4 August 2015

9/11, conspiracy theory, and bullshit mongers

I get trolled a lot these days by people with all sorts of ideological beef. It gets old, fast.

9/11 and 7/7 conspiracy theorists who believe that governments "did" 9/11 and 7/7 criticise me for being too "establishment". On Twitter, arch 9/11 conspiracy wing nut accounts identified as Phil Greaves and Charles Frith have routinely called me a "shill" and a "stooge" of government. 

Ironically, right-wing pundits dislike my work on outfits like Quilliam and the Henry Jackson Society, etc. and call me a "conspiracy theorist." 

Some ostensible leftwingers accuses me of "conspiriology" for criticising Iraq Body Count, its links to pro-war governments, and systematic undercounting of the death toll. 

Some moronic Muslims with way too much time on their hands call me a stooge of the UK government's "Prevent" programme because I called out a bunch of extremists who threatened violence (long old story, see here and here).

A few complete idiots have even said that I'm a paid Rothschild propaganda merchant, which sadly is not true, but would be wonderful if possible! ;)

Others in the various "truth" movements have complained that I'm trying to maintain a "mainstream" profile and so I have to walk a "tightrope" of sorts that means I actually believe 9/11 was an inside job but won't say it for "tactical" reasons.

What's really funny is that some right-wing nut jobs have actually said precisely the same thing as the truthers.

I guess what's really amusing about all this, is that every single one of these dolts across the ideological spectrum are basically engaging in unsubstantiated theorising about lil' ol' me.

A few times, for instance, people have linked to this piece to claim that I'm a conspiracy theorist. They are especially shocked by the mere mention of anomalies in the collapses of the World Trade Center. 

Worse, what those people ignore is that my work is not, and never has been, about conspiracy theories - as readers of this blog, my reporting, my columns, and my books know. 

It's about justice. It's about the 9/11 families, some of whom I've met, and who were the first to take the lines of inquiry I'd identified and run with them in pressuring the Bush administration for an independent public inquiry.

These people ignore, for instance, that I referred in that post to a reputable magazine, Fire Engineering, representing US fire safety services. Their concern was (and remains) not the question of 'inside jobbism,' but simply, fire safety - a matter that could involve systemic negligence, or criminal negligence, at least: 

“Fire Engineering has good reason to believe that the ‘official Investigation’ blessed by FEMA… is a half-baked farce that may already have been commandeered by political forces whose primary interests, to put it mildly, lie far afield of full disclosure… Respected members of the fire protection engineering community are beginning to raise red flags, and a resonating [result] has emerged: The structural damage from the planes and the explosive ignition of jet fuel in themselves were not enough to bring down the towers….”

Several firefighters reported witnessing molten steel at the WTC site after the towers went down. What does this mean? The rest of the quote from that journal is worth noting: 

"Rather, theory has it, the subsequent contents fires attacking the questionably fireproofed lightweight trusses and load-bearing columns directly caused the collapses in an alarmingly short time... 
The frequency of published and unpublished reports raising questions about the steel fireproofing and other fire protection elements in the buildings, as well as their design and construction, is on the rise. The builders and owners of the World Trade Center property, the Port Authority of New York-New Jersey, a governmental agency that operates in an accountability vacuum beyond the reach of local fire and building codes, has denied charges that the buildings' fire protection or construction components were substandard but has refused to cooperate with requests for documentation supporting its contentions... The destruction and removal of evidence must stop completely."

A subsequent edition of the journal blamed "fire codes that had been too far relaxed when the city of New York revised them in 1968", a scandalous failure so damning, US authorities wanted to cover-up the failure.

A further edition noted the 9/11 Commission's whitewashing of the collapse issue on a range of questions regarding the emergency response that day: 

"In early August it was revealed by New York Newsday that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a month before the final 9/11 Commission Report, dispatched a strong memo lobbying the Commission for language that would cast a more favorable light on the city -and, by extension, on city management, past and present. With respect to the hottest hot-button issues surrounding the 9/11 response - radio inoperability, lack of police-fire cooperation and coordination, and the city's poor excuse for a new, 'integrated' incident management system - Bloomberg's wish was granted. The Commission's final report coats the three issues with a layer of political honey. 
City management had almost three years to circle the wagons to deflect obvious ineptitude and irresponsibility for which it could and should have been held accountable. Capitalizing on an accommodating and docile press, they've controlled critical information, dismissed many concerns of 9/11 families/survivors groups as grief-driven hysteria, and, with great cunning, used the firefighters who perished in the Towers for political cover..."

Does any of this automatically prove "inside job"? No. Are these fire safety experts "conspiracy theorists" because they reject the 9/11 Commission report as a whitewash designed to deflect high-level accountability, and very likely, entrenched corruption? No.

This material does, however, raise serious questions about corruption and cover-up for vested interests - issues which continue to undermine national security to this day. The manner in which the towers went down, if these fire safety experts are correct, has not yet been properly revealed to the public, despite the official investigations and explanations. Why?

Think about this, for instance. We now know that the US intelligence community had received multiple advanced warnings in the years and months preceding 9/11 that al-Qaeda was plotting to launch a major attack on several US targets, including possibly the World Trade Center. We also know from fire-fighters that there remain to this day serious unanswered questions about substandard fire safety at the WTC. In this context, a whole raft of questions becomes relevant. 

We know also that at least one eyewitness saw one of the 9/11 hijackers at the WTC weeks before the attack - most likely casing the joint. Why did the Bush administration destroy such a huge amount of forensic evidence from the WTC site? Were officials aware that the Port Authority had, according to these fire-fighters, ignored critical fire safety and building codes? Was the NIST investigation compromised by vested interests to avoid this issue coming to light? How did a 9/11 hijacker get through the WTC's security before the 9/11 attacks, and what was he doing there?

I'm on record as having stated several times that my stance on the WTC is not about conspiracy theory - I told a Channel 4 documentary on conspiracy theories some years ago that however the Twin Towers went down, no physical explanation proves an "inside job." Even if, and it's a big if indeed, it were proven beyond doubt that explosives were planted in the WTC, this in itself wouldn't prove that the US government perpetrated 9/11. There's a whole range of various scenarios consistent with this.

