Professor Paul McKeigue of Edinburgh University (Channel 4)
UPDATE, APRIL 8:
BBC Radio 4 has uploaded its 54-minute podcast, “The Evidence Gatherers”, about the pro-Assad attacks trying to discredit and intimidate the war crimes investigators of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability
The program includes further details of the collaboration of Professor Paul McKeigue, a member of the “Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media” with a man whom he believed to be a Russian spy.
UPDATE, MARCH 28:
In the latest defense of his e-mails with a “Russian spy”, Professor Paul McKeigue has said that he would not have asked for assistance if he knew the communications would become public.
McKeigue told The Observer that the sting by “Ivan” had been a “clever deception operation”, and that he might have used more “guarded language” if he expected the exchanges would be exposed.
Edinburgh University distanced itself from the epidemiologist without committing to an inquiry for now.
The actions referred to in media reports were undertaken in Paul McKeigue’s capacity as a private citizen, not as an employee of the university. We respect the rights of staff to have interests unrelated to their roles within the institution.
However, if we receive complaints about anyone’s conduct which we consider damages our reputation, then we will consider whether an investigation is required and take appropriate action.
Nerma Jelacic of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, one of McKeigue’s targets, explained why the organization had created “Ivan” to deal with the professor.
She cited the case of James Le Mesurier, the founder of the Syrian civil defense White Helmets, who was hounded by disinformation, propaganda, and smear tactics — including by McKeigue’s “Working Group on Syria” — before his death in Turkey in November 2019.
We’d watched what had happened to James Le Mesurier. We knew they would not just go after the organisation but the leader, Bill Wiley, and they would say: “He’s a spy. He’s corrupt.”
What’s different is that it’s a level of disinformation not seen before. What’s worrying is that it’s tolerated.
Even in mainstream academic circles this disinformation and denial is being misrepresented as freedom of expression and speech….We have a moral duty to stand up to revision and denial.
UPDATE, MARCH 27:
Interviewed about his correspondence with a “Russian spy”, Professor Paul McKeigue exposed and damned the conspiracy theories of the “Working Group of Syria, Propaganda and Media”, denying chemical attacks by the Assad regime.
McKeigue e-mailed the BBC’s Chloe Hadjimatheou about the Working Group’s insistence that 43 people — killed by a chlorine attack on Douma near Damascus in April 2018 — were actually slain by anti-Assad activists and moved to the building where they were found.
He said a “managed massacre” by “gas chambers” came from a retired American pharmacologist, Denis O’Brien, who wrote how the idea came to him in a dream after he had eaten an anchovy pizza.
McKeigue set out the conspiracy theory in the Working Group’s presentation at the Houses of Parliament last year.
UPDATE, 0930 GMT:
Professor Paul McKeigue has defended his offer of information and request for assistance from a “Russian spy”:
The correspondent began to drop hints and eventually declared the name “Ivan” and the persona of a Russian intelligence officer. As I have no access to official secrets, this did not concern me. As a citizen investigator, I cultivate contacts with all sorts of people who have relevant information.
McKeigue attacked the Commission for Justice and Accountability, but did not explain why he gave names of other UK activists, academics, and journalists to “Ivan”.
Meanwhile, the “Working Group on Syria, Media and Propaganda” has published McKeigue’s “report”: “CIJA originated in a covert UK-led strategic communication programme to support the Syrian opposition.”
ORIGINAL ENTRY: A British professor, as a member of the “Working Group on Syria, Media and Propaganda”, offered material and asked for help — including the targeting of war crimes investigators, journalists, and academics — from a man whom he thought was a Russian spy.
Paul McKeigue, an epidemiologist at Edinburgh University, made the offer in an attempt to discredit the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, which collects and assesses documents on Assad regime war crimes.
McKeigue also asked “Ivan” to investigate UK academics and journalists, claiming that they were working for British intelligence services and the CIA.
The “Working Group on Syria” was created in 2017 by McKeigue’s colleague at Edinburgh, political theorist Prof. Tim Hayward, and politics Prof. Piers Robinson of the University of Sheffield. Its output has persistently echoed and amplified the propaganda lines of Russia and the Assad regime, including the denial of chemical attacks and other war crimes.
Members of the Working Group have written to universities seeking disciplinary action against academics studying the 10-year Syrian conflict, and may have been as an outlet for the Russian campaign to undermine the inspections of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
One leading member, Prof. David Miller of the University of Bristol, is currently under police investigation for alleged anti-Semitism in his lectures and seminars.
Contact with “Ivan”
McKeigue’s contact with “Ivan” was the outcome of the Working Group’s plan to publish a “report” discrediting CIJA and its investigations of murder and torture in Assad regime prisons.
CIJA has retrieved more than 1.3 million regime documents. The archive is held in the organization’s headquarters in a secret location in Europe.
In December he e-mailed Bill Wiley, the director of CIJA, with questions about companies registered in Wiley’s name.
The director did not reply. Instead, a few hours later, McKeigue received an e-mail from an anonymous sender: “My office heard from London yesterday that you have some questions about Syria. Perhaps we can help you get to the truth.”
The professor quickly replied with questions such as: “Are you aware of chemical attacks in Syria that had been faked?” — a prominent disinformation theme of the Working Group, including McKeigue’s initial “report” trying to deny the April 2017 sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun in northwest Syria.
The anonymous e-mailer replied that he certain was, and indicated that he had a vast array of documents which would be of interest to McKeigue.
In fact, the correspondent had been created by CIJA to test the extent of McKeigue’s own information and intentions.
The academic soon set out his interest in Wiley, declaring that the director was a CIA operative who worked in the US Embassy in Iraq.
