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Monday, October 2, 2017

Gareth Porter on Faking Khan Sheikhoun Sarin Results

Idlib Chemical Massacre
Gareth Porter on Faking Khan Sheikhoun Sarin Results
October 2, 2017
Updates Oct. 4, 7

October 4, Important update: I've been informed by a knowledgeable source (with whom I should have checked first) that Porter might well be wrong on the sarin testing done and thus this article is on a wrong track. It could be, as my source argues, the OPCW labs did use the now-standard fluoride test, and did positively identify sarin, despite the unclear phrasing now used. I'll look into this some more and then decide what to do.

October 7: This 2015 report of the OPCW cites use of "The  fluoride  reactivation  method,"  performed  "according  to  the  method  published  by  Holland  et  al (2008), J. Anal Toxicol., 32:116-124." So it's apparently that new. Dan Kaszeta hadn't heard of it yet in 2013. Porter's sources maybe didn't even know about it in 2017. I suspect they're retired - retired people have the most time for e-mails, but sometimes have dated information. This same report also uses the phrasing "sarin  (or  sarin-like  substance."  - as found in the blood of Syrian soldiers reportedly attacked with it by opposition forces in Daraya, Damascus, in February, 2015.  In spots, it's specified as "a sarin-like  agent,  for  example,  chlorosarin." The explanation provided is that even with the best tests, "the leaving  group  (fluorine  in  the  case  of  sarin)  cannot  be determined.  Sarin,  or  chlorosarin,  would  produce  identical  results."

Chlorosarin (Wikipedia) is controlled, illegal, with no legitimate business for anyone having it. It's used for producing sarin, or emerges in the process. It's far less toxic, though similar in effect. And it would trigger the best tests. Maybe there is reason to use this, if it's easier to produce and adequate. I'm not sure. Chlorosarin is the only other possibility that's mentioned, but it's "for example," so there might be other substances. A report on the findings from Saraqeb incident, 4-29-2013, agrees on the ambiguity and adds an alternate: "It should be noted that for both types of biomarkers the structure of the leaving group of the toxicant (F- in case of sarin) is not revealed, which means that these biomarkers do not allow distinction among, e.g., sarin, chlorosarin or O-isopropyl VX (a VX analogue with an O-isopropyl moiety instead of an O-ethyl group). By this even VX is out, but a VX "analogue" could explain the result. But it seems doubtful that phosphine, for example, would produce this result.

So why do they later use this phrase without explanation? (or was there an explanation we missed?) It could be just a concern for accuracy, or perhaps en effort to get people asking the wrong questions  (it seems to have done this, intentionally or not). So while it's not 100% certain this was used, and sarin or something very similar was truly found, it is far more than likely. (and it's still not certain, by any measure, that it was from the Syrian government.) Therefore, the following, and Porter's corresponding arguments, stands as an exploration, and a distantly possible alternate explanation.
---Original Article--
I finally begin publishing my review of Gareth Porter's article, Have We Been Deceived Over Syrian Sarin Attack? Scrutinizing the Evidence in an Incident Trump Used to Justify Bombing Syria (AlterNet, September 13, 2017) It involved some original research and leg-work, working with others at AtlerNet, leveraged to good effect into an ambitious and ranging piece of some size. But that's only part of why it's taken me this long to get even a partial review up.

Some excellent points are raised, some of which I've also cited, and some of which I'll start citing. But Porter's take is far from perfect, with a couple of important points poorly handled, in my opinion. I plan to examine some shortcomings or disagreements in a further post, but in case I only finish one part, I'll cover the good aspects first, and primarily what seems the most important part of his findings.

Among the strong points of this article is that it questions the widespread certainty about sarin's involvement. It seems clear sarin was involved at least in a few tested spots, if not central to the incident. At the very least we can say sarin wasn't the only thing at work. To whatever extent it really matters, I suspect this sarin was held and used by anti-government terrorists, who are known to have and to have used the stuff. (That's not as well-known as it should be - some points along these lines are collected here.) So from the start, I have no stake in deciding sarin was or wasn't responsible.