As I wrote in a comment on a separate blog post here, responding to a previous comment: 

"here, i'm not concerned with jumping the gun to look at the implications of molten steel being at Ground Zero. in fact, pinning down the implications are not so easy. perhaps jones is incorrect in his explanation about explosives. even if he was correct in suggesting explosives were used, establishing the chain of guilt to particular individuals in the US government is another thing entirely. 
there are several logical possibilities, and narrowing down which is more likely would itself be a complex task involving a criminal investigation. one might argue, for example, that al-qaeda planted the explosives (assuming jones is completely correct). one might argue further that al-qaeda did so with the help of corrupt elements with access to the wtc, who were bought off (al-qaeda after all has access to funding, and fbi whistleblowers like sibel edmonds have talked about the corrupt relationship between terrorists, mafia and intelligence operatives in certain cases). 
indeed, one might say many things. the point is, what you've done is closed off acceptance of a piece of empirical data because you've assumed that it has certain political implications, which you find abhorrent. what i'm saying is, your assumptions about the political implications are not necessarily true, and that even if they could be true, it's not scientific to be 'opposed' to empirical data simply on the basis that it doesn't fit one's standards of political convenience."

My position on 9/11 is pretty simple: I don't indulge in theory. I detest speculation. I particularly hate the very phrase "inside job," which is a meaningless bullshit euphemism for "I don't actually have cast iron proof of specifically who perpetrated this operation, or how it occurred, but IT WAS THE GOVERNMENT": a vague, amorphous cop-out typical of the conspiracy industry in general. 

In 2006 in the House of Lords, I was launching my book, The London Bombings: An Independent Inquiry (Duckworth) with the support of 7/7 survivors Rachel North and Prof. John Tulloch. When former MI5 officer David Shayler stood up at the event and declared that "9/11 was an inside job" and then proceeded to say the same about 7/7, I was so angry I told him there and then to his face in front of everyone present that his careless pronouncements were a disgraceful affront to the 9/11 and 7/7 families. He was shocked, sat down, and shut up. 

Now I respect Shayler because he blew the whistle on MI5 operations in Libya involving the use of al-Qaeda linked terrorist to try to blow up Gaddafi, and clearly his experiences of harassment and pressure by the security service since then while under threat of prosecution under the Official Secrets Act took its toll on his health. But this was obviously way out of his area of expertise.

The fact is that the sword of the "gap" cuts both ways. When people say, for instance, that there's insufficient evidence to incriminate Mohamed Sidique Khan and the other bombers in the 7/7 attacks (which I strongly disagree with by the way, although I'd also say it's absolutely true that the limited evidence released in the public record so far would unlikely stand in a court of law), they fail to realise that the same standard means they can't jump up and down, and incriminate the state beyond doubt either. 

Indeed, my message to conspiracy theorists is simple: what happened to 'innocent til proven guilty'? Why is every tiny snippet of evidence identifying a govt role in something dastardly automatic super-proof of full-on govt control or everything? Why is the govt always guilty? Do you really even believe that mantra, 'innocent til proven guilty', or does it only apply to suspected extremists and terrorists?

In much the same way that critics of the official narrative have identified holes in the government's claims about its perpetrators, there is not a single alternative conspiracy theory of 9/11 blaming the state that does not itself contain holes and gaps. If you're going to point out the holes, gaps and anomalies in what the government says - and rightly so - have the balls to admit the holes in your own claims.

I also have a message for incompetence theorists: the general capacity of the state to indulge in bureaucratic stupidity doesn't provide a catch-all super-theory to vindicate your blind faith in the eternal innocence of government. Yes, you do actually need to ask specific questions about specific things to find out why governments do what they do... and guess what! Peeps in power DO CONSPIRE!! [SHOCK!!! HORROR!!! DISBELIEF!!!]

I do argue that much of what we've been told about 9/11 is inconsistent, incoherent bullshit. Based on my years of work on this issue, which have contributed to the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner's Inquest, I argue that certain things can be proven as fact: US intelligence, and several other intelligence agencies including Britain, did receive abundant, precise advanced warning of the 9/11 terrorist attacks; numerous standard emergency response procedures on 9/11 did collapse; the US relationship with states like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan directly correlates with high-level blocks on intelligence investigations into terror networks (including al-Qaeda) subsidised by those regimes; for decades, long after the Cold War, elements of the US military intelligence community continued to use al-Qaeda and other Islamist militant groups for short-sighted geopolitical purposes linked to rolling back Russian and Chinese influence in Central Asia and Eastern Europe; the 9/11 attacks likely received significant direct state-sponsorship in the form of logistical and financial support from key US allies (including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan), which US authorities have systematically attempted to conceal from public understanding; etc. etc.

And historical precedent heightens the urgency of these questions: particularly, for instance, the revelations from Swiss historian Daniele Ganser in his Routledge study, NATO's Secret Armies, which documents the fact that in the 1980s, the CIA and MI6 fostered secret right-wing networks in Europe which carried out terrorist attacks that were blamed on the Soviet Union. 

Does this grim history of state-sponsored self-terror decades ago have relevance for understanding the West's self-defeating relationship with Islamist terrorism today? Does it throw light on why Western governments have allied with Islamist militants and their state-sponsors in the Gulf and Turkey, despite knowing full well that such militant networks plan to attack Western civilians? Does it explain the unaccountable tendency of US and UK intelligence agencies to work with despotic regimes as well as terrorist and criminal networks to pursue short-sighted geopolitical goals?

I don't know, but only an idiot would insist such questions are irrelevant. Posing these questions does not entail an endorsement of a particular conspiracy theory - but rather a recognition that there is much that we don't know. 

So sure, conspiracies happen. Corruption is endemic. But the problem with "conspiracy theory" as a mode of analysis is that it seeks to collapse such facts into an overarching meta-theory without recognising the complexity of the real-world, and specifically the hidden complexity of the world of intelligence agencies. I've had people in the 9/11 truth movement, for instance, tell me that applying Occam's razor (the well-known principle of seeking the simplest explanation possible involving the least assumptions) means that the most scientific explanation of such facts is that the government did 9/11, because it's the simplest and avoids the least assumptions.

What they fail to understand, often because they know nothing about the social sciences, is that the social world doesn't adhere to Occam's razor. Humans and their institutions are hugely complex. There are likely to be multiple, interacting, overlapping and even contradictory actions and causes explaining these facts. That doesn't mean that the government or state is not in some way responsible for these facts. The problem is that responsibility can often occur in convoluted ways, that don't fit easily into the binary categories of "conspiracy" and "incompetence." Complicity and conspiracy in relation to one set of facts does not automatically imply complicity and conspiracy in another, or in all of them. 

My position is that to this day, there remains vastly insufficient disclosure in the public record to draw firm conclusions. Even inferences that can reasonably be drawn are subject to the caveat that, further disclosure might reveal a context that puts what was previously known in a completely different light. And worse, there's a huge amount of disinformation put out by all sorts - right-wing nuts, conspiracy nuts, MI5 nuts, CIA nuts... lots of nuts. It's often difficult to filter out information in the public record that is actually reliable from information that is compromised.

This is going to be seen as inadequate to a lot of people. 

