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Analysis - Espionage and Counterespionage - The UK professor and the fake Russian agent

The UK professor and the fake Russian agent

(By Chloe Hadjimatheou – March 26, 2021 – BBC News)


A British professor corresponded for months with a man called only "Ivan", seeking assistance to discredit an organisation that helps bring Syrian war criminals to justice. He also asked "Ivan" to investigate other British academics and journalists. The email exchange, seen by the BBC, reveals how, a decade on from the start of the Syrian conflict, a battle is still being waged in the field of information and misinformation.

One chilly December morning there was a ping as an email from a professor at Edinburgh University dropped into Bill Wiley's inbox. The subject line read: Questions for William Wiley.

Wiley, who runs an organisation that salvages documents for use in war crimes trials from abandoned Syrian government buildings, recognised the sender's name.

Prof Paul McKeigue, an epidemiologist from Edinburgh University, had been in touch once before asking similar questions about Wiley's NGO - the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (Cija) - for a critical report he was writing with a professor from Bristol and a former professor who once taught at Sheffield.

Knowing what he did of McKeigue's view that Western-funded NGOs are acting on behalf of the CIA and MI6 to blacken the image of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, Wiley felt sure their report would accuse Cija of distorting the truth about torture and murder in Syrian jails.

Over the last decade Cija's undercover investigators have salvaged more than 1.3 million documents created by a bureaucratic regime that is obsessed with paperwork, even when it concerns the brutal killing of its own people. All that paperwork is being held in an archive at Cija's headquarters in a secret location in Europe.

McKeigue's email to Wiley repeated that he and his colleagues were investigating Cija, but he didn't ask questions about Cija's work. He only seemed to be interested in companies Wiley had registered in his name.

A few hours later, McKeigue received an unexpected email too. It was from an anonymous sender and it read: "My office heard from London yesterday that you have some questions about Syria. Perhaps we can help you get to the truth."

McKeigue quickly replied with a few questions to test his new acquaintance. Was this person aware of chemical attacks in Syria that had been faked?

He certainly was, and he hinted that he had access to a treasure trove of knowledge. McKeigue seemed excited to have a fresh source, and an email exchange that would last more than three months got under way.

Early on McKeigue revealed that he was interested in Cija and particularly in Wiley. The reply came back that Wiley was a CIA operative who had worked in the US embassy in Iraq. (Part of this was true, Wiley, a Canadian, had been employed by the US Department of Defense to work on the trial of Saddam Hussein in Iraq - but he says he has never worked for the intelligence services.)

McKeigue was cautious, though.

"If we just come straight out with 'Wiley is CIA,' I think we will be derided as conspiracy theorists making wild unsourced allegations," he wrote.

His contact replied: "My colleagues laughed in a knowing way when this was read to them. What sort of evidence would you want to feel comfortable stating this fact? If we can provide it without damage to our sources we will do that."

While McKeigue's email sign-off included a link to his Edinburgh University profile, his new correspondent initially left his emails unsigned. The only clues to his identity were occasional mistakes in his English, and references to his headquarters in Moscow.

And then, after a while, he began signing himself "Ivan".

McKeigue says he kept an open mind about who was on the other end of this correspondence. He told me that like any other journalist or citizen investigator, he cultivates contacts with all kinds of people who may have relevant information, including anonymous sources. He also told me he believed it was entirely legal for him to do this as a private citizen without access to state secrets.

Some of the correspondence dealt with McKeigue's theories about Cija's activities. The academic explained that he and his colleagues regarded Cija as part of a "strategic communications" - or StratCom - operation run by the CIA and MI6 on behalf of their governments, which were hell bent on regime change in Syria.

From the emails it seems that McKeigue really believed he was doing a public service by trying to uncover a conspiracy being waged to dupe the public.

But he also asked Ivan for personal information about Wiley - about a woman he might have slept with, and whether he had a cocaine habit - which didn't bear any relation to the trustworthiness of Cija's documents.

And he kept returning to questions about Cija's finances. His overarching aim, he explained, was to get people questioning the evidence Cija had gathered, but there were different ways of doing this, he noted.

"We call it the Al Capone tactic - even if we can't bring them down over war crimes, we may be able to get them over fraud."

This was why his questions to Wiley had focused on the companies he had started.

The European anti-fraud office, Olaf, has accused Cija of fraud and irregular accounting, relating to a contract it received from the EU in 2013 worth 3m euros (£2.6m). The European Commission is still looking into Olaf's report, but Commission spokesman Peter Stano told the BBC this was not a reason to question the importance of Cija's evidence.

"The Olaf investigation concerns invoicing by the consortium, not the information collected during the implementation of the project and there is no indication of wrongdoing concerning the deliverables of the project," he said.

Cija's finance team reject the Olaf allegations and say they have sent the European Commission documentation proving that they are false. They also say that since 2013 the organisation has received 70 grants totalling more than 42m euros (£36m), and been audited 64 times by external auditors without any adverse findings.

"Ivan" encouraged the professor in his investigations and praised his ingenuity.

"We note that this exchange remains a pleasure for our office. Thank you again and again for your important work... Thank you for resisting the UK's anti-Russia operations. This means a lot to us," he wrote.

