TBR News February 10, 2019

Feb 10 2019

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Isaiah 40:3-8 

Washington, D.C. February 10, 2019:” US naval commanders operating in the Persian Gulf face serious challenges that are unique to the littoral, i.e., coastal, environment.  A glance at a map shows why: The Gulf is nothing but a large lake, with one narrow outlet, and most of its northern shore, i.e., Iran, consists of mountainous terrain that affords a commanding tactical advantage over ships operating in Gulf waters. The rugged northern shore makes for easy concealment of coastal defenses, such as mobile missile launchers, and also makes their detection problematic. Although it was not widely reported, the US actually lost the battle of the Scuds in the first Gulf War ––  termed “the great Scud hunt” –– and for similar reasons. Saddam Hussein’s mobile Scud launchers proved so difficult to detect and destroy –– over and over again the Iraqis fooled allied reconnaissance with decoys –– that during the course of Desert Storm the US was unable to confirm even a single kill. This proved such an embarrassment to the Pentagon, afterwards, that the unpleasant stats were buried in official reports. But the blunt fact is that the US failed to stop the Scud attacks. The launches continued until the last few days of the conflict.”


The Table of Contents

  • Artworks allegedly by Adolf Hitler fail to sell at Nuremberg auction
  • Counterfeit Hitler
  • In revering Trump, the religious right has laid bare its hypocrisy
  • What are the End Days? A study in deception
  • Floods, fire and drought: Australia, a country in the grip of extreme weather bingo
  • What Happened in Douma? Searching for Facts in the Fog of Syria’s Propaganda War
  • The CIA Confessions: The Crowley Conversations


Artworks allegedly by Adolf Hitler fail to sell at Nuremberg auction

High prices and questions over authenticity scare off buyers at sale of Nazi memorabilia

Feburay 10, 2018

Agence France-Presse

Five paintings attributed to Adolf Hitler have failed to find buyers at an auction held amid anger at the sale of Nazi memorabilia.

High starting prices of between €19,000 and €45,000 ($21,000 and $50,000), and lingering suspicions about the authenticity of the artworks were thought to have scared off potential buyers at Saturday’s auction in Nuremberg.

The Weidler auction house did not comment on the reasons for the failure but said the paintings could yet be sold at a later date.

Nuremberg’s mayor, Ulrich Maly, had earlier condemned the sale as being “in bad taste”.

Among the items that failed to sell were a mountain lake view and a painting of a wicker armchair with a swastika symbol presumed to have belonged to the late Nazi dictator.

The Weidler auction house held the “special sale” in Nuremberg, the city in which Nazi war criminals were tried in 1945.

The Weidler auction house did not comment on the reasons for the failure but said the paintings could yet be sold at a later date.

Nuremberg’s mayor, Ulrich Maly, had earlier condemned the sale as being “in bad taste”.

The watercolours, drawings and paintings bearing “Hitler” signatures featured views of Vienna or Nuremberg, female nudes and still life works, the auction house said. They were offered by 23 different owners.

Prosecutors have collected 63 artworks from the Weidler premises bearing the signature “A.H.” or “A. Hitler”, including some not slated to go under the hammer.

The Nuremberg-Fuerth prosecutor’s office said it had opened an investigation against persons unknown “on suspicion of falsifying documents and attempted fraud”, chief prosecutor Antje Gabriels-Gorsolke said.

“If they turn out to be fakes, we will then try to determine who knew what in the chain of ownership,” she said.

Weidler said in a statement that the paintings’ withdrawal from sale did “not automatically mean they are fakes”.


Counterfeit Hitler

February 10, 2019

by Christian Jürs

Fake Hitler Items top the list of an enormous amount of fake Nazi relics now being sold to gullible collector

In the main, fraud, counterfeiting and deceit are certainly immoral

and very often felonious but in some instances, the essential ludicrous nature of some frauds manages to overcome the gravity.

Such is the case of the enormous industry devoted to the creation, manufacture and sale of faked items of German militaria and elevated personality items from the Third Reich period, purporting to belong to such people as Hitler and Hermann Goering.

There is an abiding fascination with the trappings of the Third Reich but the number of actual and original relics is much smaller than a burgeoning demand.

Nature abhors a vacuum and if original pieces are no longer available, the vacuum is filled with creations to satisfy the demand.

Not only are legitimate pieces of German militaria copied and marketed, a number of outrageous fantasy pieces have also been created and merchandised like the Reverend Ernie’s Holy Healing Cloths on Christian television stations.

There are no surviving original Hitler paintings and sketches.

Everyone from Konrad Kujau to Alfred Speer took a hand at copying Hitler’s style, with various degrees of success.

Speer’s sketches come much closer to the mark as he was an architect and very familiar with Hitler’s style.

An example of the Speer drawings can be seen in a biography of Hitler by British writer, David Irving.

A book edited by Billy Price of Texas on Hitler’s artwork (Hitler as Maler und Zeichner) is crammed to the plimsoll line with fakes but is quite valuable in that it shows known original Hitler pieces (those he himself authenticated before the war and marked as being from the NS archives. In this book, original Hitler pieces have the BA or Bundesarchiv numbers) with fakes.

Hitler’s style is most distinctive and anyone with an eye for design can easily spot the hundreds of fakes.

Aside from some items held by the U.S. Army, no known original Hitler art works exist in the United States and one of the largest collections in England is stuffed with fakes.

Self-delusion is a wonderful thing. It is the cement that keeps dysfunctional marriages together and otherwise intelligent collectors convinced of the authenticity of their pride and joy.

Most of the fakers, and none of the victims even bother to consider the size of the personality whose overcoat or jockstrap is being shoved at them.

One fake Hitler tunic and pants offered by a major auction house, would have been much too big for Hermann Göring who, as even the most thick-headed knows, was not a slender man.

Items which are purported to have belonged to Adolf Hitler are quite naturally, worth a great deal of money and Hitler fakes abound in the market place. It should be noted that Hitler wrote very few personal letters and signed almost nothing at all after the outbreak of the war.

Such items as original caps, uniforms and the like are non-existent because Hitler ordered their destruction at the end of the war and in the main, this order was faithfully executed.

It also should be noted that every April 20th, Hitler’s birthday, trucks full of all manner of presents from all over Germany had been delivered to the Chancellery in Berlin and put on public display.

Many of these, like the recent “Adolf Hitler Ink Set” had been made by technical schools and this included a number of daggers and highly decorated small caliber pistols.

All of this material was stored in the cellars of the Chancellery and taken as loot by the Soviet Army.

Now, we see articles from this mass of kitch appearing in various auctions and commented on in the WAF as “rare, original Hitler pieces.” That they had been given to Hitler is not in question but they were never used by him and often, never seen by him.

The Russians have been selling this kitch off to crooked dealers who rush to publicize it and hope for the suckers to beat a path to their door, panting with desire and with checkbook in trembling hand.

In revering Trump, the religious right has laid bare its hypocrisy

The evangelical fortress around the president can look like a problem, but progressives can use that heresy to fight opponents

February 10, 2018

by Samuel G Freedman

The Guardian

The annual anachronism known as the National Prayer Breakfast attracted its usual array of clergy, military, and political leaders in Washington on 7 February. Most prominent of all, of course, was Donald Trump, who used the de facto pulpit to call for outlawing abortion, among other positions dear to the Religious Right.

Yet the presidential comment that most typified all that has gone morally haywire with the supposedly moral majority came when Trump praised the “abolition of civil rights”. You can consider that statement an innocent, if embarrassing, misreading of the Teleprompter. Or you can hear it as a Freudian slip.

As inspired by the Reverend Billy Graham and originated by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953, the National Prayer Breakfast served two consensual, almost anodyne purposes. It epitomized the moderate, mid-century civil religion that preached that an American was a better citizen for believing in God and going, at least occasionally, to church or synagogue. And amid the Cold War, American leaders insistently portrayed their nation’s collective faith confronting what was routinely called “godless Communism”.

In fact, the greatest application of religion in the public square during the 1950s and 1960s occurred in pursuit of a liberal goal: civil rights. Like the abolitionists of the 19th century, civil rights leaders such as the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr wielded the Bible and its concept of all humanity being formed in the divine image as an argument for racial equality.

Eisenhower and King and the versions of American religion they embodied look like quaint relics now. The National Prayer Breakfast, with Trump preaching to his intolerant choir, attests to the denigration of evangelical Christianity as anything except a cynical political movement. No amount of bipartisan window-dressing – Democratic senator Chris Coons as a co-sponsor of this year’s event, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was in attendance – can undo the damage that the religious right has done to itself.

It is hardly necessary here to reiterate the myriad sins that Trump has openly committed or the blithe ignorance of scripture he betrayed during the presidential campaign. All that matters is that more than 80% of white evangelicals conveniently forgot their prior concern with presidential character to vote for Trump, and this faction has remained his most loyal base.

For his part, as we know, Trump has delivered the goods: two anti-abortion justices appointed to the Supreme Court, a ban on transgender people in the military, removal of a tax-code provision that barred religious institutions from explicitly endorsing political candidates.

In order to square the particular circle of how a serial adulterer, casino mogul, and all-purpose bigot can be deserving of their support, pious Christians have concocted a brand-new theological work-around. It depicts Trump as the modern-day King Cyrus, the pagan monarch of ancient Persia who allowed the Jewish captives of Babylon to return to their holy land.

Presidential press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders – lest we forget, the daughter of the minister-politician Mike Huckabee – succinctly explained that God “wanted Donald Trump to become president”.

From the perspective of Democrats and progressives, the impregnable evangelical fortress around Trump can look like a problem. As proven electoral activists and bloc voters, evangelicals exert disproportionate power. Certainly, they will make sure that any Republican-primary challenger to Trump is defeated. And in another close general election, they hold huge balloting power in such swing states as Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Iowa, and Michigan.

Instead, though, Americans of the center and left ought to feel liberated by the eligious right’s embrace of Trump. It has broken a spell.

In a way that secular or less-observant people are reluctant to admit, they often feel inadequate to the task of arguing politics, much less religion, with fundamentalists. Few of us know the relevant texts or theologies, and even if we do, we default to the faulty premise that religion shouldn’t be part of political decision-making. (Which would have come as a shock to King, for one.)

Under King Cyrus Trump, however, the religious right has laid bare its hypocrisy, and indeed its heresy. We can feel emboldened to fight our opponents like any other political movement rather than as devout believers whose direct line to the Almighty, and whose resulting presumption of moral superiority, we have no way of empirically disproving.

In time, perhaps, white evangelicals will recover some of their ethical and religious moorings. A younger generation of such evangelicals is making its way through high school and college now, and registering its disgust with Trumpian Christianity, even at Jerry Falwell Jr’s Liberty University.

Among the older generation, at least a few believers of principle, such as former George W Bush staffers Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, have eloquently decried the evangelical movement’s self-inflicted wounds.

Until some larger-scale period of penance comes for white evangelicals, anyone familiar with Judeo-Christian history might offer an alternative precursor to Trump than King Cyrus. My own nomination would be a 17th-century Turkish Jew named Shabbetai Zevi, who pronounced himself the Messiah.

For some subsequent years, there were Jews who actually believed him, so great was their despair at persecution and dispersal. Then, abruptly, their messiah converted to Islam. When scholars today look back at Shabbetai Zevi, they assess him most charitably as a madman, and less generously, as a fraud.


What are the End Days? A study in deception

February 10, 2019

by Frederick Norris

‘Armageddon’ is actually purported to be a battle.

According to Pentecostal interpretations, the Bible states that Armageddon will be a battle where God finally comes in and takes over the world and rules it the way it should have been ruled all along. After this vaguely-defined battle of Armageddon, Pentecostals firmly believe that there will follow 1000 years of peace and plenty which, according to their lore and legend, will be the sole lot of their sect and no other.