That's fine. I think it's important for me, in any case, to put this out to clarify where I'm coming from, as this is going to be the first and last time you see me comment on this issue of "theory." 

I see my job as a journalist and academic to identify and investigate facts, and to ask questions. If you have an issue with what I've written or reported, that's cool - but it'll help if you get to the point and address the facts. If I'm wrong on the facts, prove it, and I'll be happy to be corrected. If I've not taken sufficient account of certain facts, tell me and I'll listen. If you're aware of issues where there is chronic lack disclosure requiring investigation, tell me and if I've got the bandwidth and the relevant base-knowledge, I'll investigate if doing so is in the public interest and it might produce some answers. 

Facts and anomalies legitimise asking hard questions, and venturing into places that power and its supporters would rather you didn't. They don't, however, legitimise jumping to conclusions that can't be supported. Throughout my work, as my regular readers will know, I do my best to avoid jumping to conclusions. That's not me being 'tactical': for me, it's a simple sense of humility, and a recognition that disclosing what is true fundamentally requires an openness to receiving that which you just don't know - rather than a firm, fixed belief that you know it all.

So, I'll try my best to get those answers, based on facts. Where it looks like there are only questions and lots of walls, I'll ask the questions and confront the walls, even and especially the ones that are deeply uncomfortable and unsettling for both "incompetence" and "conspiracy" theorists. And I'll do my best to follow that wherever it appears to lead, whichever ideological apple-cart gets upset in the process. 

But if you want to sell me your pet theory that either incriminates your pet enemy or absolves your pet idol (or even your actual pet), you're in the wrong place.

15 July 2015

But, but, bin Laden died in 2001, didn't he??!

Image from OffGuardian, 'How many times can one man die?'

Last month, I broke an exclusive in-depth investigation into the real story behind the bin Laden raid, based entirely on open sources available in the public record, including some pioneering journalistic investigations by others, official records, and declassified documents. 

My piece concluded that both the official history of the bin Laden raid and events leading up to it, as well as the alternative story put out by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh, were flawed. While I identified a great deal of important corroboration and confirmation for Hersh's account, I also uncovered a wide-range of credible evidence demonstrating that certain critical details of that account were also false.

On the one hand: Hersh's general story is backed up by at least three other credible independent accounts from different intelligence sources.

On the other hand: Bin Laden, I found, was not under "house arrest" in Abbottabad - but lived there of his own accord, with freedom of movement, under the protection of the Pakistani intelligence services (ISI), with the financial largess of the Saudi government. The CIA knew that bin Laden was being protected by Pakistan's ISI as early as 2004, and that he was in Abbottabad as early as 2005 - and continued to receive precise intelligence on his likely location at the Abbottabad compound through to 2008. Yet the CIA chose not to take action against bin Laden or his state benefactors for as long as 6 years.

Around the same time that bin Laden moved into his safehouse in Abbottabad, the Bush administration tapped Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then a senior Saudi government official, to accelerate financial support to extremist Sunni groups across the Middle East - including al-Qaeda affiliated groups - to undermine Bashar al-Assad in Syria and counter Iranian Shi'ite influence in the region. That strategy was continued under the Obama administration, and continues to this day in the context of the support for Syrian rebel groups, which are now dominated by Islamist and al-Qaeda factions.

The operation to assassinate bin Laden was not conducted by the US alone. In the months prior to the raid, bin Laden was meeting several militant groups and leaders across northwest Pakistan, and his movements were tracked by Saudi, Pakistani and Afghan intelligence agencies, who were sharing the intelligence with the US intelligence community and the CIA. The key official involved from the Saudi side in the plan was none other than Prince Bandar. 

In the same period, according to al-Qaeda documents obtained from the Abbottabad compound after the raid, British intelligence sent a proposal to bin Laden through al-Qaeda intermediaries linked to Libya, offering to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in return for al-Qaeda's cooperation in refraining from targeting British interests. Bin Laden essentially rejected the offer. Days later, bin Laden was reportedly assassinated by Navy Seals. 

Publicised details of the raid, however, were deeply contradictory, and the Pentagon took unprecedented steps to ensure that official records regarding the raid remain top secret, and inaccessible to Freedom of Information Act requests.

I've had a few people raise questions about my story - now the third major alternative account of the bin Laden raid - due to early reports suggesting that bin Laden had in fact died long before 2011. 

My piece does address this issue indirectly, though it's buried some way deep in the piece and easy to miss given the length.

Here I'm going to make some brief comments about this issue, to clarify the relationship between my story, and the idea that bin Laden died much earlier due to ill health.
Indeed, judging by the numerous previous reports of bin Laden's death, it's fair to say that he died something like nine times, if not more.

Many of these reports of bin Laden's premature death are contradictory. There's the Pakistan Observer piece claiming the al-Qaeda terror chief died in Afghanistan in December 2001 due to a lung complication. Another report cited Taliban sources claiming he had died around the same time due to kidney failure.

In October 2002, Israeli intelligence reportedly concluded that bin Laden had died in Afghanistan.

In 2005, Senator Harry Reid was told bin Laden died in Pakistan in October, due to the earthquakes. Well he either died in Afghanistan in 2001, or he died years later due to earthquakes.

The next year a leaked confidential French intelligence report claimed he had just died in Pakistan in August of typhoid fever. The intelligence was based on information from Saudi intelligence officials who "are now convinced that Osama bin Laden is dead." Ironically, then French President Jacques Chirac denied that the info was "confirmed" but admitted the confidential foreign intelligence service report did exist, and complained about it being leaked to the press. 

So bin Laden either died in 2001 of kidney failure in Afghanistan, or he died in earthquakes in Pakistan in October 2005, or he died in Pakistan in 2006 of typhoid fever. 

Then in 2007, Benazir Bhutto claimed that actually bin Laden had died, but that he had been murdered by Ahmed Omar Sheikh Saeed. So by that account, bin Laden had not died of ill-health or earthquakes, but had been murdered by an al-Qaeda colleague (Bhutto did not in fact specify a date for when bin Laden was supposedly murdered). So either bin Laden died of ill-health three times, or he was murdered. 

Bhutto, herself a veritable fount of corruption who enriched her family at the expense of the Pakistani people, was married to President Asif Zardari aka "Mr Ten Percent" (so named in Pakistan due to his reputation for taking a cut of everything), who also claimed in 2009 that bin Laden was dead, and that the ISI had heard nothing about him.

In fact, one of those who began first putting out these inconsistent death stories was Zardari's corrupt predecessor Gen. Musharraf. As I document in my piece, a classified report to the 9/11 Commission identified Musharraf as harbouring bin Laden in Pakistan, and deliberately spreading disinformation about his death to deflect attention from the ISI's (and likely CIA's) complicity in doing so. That report, snippets of which were leaked to the press in 2004, also noted that Musharraf himself had personally approved bin Laden's kidney treatments out of a military hospital in Peshawar.

