Tuesday, 25 June 2019

The "cavorting charlatan" whose record has been ignored

One important difference between Donald Trump and Boris Johnson is that Trump was a political outsider, who made a great play of his promise to ‘drain the swamp’. By contrast, Johnson is very much a ‘swamp creature’. For this reason his record in high office deserves far more rigorous scrutiny than it’s had up to now.

A student of UK media output in recent weeks might conclude that during his two-year stint as Foreign Secretary, the only blot on Johnson’s copybook was his mishandling of the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Certainly, giving the authorities in Tehran an excuse to prolong the Iranian-British national’s imprisonment was stupid and thoughtless. However to pretend that this was his worst offence is like fulminating against Al Capone for his failure to pay income tax.

In early 2017 a top British diplomat told the BBC’s John Simpson:

“I feel deeply let down by Boris. The FCO used to be the best in the world. Now he’s made it absurd.”

It isn’t just that by persisting in the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, Johnson knowingly implicated himself in war crimes in Yemen, as serious as that is. Nor is it solely that his resignation in July last year enabled him to duck responsibility for hosting a long-planned Balkans summit, leaving senior dignitaries including the German and Austrian chancellors in the lurch. The real nadir arguably came barely two months after he took office, when he authorised UK participation in a textbook war crime in Syria.

A key part of the difficulty in discussing this dates back to the initial phase of the Arab Spring. In early 2011 it was an article of faith among western elites that we were witnessing a sort of re-run of the fall of communism. Democracy would sweep through the Middle East and North Africa, just as it did in central and eastern Europe twenty years before.

As happened with Tunisia, Egypt, Libya etc, when the movement to depose Assad began in Syria, British journalists were handed a hymn-sheet. All too many remain to this day anxious to avoid the damage to their reputations which would follow from admitting they’ve been singing crass, Whitehall-vetted nursery rhymes ever since.

For instance, western news organisations relied heavily for their coverage of the conflict on the so-called Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Astute observers had known for some time that the SOHR was actually nothing more than a lone anti-Assad émigré with a mobile phone, living in Coventry.

In May last year though, Peter Hitchens of the Mail on Sunday went a stage further, exposing Rami Abdulrahman as a UK government employee. Yet the mainstream media establishment responded by closing its eyes and putting its hands over its ears. This is the truth-allergic environment which has allowed Johnson to get away with murder.

Deir ez-Zour is a city in eastern Syria, on the banks of the Euphrates. Islamist terror group Jabhat al-Nusra had its headquarters here from 2012 until 2014, when it was displaced by ISIS-Daesh. Damascus however retained control of a military base on the outskirts, supplied by air from more secure government-held areas further west.

On 17 September 2016, this base came under sustained attack (lasting about an hour) from warplanes and drones belonging to the US, UK, Australia and Denmark. 106 Syrian troops are believed to have been killed, with over a hundred wounded. The official line from the countries involved (none of whom had any legal entitlement to undertake military operations in Syria) was that the bombing was a “mistake”. Before accepting this narrative at face value, it’s worth trying to get a clearer picture of the immediate context.

A week earlier, US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov announced they had agreed a ceasefire after 16 hours of talks, to come into force two days later. Details of the agreement were kept under wraps, but it was subsequently revealed that Washington had been obliged to disengage the so-called moderate opposition from known terror groups.

If it had held for a week and adequate progress had been made as it were in ‘detoxifying’ the opposition, the agreement called for the commencement of joint US-Russian air operations against hard-line Islamist groups such as al-Nusra and ISIS-Daesh. Deir ez-Zour’s “accidental” bombing came less than 48 hours before this part of the agreement was due to be put into effect.

The brutal massacre of Syrians defending their own country from ISIS terrorists was in fact calculated to mortally wound a ceasefire which hawks like Johnson in western capitals couldn’t stomach. Two days after it took place, a horrifying assault on a UN aid convoy near Aleppo (in the presence of forces on the ground with a vital stake in consigning the ceasefire to history) was the coup de grace.

In 1986 Tam Dalyell MP was so exercised by an aspect of the Westland Affair, he launched into a tirade against then PM Margaret Thatcher which some people thought went too far:

“The prime minister is a sustained, brazen deceiver, now hiding behind cynical performances. She is a bounder, a liar, a deceiver, a cheat, a crook and a disgrace to the House of Commons”.

An irony of today’s politics is that more or less the same litany is considered by many, including some of his most adoring fans, to be “priced in” when assessing Johnson’s suitability for the top job. The ‘scary clown’ whose gratuitous Russia-bashing made a mockery of genuine diplomacy, a ‘nasty piece of work’ (in Eddie Mair’s memorable phrase) and an inveterate dealer in falsehood, Boris Johnson is also a war criminal. He’s the bullet we can’t afford not to dodge.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Top Marks

Martyred ca. 303AD during the same Diocletianic persecution in which SS George and Vitus also died, St Philoterius was a Roman of noble birth from Nicomedia (Izmit). Besides being his feast-day, 19 May in Turkey is officially the Commemoration of Atatürk, often called Youth and Sports Day. 