The actual scene of the fictional battle is referred to by Pentecostals as being clearly set forth in Revelation 16:14-16. It is not. The specific citation reads, in full:

  • “14. For they are the spirits of devils, working miracles, which go forth unto the kings of the earth and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty.
  • “15. Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame.
  • “16. And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon.”

This sparse mention of Armageddon has given rise to the elaborate but entirely fictional legend of the Final Battle between the forces of good and evil.

There is no mention in Revelations 16: 14-15 whatsoever of Parusia or the second coming of Jesus, the apocryphal Anti-Christ, the Rapture or the many other delightful inventions designed to bolster the Pentecostal elect and daunt their adversaries. These adversaries consist of all other branches of the Christian religion with especial emphasis placed on Jews and Catholics. The Pentecostals also loathe Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists, and an endless list of anyone and everyone whose views clash with theirs, such as scientists and any academic who views the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel as anything but tissues of lies.

The Antichrist

The Antichrist is described by Pentecostals as the “son of perdition” and the “beast”!

They claim that this interesting creature will have great charisma and speaking ability, “a mouth speaking great things”.

The Antichrist, they allege, will rise to power on a wave of world euphoria, as he temporarily saves the world from its desperate economic, military & political problems with a brilliant seven year plan for world peace, economic stability and religious freedom.

The Antichrist could well rise out of the current chaos in the former Soviet Union. The prophet Ezekiel names him as the ruler of “Magog”, a name that Biblical scholars agree denotes a country or region of peoples to the north of Israel. Many have interpreted this to mean modern day Russia. It could also be Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Croatia, Hungary, Poland, perhaps one of the Baltic States or even the lewd and dissolute Socialist Sweden.

His power base will include the leading nations of Europe, whose leaders, the Bible says, will “give their power & strength unto the beast.”

The Bible even gives some clues about his personal characteristics. The prophet Daniel wrote that the Antichrist “does not regard the desire of women.” This could imply that he is either celibate or a homosexual. Daniel also tells us that he will have a “fierce countenance” or stern look, and will be “more stout than his fellows”–more proud and boastful.

Unfortunately, the so-called Book of Daniel was written during the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero, not many decades earlier as its proponents claim, and has been extensively modified by early Christian writers to predict the arrival of their personal Messiah, or Christ, on the Judean scene. The so-called “wonderful” prophetic statements put into the mouth of Daniel are absolutely and wondrously accurate…up to the reign of Nero and then fall as flat as a shaken soufflé afterwards

It is well known that Pentecostals loathe homosexuals, among many other groups not pleasing to them, and would like nothing better than to shove them into a bottomless pit filled with Catholics, rock and roll fans, teenaged mothers, Communists, gun control advocates, Tarot card readers, Christian Scientists, abortionists, Wayne Newton fans, Asians, Jews, African-Americans and Latino Surnamed Hispanics.

The seven year peace-pact (or covenant) that is engineered by the Antichrist is spoken of a number of times in the Bible, and may even have already been signed in secret. The historic peace agreement signed between Israel and the PLO at the White House on September 13, 1993, vividly illustrates how dramatically events in the Middle East are presently moving in this direction eager Pentecostals, awaiting their Celestial Omnibus, will inform anyone who is interested and a greater legion of those who are not.

Under the final terms of the fictional Covenant, Jerusalem will likely be declared an international city to which Judaism, Islam and Christianity will have equal rights. Scripture indicates that the Jews will be permitted to rebuild their Temple on Mt. Moriah, where they revive their ancient rituals of animal sacrifice.

According to modern prophecy the Antichrist will not only be a master of political intrigue, but also a military genius. Daniel describes several major wars that he fights during his 7-year reign, apparently against the U.S. and Israel, who will oppose him during the second half of his reign.

For awhile, most of the world is going to think the Antichrist is wonderful, as he will seem to have solved so many of the world’s problems. But, three-and-a-half years into his seven year reign he will break the covenant and invade Israel from the North.

At this time he will make Jerusalem his world capitol and outlaw all religions, except the worship of himself and his image. The Bible, according to the Pentecostals, says that the Antichrist will sit in the Jewish Temple exalting himself as God and demanding to be worshipped. If this passage, and many others of its kind, actually appears in the King James Version of the Bible, no one has ever been able to find it

It is at this time that the Antichrist imposes his infamous “666” one-world credit system.

It must be said that the Antichrist does, in point of fact exist. He can be seen on a daily basis on the walls of the Cathedral at Orvieto, Italy in the marvelous frescos of Lucca Signorelli.

He looks somewhat like a Byzantine depiction of Christ with either a vicious wife or inflamed hemorrhoids .

Pentecostals strongly believe that U.S. public schools “departed from the faith” when in 1963 the Bible and prayer were officially banned. Now, Pentecostals believe with horror, thousands of these same schools are teaching credited courses in “the doctrines of devils”–the occult and Satanism.

Even a cursory check of curriculum of a number of American public school districts does not support this claim but then the Pentecostals have stated repeatedly that they represent 45% of all Protestants in America. The actual number, excluding the Baptists, is more like 4%.

What they lack in actual numbers they more than compensate for by their loud and irrational views so that at times it sounds like the roar of a great multitude when in truth, it is only a small dwarf wearing stained underwear and armed with a bullhorn, trumpeting in the underbrush

Frantic Pentecostals estimated that according to their private Census for Christ there are over 200,000 practicing witches in the United States and allege there are literally millions of Americans who dabble in some form of the occult, psychic phenomena, spiritualism, demonology and black magic.

Their statistics claim that occult book sales have doubled in the last four years.

What is seen by terrified Pentecostals as The Occult today is no longer the stuff of small underground cults. They believe that many rock videos are an open worship of Satan and hell that comes complete with the symbols, liturgies, and rituals of Satanism, and the Pentecostals firmly and loudly proclaim to anyone interested in listening, that “millions of young people” have been caught in their evil sway.

Popular music is termed “sounds of horror and torment” that Pentecostals firmly believe is literally “driving young people insane and seducing them into a life of drugs, suicide, perversion and hell.” It is forgotten now but the same thing was once said about ragtime and later, jazz. If this had been true, perhaps the real reason behind the First World War, the 1929 market crash, the rise of Franklin Roosevelt and the lewd hula hoop can be attributed to Scott Joplin and Ella Fitzgerald.

It is also to be noted that the immensely popular Harry Potter series of children’s books are loudly proclaimed as Satanic books designed to lure unsuspecting children into the clutches of the Evil One. Any sane person who has read these delightful fantasy books will certainly not agree with these hysterical strictures. In point of fact, it would be exceedingly difficult to locate any person possessing even a modicum of sanity who would believe any of the weird fulminations of the Pentecostals.

Outraged Pentecostals now firmly state that in the beginning years of the Twenty First Century, “even the most shameless acts of blasphemy and desecration are socially acceptable.”

“Acts of blasphemy and desecration” sound like human sacrifices carried out on nuns at bus stops during the noontime rush hour or lewd acts with crucifixes performed by drug-maddened transvestites on commercial airlines.

In his weird Book of Revelation the lunatic John of Patmos claimed he foresaw that in the last days the world would turn away from God in order to worship and follow Satan.

Such a prophecy would have seemed believable to previous generations, but not so in our more enlightened and secular humanist day. Hard-core Satanism has been called by rabid Pentecostals noise-makers as: “the fastest-growing subculture among America’s teens”, and the revival of witchcraft & the occult is “one of the World’s fastest growing religions!”


Floods, fire and drought: Australia, a country in the grip of extreme weather bingo

Amid record temperatures, severe flooding and devastation of wilderness, the political message from the government is business as usual

February 10, 2019

by Adam Morton and Ben Smee in Townsville

The Guardian

The people of Townsville know about heavy rain, but this was new. Over the past fortnight, the northern Queensland city’s 180,000 residents have been hit by a monsoon strengthened by a low-pressure front that dragged moist air south from the equator to Australia’s top end.

It dumped an unprecedented 1.4 metres of rain in less than two weeks – roughly double what falls on London in a year.

The ensuing chaos has wrecked homes and caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to property. Two men have drowned and videos posted to social media have shown crocodiles climbing trees and taking to elevated highways in search of shelter.

But amid the deluge, not everyone heeded the evacuation advice.

Mark Parison was one of those who stayed. The tide where he lives in Hermit Park peaked at least two metres high on some homes and the road was decorated with debris – furniture, white goods and children’s toys – pulled from homes as the water receded. But Parison’s traditional Queenslander home, elevated on concrete pillars, remained largely intact.

As he moved piles of damaged property to the roadside for local authorities to collect, he told Guardian Australia why he ignored the advice to run.

“It was a scary old night [but] this house has been here for a long time. We decided … it’s been here that long, it’s been through some big floods,” he said.

Asked if he was concerned that climate change was making floods more extreme, he was clear: “If anyone mentions that, I’ll punch ‘em.”

“The weather events seem to be getting more extreme. Whether it’s manmade or natural or who knows.

“These people crying about climate change, they’ve got to look at how they live themselves. They’re still driving around in cars, they’re still wearing nice clothes. They’re using mobile phones. So give that up, I’ll start listening to you.

“City people are stalling us. We need the economy here to be boosted.”

In a city with nearly one in ten unemployed his view holds purchase. And so goes some of the public debate in Australia about the impact of rising greenhouse gas emissions.

A historically hostile summer

The north Queensland flooding is far from the only punishing event in what has been, even by the standards of the continent, a historically hostile summer. Internal polling for political parties and environment groups suggests Australians are increasingly concerned that this is linked to climate change and want to see action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a priority at this year’s federal election. It matches public polling that has found a comfortable majority accept it is a significant problem that needs to be addressed.

But after a decade of political fights and ideological warfare, discussion on the subject is often still a combat zone. The Coalition government would prefer not to talk about it at all.

Australia is, of course, no stranger to extreme weather – bushfire, flooding, rains and skin-peeling heat are central to its history and mythology – but the contrasts this southern summer have been particularly stark. Lesley Hughes, a professor of biology at Macquarie University and councillor with publicly funded communication body the Climate Council, says few parts of the continent have not experienced an extreme weather event in recent months.

More than 3000 kilometres to Townsville’s south, Tasmania is burning. For the second time in four years, dry lightning strikes sparked a series of blazes on the usually cool, temperate island, many of them in the vast world heritage wilderness area that covers nearly half its territory. In one 30-hour period in mid-January, an extended electrical storm danced across the summer sky, sending down more than 2400 lightning strikes without rain.

About 200,000 hectares – 3% of the state’s surface – has been burned, including unique alpine heath landscapes that had not been touched by fire for centuries. The fires are expected to burn for another month at least. Hundreds of people, many of them from in and around the southern town of Geeveston, spent the best part of two weeks camping at evacuation centres. Six homes were destroyed before rain late in the week reduced the threat to communities.

Elsewhere, communities in the sparsely populated Australian outback continue to deal with the fallout from a long-term drought. On social media, a Greens MP in New South Wales, David Shoebridge, highlighted a constituent forced to pay $70 a week on drinking water for her and her son after the raw water supply in the town of Walgett was turned off.

A political battle is also raging over the use of water in the vast Murray-Darling river system that fans across the country’s eastern state agricultural districts, with drought-afflicted downstream communities arguing they are being denied water by a national river plan that did not factor in climate change and has been designed to keep dams full at water-hungry industrial agriculture sites in northern states.

This claim has been backed by a royal commission convened by the state of South Australia, which lies at the end of the river system, and the continuing disaster of up to a million fish having perished in three mass kills in the west of New South Wales due to water deoxygenation, with more deaths predicted.