The ill-informed have jumped to rather silly conclusions based on these multiple death reports. James Corbett, for instance, who produces video reports for Sibel Edmonds' Boiling Frogs Post, claimed shortly after the 2011 raid that these reports prove there was an "informed consensus" among people in the know that bin Laden had died long before 2011.

But this is clearly misleading. The multiple death reports, far from constituting an "informed consensus", offered no consensus at all, but rather a series of mutually inconsistent claims which could not all be true. It's not just that certain details were different - they were fundamentally different. 

Corbett's supposed "informed consensus" basically is that bin Laden experienced multiple deaths, from 2001 onwards, every few years or so, of lung complications, typhoid fever, kidney failure, general ill-health, and murder.

You only die once. So looking at the multiple death reports, clearly only one (if any) can be true. Which means, obviously, that ALL the rest are disinformation. It is therefore incontrovertible that intelligence agencies were putting out disinformation on bin Laden's death before 2011. Which agencies? Seemingly, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, both of whom were claiming that bin Laden had died - and spreading this narrative through Western intelligence leaks.

Taking all the evidence in the public record together, it seems far more plausible to me to infer that those claiming bin Laden had died shortly after 9/11 were lying to protect him. The number and inconsistencies in the reports of his death before 2011 provide a strong indicator of disinformation.

Whether bin Laden was indeed killed in Abbottobad or not, is impossible to prove one way or another. Anyone who says otherwise is being disingenuous. In my INSURGEintelligence report, "The bin Laden death mythology", I've inferred that he was for the sake of argument, given all the evidence available including credible third party sources showed that bin Laden was active and sighted in Pakistan before May 2011 - but have made clear that the true story is being suppressed for reasons unknown, and currently unknowable.

I should note that the multiple sightings of bin Laden evident from the US military intelligence files known as the 'Afghan War Logs' released by Wikileaks, plus multiple news accounts citing militant and intel sources (all contradicting the White House version of events I should add), strengthen my case and show that claims that bin Laden definitely died in 2001 contradict much other evidence in the public record.

The idea that we can trust the public claims of Bhutto or Musharraf, or the Saudis or US officials, who all  orchestrated the pretence of not knowing where bin Laden was and whether he was alive, is absurd. These are the very institutions complicit in protecting bin Laden. Suddenly we think their contradictory stories about his premature death must all be correct? 

Equally, that does not mean that we should blithely assume that the Obama administration's narrative of the bin Laden raid in May 2011 is correct - which, judging by the dozens of times the White House story changed, is deeply problematic. But the purpose of my report was precisely to take a step back and look holistically at the totality of available evidence now in the public record, to determine as best as possible what actually happened. 

And the totality of the evidence builds up a compelling and consistent picture that bin Laden was, indeed, being protected by US allies long after 9/11, that the US intelligence community knew this but did nothing about it, that they not only 'did nothing' but actually mobilised al-Qaeda for geopolitical purposes using the Saudi-Pakistan nexus, and that throughout this period under US-Saudi-Pakistani protection, bin Laden continued to orchestrate al-Qaeda terror operations with significant freedom of movement in Pakistan, under the noses of multiple intelligence agencies.

My assessment, therefore, is that it's much more likely that the reports of bin Laden's premature deaths by murder, kidney failure, lung problems, etc. etc. were little more than disinformation, which to this day deflect from and confuse public understanding of how the US continued to work with Saudi and Pakistani intelligence to protect bin Laden and mobilise al-Qaeda for dubious geopolitical purposes.

I might be wrong, of course. But my story is, I think, the most comprehensive, careful and properly documented account to date. And close analysis of claims that bin Laden died in 2001 onwards tends to vindicate my reporting, rather than not.

7 July 2015

INSURGE exclusive on risk of civilisation collapse by 2040 goes viral, global

On 19th June, INSURGEintelligence ran an exclusive story on a new scientific model supported by a UK government Task Force, which shows that on a business-as-usual trajectory, industrial civilisation as we know it is likely to collapse within three decades, due to a global food crisis triggered by climate change and energy depletion.

The story made the front-page of The Independent website, and credited Insurge Intelligence with breaking it. From there, the story was picked up by some major publications across the globe, reaching most English-speaking audiences as a result. Outlets that covered my story included The Week, USA Today, the Boston-based Global Post, News Corp's news.com.au in Australia, Discovery News, the popular climate news blog of Obama's favourite think-tank the Center for American Progress, and The Metro (London's Murdoch-owned daily newspaper).

The Independent's piece on the story did particularly well, going viral on social media. 

Altogether, the story hit mainstream audiences across the UK, US, and Australia, and was even picked up by some mainstream foreign-language publications too.

This outcome is testament, once again, to the power of independent crowdfunded journalism to break stories that the mainstream would otherwise not even know about, let alone cover. 

28 May 2015

Reporting breakthrough: INSURGE's Pentagon-ISIS exclusive makes national headlines in Germany

Last week, my crowdfunded investigative journalism project, INSURGEintelligence, was able to break into the mainstream a story about startling assertions contained in a just released declassified Pentagon intelligence report, confirming that the West, the Gulf states and Turkey had, essentially, created ISIS through their support for Islamist militant rebels in Syria.

The Pentagon report was among a batch of documents obtained under a Freedom of Information lawsuit by Judicial Watch. The implications of this particular document from the US Defense Intelligence Agency, however, had been systematically overlooked or misconstrued by mainstream reporters. 

As far as I'm aware, the only journalist to have first noticed those implications was Brad Hoff, managing editor of Levant Report.

My INSURGE report, published here, consists of an in-depth analysis of the document itself, along with interviews with two British intelligence experts familiar with the region, and the Syria question in particular - and contextualisation against my own previous reporting and analysis of the ISIS question.

In the week since publication, the story has received nearly 60,000 views. It has been endorsed by a number of leading intelligence experts and whistleblowers, including: retired FBI Special Agent and TIME Person of the Year, Coleen Rowley; former NSA senior executive Thomas Drake; former US military analyst Daniel Ellsberg who leaked the Pentagon Papers; among others.

But most heartening of all, the story has now fully broken into the mainstream in Germany, making national headlines across several leading daily newspapers and widely-read political magazines, including Junge Welt, Die Welt, News.de, General Anzeiger, FOCUS Online, WAZ (Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung), Hamburger Abendblatt,Ostthuringer Zeitung, and even the German TV news channel, n-TV

INSURGEintelligence has in one week, and with a shoestring budget, managed to inform millions of people about the hidden dimensions of the current crisis in the Middle East. 