In 1980 the run-up to this holiday in the northern city of Çorum was marked by fierce public denunciations of allegedly un-Islamic attire worn in rehearsals by female Alevi[1] students. In reality, locally powerful MHP (fascist) functionaries and their Grey Wolves attack dogs were deliberately stoking sectarian tensions, in league with certain shadowy figures who emerged at intervals from the US embassy in Ankara. Just before these happenings, Çorum’s police chief Hasan Uyar was removed along with nearly 40 fellow officers, as well as school administrators and teachers; Uyar’s replacement was parachuted in from Tunceli, more than 400 kms away.[2] Conforming to a pattern seen elsewhere in Turkey over the previous few years, the dirty tricks culminated in a pogrom, known as the Çorum Massacre, which claimed the lives of 57 mostly Alevi civilians between the end of May and July. This turmoil furnished the military with a pretext to stage another anti-democratic putsch, on 12 September 1980. During the interval of a performance of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, US President Jimmy Carter received news of this coup de théâtre by means of a note which read: 

“Our boys have done it!”[3]

[1] Alevism is a large minority Shia sect (comprising perhaps as much as 15% or more of the population) with Kurdish as well as ethnically Turkish adherents. Alevis however are distinct not only from the Sunni Muslims who predominate in Turkey, but also from the ethnically Arab Alawites with populations in the far south and in Syria. 

[2] Parliamentary Research Commission Report, published by the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, November 2012, p.860 

This finds clear echoes in the way senior police officers were reshuffled immediately prior to last year's notorious poisoning incident in Salisbury. Mike Veale, Chief Constable of Wiltshire Police, was prematurely shunted from his position as per an announcement on 24 January. His replacement, Assistant Chief Constable Kier Pritchard, took up his new role on Monday 5th March – one day after the elaborately staged chemical attack on the Skripals, on Sunday 4th March. And on 9th January it was announced that Sir Mark Rowley, Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and Britain’s lead counter terrorism officer, would be “retiring” on 21 March, though in some quarters this was reported as a resignation. Rowley’s exact age isn’t easy to pin down, but he started his degree in 1983, making it unlikely he was even within five years of 60, the compulsory retirement age for police. Moreover, if he’d been due to retire, why did he apply for the job of Met Commissioner in 2017? Theoretically he could actually be younger than HMG's 'superman' Sir Mark Sedwill, who’s hardly likely to be drawing his pension any time soon. An “alumnus of MI6” (according to the Skripal book written by BBC Newsnight's diplomatic editor Mark Urban), Sedwill currently combines three roles – Cabinet Secretary, Head of the Civil Service and National Security Advisor – which until 2014 were the work of three separate very senior Whitehall mandarins. Meanwhile the announcement of Neil Basu’s appointment as Rowley’s successor was also made on 5th March, the day after Salisbury. Mark Rowley didn’t formally begin to enjoy the benefits of whatever golden handshake he was offered until 21 March; but then it wasn’t until several weeks after that, that there was any indication the Skripals would emerge miraculously unharmed from the "military grade nerve agent attack" they'd been targeted by. 

[3] See e.g. Ece Temelkuran, 'Yet again, Turkey's children have awoken to darkness at dawn', The Guardian, 17-07-2016
Fehmi Koru, ‘Never miss an opportunity to show your sympathy’, Today’s Zaman, 10-01-2008

Saturday, 19 January 2019

The Gaslighting Initiative

Originating in the title of a 1938 play by English dramatist Patrick Hamilton, the term ‘gaslighting’ is more familiar to North Americans than to Brits. In the second of two wartime silver screen adaptations, Ingrid Bergman was cast as the wife of a man with a skeleton in his closet, who dims the gas lights in their home for his own nefarious purposes, and then persuades his spouse that the change is but a figment of her overactive imagination.

On 5th September 2018, MI6/GCHQ etc blitzed Britain's media and public with a rolling barrage of new evidence in the Salisbury poisonings inquiry. That afternoon LBC’s Eddie Mair, who once famously called Boris Johnson ‘a nasty piece of work’, spoke to another pantomime villain, US-born financier Bill Browder. Never having forgiven the Kremlin for thwarting his ability to siphon hundreds of millions of dollars out of the Russian economy (an activity he developed a taste for in the late 90s, when many ordinary Russians lived in poverty), Browder sees it as his personal mission to attack and smear Vladimir Putin at every available opportunity. As might be expected however, Eddie Mair wasn’t quite as obsequious as other interviewers:

Mair: “It’s the discovery of the Novichok in the hotel room that’s got people wondering, ‘Well hang on, if these are professional Russian assassins, they wouldn’t leave that there, would they?’”

Browder: “Well […] the same thing happened with the Litvinenko murder, they were leaving trails of Polonium all over London, and they could trace it right back to these two individuals, and so just because they were sloppy and stupid, doesn’t mean they didn’t do it.”

Mair: “Hmm. But that is precisely why people suspect that the official British story may not be true, you get that don’t you? If it was a sloppy operation and if the previous operation was sloppy, can we be sure that the apparently very efficient Russian state operation was involved?”

Browder: “Well I mean this is the Russian spin, the Russian spin says we can’t trust anything anyone says about anything, but that just doesn’t make any sense. I mean the Litvinenko story was looked at in a public inquiry, chaired by a High Court judge, who has no political ambitions whatsoever, and he came to the conclusion that the Litvinenko murder was state-sponsored, probably directed by Vladimir Putin, certainly directed by the FSB, using radioactive materials.”

Browder then provided a magnificent demonstration of the gaslighter’s art:

“If you don’t trust him [i.e. the High Court judge], you might as well not trust anything you think in your own head.”

The idea of Russian responsibility for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko came under fire in this letter I wrote to the Scotsman, dated 23 January 2016:
I wrote a further critique of Sir Robert Owen’s report, in detail here and more succinctly here. Returning to the Skripal case however; two days after the poisoning, on 6th March ‘McMafia’ author and former BBC journalist Misha Glenny appeared on Channel 4 News:

“Well it’s difficult to tell until we have the forensic evidence, so that we know what’s going on. There are a couple of things I would say. It looks more like ‘state’ than ‘crime’ I have to say – but you have to ask yourself two things, before we get the forensic evidence. Why now? Why in advance of the presidential elections in Russia and why in advance of the World Cup?”