Inquiry into Townsville flooding

The sense of a country playing extreme weather bingo has heightened as flood and drought collided this week, requiring the defence force to be called in to distribute fodder to cattle that had suddenly found their long-parched home under water. By Friday, it was clear that up to 300,000 cattle had been killed in the floods. With evidence mounting that authorities were unprepared for the extent of the rainfall, the Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, announced an independent inquiry.

For most, the most obvious extreme weather shift has been the heat. January was Australia’s hottest month on record by a wide margin, with average national temperatures nearly a degree beyond the previous benchmark and 2.9 degrees warmer than the long-term mean. In New South Wales, the average temperature was nearly 6 degrees hotter than what has been considered normal for the past century.

Blair Trewin, senior climatologist with the Bureau of Meteorology, says: “Even taking into account the sustained long-term warming trend of a degree or so over a century, this is certainly at the far end of expectations.”

It is the heat that seems to be shifting public concern about climate change. Political polling suggests it is registering in the top two or three issues of concern for voters in a way it has not since the 2007 election, when the country was enduring a decade long drought, if not ever. The trend is headed in this direction even in some outer suburban electorates, which have traditionally been more driven by jobs and cost-of-living issues.

But the shift is not universal. The government is hearing similar messages, but there has been no change in messaging from prime minister Scott Morrison. He visited the Tasmanian fires and Queensland floods within a 24-hour period, speaking with people who had been forced to flee their homes, thanking emergency service workers and, in Townsville, was photographed climbing into a tank. He drew no link between the extreme weather and emissions in his public comments and he dismissed as a stunt a suggestion by the Greens that he should apologise for backing coal given there was evidence it was making natural disasters worse.

The Nationals leader and deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, went a step further while visiting the site of the Menindee Lake mass fish kill, choosing language that suggested outright scepticism about climate science.

“We are looking at climate, of course, (but) climate has been changing since year dot,” he said, before adding: “We don’t want to go down a path of renewables, which is not going to solve anything apart from de-industrialising Australia and making sure we don’t do manufacturing here and pushing electricity bills into the unaffordable state.”

While concern about climate change is growing, there is evidence this position retains support – Essential Media polling late last year, for instance, suggested a slim majority of voters may back public financial support for a new coal power development than would oppose it, though more than quarter said they did not know what they thought.

Dependent on mining

The suggestion governments may force coal industries to close are particularly challenging issues in Townsville, which is the centre of support for the Carmichael coalmine, the long-stalled greenfield project proposed by Indian billionaire Gautam Adani that has become a proxy for debate over climate change. The mining industry posits itself as a jobs saviour. But, as always, views are split.

Katie McGrath was among the lucky ones in the Queensland floods, having got caught up and seeing her car in a metre of water. A nurse who works in Townsville but lives on nearby Magnetic Island, she had not realised how great the threat was before getting into trouble. “I’ve never seen the island flood like this before,” she said.

McGrath has little doubt that what Townsville has been experiencing is part of a bigger picture, but acknowledges she is out of step with many in her community.

“There’s clearly things happening around the world that are alarming,” she says. “It’s like anything, if you don’t know enough about it then you seek advice from experts, and what they’re telling us is that we’ve got a real problem with climate change and we need to do something about it.”

But despite the experts, Townsville is the epicentre of support for the Adani coalmine. For every flood affected resident who is concerned about climate change, several others share Parison’s views.

Roughly one in 10 people in Townsville are unemployed. About 16% of the population is university educated, compared with 22% Australia wide. People want economic growth and employment opportunities. And, for all the boom and bust cycles places such as Townsville have endured in the past, the mining industry still posits itself as a jobs saviour.

But McGrath believes adequate communication about the opportunities that come with a cleaner economy is missing.

“For those people, work’s been hard to come by for a while and that’s been a real issue for people in Townsville,” she said.

“There’s not really been much put forward, and this region is really dependent on mining. People want to see jobs in mining, they want to see Adani go ahead. That’s the priority for people at the moment. Whether they agree with climate change, care about it or whatever, that’s a secondary priority to making ends meet now.

“I don’t necessarily think people are addicted to coal, or think that coal’s great. We haven’t been offered different information or alternatives about different jobs that are available. At the moment that’s not there.”

Her observations underline the challenge in some parts of the country for the Labor party, which is favoured to win the election with a platform of taking climate change seriously, but beyond the electricity sector is yet to explain what meeting its more ambitious greenhouse targets would mean.

Part of the challenge of communicating climate change is explaining the science, particularly the extent to which any extreme event can be linked to increasing emissions.

Attribution science is a rapidly evolving field. Lesley Hughes, who helped launch a Climate Council report called Weather Gone Wild, says emissions are effectively loading the dice to increase the likelihood of an extreme weather event. “What we are now observing is consistent with the climate science – as the Earth warms up, more extreme weather is inevitable,” she says.

In the case of the floods, a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, which in the event of a storm can mean heavier rain in a shorter space of time.

In the case of the Tasmanian fires, not only has the state become warmer (2.5 degrees above average in January) but low-pressure weather patterns that used to produce rain over the state have also moved further south as the climate has warmed, and evaporation rates have increased. Both increase the risk of dry lightning strike causing a blaze. Hobart, the Tasmanian capital, recorded just 0.4 millimetres of rain in January, the lowest on record.

Hughes says governments can obfuscate for only so long before publicly accepting that climate change is now both a mitigation and adaptation challenge. Failing to acknowledge the role humans are playing is holding back conversations about, for instance, whether Australia needs to invest in fire-fighting aircraft rather than sharing with the US, given the northern and southern fire seasons are increasingly overlapping.

“The prime minister is still pandering to the right-wing sceptics in his party by not talking about climate change. But arguing black is white doesn’t make it so,” she says. “The government has to accept these events are going to get worse over the next few decades and plan accordingly – both to adapt and to be part of the solution instead of the problem.”


What Happened in Douma? Searching for Facts in the Fog of Syria’s Propaganda War

February 9, 2019

by James Harkin

The Intercept

This much we know: To have been in the Syrian town of Douma, the final rebel military holdout in the suburbs of Damascus, on Saturday, April 7, 2018 must have sounded and felt very much like hell on earth. Since 2013, when a shifting cast of rebel militias wrested control of the area, the whole region of Eastern Ghouta had been under effective siege by the Syrian government. Food and medicines were expensive or impossible to come by. Already miserably poor, it was all the locals could do to stay alive. Last February, the Syrian army, backed by Russian airplanes and emboldened by joint military successes elsewhere, began a final, determined assault. The operation was branded “Damascus Steel,” and it met with surprising success. By March the Syrian army and its allied militias had carved Eastern Ghouta into three distinct enclaves, each under the control of a different militia. The first two quickly agreed to deals, under whose terms the fighters and their families could choose to be bussed out to northern Syria or take their chances by surrendering to the Syrian army. Jaish al-Islam, or the Army of Islam, which maintained a tight grip on Douma, held out. As March gave way to April the Syrian army was about a kilometer away, and closing in.

This was the endgame. For nearly two months, in between shaky truces, Syrian helicopters and airplanes had intermittently pounded Douma. After yet another ceasefire and round of negotiations failed, they returned on Friday, April 6 with a vengeance. The government was losing patience. So were many Damascenes, who’d grown sick of the volleys of mortars being sent back into central Damascus by the rebels. Tens of thousands of civilians in Douma were caught between them, enduring skyrocketing prices, malnutrition and the outbreak of disease. Cameras from regime-friendly TV channels were trained on Douma to watch the ongoing campaign, primed for imminent victory. On Saturday, according to one account, the onslaught from shelling, airstrikes, and barrel bombs lasted a full six hours. There would have been blinding clouds of dust, breaking glass, and exploding concrete from the constant shelling, the smoke and stench of ordnance, the juddering of helicopters waiting low overhead to drop their improvised barrel bombs. It was worse than anything that had happened before. Those who could took cover underground in basements, tunnels, and other subterranean shelters.

The following day, Jaish al-Islam would agree to leave in return for handing over all the hostages — both civilians and soldiers — it was holding in Douma. But before it did, it accused the Syrian army of carrying out a chemical attack that killed scores of people. Around the same time, video began trickling out showing children being treated at a makeshift underground hospital in the city for breathing problems — the kind that one might associate with a chemical attack. One of the first reports was from the opposition Violations Documentation Center, which noted that a munition had been dropped on the Saada bakery at 4 p.m. local time on Saturday, killing 25 people. Those in the vicinity thought they smelled chlorine. “We later discovered the bodies of people who had suffocated from toxic gases,” one member of a local civil defense team told the VDC. “They were in closed spaces, sheltering from the barrel bombs, which may have caused their quick death as no one heard their screams. Some of them were apparently trying to reach an open space because we found their bodies on the stairs.”

The VDC reported a second attack around 7:30 p.m. in the vicinity of al-Shuhada Square, or Martyrs Square. This one was more serious because of the weapon allegedly used. One doctor told the VDC that “there were symptoms indicative of organic phosphorus compounds in the sarin gas category,” but added that “the smell of chlorine was also present in the place.” A doctor from the Syrian American Medical Society, known as SAMS, told the VDC that colleagues had seen symptoms that included heavy foaming from the mouth and nose and burning of the corneas — injuries that, according to a local doctor reached by the VDC, “do not resemble chlorine attack symptoms.” SAMS said that more than 500 cases, mostly women and children, from the “target site” had been brought to medical centers “with symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent. Patients have shown signs of respiratory distress, central cyanosis, excessive oral foaming, corneal burns, and the emission of chlorine-like odour.” Six people died at medical centers, SAMS reported, and at least 43 people had been found dead with the same symptoms, most likely from “an organophosphate element” like sarin.

The video and photos of the more grievous evening attack, which targeted an apartment building, had been collected mainly by a group of opposition activists called Douma Revolution, who’d been working for some time in the area. The most striking were images of two yellow gas cylinders and footage from the makeshift hospital of locals, including children, being treated for breathing problems. That photo and video evidence was republished by Bellingcat, a U.K.-based organization specializing in open-source online investigations run by Eliot Higgins, whose eagle-eyed attention to photos of barrel and improvised chemical weapons earlier in Syria’s civil war on the pseudonymous blog Brown Moses had won him a reputation in the field. Bellingcat also reviewed the work of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, which had estimated 55 deaths and 860 injured as a result of the apartment building attack, as well as that of the rescue organization Syria Civil Defence, generally known as the White Helmets, which like SAMS counted 43 dead and 500 injured from the same incident. Paying close attention to the publicly available imagery, Bellingcat concluded that there had been at least 34 fatalities from the apartment attack “as a result of a gas cylinder filled with what is most likely chlorine gas.”

The rest is military history. Six days later, the United States and its allies launched cruise missiles from the air and from nearby warships and submarines at targets associated with what remains of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons program. Those targets included a scientific research center in Damascus and a chemical weapons facility near Homs that had been used for the production of sarin. The massacre on April 7, said President Donald Trump, represented “a significant escalation in a pattern of chemical weapons use by that very terrible regime.” In an additional information sheet, the White House noted that “a significant body of information points to the regime using chlorine in its bombardment of Duma, while some additional information points to the regime also using the nerve agent sarin.” Following up with a characteristic tweet after the U.S. airstrikes, Trump declared, “Mission Accomplished!”

It wasn’t clear that anything had been accomplished — certainly not to the satisfaction of Syrians on any side of the conflict. Instead, it’s useful to try to understand what really happened in Douma from the ground up. During six months of research into the incident, including a trip to Douma and interviews with dozens of Syrian activists, civilians, journalists, and experts, I encountered a great deal of confusion about how the attack had played out, even among those who witnessed it.