This is the power of crowdfunded investigative journalism. My supporters via patreon.com made this possible. So did the brave, independent outlet, Levant Report, where Brad Hoff first quietly dropped news of the document. 

Of course, while heartening, we're only scratching the surface of possibility here. With more supporters and a modestly more robust budget, we can, and will, do more. I am still working right now to break this story in the mainstream of English-language media.

With your support, at every level, we can - and will - do more. There's a new model of people-powered watchdog journalism emerging, and we're leading the way. Join us.

14 May 2015

Scientific responsibility in counting the war dead - a response to Washington Post and HRDAG

US soldier lays an American flag on a statue of Saddam Hussein to signify the 'liberation' of Iraq in 2003

In April I released an exclusive investigation via my new crowdfunded journalism project, INSURGE INTELLIGENCE, into the well-known NGO, Iraq Body Count (IBC), and how its techniques and methods have been co-opted by the Western foreign policy establishment to systematically undercount civilian casualties from conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Colombia - and potentially in other conflicts around the world involving US interests.

I was inspired to undertake the investigation after my Middle East Eye story, "Unworthy victims: Western wars have killed four million Muslims since 1990," elicited some critical responses on social media from various people associated with and/or sympathetic to Iraq Body Count. 

The more I looked into the matter, the more perturbed I became by IBC's odd relationships to US and European government agencies, questionable public statements, and pathological obsession with defending IBC methodologies without any regard for meaningful scientific or academic integrity. Central to the controversy is the work of Prof. Michael Spagat, an economist at Royal Holloway University affiliated to IBC, who has published a number of peer-reviewed papers purporting to show that a 2006 Lancet survey implying an Iraq death toll of more than a million people to date, was in fact false, fraudulent, and unreliable.

My investigation showed, for the first time, that Spagat's work itself is false, fraudulent, and unreliable, and that its publication in scientific journals appears to have been enabled through unethical and undeclared conflicts of interests.

You can read the full investigation, "How the Pentagon is hiding the dead," here. Here's the opening summary:

In the name of ‘counting every casualty,’ the Pentagon is systematically undercounting deaths from the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘war on drugs,’ in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Latin America. Complicit in this great deception are some of the world’s most respected anti-war activists. 
In this exclusive investigation, Insurge Intelligence reveals that a leading anti-war monitoring group, Iraq Body Count (IBC), is deeply embedded in the Western foreign policy establishment. IBC’s key advisers and researchers have received direct and indirect funding from US government propaganda agencies and Pentagon contractors. It is no surprise, then, that IBC-affiliated scholars promote narratives of conflict that serve violent US client-regimes and promote NATO counter-insurgency doctrines. 
IBC has not only systematically underrepresented the Iraqi death toll, it has done so on the basis of demonstrably fraudulent attacks on standard scientific procedures. IBC affiliated scholars are actively applying sophisticated techniques of statistical manipulation to whitewash US complicity in violence in Afghanistan and Colombia. 
Through dubious ideological alliances with US and British defense agencies, they are making misleading pseudoscience academically acceptable. Even leading medical journals are now proudly publishing their dubious statistical analyses that lend legitimacy to US militarism abroad.This subordination of academic conflict research to the interests of the Pentagon sets a dangerous precedent: it permits the US government to control who counts the dead across conflicts involving US interests — all in the name of science and peace.

The piece shortly received two responses. One from US statistician Prof. Andrew Gelman of Columbia University, who responded in the Washington Post here. Another from US statistician Dr. Patrick Ball of the Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG), who responded here

Last week, I updated and revised the original piece to take into account the issues raised by Gelman and Ball, and responds explicitly to them in the text - so the piece remains a comprehensive analysis of the issues, including their reservations and critical observations.

However, for ease of reference, I'm addressing their points here directly and specifically.

Response to Andrew Gelman

In my original article, I cited Gelman fairly extensively on his views on the critique by Michael Spagat of the 2006 Lancet Iraq death toll survey by Burnham et. al. The issues I cited via Gelman that were of relevance to the investigation concerned Spagat's use of a graph to claim that Burnham et. al had fraudulently extrapolated data from previous conflicts, and Spagat's criticisms of the Lancet team's explanation of their cluster-sampling methodology.

In those cases, Gelman argued that Spagat had not really proved his case of fraud. 

In his Washington Post missive, Andrew Gelman, took issue with my quotations of his observations on these issues, and complained that I hadn't acknowledged that he had been generally sceptical of Burnham et. al's findings despite his view that some of Spagat's claims were not proven:

I’m an expert on survey sampling but not anything of an expert on Iraq, so my statement that I found Spagat’s article convincing shouldn’t count for much. But it’s where I stood the last time I looked at the topic. 
So you can imagine my annoyance when I read Ahmed’s report, which selectively quotes me in his case against Spagat. Ahmed’s quotes are fine — they’re indeed what I said — but it would be better for him to have framed them in some way like, “Andrew Gelman, a statistician who was largely convinced by Spagat that the Burnham et al. study was untrustworthy, still departs from Spagat on certain points.” 
My point is not that I’m being misquoted — indeed I’m not, and in any case this is not about me. Rather, Ahmed is writing an article about a political controversy. To the extent that this article is news rather than propaganda, he should represent the participants’ views accurately. 

As Gelman clearly felt that his views weren't represented accurately in my piece, as soon as I had the opportunity to do so, I revised the piece accordingly and the story explicitly points out his views on the matter with a more precise version of the phrase he recommended here.

Of course, Gelman's response is incoherent. On the one hand, he concedes that as an expert on survey sampling, but "not anything of an expert on Iraq," his views on Spagat's article "shouldn't count for much." He is right. 

I quoted Gelman as an expert on survey sampling, specifically on his views about Spagat's inferences about the survey sampling by the 2006 Lancet team. I didn't quote his views about the 2006 Lancet study generally, firstly because his various writings on the matter did not seem to me to evince a clear view, and secondly because as he concedes, he is not an expert on Iraq, so why would his general uncritical acceptance of Spagat's absurd statistical sleights-of-hand be of any relevance to the story?

Also bizarre is the way Gelman selectively quotes himself in the Washington Post to show that he was unambiguously "largely convinced" by Spagat's critique. Here's my quote from the same blog we are referring to:

“The study looked reasonable to me… Burnham et al. provide lots of detail on the first stage of the sampling (the choice of provinces) but much less detail later on… Unfortunately, it is a common problem in research reports in general: to lack details on exact procedures; it’s surprisingly difficult for people to simply describe exactly what they did… This is a little bit frustrating but unfortunately is not unique to this study. Unfortunately, I’d still have to go with this general position: it’s common to not share data or methods (indeed, as anyone knows who’s ever tried to write a report on anything, it can be surprisingly effortful to write up exactly what you did), so that alone is not evidence of a serious flaw in the research.”

