The Professor and the Spy

A while ago, eagerly and secretly, a professor at Edinburgh University began a correspondence over email with a man he thought was a Russian spy. ‘Ivan’, as the spy eventually took signing himself, wanted to thank the professor, Paul McKeigue, for his sterling efforts on matters of mutual interest. Those efforts, Ivan assured the professor, were appreciated by the boys in his office in Moscow.

Those efforts related to the Syrian civil war, a decade-long conflict which has left little legacy but irresolution and anguish. The professor and his new friend shared an entirely different view of that war, however. Together they told each other a fantastical story: one of a ten-year-long, and yet somehow unsuccessful, campaign by Western governments to overthrow the legitimate government of Bashar al-Assad.

The regime change campaign apparently took place largely on the internet. And at its heart was a chemical weapons attack on the town of Douma in 2018 which, the professor maintained with relish, was faked. 

He and ‘Ivan’ had another point of convergence: that of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA). CIJA has slowly and painstakingly collected together documentary evidence of the war’s course. It has amassed its archive of 1.3 million documents with the hope to putting some of the war’s many criminals on trial. People working on its behalf have searched refuse dumps and collected innumerable scraps of wastepaper. 

Ba’athist states, of which Syria is one, are often corrupt, but their tendency toward bureaucracy has some advantages. One of which is what these officious systems tend to document their activities entirely without thinking. The Ba’athist addiction to paperwork often provides extensive evidence of things cannier – or more chaotic – states would hide away. Things like the disappearance of tens of thousands into prison systems, and the sudden deaths of those people from previously undiagnosed heart problems.

CIJA’s work on this front has its critics, but the professor and the spy were concerned for other reasons. Together they worried that all of its paper, all of its evidence, would succeed in undermining the Assad regime.

To prevent all this getting out, McKeigue was preparing a counter-report on CIJA for his own operation, the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media. To that end he was keen to extract useful information from ‘Ivan’. Was it possible that William Wiley, CIJA’s executive director, was a spook? Were all of his actions against Assad explained by an undisclosed addiction to cocaine?

As may have been obvious from the beginning to a mind more on the rails, ‘Ivan’ was not in fact a man from the Moscow office. He was a construct, a creation of staff from CIJA, who were doing their level best to understand precisely what the professor’s problem with them was, and to whom he was turning for help. In the course of their artificial conversation, the CIJA staff discovered not only that McKeigue was entirely comfortable in dealing with Russian intelligence, but also that he was prepared to make the sorts of accusations which get people killed. 

He accused a producer for the BBC of being an MI6 officer, and said the same of Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former army colonel and cofounder of non-governmental organisations which operate in the parts of Syria not controlled by the regime.

For Mohammed Idrees Ahmad, a lecturer at Stirling University and a journalist, McKeigue entertained some variation. Ahmad, according to him, was possibly both MI6 and CIA. Would ‘Ivan’ care to do some digging of his own to find out which?  

McKeigue also suggested ‘Ivan’ investigate local journalists looking into the chemical attack in Douma, tailing them if necessary. Journalists in that position often simply vanish under such investigation. 

Much has been said, not least by the people named above, about how this sort of thing is both a disgrace and a lie. Ahmad and de Bretton-Gordon feel under continual attack from members of the Working Group, who accuse them of sinister associations and evil plans. 

At the end of 2019, James Le Mesurier, a former army officer who worked with the White Helmets (a civilian rescue organisation in rebel-held Syria), committed suicide in Istanbul. De Bretton-Gordon and others maintain that becoming the focus of international conspiracy theorising was what chased Le Mesurier to his grave. The media arms of the Russian state held that the White Helmets was a front for al-Qaeda, and that Le Mesurier was its MI6 handler. At the forefront of this campaign were members of the Working Group. 

Briefly, I would like to note who some of the Working Group’s members are. David Miller is a sociologist at Bristol who believes Israel controls policymaking of the British Labour Party through front-group think tanks and Jewish donors. Piers Robison used to teach journalism at the University of Sheffield until he was let go, possibly because he believes that 9/11 was an inside job and that the Salisbury poisonings of 2018 were falsely blamed on Russia.

Vanessa Beeley is a blogger who traded a small-scale life in Europe for semi-celebrity in Syria. When a busload of foreigners was conducted around the country by the regime on a propaganda tour in 2018, Beeley was wheeled out to address them. She lives comfortably in Damascus, where she maintains a fluorescent pink Volkswagen Beetle with portraits of Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez, pasted to its back window.

Robinson and Beeley, ‘Ivan’ was told, could be contacted via Sergey Krutskikh, a Russian diplomat in Geneva.

Beeley’s case perhaps exemplifies some of the reasons these people pick up quixotic causes like this, including lying for years about crimes against humanity. The men of the Working Group are middle-aged and elderly academics of no particular distinction. Their careers to date have brought them little fame. Conventional academic work offers them little except eventual retirement and obscurity.

But contrariness on Syria has brought them garlands and praise. It has meant regular appearances on television, both Russian state TV and the less wise of the mainstream news channels. For Beeley it has meant relocation to a country with better weather where she is feted as a hero by the state. For the others, throwing their lot in with these conspiracy theories and with foreign powers may well be a last gasp chance at glory.

For those of an especially disputatious nature, it has also brought a great, years-long fight — one in which, unlike in Syria proper, the only consequences are occasional notices of redundancy and the hot flush of annoyance upon being contradicted on the internet. 

It beats the modest rewards of honest work. And so we are left with the undignified spectacle of McKeigue conversing with ‘Ivan’, happy in the hope that he and this agent were helping each other. 

No wonder McKeigue appeared to treat ‘Ivan’s’ messages with little caution or scepticism; the Working Group has largely got what it wanted. Its members must hardly believe their luck. 

This piece was originally published in The Critic.

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