A week later, remarks by former FSB director and one-time Prime Minister of Russia Sergei Stepashin covered similar ground:

“Tell me, what kind of idiot in Russia would do this? Where is the logic? It’s obvious to me, that probably this is a crude provocation by British intelligence. Who in Russia needs this traitor at all? There is one more reason aside from the elections: the World Cup. The English simply hate us for the reason that the tournament is taking place in our country.”

On 16th March Glenny was invited to share his expertise with listeners to BBC Radio 4’s flagship news programme ‘Today’, and seemed ready to at least partially countenance Stepashin's theory:

“It is possible, because knowledge about these weapons has been around for 30 years, that another intelligence agency could have got their hands on it.”

When you look at the ridiculously counterproductive timing from Russia’s point of view (a hundred days before the World Cup, and with the ink barely dry on an agreement to go ahead with construction of ‘Nord Stream 2’, a natural gas pipeline linking Russia and Germany), the involvement of another intelligence agency should have been the working assumption from Day One. Yet Theresa May chose PMQs on 12th March 2018 to fully authenticate Kenneth Clarke's off-the-cuff description of her, as someone who doesn’t know much about foreign affairs:

“Mr Speaker, there are therefore only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on the 4th of March.

Either this was a direct act by the Russian State against our country.

Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.”

What’s difficult to know exactly is why this statement sent so many MPs from all parties into full-blown, hysterical, frothing-at-the-mouth anti-Russian witch-hunt mode.

On 7th July (when the World Cup was in full swing), the Guardian published an opinion piece in which Simon Jenkins offered a more level-headed perspective:

“I seem to be the only person alive with no clue as to who has poisoned four people in Wiltshire. I am told that only Russians have access to the poison, known as novichok – though the British research station of Porton Down, located ominously nearby, clearly knows a lot about it. Otherwise, I repeat, I have no clue. I suppose I can see why the Kremlin might want to kill an ex-spy such as Sergei Skripal and his daughter, so as to deter others from defecting. But why wait so long after he has fled, and why during the build-up to so highly politicised an event as a World Cup in Russia?”

As the facts stood at the time, few people with an ounce of common sense could have taken issue with any of that, or with Jenkins’s eminently reasonable observation:

“The most obvious motive for these attacks would surely be from someone out to embarrass the Russian president, Vladimir Putin – someone from his enemies, rather than from his friends or employees.”

However by the middle of September two developments appeared to have tipped the balance of probabilities. Firstly, the tragic death of Dawn Sturgess. It’s all very well, so the argument goes, trying to throw suspicion on shadowy figures within or on the fringes of MI6 and Porton Down – but surely they wouldn’t murder an innocent British citizen just to incriminate Russia? And second, the fresh evidence which came to light, implicating two men whose real names, we are told, are Col. Anatoly Chepiga and Dr Alexander Mishkin. Regardless of where the material came from – doesn’t it leave us with a clear picture of two real-life, actual GRU (Russian military intelligence) officers, who were in Salisbury at the time of the attack, yet claim to have been, wait for it – on a sight-seeing trip?! How the 'conspiracy theorists' must have wished the ground would swallow them up when they saw those two clowns interviewed on Russian television! I mean, Glenny pointed out that a hostile spy agency could have got hold of the poison, and Jenkins said the obvious motive would be from people out to embarrass Putin – but surely, only a very well-funded intelligence service with a burning hatred for all things Russian would actually go ahead with a caper as baroque and mind-bogglingly complex as this. And given that virtually all mainstream commentators added their voices to the Russia-bashing chorus, even before the Chepiga/Mishkin revelations, we’d need to see evidence of a highly professional and coordinated programme of media manipulation – a ‘gaslighting initiative’, if you will. Oh wait...

What’s this, from the Christmas-New Year edition of Private Eye?
This bit might be worth another look:
...and so might this:
As outlined by Max Blumenthal and Mark Ames in a recent Grayzone Project article, in 2005 US journalist James Bamford uncovered
Addressing cadets at the US Air Force Academy in 1996, Rendon explained:

“I am not a national-security strategist or a military tactician. I am a politician, a person who uses communication to meet public-policy or corporate-policy objectives. In fact, I am an information warrior and a perception manager”[1]

...and a gaslighter. 

It's childish to imagine that the people involved in pulling the wool over our eyes in the run-up to the Iraq War (an aggression which killed, maimed and displaced hundreds of thousands of men, women and children) would lose much extra sleep over complicity in the murder of someone like Dawn Sturgess. But you may ask, how can it be that people like them are in any position to set western countries on a path towards more conflict? Aren’t they all languishing in prison, where they belong? Sadly, no – indeed, almost all these blood-soaked warmongers have reaped professional and financial rewards beyond the wildest dreams of ‘lesser mortals’.

As described in Private Eye, the documents show that Gaslighting Initiative (GI) ‘clusters’ have been busily whipping up anti-Russian hysteria and ‘criminalising diplomacy’[2] across Europe, the United States and elsewhere. The UK outfit includes arch Putin-demoniser and CEPA[3] vice president Edward Lucas. His fellow Times columnist David Aaronovitch is also mentioned; renowned for his unwavering, almost Messianic devotion to Bush-Blair’s Iraq invasion timetable:
There are also a few high-ranking BBC newscasters, among them Diplomatic Editor Jonathan Marcus, whose public disavowal of the Gaslighting Initiative cleverly doesn’t quite rule out the possibility that he is, in fact, aware of being associated with the anti-Russian smear unit:

"...neither Marcus nor the BBC knew of the list of journalists, nor did he or the BBC consent to be part of any so-called cluster."