Here, he described the 2006 Lancet study as appearing "reasonable," and that despite Spagat's criticisms, they did not necessarily prove "a serious flaw in the research." He also confirms that I hadn't misquoted him. But since he wants it to be clear that he generally found Spagat's article convincing and demands me not to "misrepresent where I'm coming from" - despite admitting this doesn't really count for much - the story was amended to ensure Gelman was properly represented.

In any case, Gelman went on to concede that it is precisely his lack of familiarity with Iraq that may have allowed him to find Spagat's article convincing: 

Ahmed may be correct that the Burhnam study was performed well and that Spagat’s criticisms are baseless and that my acceptance of Spagat’s criticisms were misinformed — as I wrote above, I know nothing about Iraq. If Ahmed wants to say this, and to paint me as out of touch in my ivory tower, fine... Ahmed’s article discusses how some of the work of Spagat and colleagues was funded by a U.S. government organization with connections to the Defense Department. It’s legitimate to point this out, and in this spirit I will also say that I’ve received National Security Agency funding for some of my research. 

Gelman's recognition of the legitimacy of accounting for the ethical connotations of research funding in judging its validity and objectivity is welcome. This is well-known across all academic disciplines, which is why it is a routine element of publication that research funding sources and any other potential conflicts of interest relevant to the nature of the research undertaken are expected to be disclosed. 

Gelman's disclosure in the Post of his own receipt of NSA funding for some of his "more theoretical research" on statistical issues far outside my own sphere of knowledge, is also welcome and commendable. But it is in this instance unnecessary. The point of disclosure, as Gelman is no doubt aware, is to bring attention to those assessing the validity of a research project the potential for a conflict of interest to raise questions about the legitimacy of the research and its findings. In this case, the fact that Gelman at some time in his career received some NSA funding for some specific research is neither here nor there - it reveals little if nothing about the general validity of his research on statistics, and certainly the same applies to his views on the Iraq question.

The point here is that Gelman would be under obligation to have disclosed his funding to publications with respect to the specific research being funded and published, in order for readers and evaluators of the researchers to be aware of the relevant context. 

This is precisely what didn't happen in relation to all of the peer-reviewed publications put out by the IBC team and those associated with the IBC, Spagat included. In not a single one of those publications did they disclose that a significant portion of funding for their conflict research, including specifically on Iraq, came from US and European government agencies which happen to be closely linked with foreign policy. 

In the case of Spagat and IBC executives receiving funding, and having a close institutional relationship with, the US Institute for Peace (USIP), the matter is even more alarming, given USIP's deep involvement in Iraq War policymaking under the Bush administration. Not only is the lack of such disclosure unethical, it tends to confirm legitimate suspicions about deep-seated conflicts of interest behind the IBC's and Spagat's work, which in turn does raise legitimate questions about the integrity of the research methodologies.

In summary, Gelman's substantive response solely concerns the way in which my article represented his views on Spagat's work, and on the Burnham et. al Iraq death toll survey. This has been addressed in the piece. On the main issue - my critique of Spagat and defence of the Burnham Lancet study - Gelman concedes that I may well be correct, and that he may have been "misinformed" in taking Spagat's work seriously. On the related question of the role of Pentagon-linked research funding behind Spagat's work, Gelman also states clearly that this is a legitimate line of inquiry, particularly given questions about the reliability of Spagat's work.

Response to Patrick Ball

Like Prof. Gelman, on the substantive issues that I raise regarding the work of IBC and Spagat, Dr. Ball and I are in agreement.

Ball begins by noting: 

We welcome Dr Ahmed’s summary of various points of scientific debate about mortality due to violence, specifically in Iraq and Colombia. We think these are very important questions for the analysis of data about violent conflict, and indeed, about data analysis more generally. We appreciate his exploration of the technical nuances of this difficult field.

Unlike Gelman, though, Ball disagrees that I should raise questions about research funding. 

Unfortunately, parts of Dr Ahmed’s article focus on sources of funding that IBC and Professor Spagat have received, and on speculation about how such funding might affect their substantive conclusions. We find such criticism to distract from the important points of scientific debate. 
Policy arguments that draw on scientific findings will inevitably include scientists who have personal opinions and political associations. Those personal opinions often influence which areas we choose to research. The challenge for all scientists is to do rigorous, reviewable, transparent work that supports or rebuts existing theories — or advances a new theory — about how the world works. Such work should be done without the scientists working in fear of personal attacks.

Here Ball misses the point entirely in a manner I find quite extraordinary. He misunderstands the Insurge story in several ways. Firstly, the story does not engage in "speculation" about how research funding "might affect" the "substantive conclusions" of IBC and Spagat. The story does raise serious questions about the scientific integrity of those conclusions on the one hand, and on the other, raises serious questions about the role of undisclosed research funding and conflicts of interest in undermining the demonstrated lack of scientific integrity in their published research and methods. 

Does Ball not recognise the ethical significance of disclosing sources of research funding? The failure of IBC authors including Spagat to fully and clearly disclose their institutional affiliations and research funding sources connected to US and European government foreign policy agencies and departments, is an elementary, but fundamental, breach of ethics. The breach is committed with such systematic impunity throughout their academic publication record that it does, indeed, raise serious and fundamental and perfectly legitimate questions about the integrity of their research. 

Ball also suggests that the "personal opinions" and "political associations" of scientists should not be part of the debate, and that scientists should be able to work without "fear of personal attacks."

The insinuation here is that my journalistic investigation of the IBC constitutes some sort of personal attack on Spagat and IBC authors, by disclosing their personal opinions and political associations. Yet this is clearly untrue. 

Far from trying to find out what their private "personal opinions" are, the article draws exclusively on the authors' statements in the public record, in their own published papers and academic presentations, and then subjects these to critical analysis. 

If scientists do not want journalists or academics to scrutinise their statements in published papers and academic presentations, then they should not make them, or review what is wrong with them in the first place. 

In terms of "political associations," my investigation disclosed not "political associations," but specifically their sources of research funding in government agencies which have been deeply involved in the wars that IBC researchers claim to be studying scientifically from a position of independence - and not just independence, but from a position as anti-war activists who are opposed to war.

Those are not "personal opinions" beyond the realm of scrutiny, but publicly stated mandates explaining the motivation and nature of the work they claim to be undertaking. If the public is to be asked to not ask legitimate questions about such claims, perhaps those making the claims need to assess why they are making them.