Paul McKeigue says the co-authors of his investigation into Cija did not know about his relationship with Ivan, but the information the professor was gathering was meant for their joint paper. He outlined their motivation: "A key objective of our little academic group is to encourage members of parliament, lawyers and journalists to hold the government to account by asking questions about these StratCom activities that have not only drawn the UK into confrontation with other countries but have also been used to marginalise and smear dissenters at home."

Before long Ivan was giving McKeigue direction, asking him for information, telling him who to speak to and who not to approach, and the professor seemed to comply with some of these requests. Six weeks into the correspondence Prof McKeigue agreed not to write to any Cija employees without Ivan's prior approval.

"I will not contact anyone without checking first with you," he wrote.

McKeigue forwarded emails and information to Ivan at his request.

Then the professor wrote to Ivan with big news. He had stumbled across what he seemed to regard as persuasive evidence that Wiley was a CIA agent during the time he was in Iraq. It came in a book by a former CIA analyst, John Nixon, who described briefing US Vice-President Dick Cheney on Saddam's interrogation, in April 2008.

"He went to Cheney's office with 'Bill, the CIA analyst who had succeeded me in Baghdad'," McKeigue writes, quoting Nixon's book. "This can only be Wiley. What do you think? The CIA's Publication Review Board redacted many other passages, but missed this."

It didn't seem to occur to McKeigue that there could have been more than one "Bill" in Iraq at the time, or that Nixon might have used a false name. But Ivan was impressed.

"This is why we admire you and your work so much!!... Funny, we did not know that the meeting was in the public. We thought it was our secret!"

McKeigue seemed excited to be getting somewhere. Now he returned to an offer of £10,000 Ivan had made, which he had originally declined. Perhaps it would be useful after all, he said, to bring a legal case against Bill Wiley and Cija on behalf of their employees, who had been "deceived into working for a CIA front organisation".

"Such a lawsuit would be expensive… Injecting money into a legal fund, covering past and future costs, might be a way for your office to contribute. But the scale of support required would be far more than the figure you mention."

McKeigue also cast his net wider than Cija and asked Ivan to look into what he called "the UK network of Syria narrative enforcers". These included British academics and journalists who have challenged his writings about Syria. McKeigue sent Ivan a long list of names and email addresses, and asked him to use that information to work out the connections between them, and who was co-ordinating them.

McKeigue told the man hinting he was a Russian spy that he had particular concerns about a BBC producer who covers Syria.

"Does your office know anything about him?" he asked. "It's clear to us that he has been involved in staging incidents in Syria since 2013."

The professor does not seem concerned about whether making an allegation of this kind to a possible Russian agent might put the producer in danger.

McKeigue told me that all the information he passed on to Ivan, including email addresses, was in the public domain. He also said the role of these individuals as leading communicators in "the UK-led information operations associated with the Syrian conflict" had been widely described in the media.

My name was also included on McKeigue's list of these "narrative enforcers" supposedly co-ordinated by the British government, and he didn't hold back in telling Ivan what he thinks of me.

"We know quite a lot about CH [Chloe Hadjimatheou], and think she's just a dim-witted person who has been flattered into taking on something beyond her competence."

But Ivan was not a Russian agent - he did not exist. His emails were written by a team of Cija employees, assembled by Bill Wiley in an urgent effort to find out how much McKeigue knew about his organisation.

He was particularly worried about the possibility that a Cija employee who had been sacked might have approached McKeigue and his co-authors and given away the location of the archive and the names of staff.

Only three staff members of Cija have made their names public, for good reason, says Wiley. They could be harassed or threatened, and hostile elements might find it easier to get into Cija's systems if they knew the names of employees. And the Syrian regime had good reasons to want to destroy the archive of documents.

In the course of the correspondence, McKeigue wrote that the sacked member of staff had indeed spoken to him, offering this information and other personal details about Wiley.

McKeigue told the BBC that although he did plan on revealing the location of the office he had no intention of making the more personal information public.

But Wiley didn't know this, and meanwhile he was well aware that McKeigue's close contacts include the Damascus-based British blogger, Vanessa Beeley.

Beeley extols the virtues of the Syrian army as well as President Bashar al-Assad and his wife, often posting photographs of herself with members of the Syrian regime and military commanders on social media.

Wiley says he fears that anything McKeigue knows he may have told Beeley, and that she may have passed it on to the Syrian state. So he is not taking any risks. He is currently making plans to relocate the entire Cija archive and staff, and to uproot his family too.

The sacked Cija staff member says she would never deliberately compromise the security of ex-colleagues or their families and does not believe she has done so.

Both McKeigue and Beeley are members of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, a group of "independent researchers" and academics many of whom share McKeigue's view that British and US intelligence services are using the media to cast the Syrian government in a negative light, in order to make the case for regime change.

I discussed the Working Group in my Mayday podcast which traces the life and death of James Le Mesurier, a former British army officer, and co-founder of the White Helmets - a group of ordinary Syrian civilians trained with the help of Western funding in how to rescue survivors from bombed buildings. The email exchange between McKeigue and "Ivan" is the subject of a 12th episode of the podcast, which will be published on 6 April.

It was thanks to this podcast that I ended up on McKeigue's blacklist of journalists. "From the Mayday podcasts it is clear that you are working with... a presumed MI6 officer," he wrote to me.