And the article specifically proposes an alternate poison, which I suspect was involved where sarin wasn't. As far as I know, there could be 2 or more others. Porter and I so far do not agree on how it might have been released, but his proposal of phosphine is compelling, and worthy of its own post (so it could take 3 parts to cover two good tracks and the parts I disagree with)

The part I want to highlight here is "How the OPCW Produced False Positives for Sarin Exposure." Technically, it seems they didn't. But they clearly helped produce a false impression that sarin was definitely used. As Porter explains, what they did was get test results that COULD be from sarin, or from several other things. They passed that off as if it probably was sarin, and governments, corporate media, and institutionally-controlled "human rights" groups amplified that into near-certainty, rather than expose it to any kind of skepticism. 

The Two Tests that Can't be Sure
As Gareth Porter notes, the OPCW's June report highlights "largely positive test results for exposure to “sarin or a sarin-like substance,” as OPCW phrased it." That's all some people needed to hear, but with some research, Porter found and explains how "the two types of tests OPCW relied on to produce those results can both produce false positives for sarin exposure." The two levels of testing that were probably used, as explained by Porter:

- gas or liquid chromatography (finds the IMPA): This is used "to look for a specific metabolite or breakdown compound, as they could not have identified sarin itself. Sarin breaks down rapidly in the human body into a metabolite called isopropyl methylphosphonate. IMPA is the first compound for which the laboratories test, and finding it in a blood, urine or tissue specimen has long been considered evidence of exposure to sarin." Note: it's evidence, not proof; it's consistent with sarin, not exclusive to it. The test can be fooled, as Porter notes. IMPA can be openly purchased, is safe to handle and ingest in lower amounts, and "could be administered in a hydration drip or glass of water before a biomedical sample is taken from the test subject."

Porter contacted "two scientists with close ties to the OPCW, both intimately familiar with the organization’s testing for exposure to sarin and other nerve gases," but who requested anonymity. They agreed generally that IMPA administered before sampling "would indeed show up in the OPCW lab test as a positive for IMPA." If much time had passed, this too should break down, but as one said "it is likely that following ingestion or administration some would appear in the urine unchanged.” 

"Neither of the scientists contested the fact that the test for IMPA in urine samples could have produced false positives."

- protein adduct test (shows that something inhibited nerve function): This second tests is "more elaborate" than chromatography. Here, Porter explains, "they try to regenerate part of the compound representing the organophosphorus nerve agent that binds to acetylcholinerase (AChE) or butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) enzymes in human cells in order to confirm the nature of the compound to which a victim has been exposed." So the protein adduct test "can only confirm exposure to a type of chemical that can bind with those enzymes and cause them to cease functioning." IMPA doesn't do this, only a more complex molecule like sarin - but not necessarily sarin.
The OPCW confirmed that fact in a 2014 article on its protein adduct test, explaining that the adduct reproduced by the test may appear identical to the one produced by exposure to sarin, but may actually be the result of exposure to VX nerve gas. That explains why the OPCW adopted the phrase “sarin or a sarin-like substance” in reporting the results of the protein adduct tests on biomedical sample from Khan Sheikhoun. 
So VX nerve agent, for one, can also produce the results. So perhaps the regime dropped the just-as-banned VX? Or what other kinds of things could cause the positive results? I had Bellingcat member DDTea assure me a while back "sarin-like" can only mean  "sarin, cyclosarin, thiosarin, thiosoman, O-ethylsarin, soman, chlorosarin, and chlorosoman," but might have agreed to VX - all banned nerve agents, It wou;dn't be a common pesticide or industrial chemical, for example. (as for the phrase "or a sarin-like substance," DDTea proposes "they’re trying to keep an open mind, taking into account the possibility that other agents may have been used along with Sarin, or that “GB” was not specifically what was used.")  At the time, I accepted that something like phosphine, for example, was likely ruled out. But Porter casts doubt on such claims.
The OPCW, which is only concerned with chemical weapons, never considered the possibility that the organophosphate toxic agent that was reflected in those tests results was phosphine gas. Experts on phosphine have long known, however, that among other toxic effects on the human body, phosphine gas disrupts the supply of acetylcholinesterase—just as sarin and other officially recognized nerve gases do.
William Potter of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Tulsa was the lead author of an early study on the effect of exposure to phosphine gas on acetylcholinesterase levels in agricultultural workers, including those who applied phosphine. Potter told AlterNet that whenever phosphine gas enters the human body, “it forms reactive phosphorus intermediaries that would inhibit acetylcholinerase in a manner very similar to known chemical weapon nerve gases.”  ... But Potter added that the laboratory tests probably would not have recognized it as the signature of a phosphine derivative, because they were only expecting to find sarin or another weaponized nerve agent.
If that really was their sole expectation, that would question their scientific objectivity. If OPCW don't know or don't care that it could be a non-weapon chemical, but it actually was one, then they'd be certain to find the wrong answer. That's how bad this approach is, and this might be just such a case where this structural flaw matters.