If Ball feels that I have personally attacked any of the IBC authors, I would welcome his highlighting a specific quote where this is the case. 

I especially take issue with Ball's decision to issue a statement on this, as while offering unwarranted criticisms of my efforts to disclose IBC researchers' funding sources and conflicts of interests - surely matters of public interest and academic integrity - he failed to do the same in relation to Spagat himself. In his primary paper which criticises the 2006 Lancet survey, and which I have critiqued in the Insurge article, Spagat brings up spurious (and false) charges against Burnham et. al for failing to disclose their research funding from George Soros's Open Society Institute. Although this was in fact disproved before Spagat's piece was published, it inexplicably passed peer-review.

Nevertheless, I don't recall Ball having ever issued a statement highlighting the questionable nature of Spagat raising questions about Burnham's research funding. 

Ball continues:

Good scientific work does not depend on who did the science. Every scientific finding must be assessed by the quality and appropriateness of the data and methods, and their relevance to the theory being tested. Science depends on anonymous peer review precisely so that the reviewers are not biased by who the authors might be. The personalities and biographies of the scientists involved must be irrelevant to the quality and veracity of the scientific result. Similarly, science is tested by replication: given a finding, another scientist should be able to use the same data and method to reach the same result. Anonymous review and replication are fundamental to science precisely in order to distinguish scientific knowledge from the scientists who do the work.

All of this is largely correct, except the fundamental assertion that good scientific work "does not depend on who did the science."

Ball omits to mention something that natural and social scientists learn while they are still students. That all science depends on research funding, and that the integrity of scientific research depends on disclosure of research funding to ensure no conflicts of interest that might undermine the integrity of the research and the findings.

Here is a link to an online textbook (Boundless Sociology, 2015) about research funding ethics for social science research:

If the funding source for a research project has an interest in the outcome of the project, this can represent a conflict of interest and a potential ethical breach. In other words, when research is funded by the same agency that can be expected to gain from a favorable outcome, there is a potential for biased results. The existence of a conflict of interest, or a potential one at that, can call into question the integrity of a sociologist's research and findings.

So yes, who does the research - and how they are funded - is exceptionally important in ensuring good scientific work. 

Ball goes on, equally surprisingly, to offer a deeply misinformed defence of USIP:

In particular, we think the article’s criticism of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) is excessive and inaccurate. Our colleague Professor Amelia Hoover Green, the lead author of our white paper criticizing the Dirty War Index (DWI) measure cited extensively in Dr Ahmed’s article, has been supported by USIP grant funding. Our sister project, Martus, has received funding from USIP. Many other academics whose work is deeply critical of U.S. policy, Colombian policy, and the academic proponents thereof have received USIP support. (For full disclosure, HRDAG’s current and past funders are listed here.)

It is, of course, welcome and commendable - and a matter of basic scientific integrity - to disclose one's research funders when undertaking academic and scientific research. But once again, Ball misses the point, and demonstrates an unfortunate lack of understanding of organisational power dynamics generally, and of USIP more specifically.

Due to USIP’s institutional and structural connections to the US government, foreign policy, and defense establishment, USIP will inevitably seek out types of project that fit its overarching ideological goals. It is due to this sort of widely recognised organisational dynamic that research funding needs to be disclosed.

USIP’s deep-seated structural ideological biases are in fact widely understood in the peace research community, and have been demonstrated in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. If Ball had taken the time to actually investigate USIP before jumping to the institution's defence, he might have avoided publishing such a confused paragraph.

Prof. Sreeram Chaulia, for instance, in his study in the International Journal of Peace Studies published via the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, finds that USIP “has been consistently used by US foreign policy elites as an instrument to counter the peace movement.” Research funded by USIP, Chaulia finds, functions:

“… by projecting the US as a benevolent hegemon that unswervingly pursues peace in various conflict zones… USIP is an ideational weapon that subjugates the knowledge of the American peace movement on behalf of the state… by validating certain ideological strands of peace research as ‘objective’ while disqualifying others as biased or ‘unscientific.’”

The goals of foreign policy departments are complex and do not preclude sponsorship of beneficial or critical projects, as long as they still fit the above ideological framework and goals. Ball’s dismissal of this critically important issue, as if who funds and frames research that purports to be ‘scientific’ is irrelevant to the integrity of the scientific process, is fundamentally problematic.

In all of their research outputs, neither Spagat nor his colleagues at IBC ever chose to declare to the journals in which they published their funding sources and funding affiliations to USIP, US military, and European foreign policy agencies related directly to the subjects on which they happen to be publishing. Dr. Ball offers no comment on this matter. Spagat’s and IBC’s data disclosures to Ball and his team are welcome but do not ameliorate these particular egregious ethical breaches.

The most disappointing thing here is that Ball ignores the central revelation of this part of my investigation, which is that the historical and empirical record demonstrates unambiguously that USIP’s involvement in Iraq has from the outset been deeply politicized, and deeply influenced by the foreign policy agenda of the US government.

While USIP funding on issues unrelated to Iraq may well be much less politicized, this is demonstrably not the case on Iraq.  As I document in my Insurge investigation, USIP was itself complicit in the illegal military occupation of Iraq, having established an office in Baghdad with Bush administration funding, through which senior USIP officers and representatives worked closely with the Coalition Provisional Authority, US military officials, and the US-installed Iraqi administration. 

That USIP has funded positive scientific peace research in areas unrelated to Iraq has no bearing on the fact that USIP’s entire relationship to Iraq is deeply and directly embedded in official US government goals - the idea, therefore, that USIP can be seen as a neutral research funder on Iraq is preposterous. 

Ball, for instance, ignores the very specific evidence I report from the USIP-convened Iraq Study Group project on the question of casualty counting, demonstrating that USIP’s priorities undermined and whitewashed the task of assessing US forces’ role in violence. 

This is clear empirical evidence of USIP’s ideological bias on the issue of casualty counting and responsibility for violence in Iraq. For USIP, attacks on US soldiers were being insufficiently counted, US violence in Iraq against Iraqi citizens did not meaningfully exist - and more focus needed to be placed on sectarian violence in Iraq as a cause of violent deaths. Ball’s untenable and unscientific suggestion is that this bias should simply be ignored in assessing the integrity of USIP’s selection of an IBC-affiliate for funding.** 

It should not.

The context of this sort of institutional funding bias provides important context in understanding the serious and egregious statistical misinformation that is replete throughout IBC's and Spagat's conflict work. Having established that Spagat's major critique of the 2006 Lancet survey, for instance, is almost entirely spurious and fraudulent - and based on utterly meaningless (and often demonstrably false) assumptions about society and behaviour in Iraq - this context of undisclosed research funding illuminates exactly how scientific research can be politicised and compromised by the institutions that incubate it. 