Meanwhile, this passage is worth bearing in mind...
...when looking at the transcript of a two and a half minute report broadcast on Vesti, one of Russia’s most watched TV news programmes. Posted on YouTube on 7th January (Russian Orthodox Christmas), the typically Russian lack of circumspection at the beginning of the segment doesn’t quite survive all the way to the end, but nonetheless it all just about stacks up.

Vesti newsreader: “Hackers from Anonymous have leaked sensational news. It turns out that Britain planned the Skripal incident in advance. The details have been published online of the who, the how and the when of the planning of the events in Salisbury. Alexander Khabarov, a VGTRK correspondent reporting from Great Britain, has examined the documents that, up until yesterday, where highly classified.”

Correspondent Alexander Khabarov: “The timeline of events that followed the Salisbury incident was planned beforehand. That is the conclusion which can be drawn based on the Integrity Initiative documents, a project the British government set up through the Institute for Statecraft. As early as 2015, Victor Madeira, a senior researcher at the Institute, outlined his proposals for sanctions to be carried out against Russia. One of the proposals was to repeat Operation FOOT, carried out in 1971, when London expelled 105 Soviet diplomats all at once.”

[from 2015 document] Dr Victor Madeira: “Simultaneously expel every RF intelligence officer and naval/air/defence attaché from as many countries as possible (global Operation FOOT 1971).”

[This certainly would seem to vindicate comments reported soon after the incident (14th March 2018) by Igor Pshenichnikov, media relations czar at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies:

“The speed with which London took the decision to expel Russian diplomats from Great Britain demonstrates that this move was planned and prepared in advance. The whole Salisbury poisoning incident is a sleazily prepared provocation, aimed at reviving anti-Russian hysteria in the Western world.”]

Khabarov: “The director of the Institute for Statecraft, Christopher Donnelly, is also the head of a military intelligence team. In October 2016 he had a discussion with General [Richard] Barrons about the so-called Russian threat, and ‘predicted’ a catastrophe, which would force politicians to strengthen Great Britain’s national defence.” 

[from written record of discussion between Donnelly and Barrons]: “If no catastrophe happens to wake people up and demand a response, then we need to get the core of the government to realise the problem, and take it out of the political sphere. We will need to impose changes over the heads of vested interests. NB We did this in the 1930s. My conclusion is that it is we who must either generate the debate, or wait for something dreadful to happen to shock us into action.”

Khabarov: “According to Anonymous, prior to the Salisbury incident, Donnelly recruited Mark Laverick, who was employed by the secret chemical laboratory, Porton Down, where the nerve agent allegedly used to poison Sergei Skripal was later examined. In March 2018, the Integrity Initiative became heavily engaged in the informational operation on the Skripal affair. Extensive research was commissioned in order to conduct mainstream and social media analysis of the Skripal scandal coverage in different countries. The Institute for Statecraft also paid chemical weapons experts to write articles about the incident. In July 2018 the institute held a meeting with the Syrian White Helmets and Pablo Miller; a former MI6 agent, the recruiter of Sergei Skripal, and his neighbour in Salisbury. [Note of caution here – Pablo Miller’s name and email address appears to be included in a list of invitees, but it is not known if he attended the meeting] Prior to his transfer to the intelligence agency, Miller served in the military together with Mark Urban, who is currently working for the BBC, and has recently published a book called The Skripal Files.

According to Urban it was pure coincidence that he was able to conduct an exclusive interview with the double agent a year before the poisoning scandal. If the documents released by Anonymous are authentic, then some of the coincidences in the case may be connected to secret projects funded by the British government.”

Alexander Khabarov, Ilya Mardyukov, Vesti, London.

Mind you, Urban kept his personal acquaintance with Skripal under wraps until several months after the incident – so when he tweeted this sort of thing: one knew of his ulterior agenda – an intention to publish a book whose anti-Kremlin slant was not subject to change. As we have seen, Urban was at one time a comrade-in-arms of Pablo Miller in the British army; since then he's written quite a number of books on military history. His total dedication to the Establishment line extends to tweeting stuff like this: well as Retweeting thoroughly nasty, not to say bloodthirsty stuff, like this:
Furthermore, in 2015 his BBC profile ensured a wide readership for a book he wrote, ‘The Edge’, which lends pseudo-legitimacy to an array of paranoid anti-Russian talking points. Not to put too fine a point on it, Mark Urban’s father was Ukrainian. Hence, looking at the timing of the book’s publication (a year after the far-right coup against Ukraine’s democratically elected government, which sparked fighting in the east of the country and Crimea's vote to reunify with Russia), when he decries Nato’s lack of readiness to deal with the ‘Russian threat’, it’s a safe bet that what he actually has in mind is some kind of pitifully stupid re-enactment of the Battle of Balaclava.
In the current context this serves as a reminder of a claim George Blake once made, that ideologically committed spies should be taken much more seriously than those like Skripal who merely do it for money. On 10th March a report in the Daily Mail cited an earlier FT article which left no room for doubt that the then 66 year-old Russian had long outlived his usefulness to Whitehall: 
And meanwhile, when Urban’s book came out in October it revealed that Skripal himself was

“...initially reluctant to believe that he might be the target of a Russian government murder plot”.

