A group of British academics was secretly in contact with Russian diplomats in four separate embassies as they worked to undermine evidence that Bashar al-Assad was using chemical weapons against his own people, according to emails seen by The Daily Beast.
The documents were obtained as part of a sting operation on one member of the group that was disclosed last month by the BBC and The Times of London. Paul McKeigue, a Professor of Genetic Epidemiology and Statistical Genetics at the University of Edinburgh’s College of Medicine, was duped into sharing the inner workings of the so-called Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media by emails from someone calling himself “Ivan,” who implied he was a Russian intelligence officer.
The Working Group consists of a handful of university professors (none with any expertise in Syria or the Middle East), who have spent years suggesting that the Assad regime has been framed for war crimes in an elaborate conspiracy consisting of Syrian rebels, White Helmet rescue workers, and the American and British intelligence services. Moreover, the Working Group alleges that conspiracy has been systematically laundered through journalists, academics and human rights workers who they believe to be CIA or MI6 agents.
Some of these completely unproven theories have been taken up enthusiastically on social media and used to sow disinformation about Assad’s war crimes.
In an apparent effort to further the conspiracy theories, McKeigue was all too happy to collude with someone he thought was one of Vladimir Putin’s spies.
In the emails with “Ivan,” McKeigue boasted about his interactions with Russian officials, a journalist who worked for the Russian state media and WikiLeaks, which “very likely knew it was assisting a Russian intelligence influence effort” during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, according to a Senate Subcommittee on Intelligence report.
McKeigue told “Ivan” in February that WikiLeaks had helped him secure free legal advice from one of Julian Assange’s personal lawyers, Melinda Taylor.
The emails claim that Taylor had been communicating with the British epidemiologist since at least September 2019, when she sent him a lengthy “legal advice memorandum” detailing ways to make litigious claims against the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), an intergovernmental body that seeks to implement the worldwide ban on the stockpiling and use of chemical weapons such as sarin gas, which suffocates its drooling and vomiting victims to death.
McKeigue refers to the memorandum as one way of conducting “lawfare” against the chemical watchdog—a term typically invoked to mean frivolous or harassing litigation. He said Taylor provided him with the memorandum, pro bono, to advance claims of impropriety among members of the OPCW.
According to the emails, the advice memorandum also led to Taylor’s husband, Geoffrey Roberts, representing Brendan Whelan, a former OPCW employee who went rogue and criticized the group’s investigations, leaking material to WikiLeaks.
McKeigue told “Ivan” that he could reach Whelan via Alexander Shulgin, Russia’s ambassador to the Netherlands and its permanent representative to the OPCW.
“Brendan keeps in contact with your embassy in Den Haag,” McKeigue wrote. “So if you wanted someone to make an introduction (for one of your diplomats, not in a covert role) to Melinda [Taylor] and Geoff [Roberts], this would be a possible route. Brendan knows them better than I do.”
McKeigue, Taylor and Roberts declined to comment to The Daily Beast.
The emails also show that Taylor corresponded with McKeigue to discuss the secret location of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), an NGO that has compiled documentary evidence of war crimes in Syria carried out by the Assad regime and ISIS. Some of their evidence was used in the first successful Syrian war crimes prosecution in Germany.
It was CIJA that orchestrated the sting on McKeigue when they grew frustrated by the Working Group’s fixation on undermining evidence against Assad. CIJA was running the “Ivan” account all along.
In the correspondence collected by the NGO, McKeigue outlined to his presumed Russian intelligence contact “complicated lines of communication” between the Working Group and a network of Russian Foreign Ministry officials in four separate embassies around the world: The Hague, New York, London, and Geneva. Russian diplomats, he noted, had been corresponding with members of the Working Group for a presentation at a January 2020 Arria formula meeting of the UN Security Council, convened by Russia in order to sow skepticism about the OPCW’s still-pending investigation.
McKeigue wrote that he worked personally with Stepan Ankeev, an official at the Russian embassy in London, to put the plan in motion, while his Working Group associates kept in touch with other Russian diplomats in other countries. “But in the end it all worked out okay,” McKeigue wrote. “The only other diplomatic communication we have had is with Sergey Krutskikh in Geneva, who is Vanessa’s contact but has occasionally passed information to the Working Group via Piers.”
“Piers” refers to Piers Robinson, the founder of the Working Group and an outspoken commentator on Syria on Twitter. “Vanessa” is Vanessa Beeley, perhaps the most prominent and controversial member of the Working Group. A former waste management consultant turned blogger, Beeley became a fixture on RT, the Russian government’s English language propaganda network, for her willingness to add all manner of unsubstantiated and imaginative allegations about the Syria conflict.
She has repeatedly accused the White Helmets, an internationally funded rescue organization, of staging chemical attacks in Syria otherwise attributed to the Assad regime.
Beeley and Robinson’s purported contact in Switzerland, Sergey Krutskikh, is secretary to Russia’s mission at the UN. He is also the son of a better-known Russian diplomat, Andrey Krutskikh, who was appointed early last year as the first director of Russian Foreign Ministry’s newly minted Department of International Information Security, which coordinates with European countries on cybersecurity.
McKeigue also boasted to his supposed Russian handler about his work with state media employees at Ruptly, a streaming video platform based in Germany, which is funded by the Kremlin.
The British academic was given screen captures from a database of sensitive personal details on activists and war crimes witnesses collected through interviews conducted on the ground in Syria by Ruptly staff. McKeigue passed the details on to “Ivan,” despite the apparent threat to these people.
After a while, McKeigue decided that his contact at Ruptly was insufficiently loyal to the cause and asked “Ivan” to investigate him.
Nerma Jelacic, the CIJA’s director of external relations and a member of the sting op, told The Daily Beast that the disclosure that Russian diplomats and state-run media outlets were working with the Working Group helped to explain why this otherwise obscure collection of academics had managed to make headlines around the world. “These networks would have remained nothing more than a bunch of marginalized ideologues and conspiracists,” Jelacic said.
She added, “Russia’s disinformation campaigns about Syria would be far less effective if they had to rely solely on statements from the Russian foreign and ministries rather than on what Westerner academics and self-described ‘whistleblowers’ have said.”
McKeigue’s correspondence with “Ivan” has been passed to British authorities. The University of Edinburgh continues to insist his commentary on Syria has been undertaken as a private citizen and not on behalf of the institution; it affirms McKeigue’s right to free expression.
Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty International U.K. Campaigns Manager, told The Daily Beast: “Syrian victims and their families who have endured many horrors [deserve justice]. These individuals, quite disgracefully, are trying to deny Syrians these rights. They won’t succeed.”
This piece is part of a joint investigation between The Daily Beast and Newlines magazine who have a more detailed analysis here.