The key point here: phosphine is "sarin-like" enough to explain the positive results achieved in Turkey. For all we know, their tests actually proved it was phosphine, or perhaps some other poison that could also classify (but I can't say which ones, so  ... I'll be examining the phosphine option soon)

Deliberately Passing up the Chance to be Sure?
So neither of the test used is conclusive regarding sarin. But as I understand it, there is an available test that might have been more clear on the question, and the signs say this other method was side-stepped, for reasons unknown. Porter doesn't mention this, and didn't seem clearly aware of it, so I'll make the case for it here.

I was at first very skeptical of the sarin claims throughout 2013, including in the August 21 Ghouta attack. But in the course of research, I was informed that what turned up in the biomedical samples probably was sarin, based on the kind of test used. Called perhaps a few things similar to "fluoride ion regeneration," this test supposedly rules out everything but sarin, forcing me to posit that test subjects didn't just ingest IMPA but actual sarin (presumably in a highly-diluted form). Gareth Porter was my source for one important point - the test results suggested low level exposure to sarin. (TruthOut) That's consistent with a voluntary  token dose, probably administered well after the events of the 21st.

In lieu of an informed overview, some sources suggesting this test was used in 2013 (but note: the picture remains a bit unclear on this point).

* ACLOS member Pmr9 cites a “fluoride ion regeneration test” in a 2014 comment at the WhoGhouta blog:
1. The UN labs appear to have used only the test for sarin-BChE adduct (fluoride ion regeneration). The half-life of BChE is about 11 days, so an eight-fold fall in concentration is expected. For sampling after an interval, a test for IMPA-albumin adduct should have been used also. The half-life of albumin is about 20 days so this test should be able to detect sarin explosure at least six weeks after exposure. We wouldn't want to rely only on the IMPA-albumin adduct test as it's easily faked, but in these individuals we already have a positive sarin-BChE adduct test which is hard to fake without real sarin. 
* In my later "Sarin myth" article, I acknowledged some unclear role for genuine sarin, due to this test presumably being used. As explained in endnotes about fluoride ion regeneration:
"A search indicates that exact name isn’t usually used, but a test like that exists. Dan Kaszeta mentioned “a much newer method, one that forced me back to the library to read up on, called fluoride regeneration or fluoride reactivation.” (see also note 1) Both agreed this rules out the known methods of fakery (like ingestion of IMPA powder) and/or proves actual Sarin exposure."
* A U.S. military study (PDF, date unclear, but citing works from as late as 2001) "A method has been developed for the analysis of a Sarin (GB) nerve agent biomarker in the tissue and biological fluids of minipigs that is very sensitive and selective." From there, it addresses mainly how the GB was distributed, always referring to it as GB (sarin), not "a sarin-like substance." 

As I recall in 2013, sarin was claimed to be used in the Ghouta attack, not a "sarin-like substance." The UN Commission of Inquiry, Feb. 2014 (.doc file): "In no incident was the commission’s evidentiary threshold met with respect to the perpetrator," but "chemical weapons, specifically sarin, were found to have been used in multiple incidents." These were "Al-Ghouta (21 August), Khan Al-Assal (19 March) and Saraqib (29 April)." "128. In Al-Ghouta, significant quantities of sarin were used." They don't explain how they got so certain about the agent, but they do sound certain.

"By 17 September, the UN was able to confirm Sarin had indeed been used in Syria," says an informed article at Cosmos Magazine. This says a chromotography test was used, and doesn't mention the fluoride ion test, but that may have been used anyway. Like everyone at the time, this still claims sarin, plain and simple. Only now do we hear this variant "or a sarin-like substance." It seems like something has changed, and this might be it.