For all the world therefore, it looks as if the most important witness in the whole business

“...wanted to believe glib conspiracy theories instead because it made him feel smart or sassy”.

It also goes almost without saying that this “reluctance to believe” the British government narrative could well be a major part of the reason why Skripal has been neither seen nor heard from since he left hospital, in May.[4]

Returning briefly to Pablo Miller, another point to make about him is that immediately after the incident he was the subject of a media gagging order, to keep him out of the public eye. As an aside, too; his reportedly close proximity to Skripal’s home means he just might have been well-placed to entice a pair of dupes like Chepiga and Mishkin to south Wiltshire’s favourite cathedral city, on some kind of errand.

One other person worth a mention, who features in the same Gaslighting Initiative document as Miller, is Howard Body, assistant political commissar at – where? – you guessed it, Porton Down. The secretive defence laboratory with as much expertise on chemical weaponry and specifically nerve agents concentrated in one place, as can be found anywhere on earth. The elephant in the Old Sa-room, which received a £48 million funding boost within days of the incident. Still, you've got to hand it to the team which found traces of Novichok in the London hotel where Chepiga and Mishkin stayed. Without knowing where to look, Porton Down's sleuth hounds are supposed to have taken samples from the room with cotton swabs - and afterwards discovered that in this process they'd managed to decontaminate it! This is all the more miraculous when you consider that after a squirt or two onto Skripal's door handle, it was considered necessary to dismantle the entire building.

As for the goings-on in Salisbury on the afternoon of Sunday 4th March, I predict that neither Auntie Beeb nor anyone else will ever broadcast a ‘Crimewatch’-style reconstruction – or at least not of the version of events we’re currently expected to believe. After watching actors in the role of the ‘baddies’, Chepiga and Mishkin, furtively tip-toeing across Skripal’s driveway in the middle of the day and spraying deadly nerve agent on the door handle, the audience would be expected to swallow the idea that for some mysterious reason, both Sergei and Yulia put their un-gloved hands on the entrance lever (why did it take two people to close a door?). Having received exactly the same dose, they then went off and had lunch and did a few other things, before collapsing simultaneously on a park bench, roughly three hours later. They were then attended to by the chief nursing officer of the British army, recipient of an OBE for her work in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak, who happened to be passing by at that very moment. And as if that wasn't wondrous enough, Mark Urban's book tells us two further things. By happy coincidence a local doctor was also in the immediate vicinity and was soon helping to give first aid; and "just a few weeks earlier", Salisbury District Hospital had conducted a "major-incident exercise" in how to deal with a CBRN (Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear) attack!
In case anyone is interested, here’s a first-hand description of the man who rendered the Skripals unconscious on Sunday 4th March, from a Mail on Sunday article published a week after the events. The “witness who works as a pest-controller” is describing an encounter which took place well over an hour after Chepiga and Mishkin had caught their train back to London (acknowledgements to The Blogmire):
We all know Ian Fleming’s most celebrated brainchild had a ‘licence to kill’; but it’s disappointing to note that since the fall of communism, Britain’s intelligence confraternity has taken its cue more from the likes of Fred West than James Bond. And while the dashing exemplars of this 'master race' no doubt spend quite a lot of their time in grand country mansions, Porton Down appears to be their equivalent of the basement at 25 Cromwell Street, where they get up to mischief. In no particular order, below is just a very small selection of the people who have either definitely, very likely or probably been summarily executed, with immunity from prosecution, by “dark actors playing games”.[5]

There is no longer any dispute that in February 1989 the British government colluded in the shocking murder, in front of his young family, of Irish human rights lawyer Pat Finucane. David Cameron's 2011 failure to allow a full public inquiry must have reflected his awareness that MI5 actually issued the order to carry out the killing. Of the other cases touched on here, Dr David Kelly (who worked at Porton Down of course, and reportedly intended to write a ‘tell all’ book about WMD at the time of his death) is the least controversial – though I was completely taken in by the official “suicide” story at the time. Similarly, it doesn’t take Miss Marple to see that the MP for Livingston and former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook was eliminated, a few weeks after writing a devastating critique of the idiocy of Trident renewal.
Equally or perhaps even more vile are instances where a person’s life was ended and their reputation was destroyed at the same time. Stephen Milligan MP, whose body was found in the most utterly degrading circumstances in February 1994, was not just an obscure backbencher as I’d always thought, but a high-flying private secretary to Defence Procurement minister Jonathan Aitken. To this day, none of his friends from his earlier career in journalism (people like Andrew Neil and John Simpson) believe the official narrative about his death. Milligan had recently uncovered illegal arms sales to Iraq and may have threatened to blow the whistle; exactly as former RAF pilot-turned-journalist Jonathan Moyle had done, when he died in ‘spookily’ similar circumstances in Chile four years earlier.

Only nine days after Milligan’s death, 65 year-old James Rusbridger, a former MI6 courier and inveterate writer of letters to newspapers, was found dead in his west country home in circumstances going beyond bizarre, including wearing a CBRN (Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear) hazmat suit and surrounded by pornographic images. According to the same Daily Mail article cited above, he’d just written to a local television station, stating his intention to investigate the death of Stephen Milligan.

The people who killed 31 year-old Welshman Gareth Williams, found locked in a hold-all in his bath in August 2010 (again with ‘tell-tale’ smut strategically placed around his London flat), undoubtedly sought to trash his reputation at the same time. The US State department requested that none of his work relating to Uncle Sam should be made public at his inquest.