At least one chemical attack did take place in Douma on April 7, and people died as a result. There could have been no other culprit but a Syrian army helicopter. But the way it happened bears little resemblance to what was broadcast to the world. From the start, the evidence presented by rebel media activists was fraught and confusing. That’s hardly surprising, because some of those behind it — including some who produced immediate and detailed reports — weren’t actually there. Into the gaps of that initial propaganda barrage seeped skepticism, which morphed into confusion and outright conspiracy-theorizing. State actors, Russian propagandists, and international observers joined the fray, cherry-picking details to illustrate the story they wanted told. Added to the fog of war, in other words, was a fractious new layer of electronic propaganda that turned every tweet or screengrab into a potential weapon in the hands of one of the belligerents.

Beyond the war in Syria, the cloud of misinformation that enveloped the attack in Douma stands as a cautionary tale. In the era of “fake news,” it is a case study in the choreography of our new propaganda wars. With the mainstream media in wholesale retreat — and, in the case of Syria, credibly threatened with death from many sides — new information actors have stepped into the breach. Reading the runes of their imagery is an exciting reporting tool. But their photos, video, and social media posts also offers a vanishingly narrow, excoriatingly subjective view of how conflicts unfold. As a result, such artifacts have become light weapons in an information war that easily becomes an end in itself. The sides are still massed and well-armed. Something very much like Douma will happen again, and soon. Investigative reporting now needs to be about breaking through the noise of electronic information in a climate thick with propaganda, conspiracy-thinking, and reassuring half-truths. Otherwise, the next world war might begin with a grainy, contested image launched online from some distant and inaccessible outpost right onto the pages of a newspaper that has recently sacked all its journalists.


The Ground War and the Media War

Before 2011, Douma wasn’t on many people’s travel itineraries. A satellite town at Damascus’s northeastern edge and the gateway to its lush agricultural belt in the suburban sprawl of Eastern Ghouta, the place had been built out to absorb the thousands of Syrians who’d arrived from the countryside in search of work. Douma was a bustle of mercantile activity and a great place to find a bargain; people from Damascus would flock there for its bountiful street markets. But it was also overcrowded. Just like the other suburban slums around Syria’s major cities, it was scarred by rampant unemployment, bureaucratic corruption and the daily humiliations of young, often unemployed men at the hands of the Syrian authorities. Douma had none of Damascus’s cosmopolitan mix. Long socially conservative and majority Sunni, in the last decade, a new Islamic piety and a vibrant subculture of Salafism both bloomed amid this new community of urban poor.

When the uprising began in Syria’s towns and cities in 2011, Douma was one of the first places to catch fire. If Hama was the cradle of the early revolt and Homs was its crucible, Douma was the broader Damascus region’s proudest contribution to the early rebellion and a steady thorn in the side of the authorities. Once remarkable for its markets, it now grew famous for its large, carnival-like street protests against President Bashar al-Assad and his ruling clique. On a visit to Damascus one afternoon in February 2012, I persuaded a Syrian friend to drive me into Douma. The route involved talking our way through several military checkpoints; apart from the graffiti on the walls there were few signs of life. Even then, by the evenings, Douma was under the effective control of rebel groups and the site of nightly demonstrations. Fearing what was to come, many residents, either those who supported the government or who feared the growing militarization and extremism in the uprising, left.

Those who stayed behind soon found themselves subject to a new kind of security regime. By 2013, early attempts at armed resistance and rebellion under the loose umbrella of the Free Syrian Army had given way to better-armed, more highly motivated groups — especially Jaish al-Islam, a Saudi-backed Salafist group that came to rule Douma with an iron fist. On the night of December 9, 2013, four of the country’s most prominent revolutionaries — Razan Zaitouneh, Samira al-Khalil, Wa’el Hamada, and Nazem Hamadi — were kidnapped from their offices in Douma. The so-called Douma Four were abducted by armed militias under the nose, and with what must have been the complicity, of Jaish al-Islam. Nothing has been heard from the four since; they’re very likely all dead. A prime mover behind the oppositionist Local Coordination Committees and a hero to many revolutionists, Zaitouneh had established the VDC in 2011 to investigate human rights abuses. The organization had attracted funding from the United States and Europe — especially after Zaitouneh and her team were instrumental in reporting chemical attacks in nearby Ghouta in August 2013, which killed hundreds of people and which most observers attribute to sarin gas and the Syrian government. But Zaitouneh’s reporting and her liberal values, taken with the fact that much of her funding came from the U.S., made some in Douma suspicious of her motives. Shortly before she went missing, she’d received a death threat that many have attributed to Jaish al-Islam.

then there’s been little information independent of Jaish al-Islam coming out of Douma. At the time of the April 7 attacks, the VDC had no presence there, which was not surprising, given what had happened to its leaders. Like almost everyone else, the VDC was getting its information from contacts on the ground via social media. Those organizations still able to still work in Douma did so under license from Jaish al-Islam, or they operated in secret. In the best of circumstances, the reporting of pro-opposition outfits like the Local Coordinating Committees has often been nakedly partisan. But with independent media unable to operate in territory controlled by the Syrian government and hardly any outside journalists able to get into the country because of kidnapping threats from militants and incessant bombing by the government, they’re the only way to find out what’s going on.

In the immediate aftermath of the Douma attacks, Syria’s official media largely ignored the allegations about chemical weapons; they were busy celebrating their win. This time, it fell to the Russians to mount a media offensive. The day before the Douma attack, the Russian military, as it often does, had predicted that Syrian rebel groups were “plotting explosions of makeshift chemical charges containing chlorine in a number of areas under their control.”

The Russians had brokered the evacuation deal in Douma, after all, and it was their military police who were helping to enforce it. It was also their job to make the attack sites safe for the arrival of inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international body that enforces the Chemical Weapons Convention worldwide. Two days after the attacks, in footage shot by a local activist, Russian military police can be seen arriving onsite.

The OPCW inspectors took a week to get to Damascus, and then another week negotiating safe access to the sites in Douma; after that they spent 10 days visiting the hospital and the alleged attack locations, collecting samples and interviewing witnesses.

But before they’d finished, apparently concerned at the pace of events in the two weeks since the U.S. airstrikes, the Russian delegation to the OPCW threw a brazen unofficial press conference at the organization’s headquarters in The Hague. In front of the assembled cameras, they produced witnesses from Douma, including an 11-year-old boy named Hassan Diab, one of those filmed at the hospital in the aftermath of the attack. Hassan and his father told the same story: Upon hearing screaming about a chemical attack they’d run to the makeshift hospital where they’d been doused with water. In retrospect, said Hassan’s father, he didn’t believe that there had been any chemical attack. The Russians also granted the floor to a doctor and another hospital worker who’d been on duty that day, both of whom claimed that the patients they’d seen had suffered injuries consistent with smoke and dust inhalation as a result of regular bombing. Separately, Alexander Yakovenko, the Russian ambassador to London, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the international media that British intelligence services, working with the White Helmets, had been “involved in this staged event.”

Formed in 2013, the White Helmets only maintain a presence in rebel-controlled areas, as Douma was on the night of the attack. Like any other aid or reporting outfit in those areas, it operates with the permission of the controlling militias, who are either grateful for the medics’ support or tolerate their presence. Much of the White Helmets’ first-responder work is unobjectionable and utterly necessary — rescuing civilians from buildings that have just been bombed by Russian or Syrian airplanes, for example. All the same, and perhaps because the group carries cameras to document their work and has been the subject of various glorifying documentaries, it is now at the center of a brutish new media war between international supporters of the Syrian revolt, who uphold the White Helmets as unimpeachable heroes, and international defenders of the Syrian government, who have said that they’re first-aiders for Al Qaeda. The Russian government, of course, has every incentive to delegitimize and exaggerate the power of Syrian first-responders, who are sometimes the only sources of information about its bombing campaign. The Syrian government appears to have been directly targeting White Helmets from the air and on the ground for the same reason.

But the Russian allegations about intelligence links and propaganda maneuvers did not come from nowhere. The British-led organization that branded the White Helmets and provided its training and equipment, ARK, was run by a publicity-shy former British diplomat and funded by the U.S. State Department and the British Foreign Office. ARK’s work in Syria started in 2012, when it paid Syrian activists to make propaganda films in favor of the revolt against Assad through a production company called Basma. Operating out of offices in Istanbul and Gaziantep in Turkey, it was soon bidding for civil defense contracts in Northern Syria for the kind of work that would end up being done by the White Helmets. A few of its employees were veterans of the British Army; others included pollsters and policy advisers, a consultant who had previously worked for a “psychological operations” firm, and a development professional with experience in “in-country information-gathering.” According to internal reports and emails provided to me by a Syrian opposition activist in 2014, ARK was also gathering intelligence on Islamist groups in the country, 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. “It would be reinforcing success for comparatively modest costs,” noted the liaison officer.

The White Helmets are now supported by another organization, called Mayday Rescue, established by a senior ARK staffer, and no concrete evidence has emerged that ARK or its affiliates are using the White Helmets for intelligence-gathering. What’s certain is that the cameras worn by these civil defence workers see what the controlling militias allow them to see, usually the bombing runs of the Syrian and Russian air force, generating skepticism among some observers about the reliability of their reporting.

When it came to Douma, the Russians weren’t the only ones who were skeptical, at least initially, that chemical weapons had been used. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based outfit that leans toward the opposition but whose reporting network inside the country is usually seen as most authoritative by the international media, noted the day after the attack that people had died in Douma through suffocation, but couldn’t say whether chemical weapons had been used.

At least some of that caution appears to have been warranted. Three months after the attack, the OPCW released its interim report into what happened in Douma. The report found no evidence of organophosphorus nerve agents like sarin either at the site or in samples from the casualties — something of a surprise, because the suspected use of sarin had been one of the justifications for American airstrikes back in April, and alleged Syrian chemical weapons facilities their primary target. But the investigators did find something else. In the aftermath of the attack, video shot by gas mask-clad activists had fastened on the two yellow gas canisters: one lying on a bed, filmed on April 8 by Douma Revolution, and the second perched on a top-floor balcony and apparently recorded the following evening by the White Helmets. The OPCW located both those cylinders, one at the apartment block and the other in a different building nearly a kilometer away. Samples collected at both locations turned up “various chlorinated organic chemicals” along with “the residues of explosive” — not quite the same thing as saying that chlorine had been used as a chemical weapon, but evidence that seemed to head in that direction. In its final report, we might expect the OPCW to make a more conclusive judgement.


A Blackened Shadow: The Evidence From Douma

On July 9, 2018, three days after the OPCW’s interim report was published, I traveled to Douma. It was a blisteringly hot morning, and I was in a taxi with a female translator-minder from Syria’s Information Ministry and a Japanese journalist who was going there anyway and with whom I’d hitched a ride. This was the first journalist visa I’d been allowed since March 2016. For over 18 months, I’d languished on a blacklist, the belated result of illegal trips into Northern Syria I’d taken with rebel and Kurdish groups earlier in the conflict. “No one wants to work with you,” the amiable new handler for foreign journalists shrugged on my arrival at the Information Ministry building in Mezzeh. It was, he lamented, because of my reputation for giving minders the slip.

The road from Damascus to Douma snaked through the same checkpoints I remembered from six years ago, but now these were the weary signposts of a war zone rather than the punctuation of a stressed-out security state. The Syrian army had entered Douma three months earlier, and the city was returning to nervous life. Some residents had endured the conflict and were finally beginning to rebuild, while others had returned to reclaim their homes and reopen their shops; yet others whizzing by in cars and on motorbikes seemed to have arrived from out of town, possibly carpet-bagger friends of the Syrian armed forces. The broad al-Shuhada Square was still largely empty — a few local women walked by in niqabs and abayas, clutching their children’s hands and watching us intently.

