly in Turkey. Far from the scene of the alleged incidents, the FFM teams in Syria’s northern neighbor collected supposed evidence and interviewed alleged witnesses gathered by opposition-tied groups including the White Helmets, an organization funded by the US, UK, and other belligerents in the Syria war, and whose parent foundation, Mayday International, fell under investigation for fraud by the Dutch government.
Douma marked the first time that anybody from the OPCW had been involved in an OPCW FFM investigation where they could go on site in Syria, collect their own samples, and conduct their own measurements.
Accordingly, whatever Arias was trying to imply in highlighting that Douma was Whelan’s “first” mission, applies to everybody else on the investigation.
This also extends to Arias’ claim that Whelan “could not be deployed in the field” to Douma. If Whelan was somehow hindered by operating from the command-post in Damascus and not entering Douma, then that is even more the case for the so-called “core team,” the officials who wrote up the final report. With only a few exceptions, none of the “core team” members even set foot in Syria. In fact, the original team leader left Syria before the investigation even began, yet was central to drafting the final report.
“…but only in a limited capacity”
At the UN, Arias asserted that Whelan participated in the Douma mission “only in a limited capacity.” In reality, Whelan played the leading role. Most notably, Whelan drafted the original report — for which the bulk of the investigative work was completed — and led the scientific element of the mission.
In May 2018, shortly after the team’s return from Syria, it was Whelan, and not the nominal team leader, who was assigned to give a high-level briefing to state representatives on the conduct of the investigation in Douma, as The Grayzone has previously reported.
Newly obtained documents show that Whelan also played a critical role from the start of the investigation. Whelan was a member of the Advance Team, comprising the three most senior inspectors on the mission, that went to Beirut on April 12 to plan for the mission.
The next day the remainder of the team (six junior-level inspectors and three interpreters) followed to join them (Ian Henderson, the other known dissenting inspector, arrived in Syria part-way through the deployment). In notifying Syria of the arrival of the follow-on team, the OPCW wrote that an “additional team of the OPCW FFM” would come “to reinforce the support for the [Advance] team.”
Whelan was also one of only five inspectors who deployed to Syria for the entire period of the investigation.
It is outright false then, for Arias to now claim that Whelan’s role in the Douma probe came in a “limited capacity.”
And it is especially egregious given that Arias is personally well aware of Whelan’s senior role. In a letter to the OPCW chief in April 2019, previously published by The Grayzone, Whelan outlined his extensive duties in the Douma investigation. In a letter of response in June 2019, Arias did not challenge a single claim.
Ultimately, after taking these jabs at Whelan, Arias has never explained their significance, or how his trivialities and distortions would invalidate the fundamental concerns of scientific impropriety and fraud that Whelan raised.
Arias continues to falsely deny inspector’s team role
In his UN remarks, Arias also sought once again to minimize the role of Ian Henderson, the 12-year OPCW veteran known as “Inspector A”:
[Henderson] was never a member of the FFM and only had a supporting task to the FFM for a limited period of time.
Arias has now claimed several times that Henderson was not an FFM member. As The Grayzone has previously reported, his assertion is directly at odds with leaked documents that list Henderson as an FFM member and among the Douma “Mission Personnel.”
That Henderson may have had “only had a supporting task to the mission”, in Arias’ words, does not necessarily mean he was not part of it. The aforementioned April 13 Note Verbale from the OPCW to Syria described all members aside from the three-person “Advance Team” as acting in a “supporting” role. So by definition, Henderson’s role was no different than the bulk of the team that went to Syria.
What is not in dispute is that Henderson did deploy on site to conduct investigation activities. The Chemical Weapons Convention has no obvious provisions for conducting on site activities without being part of an inspection mission. Even the interpreters are considered part of the team.
And just as with Arias’ claims about Whelan’s role in the probe, whether or not OPCW leaders now view Henderson as an official FFM member is again irrelevant to the question of whether his concerns about misconduct are valid. As with Whelan not going on site in Douma, it is in fact irrelevant if Henderson was part of the FFM or not. The concerns he raised have to be judged on their own merits.
While raking in US praise, OPCW seen as “source of shame and embarrassment“
At the UN, Arias also sought to cast doubt on the inspectors’ motivations:
Following the issuance of the FFM’s report, two former inspectors of the Secretariat could not accept that the conclusions of the FFM were different from their own personal views, views that were not backed by evidence. When their opinions could not gain traction within the Secretariat, they tried to publicly portray the work of the OPCW as biased, partial, and that somehow the FFM report would have been doctored.
But there is no dispute that the “FFM report” was doctored: anyone comparing the Original Report to theDoctored Report can see it in plain sight. Not even the OPCW has come out and flatly denied it. (Because they can’t).
When it comes to the dissenting inspectors’ actions, leaked documents and public statements show that both Henderson and Whelan repeatedly tried to raise their concerns internally. All of Whelan and Henderson’s efforts were rebuffed. For Arias to now claim that they publicly criticized the OPCW only after their “own opinions did not gain traction” ignores their suppressed efforts to raise concerns – not “opinions” — within the organization.
This suppression includes denying Henderson and Whelan the right to record their dissenting views in the Douma final report. The Chemical Weapons Convention allows for inspectors to record “differing observations” specifically to guarantee the independence and objectivity of its reports – a provision that Arias and the OPCW have ignored. (Verification Annex, Part 2, par. 62).
Remarkably, while deceiving the UN with a series of lies and evasions about the Douma cover-up, Arias sought to portray his organization as the victim:
I wish to stress at this point that the OPCW Technical Secretariat continues to deliver on all the various Syrian-related mandates under extraordinarily difficult conditions, namely, the numerous and sophisticated cyberattacks it suffers, the massive spread of disinformation about our work and sometimes even the denigration of some staff members of the organization.