In other news: there may have been more to the death of the Princess of Wales than met the eye. And the same could be said of the death of 55 year-old Scotsman John Smith. His history of heart trouble could mean either that his death in May 1994 was a result of natural causes (not to be ruled out) – or that his murderers were bright enough to realise that the only way to ensure his death appeared natural would be to induce a heart attack.

Peter Mandelson wasn’t called the Prince of Darkness for nothing.
In the same Guardian article we learn that

“In his biography of Mandelson, Paul Routledge claims "some intelligence experts believe he may have been an MI6 'agent of influence' working, perhaps innocently, for the west during a critical period of the cold war"”

Very clearly, this could be a euphemistic way of saying that Mandelson, whose links to Foreign Office subsidiaries date back to the 1970s, was an MI6 mole who successfully infiltrated the Labour Party. John Smith sidelined him, but by then he’d been elected as MP for Hartlepool. Mark Hollingsworth also tells us that he was
In 1994, Labour’s already rosy election outlook was only enhanced by the circumstances of Stephen Milligan’s death, which made a mockery of John Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ call for honourable conduct in public life. Could elements in MI6 have decided that their fears of a Labour government became intolerable, when placed alongside the prospect of an ISC under the control of a politician as diligent and incisive as the Right Hon John Smith QC? 

While it’s not suggested that either Mandy or Petty is likely to have been directly responsible for Smith’s death, it’s interesting that in the climactic scene of Petty/Judd's first novel (about the Troubles in Northern Ireland), the semi-autobiographical hero kills a Belfast teenager. This event is not considered a reason for much remorse or soul-searching however; soon afterwards the book is concluded on an upbeat note, with the main character gleefully jumping from an aeroplane (with parachute) over England.

Which brings us to a quick discussion of similarities in the names and backgrounds of natives of these islands who could have been targeted by Britain's cloak and dagger merchants. It does appear that it’s marginally safer to be English than Irish, Scottish or Welsh. And whichever nation you identify with, it’s safer not to have an Irish surname.
Dr David Kelly, weapons inspector. Murdered by British military intelligence, 17 July 2003

Stephen Milligan, high-flying MP, former journalist. Murdered by British military intelligence, 7 February 1994 
[1] James Bamford, ‘The Man Who Sold the War’, Rolling Stone, 18-11-2005

[2] Appearing in a CNN discussion on 31 July 2018, this phrase was used by Stephen F. Cohen (professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton and New York Universities) to counter highly personalised slurs spouted by neo-McCarthyite bully, Max Boot. 

[3] Center for European Policy Analysis; a think tank bankrolled by Nato, the US government and the US defence industry.

[4] In light of the way western media sources latched on to Vladimir Putin’s later description of Skripal as a ‘scumbag’ (apparently nettled by claims the double agent could in any way be held up as a champion of human rights), it’s worth being reminded of his reaction to news of the latter's discharge from hospital:

“God grant him good health,” the Russian president said. “If a military-grade poison had been used, the man would have died on the spot. Thank God he recovered and that he left [hospital].”

[5] The words David Kelly used in an email to a friend just before his death in July 2003.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Pilgrimage on the Coast

St Columba with St Martin's Cross (not to scale)
Depicted in an icon of St Columba by Maria Elchaninova-Struve, St Martin’s Cross was installed in its present location on Iona in about the year 800 AD. Martin is distinguished among other things by the fact that the word ‘chapel’ derives from his costly scarlet cape, which he cut in two with his sword to give half to a shivering beggar. A relic of this cape was later housed in a small church, which became known as a ‘capella’, hence ‘chapel’. Not that many people, even Christians, know that; and indeed it’s safe to assume there are even folks surnamed Chappell or Chapple who are none the wiser.

In a similar way perhaps, neither Sir Arthur Conan Doyle nor his great uncle and godfather, Michael Conan, appear to have been particularly conscious of their 7th century namesake, St Conan. A follower of St Columba, Conan’s missionary endeavours were concentrated on Argyll and the Isles, and he became Bishop of the Isle of Man. His name is recalled in ‘Innis Chonan’, an island in Loch Awe on the Coast of the Gaels (Argyll’s original meaning). In this connexion, the name ‘Innes’ given to Arthur’s younger brother is a less helpful clue than it might seem, since ‘Conan’ was conferred exclusively on the older sibling. Yet it is nonetheless a singular coincidence that Conan Doyle should have finished his first Sherlock Holmes mystery, ‘A Study in Scarlet’, in 1886. Walter Douglas Campbell completed the construction of St Conan’s Kirk, a delightful Romanesque Revival gem on the northern shore of Loch Awe, in the same year. In other words, the first appearance of the greatest of all crime-fighting masterminds coincided with an unprecedented flowering of interest in St Conan, in one of the last places in the world where deerstalker caps have never gone out of fashion. 

St Conan’s Pilgrim Way, the brainchild of Calum (Columba) MacFarlane-Barrow, is a trail of evidence, as it were, leading from Dalmally at the north-eastern extremity of Loch Awe, to Iona. It was established in 2015 to mark twenty-five years of the Craig Lodge Community, which gives young people an opportunity to spend a ‘spiritual gap year’ in the service of Our Lord and His Mother, amid the extraordinary natural surroundings of that part of Scotland.

Curiously however, the pilgrimage also has a political dimension, and one which can’t easily be brushed aside. This is because Dalmally was the birthplace in 1938 of John Smith, leader of the Labour Party from 1992 until his death in 1994. In accordance with his wishes, Smith was buried in St Oran’s cemetery on Iona – but not only that. The Craig Lodge Community sprang into life on 14 September 1990, the feast of the Triumph of the Cross. However, the 2015 celebration took place on Sunday 13th September, which would have been John Smith’s 77th birthday (and happened also to be the day after Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader).