Douma was a blackened shadow of its former self, many of its buildings still listing or reduced to charred metal and concrete, but a whole new city had been quietly carved out beneath it. Our first stop, a few yards from al-Shuhada Square, was at the mouth of a 3-meter-wide underground tunnel, reinforced with corrugated steel and concrete. It had been constructed by the Islamist rebels several years back, according to a soldier who walked us through it. He told us that hostages held by Jaish al-Islam had done the building. In total, it stretched for more than 5 kilometers and was broad enough to drive a truck through.

The tunnel had been set up to access a makeshift hospital emergency ward, whose spartan facilities were arranged over a single floor underground. Five meters below ground and reinforced by 13 meters of sandbagging above that, the hospital was still functioning when I arrived. Orderlies hovered around stretchers, as did Syrian soldiers. A woman collected medicine for her sick child. It was from here that footage had emerged of alleged gas attack victims having water poured over them from hoses and being given asthma inhalers by panicked medical workers and civilians. The first man I came across, who told me his name was Abu Nazir, explained that he didn’t work at the hospital but that on the day of the attack, he had made his way to the huge tunnel outside in search of shelter. “We were unable to breathe,” he said, “and stayed in hiding.”

The second man I came across, a laconic 20-year-old local nurse called Anas Sobheha, told me that he had seen everything. At around 7 p.m. that April evening, he said, a child of about 6 years old was brought into the hospital. His face had turned blue. “He had asthma, and there’d been a fire at his home, and the smoke had made it worse. And they thought it was a chemical attack,” Sobheha said. There were a lot of wounded people around, but Sobheha had given the boy some medicine and he had gotten better quickly. All the same, his family had elected to stay at the hospital, feeling safer in the fortified location. About 20 minutes later, Sobheha said, one of the White Helmet workers came in holding a baby and screaming about a chemical attack “and everyone starts freaking out, thinking about chemical weapons, but there was only this child, and he’d just inhaled smoke from a fire.” The White Helmet was desperate for staff to help, and chaos ensued — a man sitting in the facility with his brother grabbed the hose “and started throwing water on everyone inside.” There were around four people filming these events, Sobheha remembered, but the problem wasn’t chemicals: “The cases that came here were suffocation from smoke, and most of them were children.” The baby went back to his house, he laughed, “and he’s in Douma today.”

As we talked, several Syrian soldiers joined the conversation, just as interested in his testimony as I was. Sobheha’s words were also being translated by a minder from the Syrian Information Ministry, whose staffers report to higher-ups on who foreign journalists talk to and what they say. Clearly, Sobheha wasn’t speaking entirely freely. Nonetheless, he wasn’t shy of apportioning blame to the Syrian army (and when I contacted him later via WhatsApp from London he assured me that he’d told me the whole truth). Most of the deaths that day had already happened before the supposed chemical attacks, he told me. At about 4 p.m., he remembered, scores of people arrived at the emergency ward injured and bleeding. When I prodded him about the people who had allegedly been killed by chemical weapons that day, he flinched in exasperation. Two hundred and seventy people had been killed on April 6 and 7, according to the data kept by his improvised hospital, women and children as well as fighters, their numbers collected by the rebels, and “most of the injured and bleeding they came here.” What had killed them? “Mostly rockets.”

There were too many patients and not enough doctors, he remembered, and you just had to do the best you could. In the afternoon, there were no camerapeople around to witness any of it, according to him, because the medical staff were under so much pressure. “These were the worst days,” he said. “I can’t explain how it felt.” He’d already been interviewed by the OPCW inspectors and was growing weary of their talk about chemical weapons. He’d been trained to treat people poisoned by such weapons, and the protocol was that staff would work outside the hospital in that event. “I didn’t treat anyone with a chemical attack,” he said, “because if I did, I’m going to get affected.” When I asked him what he thought about all this talk of chemicals, he was polite but firm. “I don’t want to repeat this word again.”

From al-Shuhada Square, and now flanked by an escort vehicle from the Syrian army, we traveled at my suggestion to Tawba, a sprawling network of tunnels between buildings that the rebels had converted into an intricate prison. We entered via the mangled remains of one municipal structure, then inched our way in darkness through a latticework of improvised prison cells into an underground passageway hewn out of earth and rock. At times, the wet earth was so cloying as to make us cough; on several occasions, a few clumps fell to the ground around us, giving even our military guide pause for thought. But, like an archaeologist marveling at the primitive ways of his forebears, he was keen to show us how his enemies had lived. The journey took us deep into the ground, after which we rose back toward the surface and emerged into completely different building several hundred meters from the first. All this, too, was the work of captives and hostages. Some were Syrian soldiers, but many others had been taken based on their religion; most were Alawi, Shia, and Ismaili Muslims from everywhere in Syria, whom their Islamist kidnappers deemed impure.

One of them was a 55-year-old called Nabeel Taha, who I met the following evening in a community center in Damascus. Taha wasn’t referred to me by the Syrian authorities; I’d begged his number from a local journalist who works for the Associated Press. Taha had been kidnapped in November 2014, he told me, 200 kilometers away in Hama. His job as an army translator made him of immediate interest to the Islamist rebels who hauled him out of a taxi with his lawyer brother. Both were Shia Muslims, which further enraged their captors. During the first few weeks of Taha’s captivity, he was beaten and tortured almost all the time — hung from the ceiling, tormented with implements, insulted for his religion. Then he was transferred to a holding cell in Tawba, where he was put to work, almost 24 hours a day, digging tunnels.

When I brought up the alleged chemical weapons attacks, Taha felt sure that they couldn’t have been the work of the Syrian army. On April 7, he remembered, Jaish al-Islam informed the hostages that they were going to be released. There’s no way that the Islamists he knew would have gone ahead and released anyone, he believes, if the army had started dropping chemical weapons on civilians later that same day, yet the hostages were duly set free in two groups over the next two days. Dropping chemicals didn’t seem to make military sense either. On April 7, the Syrian army was around 400 meters from the prison, Taha guessed — he could hear the rattle of Kalashnikovs — and Douma is not a big place; it would have been stupid for the government to land chemicals near its own troops. It was “the pressure of traditional weapons” that forced Jaish al-Islam’s hand, not chlorine or sarin, Taha maintained. He can still remember the noise and the bombings that occurred during those final few days; they were the worst he’d ever heard. The focus on chemical weapons was a propaganda win for Jaish al-Islam, he said: “Every time Jaish al-Islam lose, they turn a military loss into a political gain.”

In Douma the Syrian authorities had been happy to show me around Tawba prison, and they were also happy for me to see the hospital. But they were less keen to bring me to the sites of the alleged chemical attacks. As the day wore on and we made our way back to al-Shuhada Square, it became apparent that the sites would not be on our itinerary. My minder-translator didn’t know where the attacks were supposed to have taken place, and the major escorting us claimed to have no clue either. Losing patience and without any signal on my mobile phone to check their location, I broke away and walked around the square asking passersby in English and Arabic if they knew anything about the alleged chemical attacks. No one seemed to know what I was talking about — or, if they did, they didn’t seem eager to help. Presently, I noticed a young man covered in grease, revving a motorbike at the side of the square and watching the disturbance. I asked him the same question. “You will not find anyone like me,” he quipped, rearranging a pair of badly bent spectacles on his face. “I am from Douma and I’m going to help you.”

My minder-cum-translator warned me that we should get back into the car and wait for the return of our military escort but the motorcyclist looked anxious at the idea and unwilling to hang around. On a whim, I jumped onto the back of his bike and we rode a few blocks back from al-Shuhada Square, stopping outside an apartment building on an abandoned, heavily blitzed street. Was this the place, I asked him? “Yes.” How many people were killed? “Fifty.” He couldn’t remember the exact day and didn’t know any of the dead, but he was sure it had been chemicals because of the odor. “A very strong smell,” he told me, holding his nose for effect. “Salaam-Alaikum,” he said, wanting to be gone. Was it just this block of apartments? “No, the whole street.” Then he zoomed off into the distance.


Sifting the Digital Evidence

This much we know: Amid the carnage in Douma on April 7, a single horrific incident unfolded in which several dozen civilians, many of them children, were killed. It happened exactly where that young local had taken me on the back of his motorbike. When I forwarded Bellingcat’s Eliot Higgins a short iPhone video I’d shot at the location he recognized it as the same street, and the same apartment block, where several vehicles full of Russian military police had arrived on April 9 in response to claims of a chemical attack. Bilal Abo Salah, a Douma Revolution cameraperson who’d shot footage from the apartment block with the dead people that evening, recognized it as the same building. It was also the place, it turns out, where reporters from CBS News and the Swedish channel TV4 were taken days after the attack when they, like me, traveled to Douma with the Syrian Ministry of Information and struck out on their own in search of the attack site. Together with a survivor called Nasser Hanan who’d lost most of his family to the attack, the CBS journalist was escorted to the top of the building to be shown a yellow gas canister, whose location looked identical to the one that the activists had recorded a week earlier. That canister, its nose neatly wedged into a balcony roof, would become Douma’s smoking gun.

The apartment building was also one of five locations the OPCW inspectors visited later in April. The Saada bakery, allegedly the site of a key chemical attack earlier on April 7, was not in the same area of Douma as either canister and the OPCW inspectors did not stop there. Its early identification by the VDC as a key chemical attack site with many dead was a mistake, the result of local propaganda and the fog of war. While chlorine had been dropped at 4 p.m. near the bakery and had caused some breathing problems, according to the VDC’s then-regional manager, nobody died as a result of chemicals there. The manager confirmed to me that the figure of 25 casualties, including many dead, in that attack was wrong; those deaths had been caused by shelling, not toxic gases.

The story of what happened at the apartment building was also convoluted. The testimony of Nasser Hanan, one of the few survivors who was in the house when the attack happened, only added to the confusion. According to him, the inhabitants of that apartment block, like most civilians in Douma, had been cowering in the basement around 7 p.m. when the attack happened. “The women and children were sitting in here,” he told the Swedish television reporter Stefan Borg, pointing to dank concrete rooms cushioned with blankets, “and boys and men over here.” But Fadi Abdullah, who arrived at the building between 8:30 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. and says he was the first media activist on the scene, found bodies on the ground floor, the first floor, and in the stairwells. The people he’d seen, he maintained, hadn’t seemed like they’d ever been in any basement; they hadn’t seemed to be running anywhere. It was as if they’d been killed on the spot.

It appears to have been an honest misunderstanding on Abdullah’s part. Two other camerapeople who’d arrived in the same place shortly afterward told me, in separate phone conversations from Northern Syria, that their best guess was that the victims had taken refuge from the intense shelling in a cellar or basement when the attack happened and had run frantically upstairs to escape — unaware that that’s exactly where the bomb happened to be. Both agreed that most of the bodies they had seen were on the ground floor and first floor, with about four lying in front of the building; many were gathered around the kitchen and the bathroom. All three camerapeople agreed, like the young man who had driven me there on his motorbike, that the smell had been bad and caused them sharp chest pains. “The victims were only in that building,” said one cameraperson, Emad Aldin, “but the whole street could smell it.” None had felt safe enough to spend any time in the upper floors of the apartment block because of the smell, the dead bodies and the threat from continued shelling. Some, however, did take pictures of the “balcony” canister against the night sky from a room directly downstairs, where it seemed white rather than yellow. Higgins and Forensic Architecture, a research organization that examines the built environment as evidence in cases of human rights violations, have argued, convincingly to the weapons specialists I spoke with, that this was due to a coating of frost, best explained as an “auto-refrigeration” effect that occurs when liquid chlorine cools. The canister also had wheels to ease its departure from a helicopter and fins to give it ballast on its way down.