But as his UN appearance demonstrated, it is Arias who has spread disinformation about the OPCW’s work, and denigrated the former staff members who have tried to protect the organization’s integrity.
In a recent letter to the UN Human Rights Council obtained by The Grayzone, the members of the Berlin Group 21 – headed by distinguished diplomats and experts Hans von Sponeck, José Bustani, and Richard Falk – wrote that the OPCW leadership’s conduct “should be a source of shame and embarrassment,” as “no serious attempt has been made to respond to the repeated calls from eminent individuals and organisations for transparency and accountability at the OPCW regarding its controversial Douma investigation.”
The letter added:
This failure is made all the more serious because what is at issue here concerns the deaths of fifty or more civilians and now well documented flaws and irregularities regarding an investigation into the circumstances of their deaths. It is simply not tenable for the United Nations and associated organisations to be seen tolerating the smearing of respected and experienced scientists whilst failing to answer eminently reasonable questions and calls for transparency and scientific rigour.
The OPCW Director General has gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid hearing from his inspectors first-hand, or have his own independent scientific body review their concerns. In recent testimony to the UN, von Sponeck revealed that Arias had refused to even open a Statement of Concern – signed by notable global voices including five former OPCW officials — sent to him earlier this year. Instead, the Director General’s office returned the letter to sender.
Arias’ recalcitrance begs the obvious question: what is it he is so afraid of? If, as Arias says, the inspectors are “erroneous and uninformed”, then surely he would welcome the opportunity to demonstrate this and end the protracted Douma standoff once and for all.
The same question applies to the powerful NATO member states who have backed Arias’ efforts to avoid the whistleblowers at all costs. The controversy surrounding the Douma investigation not only calls into question that one incident in April 2018 and the stated pretext for the US-led airstrikes that followed, but more importantly, the credibility of all OPCW investigations of alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria. These missions have extensively relied on opposition-tied and Western-funded groups such as the White Helmets for alleged evidence and witnesses.
Evidence that the White Helmets played a critical role in the Douma deception – including staging a scene of purported gas attack victims in a field hospital – is surely not lost on its powerful state sponsors, nor on the OPCW officials who have treated the insurgent-adjacent group as a neutral, uncompromised source.
Arias’ conduct stands in sharp contrast to his predecessor Bustani, the OPCW’s founding Director General. In 2002, the Bush administration engineered Bustani’s ouster for trying to facilitate Iraq’s entry into the Chemical Weapons Convention, which impeded the White House’s plans for war. Bustani stood his ground even after then-US ambassador John Bolton threatened to harm his children.
When Bustani tried to testify at the UN in support of the whistleblowers last year, the US and its allies blocked him from speaking. By contrast, these same states continue to heap praise on Arias as he joins them in stonewalling any accountability for the Douma deception.
“The United States remains grateful for his [Arias’] commitment and leadership at the OPCW in upholding the norm against the use of chemical weapons,” US Deputy Ambassador Richard Mills said at the United Nations.
Leading a multi-year chemical weapons cover-up at the OPCW, Arias has clearly earned the gratitude of a US government that is once again compromising his organization to uphold an interventionist deception. The OPCW’s credibility on the international stage faces irreparable damage so long as this high-level deceit remains the norm.
Timeline: The OPCW’s Four Reports on Douma
There were four different reports produced during the OPCW’s Douma Fact-Finding Mission (FFM):
• Original Report (unpublished; authored in June 2018 and leaked to Wikileaks in 2019): The original report of the Douma FFM was drafted by Dr. Brendan Whelan, and peer-viewed by at least four other members, including the team leader. This report found no evidence of a chemical weapons attack in Douma, and concluded that the cause of death was incompatible with exposure to chlorine gas.
• Doctored Report (unpublished; authored in June 2018 and leaked to Wikileaks in 2019). After Whelan submitted the original report, he discovered that senior officials had doctored it and tried to rush out their bogus, replacement version for publication. This doctored report removed critical findings that undermined the case for a chemical weapons attack in Douma. In their place, it inserted a series of baseless claims that disingenuously suggested that a chlorine gas attack had occurred. “After reading this modified report, which incidentally no other team member who deployed into Douma has had the opportunity to do, I was struck by how much it misrepresents the facts,” Whelan wrote in protest.
• Interim Report (published July 6, 2018). Whelan’s intervention thwarted the underhanded publication of the Doctored Report just hours before it was due for release. As a result of the standoff, OPCW management moved to issue a new watered-down version based on the Doctored Report. This Interim Report was seen as a compromise: it removed the false claims of the doctored version, yet also no longer contained the key findings of the original report. Two months later, Whelan left the OPCW at the scheduled end of his tenure.
• Final Report (published March 1, 2019). The publication of the Final Report on the Douma incident was delayed for six months after Whelan’s September 2018 departure. This odd time lapse came despite the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) requirement that reports on investigations of alleged uses of chemical weapons be completed 30 days after the team’s return from the site of investigation (CWC, Verification Annex, Part XI, para 23). Aligning with the US narrative, the report found that there are “reasonable grounds” to conclude that a chlorine gas attack occurred in Douma. Though not stated outright, the report’s findings suggested Syrian government guilt.
Featured image: OPCW Director General Fernando Arias
Aaron Maté is a journalist and producer. He hosts Pushback with Aaron Maté on The Grayzone. He is also is contributor to The Nation magazine and former host/producer for The Real News and Democracy Now!. Aaron has also presented and produced for Vice, AJ+, and Al Jazeera.
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