Given IBC's incubation by the very Western foreign policy agencies complicit in the Iraq War - complicit in the deaths that Spagat systematically underestimates - we are now able to understand the alarming link between their institutional backing and how IBC researchers have generated deeply questionable research over the last decade or more, much of which flies in the face of what most conflict studies experts already know about the nature of conflicts.

The problem with number-crunching

Ultimately, this raises important lessons that it appears many people who are trying to understand the world's conflicts have yet to grasp. 

Numbers, alone, do not reveal very much.

Numbers require contextualisation against the real-world. 

Statistical approaches alone as a means to understand conflict dynamics are for this reason deeply problematic. While much can be achieved using statistical analysis, there are  inherent limitations that one can only grasp when one begins to recognise that the real world factors driving conflict dynamics involve such a wide range of variables across so many different yet overlapping and interconnected sectors, that a statistical approach alone will never be able to offer a sufficient understanding of conflict dynamics. 

To understand a conflict properly, requires an interdisciplinary approach drawing on sociology, history, political economy, international relations, culture, security studies. Against this, statistical analysis can be a very powerful tool to increase insights into the nature of the conflict. But by itself, it can be potentially very misleading. 

Yes, statistical analysis can offer some important insights into patterns and trends, but one not only needs a continual input of highly precise data from the real world, but one also an-indepth theoretical and qualitative framework for understanding the real world against which statistical analysis can be calibrated, which is where disciplines like historical sociology come in.

The moment a framework of statistical analysis fails to grasp an element of the real world, the risk is that its entire findings can become increasingly flawed, the more the analysis is allowed to follow a pathway dictated by the wrong assumptions.

Ball and his excellent team at HRDAG know this, and it shows in most of their work - but even they are prone to forgetting the inherent limitations of their field. 

Ball for instance offers the following "correction" of one of my findings:

He [i.e. me] repeatedly asserts that IBC might be missing many large events (e.g., massacres). HRDAG’s analysis, and a 2008 RAND study cited by Dr Ahmed, leads HRDAG to conclude that IBC is likely missing many smaller events with fewer victims, while missing relatively few large events. 

This is a very revealing response. HRDAG, on the one hand, argue that the IBC database that it is "likely" to miss smaller incidents with fewer victims. In their separate critique of Spagat's 'Dirty War Index' (partly derived and applied to the IBC database), HRDAG also conclude that the index is "likely" to miss increasingly "dirty" forms of warfare if those "dirty" forms of warfare end up eliminating large numbers of the population, contributing to statistical artefacts where seemingly reduced incidents of "dirty" violence are in fact evidence of the 'success' of previous "dirty war" operations in killing people, because there are now less people to be killed. 

I have oversimplified their argument to make a point, but there is an obvious tension in HRDAG's work here. That doesn't prove that HRDAG's analyses are incorrect, but underscores the inherent limitations of these sorts of statistically-grounded analyses which fail to draw more directly on a historical, sociological and empirical context of understanding violence dynamics that goes beyond playing around with numbers of deaths.

In the context of such a historical, sociological and empirical evaluation, we can come to an explanation. Ball ignores, for example, that my conclusion about IBC's capacity to miss large massacres is not based on the sort of tenuous probability-based statistical inferences that both HRDAG and Spagat are making (I say this having reached the conclusion that HRDAG's statistical research is about as good as it gets, and is much more careful and empirically grounded in the real world than Spagat's could ever dream to be).

Rather, I draw that conclusion from credible eyewitness testimony from people on the ground in Iraq, who have experienced the conflict. As cited in my Insurge investigation, the vast bulk of the media in Iraq were embedded with coalition military forces, and therefore provided a very selective view of the conflict that sanitised the US-UK role. How, then, would Ball or Spagat expect embedded journalists to pick up on and report larger-scale war crimes and massacres committed by those forces in areas where journalists were not escorted by the occupying power? 

Numerous sources - non-embedded journalists in Iraq, Iraqi journalists, and former US and British soldiers who participated in the occupation - confirm that large-scale massacres were committed routinely by US and UK forces every single day in Iraq, which were never reported by the media. Ball, despite his fundamental disagreements with Spagat, simply ignores this rich source of empirical data, just as IBC does. 

This is because, Ball is concerned with statistics. This what he does, and rightly so. That is good, and important work, and it needs to be done, by principled scholars who abide by ethical procedures in their research, as HRDAG experts do. 

But the problem is that the inherently limited data on conflicts like Iraq mean that the numbers they lead to can only do two things - provide opportunities to conduct deeply misleading statistical manipulation that serves the interests of warmongers; or provide valid but inherently limited statistical insights, insights which nevertheless remain simply incapable of computing the litany of unacknowledged war crimes and massacres confirmed by the body of testimony made available by, for example, Iraq Veterans Against War in the US.

We are not going to grasp the scale of violence in Iraq by playing with the fundamentally limited, flawed and politicized numbers produced by the IBC, whether the researchers involved are IBC-affiliated and funded by pro-Iraq War agencies, or independent statisticians at HRDAG.

The belief and insistence that we can is not just unscientific, but does a deep disservice to the victims of conflict in Iraq, and elsewhere. 

Scientific responsibility

A final lesson that must be reflected on by all who really care about the violence escalating against innocents in so many parts of the world is as follows: simply because we are scientists, or academics, does not absolve us of responsibility for inhabiting the ivory towers of our preferred disciplines. If we are going to start commenting on conflicts, and publishing grand conclusions about them, however generalised, then we are involved, and we are no longer in the ivory tower. 

So we need to recognise our responsibility for venturing out of that ivory tower, and get familiar with those disciplines that we need to be familiar with, in order to really understand the conflicts and crises we've decided to comment on.

Those scholars and scientists who have taken Spagat's work seriously in the past due to their complete lack of familiarity with what has actually been happening in Iraq, and who have published statements about the conflict as a consequence, including Ball and Gelman, are not going to absolve themselves of responsibility by issuing frivolous statements in response to me, which completely miss the point, and only further illustrate their lack of engagement with relevant facts related to the conflict.

I would urge Ball and Gelman to take their own advice, and think long and hard about the way in which their own statements about Spagat's deeply questionable work have been abused by others and contributed to propaganda (and indeed personal attacks against Burnham et. al) designed to sanitise the truly devastating impact of Western operations in Iraq.

And if that's too much to ask, then please, stay in the ivory tower.

**This post was amended on 3rd June 2015 to correct a mistaken reference to USIP's selection of IBC for funding. USIP selected Every Casualty for funding. Every Casualty is run and set-up by the same directors as IBC, and is inspired by the same methodology.

Blog Archive