Other things, however, required much more explanation. “Suddenly we heard a sound like the valve of a gas cylinder being opened,” the survivor Hanan told Borg, the Swedish journalist. What was not included in either Borg’s TV4 package or the CBS broadcast was that Hanan was, at least publicly, blaming the Islamist rebels for the attack — and the White Helmets for not coming to the victims’ aid sooner. Surrounded by minders from the Syrian Ministry of Information and possible secret police, he could scarcely have blamed the Syrian army for a controversial chemical weapons attack, but viewers might have liked to know what he was saying all the same. Then there was the chain of events put forth in Hanan’s testimony. In the basement with the rest of his family and others, he immediately ran outside to get help, where he grew dizzy and short of breath. Almost everyone else ran back inside, and some headed in the direction of the bathroom to wash off the toxic chemicals. “The ones who ran back inside died at once,” he told Borg. But why would anyone run back into a building full of toxic gas?

Not everyone, even those with opposition sympathies, agreed that this had been a chlorine attack. Two months after the event, one opposition reporter working with a team inside Syria, who spoke to me anonymously for fear of jeopardizing his relationship with other rebel outfits, said that while he believed that chlorine had been dropped just before 4 p.m. that day by Syrian army helicopters and had caused some breathing problems among children near the bakery (confirming the VDC’s view that chlorine had been dropped there), his best guess was that the deaths at the apartment building had been the result of smoke inhalation — the tragic consequence of cloying war-zone dust and several dozen people who’d unwittingly found themselves trapped in a basement. His thinking, he told me, was shaped by suspicions about the agenda of the White Helmets and their Western backers, as well as both their and Douma Revolution’s close relationship with Islamists on the ground. Noting the giant gas masks worn by activists days after the attacks, which didn’t always feel necessary, he complained that “this is all a huge game.”

The imperative to grab the fleeting attention of an international audience certainly seems to have influenced the presentation of the evidence. In the videos and photos that appeared that evening, most analysts and observers agree that there were some signs that the bodies and gas canisters had been moved or tampered with after the event for maximum impact. The Syrian media activists who’d arrived at the apartment block with the dead people weren’t the first to arrive on the scene; they’d heard about the deaths from White Helmet workers and doctors at the hospital. When I asked Fadi Abdullah whether he thought the bodies might have been moved around before he arrived, he told me that he’d asked the civil defense crews the same question. They’d told him that they’d only moved the bodies on the stairwells, and the only reason they’d moved anyone was that they suspected some of the victims might still be alive.

Then there was the position of the gas canisters, which seemed to some a little too neat. An investigation by Forensic Architecture, published last June, found that both gas canisters appear to have been rotated, turned, or moved since they had fallen — and that the one on the bed, whose valve remained more or less intact, looked particularly implausible unless it had been moved after the drop. “We have no idea who interfered with the evidence,” Forensic Architecture’s Eyal Weizman told me. “But we are close to certain that in both sites the location of the canisters when photographed is not their original fall position.”

No one I spoke to in Syria seemed to know why the canisters might have been moved around or tampered with; most of the activists from Douma Revolution flatly denied it. Most likely they had been rotated or moved short distances for safety reasons, to gather urgent evidence for the cameras, or to encourage greater emotive effect. But if they were moved, the result was self-defeating; it stoked suspicions that they’d been staged to cast blame on the Syrian government.

One former OPCW official who’s worked on Syria cases and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of his observations was also unimpressed by the location of the canisters. Launched from a Syrian air force helicopter thousands of meters up, he told me, a gas canister like the one on the balcony would ordinarily have fallen right through the concrete roof, rather than puncturing the roof with its nozzle but not falling through. It was also unlikely to have made a hole in the concrete as big as that shown, he said, and the canister valve was unlikely to have snapped off so neatly without the benefit of a detonator. It was possible that the concrete and wire mesh makeup of the roof allowed for a kind of ricochet effect that enabled the canister to spring back up, according to the former OPCW official, but not likely. “A lot of stars would have to align,” he felt, to give rise to that kind of evidence. The canister on the bed from an entry point in the roof several meters away looked even less plausible. His supposition? “This was a setup rather than an actual aerial attack.”

But suspicions that the canisters had been moved didn’t lead the former OPCW official to conclude that there hadn’t been a chemical attack by Syrian military aircraft. In fact, given the dozens dead, which didn’t fit with the usual toll of injuries from breathing difficulties and vomiting that result from a Syrian chlorine bomb, and that the victims had apparently dropped unconscious on the spot, he thought it possible that the Syrian air force had used another more murderous poison, one that hadn’t been captured in the OPCW report. But for camerapeople desperate to show they had the goods and get the world on their side, he guessed, those videos of gas canisters and outsized gas masks made “compelling images.” The temptation, he said, is to “bring your own munition in.”

He’d seen such staging himself, the former OPCW official confided. In an infamous attack on an aid convoy on the outskirts of Aleppo in September 2016, which killed 14 civilians, he concluded that pieces of alleged photographic evidence had very likely been introduced or faked. In addition, he maintained, “some opposition witnesses had clearly been coached.” Ultimately, it didn’t matter, the official said; six months later the United Nations had rightly declared the Syrian government responsible. It was just “media ops,” he said; the activists had simply been concerned to get their narrative out as quickly and forcefully as they could.

In Douma, the position of the Russian authorities from the outset was that the chemical attack was a mise en scène — a total fabrication. When the gas canisters took center stage, the Russian government didn’t try to conceal that evidence; instead, it supplied its own version of the story. Shortly after the opposition media activists had departed, a crew from the Russian TV channel Zvezda, run by the Russian Ministry of Defence, arrived in Douma to declare that that the entire balcony scene had been staged as a “provocation.” The intactness of the canister, coupled with the fact that it had punctured but not fallen through the roof, were deemed wholly inconsistent with such a huge drop from the sky of a fast-moving, weighty object. A rebel lab was discovered with a similar yellow gas canister and other sinister-looking bottles of chemicals, which the Russian TV reporters and their presumed sources in the Syrian military suggested could have been used for the deception. A neighbor who’d complained to CBS of being enveloped by what he thought was chlorine gas now turned up to decry all the talk of chemical weapons as needless panic. “It was clear that there was no chemical substance,” he now appeared to be saying, if we can believe the Russian dubbing. “For example, I don’t have any issues with my health. We don’t exclude the fact that some people were brought here on purpose to stage this theater play.”

The TV crew, embedded with the Russian military, then moved to the other site, where the second yellow canister still lay snugly on a bed. It was a scene “well-known to the entire world,” the reporter noted, because of the gas masks worn by the activists. A pudgy, bespectacled Russian chemist wearing full military uniform and a green hard hat was called upon to demonstrate that the distance between the hole in the roof and the bed — and the general tidiness of a room, which had just received a gas canister from several thousands of meters up — made the whole thing fishy in the extreme. “The authors of this fabrication,” according to the military chemist, “obviously carried the canister in from the street, as can be seen from the shards and traces on the tile.” (In fact, the footage showed no obvious traces or track marks, only pieces of broken tile that looked like normal wear and tear.) As for the canister itself, “the valve is not ripped off — just slightly opened so that it leaks or lets the gas out.” These facts, concluded the reporter, “point to the incident being staged by persons working on the orders of people aiming to destabilize the situation in the region.” The owner of the apartment was shown feeding the chickens he kept there, with the gas canister still on display. “And the chickens? The chickens are making eggs as they did before.”

The Russians, by cutting back and forth between the two different gas canisters, had made it look like the feeding chickens rendered ridiculous the claim that this was the “epicenter of an explosion which, according to the White Helmets, killed hundreds of people.” But the fact that the valve on the bed canister was almost intact, and the one on the balcony wasn’t, was perfectly consistent with the original messages of the camerapeople that the latter had caused many people to die, while the former hadn’t. The angle of the Russian footage was also selective. Many observers, for example, struggled to believe that the hole in the roof aligned with the bed canister, because it seemed to be at the other end of the room. Even Fadi Abdullah, who’d seen the canister in situ, was under the impression that it had arrived through a nearby window rather than the roof. But several unpublished videos of the bed canister sent to me by Abo Salah, at higher definition and over a range of angles, make it easier to see how the canister could have fallen from the roof onto the bed if it descended at an angle from the sky.


Propaganda and Terror

Among those experts, reporters, and obsessives who chronicle the gory litany of improvised munitions in use on battlefield Syria, the Syrian government is generally acknowledged to have been dropping chlorine gas bombs for some time. Last February, OPCW inspectors found that chlorine had “likely” been used in an attack on a rebel-held city in Northern Syria that caused several people to suffer breathing difficulties, but no deaths.

The same Syrian opposition reporter who’d been skeptical that the April 7 fatalities had been caused by chemicals told me that between February 18 and March 30, he’d catalogued a number of incidents in which the Syrian air force had dropped canisters filled with chlorine from helicopters in an effort to force out civilians and Islamist rebels. It had done the same in Douma, he said, “not to kill anyone but to scare people, to have them put pressure on Jaish al-Islam to leave.”

That dropping chlorine gas canisters might be a terror weapon and not a “kill” weapon makes sense. Unlike sarin, which is a colorless, odorless liquid that often kills its victims even before they know they’ve been attacked, chlorine, at least as it’s been used in improvised munitions in Syria doesn’t usually kill; its victims can smell, see, and sometimes even hear it coming, and they run as fast as they can in the other direction. Many Syrians living in rebel-held areas, prepped by rebels or aid workers, know that chlorine is denser than air and quickly sinks, which is why it might find its way so easily from the roof down to the basement. The presence of chlorine might also explain something Abo Salah, the Douma Revolution cameraperson, had told me. The apartment attack site is only 150 meters from the huge tunnel I’d seen by the emergency medical ward and close to an entrance to that tunnel. The toxic gases, he said, “leaked to the main medical center via the tunnel, which contained hundreds of families fleeing the shelling.”

The trajectory taken by chlorine gas and its cloying visibility might also explain why, according to Nasser Hanan, most of his family had run back inside the building to their deaths. When I showed videos of the canisters to Theodore Postol in Boston, he was immediately certain that both had been launched from the sky by the Syrian military and that any “brouhaha” from the Russians to the contrary could be safely ignored. Postol, professor emeritus of Science, Technology, and National Security Policy at MIT, is a controversial figure in Syria analysis. Earlier in the conflict his work querying accounts from the OPCW and the UN about the use of sarin in two infamous gas attacks made him deeply unpopular among many Syria analysts, including Higgins, who felt that his analysis wrongly let Assad off the hook for war crimes. Postol, however, has many years of experience analyzing munitions, including the relative efficacy of Saddam Hussein’s SCUD missiles and U.S. Patriot anti-missiles during the first Gulf War. More recently, together with his late colleague Richard Lloyd, he’s devoted considerable attention to the development of improvised munitions in Syria, including chlorine canister bombs. When I showed him the Douma footage, he immediately concurred with the analysis of internet investigators like Higgins, with whom he often ferociously disagrees. The canister, he reckoned, would have weighed around 250 pounds and carried about 120 kilos of chorine. But it landed in an entirely unexpected way. Since the concrete-and-steel-mesh roof wasn’t very strong, the bomb punched a hole in the ceiling. The effect was as if the nose of the canister had been deliberately rammed into the external wall, so as to point gas directly into the room below, creating a gas chamber. That room would have filled with chlorine in one or two minutes. Drawing on Forensic Architecture’s modeling of the building onto which it fell, Postol estimated that the chlorine gas would have poured out into the upper floor at a magnitude several hundred times higher than a lethal dose, its density much greater because the release occurred in an enclosed space. As it made its way down into the two floors below, its density would have decreased, but still would have been much more than enough for a lethal dose.