For St Conan’s Pilgrim Wayfarers, the chief significance of all this lies in the fact that Smith was a Christian in public life who not only talked the talk, but walked the walk. Paying tribute to her late colleague in the House of Commons, Margaret Beckett quoted him as asking:

“Why would anyone bother to go into politics, unless it's to speak up for people who can't speak up for themselves?”

Besides having the courage to vote to protect the lives of unborn children, he also opposed moves to make divorce easier, changes to the law on Sunday trading, and deregulation of drinking and gambling. His understanding of what lawmakers can and cannot do, and what they should and should not do, was second to none. If he had lived to be PM, as was expected at the time of his death, Britain would almost certainly be in a markedly healthier state, both politically and morally, than it is today.

With marching orders to tackle St Conan’s Pilgrim Way over the next five days, a dozen pedestrians from different walks of life gathered at Craig Lodge on Monday 23rd April 2018. In the evening, after praying the Divine Office and Rosary in the chapel, a member of the Craig Lodge Community called George was congratulated on his saint’s day, and we sat down to the first of many enjoyable meals together. One of our number, Ollie, explained that he had chosen ‘Columba’ as his confirmation name because the great Irish monastic was party to the first recorded sighting of the Loch Ness monster.

Repairing to the sitting room, further invaluable historical details were provided by Craig Lodge spiritual director Canon William Fraser. Columba was exiled from Ireland as punishment for his part in an outbreak of savage violence, arising from his sense of injury at having to surrender a copy of a Psalter he’d made, to the ‘copyright owner’. In fact it’s sobering to reflect that he almost certainly would have been excommunicated, if St Brendan of Birr hadn’t spoken up on his behalf. Redounding perhaps more to Columba’s credit though, we also heard about the exquisite artistry of the Book of Kells, long associated with Iona and believed to have been dedicated to his memory. Calum then produced a map and gave us a preview of the next day’s walk. A rumour that heavy rain was forecast was dismissed as ‘fake news’.   

In seemingly faraway Liverpool however, a dismal story of obscene institutional presumption was reaching its sorrowful denouement. 23-month old Alfie Evans had been granted Italian citizenship, in an eleventh hour bid to facilitate his transfer from Liverpool’s Alder Hey Hospital to the Bambino Ge hospital in Rome. Yet Britain’s courts and the Alder Hey authorities remained resolute in their determination to override the wishes of the child’s imploring parents. At 9pm that evening, Alfie’s ventilator was switched off. Over the previous year, although his condition was never diagnosed and it was acknowledged that he was not in pain, doctors and judges laid repeated emphasis on Alfie’s so-called ‘semi-vegetative state’. The weight of legal and medical opinion therefore held that the parents’ love for their little boy blinded them to the hard reality, that he was as much a plant as a human. And what was worse, their ‘lack of objectivity’ meant they couldn’t see when the time had come for their baby to be weeded out.   
On Tuesday 24th, after Morning Prayer, breakfast and a group photo we set forth along the B8077, passing a spot where Columba may have founded a monastery. Guided by Wes and Alistair, in spite of frequent squally showers the mood was bullish as we climbed up and over the Lairig Noe pass. Having seen the table-like rock where McIntyre clansmen once held their parliaments, in the afternoon we encountered stags and frogs on the way down to the shore of Loch Etive, from where we ambled to Taynuilt.   

At the Church of the Visitation there, for a donation one could pick up a DVD of ‘Generation Hope’, the film (now available online) inspired by bestselling 2015 book ‘The Shed That Fed A Million Children’. Written by Calum’s son Magnus and telling the story of school-feeding charity Mary’s Meals, The Shed That Fed qualifies as a must-read, both on account of the importance of its subject matter, and for its riveting twists and turns. Mind you, it omits to mention a parliament of the MacFarlane-Barrow clan in around 1998 or 1999, at which the author of this article was a fly on the wall. The consensus then seemed to be that Magnus would call time on his humanitarian relief efforts and return to salmon-farming.

Expertly driving the Craig Lodge minibus, Calum returned us to the same quarters we’d enjoyed on the previous night, where the aforementioned Shed could be seen as we had supper. After that however, this pilgrim decided to make his way to the top of the hill behind Craig Lodge, in the hope of finding a less celebrated but almost equally legendary outhouse. The ‘beehive cell’ built by Calum around ten years before is a sort of stone igloo, invisible from space by dint of the turf on its roof. To spend a night inside is to get a taste of the seclusion, self-containment, simplicity and silence experienced by the monks of St Columba’s time.
After breakfast on the morning of Wednesday 25 April we drove back to Taynuilt to attend Mass for the feast of St Mark, celebrated by Canon Fraser. The all-but empty road leading from there through picturesque Glen Lonan is understood to have formed part of a traditional pilgrim thoroughfare, way-marked in the Middle Ages by stone crosses. After a picnic lunch near some even older though less meaningful obelisks, at Glencruitten House the Evangelical Christian community kindly gave us tea and coffee. Leaving there, some members of our cohort should have known better than to be sceptical of qualified solicitor Annabel’s assertion that Mull, our next port of call, was an ‘Inner Hebride’. With the question settled in her favour, we sauntered into Oban in plenty of time to catch a mid-afternoon ferry. At Craignure we each bagged bunks at a shiny new hostel, where we would spend the following two nights.
Back in Liverpool meanwhile, having confounded doctors by his ability to breathe unaided for as long as he had, this was the day when Alfie Evans was at last given nourishment for the first time in the 36 hours since his life-support was withdrawn. He would later express his appreciation with an unmistakable smile, captured in a photograph taken by his father. Echoing the sentiments of millions of others around the world, Polish President Andrzej Duda tweeted his support. However, that afternoon a court in Manchester threw out the last appeal to allow Alfie to be moved. The death sentence was not to be overturned.
Around lunchtime on Thursday 26 April we reached Lochbouie on Mull’s southern shore, whose Episcopal Church of St Kilda has a fine mediaeval cross above its porch. In increasingly perfect sunshine, from there we clambered, clawed and cleft our way along the shoreline to Carsaig, where the minibus was once again on hand to shuttle us back to base-camp.
Friday 27 April 2018 saw Britain reach the baleful milestone of fifty years since the implementation of the Abortion Act. There was a bitter irony in the fact that it was also Alfie Evans’ last full day of life, inasmuch as the denial of his parents’ right to choose was dictated by an ideology which worships at the altar of ‘choice’ – when that choice is exercised at the expense of defenceless unborn children.