It's now 4 years later, and tests don't get un-invented. So why wouldn't they use the best method this time to get a clear picture? I'm no expert, but this seems like a good question. It seems possible they did try fluoride ion regeneration but got the wrong answer - NOT sarin - and then re-did it to get the "maybe" answer they took to the public. At least as likely is that they avoided that testing altogether, somehow knowing from the start it would come out wrong. Why order tests you don't want and leave a possible paper trail you'll have to erase?

Signs of Planting and Faking
Environmental samples (soil and metal fragments, pavement and stones, and non-human biological samples all seem to fit in this category) will test for actual sarin, as well as the breakdown products like IMPA. The former will appear later in soil than inside an animal body, and the latter will appear more slowly (air and dirt don't break sarin down as vigorously as the body does). But the results here are questionable, and seem uneven.

As widely noted, the Syrian government secured its own samples from the attack site, which it provided to the OPCW. The Syrians tested the samples themselves first, and reported their findings; sarin and its breakdown products were found neatly inside the crater/hole near the bakery, but hardly at all outside of it. People can say the Syrians proved their own gas attack, and even that they found "telltale hexamine," but it could be their tests prove site tampering.
Although the samples from soil and metal objects in the crater said to have been taken on the Syrian government’s behalf and tested in its laboratories all registered as positive for sarin, those samples could have easily have been contaminated from the start with a few small vials of sarin. On the other hand, all but one of the 14 soil samples analyzed by the government laboratory outside the crater registered nothing of significance.
Biological samples, as Porter argues, suggest the subjects were exposed to IMPA, not sarin, and that it was probably done after the attack.
"According to specialists who had tested biomedical samples for sarin exposure, the metabolite of sarin can rarely be detected after a week.  Yet biomedical samples of alleged attack victims were transmitted to the OPCW team between April 12 and 14—from eight to 10 days after their exposure to chemicals in Khan Sheikhoun. And every one of the seven urine and hair samples submitted by the Idlib Health Directorate—which operates under the control of al-Qaeda and its allies in the province—was positive for IMPA."
This is important. It should be rarely seen, if it started out as sarin on the 4th. But it's seen in 7 of 7 cases. That suggests a timeline discrepancy - the IMPA probably appeared more recently than the 4th, like in a voluntary exposure in the days following the attack. That would obviously be a conspiracy to fake the tests; they knew the truth was not going to get the results they wanted.
Porter also looked into "biomedical samples submitted during that same period by the Syrian American Medical Society" (SAMS) another propaganda outfit under the influence of local jihadists, with a terrible track record on accuracy. Of the SAMS samples from a week or more after the attack...
"Three of the seven blood samples tested negative for “sarin or sarin-like substance,” indicating that those three had not been exposed to a nerve agent. Yet two of the three urine samples and all three of the hair samples from those who had clearly not been exposed tested positive for IMPA, the substance that can be administered to produce false positives for the breakdown product of sarin. "
So ,,, if this pans out as it seems, SAMS helped prove their supposed sarin victims were just falsely dosed with IMPA. "The OPCW report itself recognized those results as irregularities," Porter notes, "but did not acknowledge that they indicated an obvious manipulation of the sample-taking by those institutions" (or their allies).

How The OPCW Invites Fakery
"The OPCW violated one of its most fundamental rules," Porter argues, by accepting samples they couldn't really vouch for. "It is forbidden from using any biomedical or environmental samples as evidence unless they have a verifiable chain of custody, as a spokesman for the organization clarified when allegations of chemical attacks first arose in Syria four years ago." Yet they accepted samples  gathered in often unprofessional ways and that were quite possibly contaminated, before or after collection, as explained above.
The OPCW had no verifiable chain of custody of the samples, meaning that the organization did not see them collected, so al Qaeda-directed personnel could have manipulated the samples either before or after collection.
This is valid. Every group that's able to operate here should be considered suspect, at least, of being controlled or coerced by the ruling Islamist forces, who don't subscribe to our ideas of truth and science, to say the least. These include the “chemical sample unit” of the celebrated "White Helmets" who function here, as Porter notes, "entirely under the authority of the province’s al-Qaeda leadership."