When it filled the building, the chlorine would have spilled out via open windows and doors and then drifted along the street, like a thick fog, at much lower concentrations. As it sank through the building, the residents hunkered down in the basement would have smelled it too. Many likely ran headfirst onto the street, only to be confronted by a chlorine gas cloud forming all around them. Instinct and training likely kicked in; since chlorine is thicker than air, the instructions they’d been given would have been to head for the roof. Under most circumstances, this would have been excellent advice, like the injunction to workers at the World Trade Center on 9/11 to stay put at their desks, but in this case, it failed the residents of Douma. As they ran back upward through the building, they’d have been rendered unconscious very quickly and dead within minutes. Delivered at that kind of dosage — thousands of milligrams per cubic meter — chlorine could easily have caused the frothing at the mouth, skin burns, and damaged corneas observed by medical workers, as well as the horrible smell and breathing difficulties of which residents complained. It also makes sense of what the motorbike rider had told me: that the whole street had been affected by the foul odor. To panic and terrorize the population was, after all, what this was for.

The murderous result, concluded Postol, was “a very peculiar set of circumstances” and a terrible twist of fate. If the building had had been larger with a firmer roof, the balcony canister would probably not have fallen through; even if it had broken open and begun dispersing its payload, the chlorine would have wafted off into the open air and likely not injured anyone. If the roof had been even weaker and the canister had fallen right through onto the third floor, its valve might not have opened at all, like the one on the bed. But because of the way the canister punctured the concrete, its valve snapped so as to spew the contents directly into the enclosed space below. A lot of stars would have had to align for something like this to happen, just as the former OPCW inspector had said. But in this case, they did.

If chlorine gas canisters killed all those people in the apartment building on April 7, what do we make of Anas Sobheha, the nurse I met at that makeshift emergency ward in Douma, who told me that he’d seen no evidence of a chemical attack? What’s clear is that Douma remains a fearful, dangerous place. When I visited, its citizens appeared to be under a kind of quarantine, suspected of harboring “terrorist cells” and unable to leave; when I suggested to Sobheha that we meet in central Damascus he told me that simply wasn’t possible. I did, however, discreetly arrange another meeting with a 28-year-old Syrian soldier named Hassan, who I’d met that day in Douma.

Over a drink in Central Damascus, I’d thought Hassan might tell me something about the assault on Douma, but he was tight-lipped and a little nervous. I soon found out why. Hassan wasn’t a regular soldier at all but a junior mukhabarat with one the most feared of Syria’s secret police fiefs, Jawiya — the Air Force Intelligence Service, which runs a secretive network of political prisons in which many oppositionists, rebels, and ordinary civilians have been tortured or disappeared. He was about 900 meters away from Douma in the final days of the fighting, he told me, and had arrived in the city just hours after the rebels agreed to leave. As might be expected from someone who works for the Syrian intelligence apparatus, he couldn’t believe that the army would have used chemical weapons. “The Syrian army have made some mistakes,” he conceded, “but the rebels have made bigger mistakes.” I asked him what it was like to serve in Douma, and he told me that some of the locals had been very supportive, helping him “catch” some remaining terrorists. All the same, he and his company had been ordered by their military superiors to leave. “We were told to be good to the people and to be polite, but some are scared of us.”

Was Sobheha lying to me because he was scared? I don’t think so. He wouldn’t necessarily have seen the immediate casualties from the apartment building because they were all dead. Those who did make their way to the hospital were mostly suffering from minor breathing difficulties, or they’d panicked into thinking that they’d suffered a chemical attack. Likewise, the young Hassan Diab, who the Russian government produced at the press conference at The Hague. While Hassan was shaken up and likely appearing under duress, he’s clearly the same boy who appeared in the hospital video from April 7, and he seemed unaffected by exposure to chemicals at the press conference. What unfolded at the hospital appears to have been largely a result of panic and propaganda, spurred by Syrian army chlorine and by activist camerapeople who knew how sensitive the use of chemical weapons is to the United States and the international community. Given the fall of Douma to the Syrian army and the Trump administration’s cruise missile strikes against Syrian army bases and research facilities, some might say, both strategies worked.

I think it’s likely that Shobeha was more frustrated than scared. According to him, 270 people, both civilians and fighters, had died over two days of heavy, unrelenting shelling by the Syrian armed forces. Did anyone care about that? If a 500-pound bomb had collided with the roof of that apartment block near al-Shuhada Square instead of a chlorine canister, it would have punched clean through and landed slap on one of the higher floors. There would have been a tiny delay, only a fraction of a second, while the fuse sensed that it had reached its destination, after which the building would have blown apart and its entire weight fallen downward onto the basement. Everyone hiding there would likely have been buried alive.

What government pummels its citizens with bombs and chlorine to get them to pressure rebels to leave their city? At the same time, Jaish Al-Islam was sending volleys of improvised rockets into Damascus and snatching activists and members of religious minorities for ransom or to be disappeared. It’s between these two violent truths that the real story of the Syrian conflict begins to emerge — not in a bewildering collage of images sent from a war zone, designed to terrify and outrage.

The author’s research was supported by a fellowship at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University. Benjamin Decker at the Shorenstein Center’s Information Disorder Lab provided open-source investigative support and Rahaf Safi at Harvard’s Kennedy School contributed research. Other research and translation support was provided by Victor Lutenco of the Kennedy School and Hannah Twomey of the Centre for Investigative Journalism in London.



The CIA Confessions: The Crowley Conversations

February 10, 2019

by Dr. Peter Janney

On October 8th, 2000, Robert Trumbull Crowley, once a leader of the CIA’s Clandestine Operations Division, died in a Washington hospital of heart failure and the end effects of Alzheimer’s Disease. Before the late Assistant Director Crowley was cold, Joseph Trento, a writer of light-weight books on the CIA, descended on Crowley’s widow at her town house on Cathedral Hill Drive in Washington and hauled away over fifty boxes of Crowley’s CIA files.

Once Trento had his new find secure in his house in Front Royal, Virginia, he called a well-known Washington fix lawyer with the news of his success in securing what the CIA had always considered to be a potential major embarrassment.

Three months before, on July 20th of that year, retired Marine Corps colonel William R. Corson, and an associate of Crowley, died of emphysema and lung cancer at a hospital in Bethesda, Md.

After Corson’s death, Trento and the well-known Washington fix-lawyer went to Corson’s bank, got into his safe deposit box and removed a manuscript entitled ‘Zipper.’ This manuscript, which dealt with Crowley’s involvement in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, vanished into a CIA burn-bag and the matter was considered to be closed forever.

The small group of CIA officials gathered at Trento’s house to search through the Crowley papers, looking for documents that must not become public. A few were found but, to their consternation, a significant number of files Crowley was known to have had in his possession had simply vanished.

When published material concerning the CIA’s actions against Kennedy became public in 2002, it was discovered to the CIA’s horror, that the missing documents had been sent by an increasingly erratic Crowley to another person and these missing papers included devastating material on the CIA’s activities in South East Asia to include drug running, money laundering and the maintenance of the notorious ‘Regional Interrogation Centers’ in Viet Nam and, worse still, the Zipper files proving the CIA’s active organization of the assassination of President John Kennedy..

A massive, preemptive disinformation campaign was readied, using government-friendly bloggers, CIA-paid “historians” and others, in the event that anything from this file ever surfaced. The best-laid plans often go astray and in this case, one of the compliant historians, a former government librarian who fancied himself a serious writer, began to tell his friends about the CIA plan to kill Kennedy and eventually, word of this began to leak out into the outside world.

The originals had vanished and an extensive search was conducted by the FBI and CIA operatives but without success. Crowley’s survivors, his aged wife and son, were interviewed extensively by the FBI and instructed to minimize any discussion of highly damaging CIA files that Crowley had, illegally, removed from Langley when he retired. Crowley had been a close friend of James Jesus Angleton, the CIA’s notorious head of Counterintelligence. When Angleton was sacked by DCI William Colby in December of 1974, Crowley and Angleton conspired to secretly remove Angleton’s most sensitive secret files out of the agency. Crowley did the same thing right before his own retirement, secretly removing thousands of pages of classified information that covered his entire agency career.

Known as “The Crow” within the agency, Robert T. Crowley joined the CIA at its inception and spent his entire career in the Directorate of Plans, also know as the “Department of Dirty Tricks,”: Crowley was one of the tallest man ever to work at the CIA. Born in 1924 and raised in Chicago, Crowley grew to six and a half feet when he entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in N.Y. as a cadet in 1943 in the class of 1946. He never graduated, having enlisted in the Army, serving in the Pacific during World War II. He retired from the Army Reserve in 1986 as a lieutenant colonel. According to a book he authored with his friend and colleague, William Corson, Crowley’s career included service in Military Intelligence and Naval Intelligence, before joining the CIA at its inception in 1947. His entire career at the agency was spent within the Directorate of Plans in covert operations. Before his retirement, Bob Crowley became assistant deputy director for operations, the second-in-command in the Clandestine Directorate of Operations.

Bob Crowley first contacted Gregory Douglas in 1993 when he found out from John Costello that Douglas was about to publish his first book on Heinrich Mueller, the former head of the Gestapo who had become a secret, long-time asset to the CIA. Crowley contacted Douglas and they began a series of long and often very informative telephone conversations that lasted for four years. In 1996, Crowley told Douglas that he believed him to be the person that should ultimately tell Crowley’s story but only after Crowley’s death. Douglas, for his part, became so entranced with some of the material that Crowley began to share with him that he secretly began to record their conversations, later transcribing them word for word, planning to incorporate some, or all, of the material in later publication

Conversation No. 2

Date: Friday, February 9, 1996

Commenced: 9:11 AM (CST)

Concluded: 9:38 AM (CST)


GD: Robert.

RTC: Good morning, Gregory. How are you doing today?

GD: Functioning. Yourself?

RTC: Good days, bad days. I have to be careful in the bathroom because I sometimes lose my balance.

GD: Put in some grab irons.

RTC: Better said than done. I have some advice for you Gregory. Don’t get old.

GD: Do I have a choice?

RTC: We know the alternative. Have you heard back from your publisher?

GD: He’s too patient with me, I must say. He wants to see something about flying saucers but I have a diary entry for Müller that covers this subject and I want to put it in there. His cousin was involved in the Roswell business and Roger actually saw one of the American ones out at Moffitt Field once. Actually climbed up on it.

RTC: Oh the hysteria of it all.

GD: I remember very clearly. At least three sightings a week. I created one of them at least.

RTC: How so?

GD: Oh we made a fake saucer out of balsa and silver paper, mounted two pulse jets at the rear and set it up for radio control.

RTC: Did you put little green men in it?

GD: No. The pilot area was covered with a plastic salad bowl upside down, but it really wasn’t very big. We took it down to the beach on a really hot day in July and flew it from one cliff to another. Right past a beach full of fat people getting sunburns. It was a distance of…oh say about 1000 feet give or take. To me, it wasn’t realistic but we put some noisemakers inside the jet pipes and it made a shitawful noise. High whistling and farting noises. Anyway, I was on one headland and my friend was on the other. We flew it fairly slowly in a straight line and believe me, the beach was packed. Right at the surf level but about 300 feet up in the air. God, you never heard so much shrieking and yelling in your life.

RTC: You always seem to have such a bizarre sense of humor, Gregory. Do you still do things like that?

GD: No. At my age, people get stuck into nut houses doing that but at the time, I did enjoy it. I remember once we carved the dorsal fin of a Great White out of a Styrofoam boogie board, mounted an underwater motor at the base with the control antenna running up to the top. Jesus, it was a huge fin at that. And of course we painted it up right. That was about the time that ‘Jaws’ came out. And this time we took it down to an even bigger beach…..do you know the California coast by any chance? I could be more specific

RTC: No, not really. Go on.

