Corrupting Science: in Syria Probe, OPCW Erased Experts’ Inconvenient Findings

Early in the OPCW’s Douma investigation, expert toxicologists ruled out chlorine gas as the victims’ cause of death. Leaks expose how senior OPCW officials censored this explosive finding — and then targeted the inspector who raised the alarm.

In the early days of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ investigation of an alleged chemical attack in Douma, Syria, expert toxicologists ruled out chlorine gas as the cause of death for the more than 40 civilians reported at the scene. Instead of publishing this finding, senior OPCW officials concealed it, and then launched an investigation of a veteran inspector who questioned the censorship.

The suppression of the toxicologists is among a series of deceptions by the OPCW leadership to corrupt the Douma probe’s scientific process, as detailed in this new multi-part investigation by The Grayzone. More than three years later, the high-level campaign of censorship and muzzling has mired the world’s top chemical weapons watchdog in scandal.

The manipulation began when the OPCW’s Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) produced a 115-page report in June 2018. The report found no evidence of a chemical weapons attack in Douma. This undermined the stated pretext for US-led air strikes on Syria two months prior, and raised the possibility that insurgents had staged the April 7, 2018 incident to frame the Syrian government.

But as leaked documents later revealed, this original report was kept from the public. Instead, senior OPCW officials tried to rush out a replacement, doctored version that falsely claimed evidence of chemical weapons use. The original report’s chief author, Dr. Brendan Whelan, thwarted the release of the bogus substitute only after discovering it at the last minute and sending an email of protest.

Whelan’s successful June 22nd intervention proved to be one of his last. In the following months, a tense standoff ensued between OPCW team members who wanted to follow the facts, and senior officials determined to reinforce the US-led narrative that a chlorine attack had occurred. A delegation of US representatives was brought in to lobby the inspectors. The original team that deployed to Douma was usurped by officials who never set foot there. And Whelan was effectively sidelined until his scheduled departure from the organization in September 2018.

When the OPCW released its final report on the Douma incident in March 2019, the science lost. Contradicting the original report, the final report now claimed that there were “reasonable grounds” to believe that a chemical attack occurred in Douma, and that “the toxic chemical was likely molecular chlorine.”

The US, which had bombed Syria in April 2018 along with the UK and France, claimed vindication. “The conclusions in the FFM report support what the United States determined in our assessment of the attack last April – that the regime is responsible for this heinous chemical weapons attack that killed and injured civilians,” a State Department spokesperson said.

Although the final report of March 2019 purported to be the OPCW’s verdict, a trove of leaked internal documents and emails has since surfaced, at Wikileaks and The Grayzone, that undermine the US-led narrative.

Drawing on these published documents, OPCW sources, and previously undisclosed leaks, this multi-part investigation by The Grayzone uncovers the OPCW leadership’s extensive and systematic effort to manipulate the science.

This installment details how senior OPCW officials censored the conclusions of expert toxicologists who ruled out chlorine gas as the cause of death in Douma. The OPCW not only suppressed the toxicologists’ findings but concealed the fact that they were ever consulted.

In a previously unreported incident, the OPCW also targeted Whelan for trying to raise alarm about this act of subterfuge. In August 2019, Whelan reached out to colleagues who were aware of the censored toxicologists’ conclusions. But instead of eliciting support to question the suppression, Whelan found himself the subject of an OPCW probe.

By erasing and blocking the findings of leading specialists — and investigating Whelan for voicing concern in response — the OPCW leadership ensured that an organization committed to “a world free of chemical weapons” would in fact become, in its high-stakes Douma probe, free of world-leading chemical weapons expertise.

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