It could be that no one took advantage of this chance to taint things, and the results came out on the level. But we have no guarantee, and not even the OPCW's direct assurance, that that's the case. Whether or not anyone walks through it, this laxness of process opens the door for serious deception. As Porter notes:
The OPCW itself took no samples of any kind in Khan Sheikhoun because its fact-finding mission never set foot in the city.  Instead, it performed all of its work in Turkey or elsewhere in locations in Syria controlled by al Qaeda or another rebel group. That, too, was an explicit violation of the organization’s own rules.
This is part of a policy of theirs, based on circumstances apparently set-up by the opposition's Islamist forces, in late May, 2014. As this hard-to-find AP report explains, an OPCW fact-finding team was on its way to look into a chlorine attack back in mid-April. Headed to Kafr Zita, they started from government-held Hama. In good faith, the investigators continued past the front-line with no more Syrian army escort possible. A ways out, apparently with some rebel escort, they were hit with a roadside bomb someone planted, damaging at least one vehicle. Some returned - towards the government-held area, not deeper into rebel turf - in another undamaged vehicle. But 11 other team members were mysteriously delayed. The Syrian government said they had been kidnapped by terrorists. The OPCW just said they had safely returned in the end, with no details and no complaints. ("But the OPCW issued a statement shortly afterward saying a convoy had come under attack but “all team members are safe and well and are travelling back to the operating base.” Opposition activists could not immediately be reached for comment.")

The OPCW suspended such missions for a while after this, limiting their Fact-Finding Mission to more remote work. Years on, after Khan Sheikhoun, they reportedly operate inside rebel-held areas again, to some extent. But it seems they retain the option to call some places too risky, as they did here. As Aaron Lund put it:
Although the Fact-Finding Mission operated both out of Damascus and on the Turkish border, its members were unable to gain access to the actual crime scene in Khan Sheikhoun. The city is located in a war-torn, rebel-held region of northwestern Syria that is controlled by hardline Islamist insurgents, including groups with strong links to al-Qaeda.6 It is extremely dangerous for non-Syrian aid workers or journalists to visit the region, and for a team of OPCW scientists to travel there seems almost out of the question—particularly since the guilty party, whoever that is, would have an evident interest in whipping up violence against them.
It's also dangerous for non-Sunni Syrians, etc. But if anything bad happened to investigators on such a mission, we can be sure the local "activists" would claim a regime aircraft did it, or perhaps Russian. That would be accepted with no question: "Yes, Russian or Syrian jets, we'll find out someday."

"The mission was unable to visit the site itself due to security concerns and will not attempt to get there, the head of the OPCW was said to have decided." (Reuters, June 29) They're happy with the system worked out with the jihadists. It gets Assad blamed, and no one kidnapped safely returned. It's a win-win. As Porter notes: "Despite this flagrant breach of its own protocols, the OPCW has faced no real scrutiny from Western mainstream media." In fact, they continue to be cited as scientific experts who can only find the truth. Surely they found sarin, and they're just being open-minded to add "sarin-like."

Porter seems to ride the line between accusing the OPCW of being dupes who were fooled by the Islamists and implying they had to be in on it, leaning to the former. To me, it's pretty clear they're deliberately furthering the false narratives. They've made so many questionable decisions, regarding Khan Sheikhoun, Ghouta, other incidents, and the over-arching patterns between them, all helping blame the Syrian government, that it can hardly be accidental.

We know the director of the OPCW this whole time has been Ahmet Üzümcü - clean-shaven Turkish diplomat, former ambassador to NATO and to Israel. He's quite possibly controlled by Turkish strongman Erdogan, whose hand in causing the Syrian bloodshed is somewhat known. Üzümcü has repeatedly cast doubt on Syria's compliance with its OPCW obligations, suggesting they have retained serious stocks of banned chemicals. And his OPCW has taken every chance possible to accept opposition claims that helicopters or jets were involved in chemical attacks, always lacking proof, and using that faith as proof the government did it, since false-flag terrorists don't have an air force. The OPCW's supposed foundation in science and its perceived neutrality makes this trick work when it should not be able to.  