GD: It was the Fourth of July and hot as shit and the beach and the surf were jammed with intercity types. There was a pier that ran out well past the surf at the northern end of the beach so we took a rented rowboat with the fake fin and the radio control equipment and rowed right under this pier. It was a big pier with a road on it and all kinds of shops along the sides so there was certainly room under it. Anyway, we put the fin in the water, turned on the motor and aimed it towards the beach. It was a little hard to direct what with the surf and all but with a few tries, we got it fine. Ran it towards the beach and then paralleled it just out past the surf line. Jesus H. Christ, Robert, you couldn’t imagine the havoc. Screaming we could hear under the pier and everyone stampeded out of the water. We ran it back and forth a few times and then headed out to where a bunch of twits were fishing and again panic reigned supreme. Little outboard jobbies fleeing in terror in all directions. I mean given the size of the fin, what was supposed to be underneath it must have been the size of the Titanic. We saw a Coast Guard boat coming so we just aimed it out to sea and opened it up. Lost the whole rig but I didn’t feel like trying to get it back. If we’d been bagged, I would have got at least ten years out of it. But probably for contaminating the beach. I’ll bet there were six inches of shit floating in the surf.

RTC: Your escapades always entertain me, Gregory. But what do you know about real saucers? I don’t mean toys.

GD: The Germans developed one during the war and flew it. That I do know. Habermohl, Meithe and some wop.

RTC: Yes, true enough. And after the war we got the plans and one of the engineers. The Russians got a prototype and another scientist.

GD: Bender tells me the one he saw at Moffitt was made in Canada.

RTC: Yes, by the A.V. Roe Company. Called it AVRO.

GD: He said they had used it as a high altitude recon craft and it had USAF marking on it.

RTC: They let him see it?

GD: Been out of service for some time and he had some friend in the Navy who got him in.

RTC: Well, those were the legit ones. There really were others, you know.

GD: Russian?

RTC: No. We have no idea where they came from. Radar picked up flights around the moon that never came from down here. And the Roswell business was true enough. That’s where we got transistors, you know. But the sightings came at a sensitive time. The Korean War, the Cold War and so on. Great national fears. Remember the Orson Wells program?

GD: On Halloween of ’38. Mercury Theater radio show. I heard it as a kid. Of course I read Wells’ book and knew it was just a show.

RTC: A lot of others did not, believe me. It caused an enormous national panic. Hundreds dead, people killing themselves and their children, fleeing into the countryside and so on. I’m, surprised they didn’t lynch Orson. But he infuriated old Hearst with his movie….

GD: Citizen Kane.

RTC: Right and old Hearst blackballed Orson and ruined his career. But because of the huge flap over this, Truman decided to keep serious accounts about the sightings out of the papers and they minimalized it and made fun of the whole thing. But they were real enough.

GD: Given the huge number of systems out there, from a mathematical point of view, there isn’t any question superior entities do exist. Why would they bother with our planet? To watch the pink monkeys running around killing each other? Investigate Elvis concerts?

RTC: Well, most of the legit sightings came around the period when they were all testing A-Bombs so maybe that got the little green men interested.

GD: Did the Company have anything to do with all of this?

RTC: No. We had the U-2 business but not the saucers. The real ones. They were strictly military. No weapons but did carry cameras. These were used in various places because they were impossible to intercept but not as stable a camera platform as the U-2. The Russians knew all about these and when the strangers showed up, they thought they were ours and we thought they were theirs. We had several secret conferences about these at the time to try to clarify this.

GD: Any authentic reports of landings or abduction of humans?

RTC: Not that I remember. Mostly what we could call recon passes. The Roswell one was a fluke. Lightning was supposed to have hit one of their ships and brought it down. Don’t forget that Roswell was in a very sensitive military area at the time.

GD: Did they recover bodies?

RTC: As I understand it, they did but I can’t give you any more than that. What did Müller have to say about these?

GD: That they were both domestic and from somewhere unknown. I’ll include this passage when I do the journals or diaries.

RTC: Journals sounds more authoritative. Diaries sounds like something a little girl keeps about her pets or boyfriends.

GD: I think you’re right.

RTC: When are they coming out?

GD: They’re in German and the handwriting is terrible. And his wife is terrified that I’ll somehow identify her or the children. I won’t but she is not sure of that. Some of your friends will not be happy when this comes out but so what?

RTC: So what. And after that? After the journals?

GD: I don’t know. Any ideas?

RTC: Well, we can always think about the Kennedy killing. I can give you some material on that that could produce a best seller.

GD: For example?

RTC: Now, Gregory, everything in its own good time. First things first. Finish up with the Müller business and then on to other things. One of these days, we’ll have to jerk Jim Critchfield’s chain a little. I can’t stand that man. His wife, Lois, used to work for me and when we were shortening staff, I got her a job with Jim but we both wish I hadn’t. Jim is a first class asshole and a sadist of sorts. I think we can do a number on him as they say.

GD: Well, if you want to off him, I’m not your man. I’ve truly done in a few in my life but I prefer the typewriter to the gun. I do have an Irish friend who is a hit man but only political. He worked for your people in Ireland. He led the team that did Mountbatten in ’79.

RTC: Oh, I know about that. They caught one man.

GD: The man who planted the bomb on the boat but not my friend. A very interesting story.

RTC: Are you planning to use it? He’s still alive I take it?

GD: Oh yes, and doing fine in the private sector. And, most important, a very good friend. If I do anything, I’ll talk to him first. It’s not only OK but a real duty to fuck your enemies but never your friends.

RTC: Well, in time I can tell you our part in that one but let’s wait awhile. Every day is not Christmas, is it?

GD: That would be nice. Christmas every day. By the way, I read in the Post that it was so cold in DC the other day that a Senator was seen with his hands in his own pockets.

RTC: (Laughs)

GD: Did I ever tell you the one about the man who asked his girl friend to put her hands into his pocket? No?

RTC: Not that I recall.

GD: Anyway, she said ‘I feel silly doing this,” and he said, “If you put them any further down, you’ll feel nuts.”

RTC: Gregory, so soon after breakfast. Don’t you know any refined jokes?

GD: Limericks?

RTC: God no. The last time you got off on those we were an hour on the phone and Emily wondered why I was laughing so much. You must know thousands of them. How can you remember so much?

GD: It’s a curse, believe me.

RTC: Bill said you have a phenomenal memory.

GD: I can remember everything but dates and figures. No pre-natal memories.

RTC: The shrinks are useless, Gregory. We hired weird people like Cameron and you would be astonished at the pure crap they peddled on everyone.

GD: You know, I think most of them went into the game because they started reading up on their own psychosis and went on from there. Freud used to bang his sister when he wasn’t smoking Yen Shee….

RTC: You mean opium?

GD: Yes. Coleridge loved it too but Xanadu is all he had to show for it. Oh, I was digging into the Elmali business. The Greek coins. Now there’s a funny story for you. The Bulgarians forged up thousands of the rarest old Greek coins and sold them to the sucker brigades for millions. Cash for operations. Like the Stasi doing the Hitler Diaries.

RTC: You were into that one, weren’t you?

GD: I did all the detail work for Wolfgang and let Connie Kujau do the writing. Old Billy Price gave them a million dollars for the Hitler diary I turned out. I mean I did the research and Connie did the writing. Now that would make a nice book.

RTC: Was if profitable for you?

GD: Oh God, yes. Very. They still can’t account for millions of marks.  But I really enjoyed watching the phonies and experts like Irving and Trevor-Roper get shit on their bibs. God, such a frenzied drive to get their names into print. Irving is such a brainless fuck that I can’t believe it. One of these days, Dave will really start believing his own lies and then he’ll get caught. ‘Irving’s been in hiding since early last fall when his picture first appeared on the Post Office wall.’

RTC: Costello admired him.

GD: Don’t forget, I met Costello. If he admired Irving, Irving must have a huge cock.

RTC: Now, now, I liked Costello.

GD: Brittle and vituperative without a reason or an excuse. I didn”t have much use for him but he was a better writer than Irving.

RTC: I’ll agree. But John tried.

GD: What an epitaph!

RTC: Do I detect professional jealousy here, Gregory?

GD: No. You know how Costello died, don’t you?

RTC: There is somewhat of a mystery about that. There is a story going around that the Russians did him because he had discovered something sinister on his last trip to Moscow. What have you heard?

GD: John died of AIDS on a flight from Spain to Miami. Found him dead in his seat.

RTC: Gregory, come now. Where did you get that canard?

GD: It’s not a canard. Miami is in Dade County, Florida. When someone dies like that, the local coroner gets the body and has to do a post on it. I used to do posts so I have some knowledge. Anyway, I called the coroner’s office there, talked shop with a technician and got him to pull the initial death certificate and the final report. Costello had a raging lung infection only caused by HIV and died from it. Not open to debate at all. Since these are public records, I sent my new friend the money and he got official copies and sent them off to me. When I told Kimmel and Bruce Lee about this, Lee was very irate and, true to form, Kimmel refused to believe me. I can understand why Kimmel was negative because I can never be right but Lee’s reaction was interesting. And, of course, Tom has a penchant for young men. He made a very strong pass at the son of a Swedish farmer I know. He likes to teach basketball to the small ones. Playing doctor is more like it. If the Russians ever find out about his secret lusts, they will bag him for sure. I wonder if they already have?

RTC: Why speculate?

GD: I’m a curious person, Robert. Why did the dog not bark in the night? Lee told me sinister forces got Costello and poisoned him with shellfish. The official autopsy report shows differently. I sent him a copy of the reports and he was not happy.

RTC: Regardless of the truth of this, Costello was a very competent historian, don’t you think?

GD: Costello alive didn’t particularly impress me. I talked with him in Reno, as you know, for about three hours and I’ve had more enlightening conversations with the hairlip who grooms my dogs.

RTC: How are your dogs?

GD: Being dogs. Actually, Robert, I am a firm believer in Frederick the Great’s sentiment. He said that the more he saw of people, the more he loved his dogs. I told Tom Kimmel that and he got huffy about it.

RTC: Tom is a decent sort, although your comments about nice young men are not a surprise. We used to call Tommy the Arrow Shirt Kid,  but I agree he’s conventional.

GD: How can you be a good intelligence officer and be conventional? I’m not at all conventional and you yourself said I would have been your best agent. Or were you just flattering me?

RTC: You have talent.

GD: Ah, my Russian friends have said the same thing but we don’t need to discuss that aspect, do we?

RTC: That might be interesting.

GD: Not to the author of the ‘New KGB.’ You did write that, correct?

RTC: We had some help from Joe Trento.

GD: I wouldn’t admit that to anyone. You should have used my literary abilities. Trento is of the mistaken impression that he’s important and articulate.

RTC: We didn’t know you then but you probably would have done a much better job at that.

GD: Truth pressed to earth will rise again.

RTC: That’s….?

GD: Mary Baker Eddy. Actually, it’s Latin. I could give it to you in Latin but what the hell? Oh, well, another day and another fifteen cents. How’re your family?

RTC: Doing fine, thank you for asking. And yours?

GD: My evil sister is still alive but all the rest of them have gone off to play cards with Jesus. If it’s true that when you die you have a great burst of glowing light and then you get to meet all your dead relatives, I think I’ll try to postpone the inevitable and find some place where they aren’t. Like Monaco.

RTC: Sam Cummings and Monaco. Do you know about Sam?

GD: A Limey who ran Interarmco and sold to the wrong people. That’s a no-no for one of your people. And safe in Monaco. Sometime I’ll talk to you about Jimmy Atwood and his Merex gun operation but not now.

RTC: Always promises. I’m going to have to cut this short Gregory because I have to do a little maintenance work upstairs and Emily keeps reminding me about this in a nice way. If you talk to Bill, ask him to call me, would you? His wife is not doing too well and it’s hard to get a hold of him.

GD: Of course. And be good.

RTC: At my age, there isn’t much reason not to.


(Concluded at 9:38AM CST)










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