(Wiley, a Canadian, was employed by the US Department of Defense to work on the trial of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. He says he has never worked for intelligence services.)
McKeigue confided why he needed the confirmation, “If we just come straight out with ‘Wiley is CIA,’ I think we will be derided as conspiracy theorists making wild unsourced allegations.”
The correspondent replied with a hint of his own supposed link to an intelligence organization, and an offer of assistance: “My colleagues laughed in a knowing way when this was read to them. What sort of evidence would you want to feel comfortable stating this fact? If we can provide it without damage to our sources we will do that.”
He left clues to his identity — occasional mistakes in his English, and references to his headquarters in Moscow — and then began signing his e-mails “Ivan”.
Paul McKeigue with members of the “Working Group on Syria”: Tim Hayward (L) and Piers Robinson (R)
Seeking Dirt from Moscow
McKeigue explained to “Ivan” that he and the Working Group saw CIJA as part of a “strategic communications” operation run by the CIA and the UK intelligence service MI6. He also sought personal information on Wiley, seeking to “prove” an affair and a cocaine habit.
The professor often asked about CIJA’s finances, explaining, “We call it the Al Capone tactic – even if we can’t bring them down over war crimes, we may be able to get them over fraud.”
The European anti-fraud office, OLAF, has cited CIJA for irregular accounting, over a 3 million Euro ($3.54 million) contract from the European Union in 2013 worth 3m Euros (£2.6m). The European Commission is looking into OLAF’s report.
CIJA’s finance team say they have sent the Commission documentation establishing that OLAF’s allegations are false. They note that the organization has received 70 grants worth more than 42 million Euros ($49.5 million) and has passed 64 audits.
Commission spokesman Peter Stano emphasized that any financial investigation should not be a denial of the importance of CIJA’s documents from the Assad regime: “There is no indication of wrongdoing concerning the deliverables of the project.”
“Ivan” was careful not to provide any information to McKeigue which might compromise CIJA’s security. Wiley explained that one of McKeigue’s close contacts was the Damascus-based disinformation and propaganda operative Vanessa Beeley.
Since 2015, Beeley has led the Russian-backed campaigns, including the attacks on the White Helmets and Le Mesurier and the denial of war crimes and chemical attacks. She has called for journalists and academics to be tried as “terorrists” for their reporting and analyses on Syria.
Wiley is planning to move his family as CIJA relocates its archive and staff.
Targeting Journalists and Academics
“Ivan” encouraged McKeigue, “We note that this exchange remains a pleasure for our office. Thank you again and again for your important work….Thank you for resisting the UK’s anti-Russia operations. This means a lot to us.”
The “spy” asked for information and also tried to move the academic into blind alleys, telling him with whom to speak and who not to approach.
A receptive McKeigue forwarded e-mails and information requested by “Ivan”, including the allegations against CIJA’s Wiley — for example, a reference in a book to “Bill, the CIA analyst…in Baghdad”.
“Ivan” feigned euphoria over the supposed smoking gun: “This is why we admire you and your work so much!!…Funny, we did not know that the meeting was in the public. We thought it was our secret!”
McKeigue had initially declined an offer of £10,000 ($13,760) from “Ivan”. Now he indicated acceptance, saying it coud be used for a legal case against Bill Wiley and CIJA on behalf of employees who had been “deceived into working for a CIA front organisation”.
The professor added, “But the scale of support required would be far more than the figure you mention.”
McKeigue expanded possible targets in “the UK network of Syria narrative enforcers”, giving “Ivan” a list of UK journalists and academics challenging the Working Group’s “reports”. Including e-mail addresses of the targets, he asked the “spy” to establish their connections with intelligence services.
A specific foe was the BBC’s Chloe Hadjimatheou, presenter of the acclaimed 12-part podcast Mayday. The series documented pro-Assad disinformation campaigns, including attacks on the White Helmets civil defense and its co-founder James Le Mesurier. The documentary indicated the campaigns — similar to those proposed by McKeigue to “Ivan” — may have played a role in Le Mesurier’s apparent suicide in November 2019.
McKeigue wrote Hadjimatehou,”From the Mayday podcasts it is clear that you are working with…a presumed MI6 officer.” He e-mailed “Ivan, We know quite a lot about CH, and think she’s just a dim-witted person who has been flattered into taking on something beyond her competence.”
Others named by McKeigue as targets include Dr Mohammed Idrees Ahmad of Stirling University; Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, the director of the NGO Doctors Under Fire; and — ironically — a journalist working for the Russian State outlet Ruptly.
The local journalist’s transgression was e-mailing McKeigue and Robinson that the Douma chlorine attack of April 2018, which killed 43 people, did occur and was not faked or a “false flag” by anti-Assad forces.
The information destroyed the Working Group’s narrative of a “managed massacre” by Assad’s enemies.
McKeigue wrote “Ivan”, “I suggest that your office keeps an eye on what [he] and his stringers (if they exist) are doing, without letting him know that anyone has raised concerns.
The academic also told “Ivan” that he had contacted the defense lawyers in Germany for former Assad regime intelligence officer Ahmad Raslan, the defendant in a crime against humanity trial.
Raslan is accused of 4,000 counts of torture, 58 counts of murder, and rape and sexual coercion over 18 months.
He added that his Working Group colleague Robinson is now a researcher for two members of the German Bundestag: Sevim Dağdelen and Heike Hänsel.
“They helped us by asking the German Foreign Ministry questions about the OPCW forgeries” — the investigations confirming the Assad regime’s sarin and chlorine attacks — McKeigue said. He noted that he could forward information from “Ivan”, via Robinson, to the legislators.