In regards just to the April 4 attack, I've caught the OPCW ignoring the US radar track that gives the attack jets an alibi, and ignoring the best evidence to establish wind direction, which happens to prove the opposition story untrue. And quite possibly, we also have them side-stepping the test that could be sure about the sarin, perhaps to avoid finding out it wasn't sarin and not as easily blamed on Syria. If people were dosed with IMPA prior to the tests, and the OPCW chose to employ a test that would be fooled by that, we must ask is that a coincidence? Or is it maybe a coordinated operation, with people inside and outside the OPCW, working on the Turkish-Saudi-Muslim Brotherhood-Al-Qaeda script to fool the system into again laundering the true, ongoing genocide in Syria?


  1. The basic method for natural scientific research is to test positive/null hypotheses, describe the test and write up the results. Then publish that in peer reviewed scientific journals. Their work won't be accepted unless the others are ABLE TO REPEAT what they did and get the same results;in a laboratory or in the field, bearing in mind you have less control over the relevant variables in the field. I studied social science and I know a bit about how fisheries scientists/biologists work. I don't see any provision for that here. Here you suggest a problem that also arises in the Scottish fisheries(I'll leave out the social science for now). I've known the Govt staff, biologists, I've met them and corrected their official figures; public record. They're great. I could talk to them forever. But they do their job, it goes through a manager, it informs Govt policy wonks, the politicians have their say on it, it goes out for public/private sector consultation and by the time it gets to anglers on the river it's garbage and they say, "The boffins don't have a clue." Because the original work hasn't been quality controlled and properly represented as it changes hands and comes down through the chain of command. DOES THE OPCW PUBLISH ANYTHING RESEMBLING SCIENCE THAT EXISTS? I'm seeing more hay and no needle. I'm no contrarian. If they've got the goods put it on the table and I am off.

    1. I meant to reply. Excellent comment, James! Moe coming on what they do and don't show of the real science.

  2. Really interested to see what (6 month old?!) evidence the OPCW suddenly have for Al-Lataminah. With two attacks, they must surely have some identifiable fragments this time.

    Porter article was interesting but has a few things I disagree with, one major problem being that a genuine accidental chemical release doesn't explain the public testimony being all over the place (amongst other things).

    Though it is quite a coincidence that the vanishing displaced family in the imprisoned-by-government Al-Omar house was also from Al-Lataminah - I wonder when they arrived in Khan Sheikhoun? The sarin seems to be following them around..

    1. Some info is coming together now, including possible munition fragments - a bit like what we saw in Khan Sheikhoun. I guess what they have is another person or more who tested positive for at least a few molecules of sarin on that day.

  3. To say "sarin-like" and exclude phosphine the test would have to detect the phosphorus - fluorine pair.

    Chlorosarin does not have the fluorine atom. Your quote says "the leaving group (fluorine in the case of sarin) cannot be determined. Sarin, or chlorosarin, would produce identical results." The leaving group is fluorine in the case of sarin, and chlorine in the case of chlorosarin.

    Either the "fluoride test" must be something else, or this test cannot really distinguish between sarin (P-F), chlorosarin (P-Cl) and phosphine (P-H).

    (I did not read any of the sources, so this might be total BS.)

    1. Thanks for the last part. Fact is, it's still possible (as far as I know, that is) Porter's gist is correct, and phosphine is "sarin-like" enough to count. "Leaving group" seems to be the key. But no such detailed reason has been offered yet (except maybe here by you?). The OPCW never did specify or advertise it as ruling out phosphine in particular or gave enough detail by which it can be ruled out. I see just the one "sarin-like" chemical cited by them, but we can see there are more...

      I won't be pursuing this myself. It was enough to get this in order, change course, and get bogged down in the next step (how much sarin?), which is where I still am. I will try to reflect the possibility by being less emphatic about sarin per se. AFAIK, it should be, but...

    2. But then this - from a paper on the Tokyo attack. They used Fluoride reactivation, back in 1997, on preserved samples, and found what they call "an organophosphate with the structure Pr_iO(CH_3)P(O)X, presumably with X = F (sarin)."

      That was presumable in that case, where pure un-metabolized sarin was found and known to be the poison. It's not as presumable in these other cases. But there's the formula... if all but the X matches to phosphine, we're in. (just eyeballing it, I doubt that)


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