Setting off from Carsaig, a few of us made a spiritually regenerative detour to the Nuns’ Cave, a refuge for persecuted Christians over many centuries. Ollie read out the day’s Gospel, including the following:

“You know the way to the place where I am going.”

Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through Me.” John 14:4-6

Falling back into line then with our assembly’s main strength, a spectacular cliff-top path took us in the direction of the Ross of Mull and the tidal island of Erraid. It was here in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped (1886) that hero David Balfour mistakenly thinks he’s been marooned. On the wildlife front, alongside a possible sighting of a Peregrine Falcon, there was a pair of Golden Eagles, numerous red deer, a slow worm and an adder. Just as memorable, Susan, whose journey to Iona was really a homecoming, explained as we passed Malcolm’s Point that her mother grew up in the same Edinburgh house which was also John Smith's family home. Later on, ‘Free Entry – Bull May Charge’ was a sign on a gate pointed out to us by Calum as we drove from Bunessan to our new digs, just outside Fionnphort.

In the early hours of Saturday 28 April 2018, Alfie Evans died. His father Tom broke the news:

My gladiator lay down his shield and gained his wings at 02:30. Absolutely heartbroken”

Throughout their ordeal, both he and Alfie’s mother Kate conducted themselves with formidable courage, dignity and restraint. Their son was sacrificed to the false deity of ‘choice’ and various other ideological golden calves, somehow deemed worthy of greater consideration than the right of parents to decide what is in their child’s best interests. Without doubt, humankind has made giant scientific and technological strides, even since the 19th century, let alone the 6th and 7th centuries. But that doesn’t mean the likes of Columba, Conan and co would have been unable to recognise a case of cold-blooded murder when they saw one.

On another beautifully sunny day we resumed our walk from Bunessan. Abraham-like, Ron, a member of our troop with farming experience, scaled a fence and rescued a sheep whose horns were caught in a bush. The ten minute crossing of the turquoise Sound of Iona passed off without incident. After stepping ashore at Baile Mòr on the other side, a group of us made for Iona Abbey, where we were given complimentary pilgrim passes. Besides offering prayers of thanksgiving in St Mary’s Abbey Church, there was time to visit St Columba’s Chapel (long believed to have been built on his original burial site), St Martin’s Cross, and St Oran’s Chapel with its adjacent cemetery. John Smith’s epitaph is a quotation from Alexander Pope:

“An honest man’s the noblest work of God”

The Apostle James (the Greater) is the patron saint of pilgrims; lending a special piquancy to our rendezvous with Irish Dominican priest Fr James Claffey OP. He was also the ideal person to lead us in the ‘Rosary on the Coast’, anchored in the form of prayer revealed by Our Lady to the founder of his order, St Dominic. We said the five glorious mysteries on the beach at Martyrs’ Bay, named in honour of sixty-eight monks whose blood was spilled onto its white-washed sands by Vikings in AD 806. Foremost among our intentions was recognition for the sanctity of human life, as it was for many thousands of others on beaches, mudflats, jetties and marinas the length and breadth of the British Isles.

After commandeering another well-appointed dormitory we had a restful hour or so, before returning to the village for Mass in the chapel of the RC House of Prayer. A lone ruminant in a field outside the window brought to mind St Columba’s prophesy:

"In Iona that is my heart's desire,
Iona that is my love,
Instead of monks' voices
Shall be the lowing of cattle;
But ere the world comes to an end,
Iona shall be as it was."

Then in the evening we sat down to a terrific restaurant meal, with many of us opting to head down the ‘fish and chips’ route. Moira, one of a handful of islanders who joined us, explained how devotion to Our Lady had led her to make and organise scores of pilgrimages, including to diplomatically ticklish destinations like Ukraine and Russia, as well as to the Holy Land, Fatima and Medjugorje. Few, though, could have turned out much better than our journey to Iona.

On the morning of Sunday 29 April we bade farewell to Baile Mòr, drove on to Craignure, sailed to Oban and arrived back at Craig Lodge shortly before 3 o’clock. This was when the ‘Rosary on the Coast’ was actually scheduled to take place – we’d had to pray a day early because of work commitments etc. So anyway, those of us who were able went through to the chapel at Craig Lodge and prayed again. And Our Lady had it covered. No one picked up on it at the time, but being in Argyll we were as much ‘on the coast’ as anyone else.

All pilgrim names have been changed.