This past week saw an enormous outpouring of respect and admiration for Stephen Hawking upon his passing.
In contrast to his frail health in life, his contributions to our understanding of the universe were prodigious and robust. Hawking's elevation of rational and intellectual truth above all else, even his failing body, inspired a generation of science lovers.
Perhaps, too, he represented something in desperately short supply in today's world: intellectual integrity.
Our lives are now fraught with easily-disproved fantasies, frauds and fictions being pushed to us through the media by institutions with deliberate agendas trying to engineer specific outcomes.
Those of us with a pragmatic mindset and an ability to recall (even quite recent) history, often find ourselves with mouths literally agape at the obvious deceptions being foisted upon what appears to be a terminally-gullible public.
Why do so many continue to blindly trust the same government agencies that have brazenly and repeatedly lied to them over the past recent years?
If this craziness continues for much longer, at a minimum, we'll face a punishing market correction/crash from which there will be no meaningful recovery in the lifetime of those reading this article.
At worst, we face the prospect of World War III, fought with nuclear weapons. If that were to happen, the lifetimes of many reading this article will be a lot shorter.
Yes, it’s that serious.
I risk running afoul of one of the strongest propaganda campaigns of my lifetime when I state that I'm not at all worried about Russia.
Nor am I swayed by the long parade of recent attempts to convince me that Russia is behind nearly every ill action. This includes the recent nerve agent attack in the UK.
I have no informed opinion yet on whether Russia or a different party was behind this act. But I can tell you that the burden of proof to establish Russia’s culpability has not even remotely been met.
If you find yourself triggered by what follows, please note that my over-riding interest here is the truth. My priority lies in assuring that we use our remaining national resources wisely; not squandering them on a monumentally stupid act like sparking a war with a major nuclear power. I’ve been completely consistent on this point over the years.
While the rush to judgment against Russia has been nearly universal by western countries, I would ask us all to please take a deep breath and to remember this:
While this is an historical embarrassment, it's critical that we remember that the vast intelligence agencies of both the US and the UK were deeply complicit in promoting the false narrative that Saddam had vast stores of chemical weapons, claiming that he was within 45 minutes of launching massive and damaging strikes against American and British targets.
Of course, no such chemical weapons existed. There were no stockpiles of WMDs. The Iraqi military also had no means of delivering them, via missiles or aircraft. And more to the point, Saddam had never once threatened to do so at any point in time.
But none of that mattered. Saddam was relentlessly built up as a mortal and imminent threat in the press by a vast “coalition of the willing”.
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
(And for clarity's sake: Saddam was a cruel despot. I'm not defending his character. But he certainly wasn't the existential threat the West claimed him to be, and his removal certainly didn't merit the high cost the world has paid.)
Almost everything that I now read about Russia, including the emotional certainty by those delivering the news that it must be true, is precisely identical to that which accompanied the disastrous (and immoral and illegal) attack of Iraq by western powers.
How can people so quickly forget this very recent and colossal blunder?
In my world, when someone intentionally lies to me in way that causes harm, the burden of proof their future claims need to meet in order for me to believe them skyrockets. Said differently: once my trust is broken, it never comes fully back.
Further, if such claims, threats and retaliations against a much more potent power like Russia could once again trigger war — but on a tremendously more dangerous scale — shouldn't the evidence involved be held to the very highest standard possible?
In US law, when a person is being tried under criminal charges, the standard is "beyond a reasonable doubt":
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
The standard that must be met by the prosecution's evidence in a criminal prosecution: that no other logical explanation can be derived from the facts except that the defendant committed the crime, thereby overcoming the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty.
So in the recent UK nerve agent attack, can there be “no other logical explanation” besides an intentional hit job by Putin?
Let’s examine the ‘proof’ that's been offered so far by British Prime Minister, Teresa May:
The UK government is manufacturing its nerve agent case for ‘action’ on Russia
By Nafeez Ahmed
On Monday, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that former Russian spy, Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia, were poisoned with “a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia” known as ‘Novichok’.
The chemical agent was identified by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down. May referred to the British government’s “knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so” as a basis to conclude that Russia’s culpability in the attack “is highly likely.”
On these grounds, she claimed that only two scenarios are possible:
“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.”
The British government’s line has been chorused uncritically by the entire global press corps, with little scrutiny of its plausibility.
The case, such as it is, rests on the proposition that the presence of Novichok confirms that this was either the result of Russian State action or the negligence thereof by allowing it to get into the hands of assassins.
No samples have been released yet for independent analysis, so we're forced to trust the word of the UK government for now. That’s ding #1 to the case. I'll feel a lot better about the facts after other independent and transparent entities have analyzed the samples.
As the investigative journalist, Nafeez Ahmed, went on to point out in the rest of the article, there are a host of state actors with the capability to manufacture the Novichok nerve agent, including the UK, the US, Ukraine, and Israel — all of whom may have varying and significant motivations to implicate Russia at this moment in time.
It’s utterly and completely illogical to simply say “Russia invented this stuff, so it must be Russia who did it”. Such a claim wouldn't stand up in a court of law as being “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Not even close.
Let's look at this next statement by Teresa May:
Her ‘reasoning’ can be deconstructed thusly:
“The poison in question was once produced by the Soviet Union in a place called Uzbekistan. But I’m going to say 'Russia' instead, even though the two counties don't even border each other. Anyways, because it was once produced by the Soviets there, we can be certain the Russians used it now to kill our double-agent.”
The lack of context and transparency is astonishing. The overly-simplistic logic is astonishing.
Is May's conclusion correct? Who knows? The truth is, we don't have enough evidence yet to come to any hard conclusions.
To build a tighter case, you’d want to have the nerve agent sample(s) analyzed. Does it reveal some identifying chemical fingerprints that would prove it came from Russia? You'd push your police forces work to catch the person(s) responsible for administering the agent, and get a solid confession along with a paper trail (or its electronic equivalent) all open to public scrutiny.
We don't have any of that type of evidence yet. But the rush to judgment is now nearly complete. A number of strong sanctions are already being placed against Russia, risking much.
As for ‘reasonable doubt’, it turns out it's not clear at all that the presence of Novichok is a tell-tale sign of Russian involvement.
A very simple web search turns up the fact that it was the US military who helped Uzbekistan decommission the former Soviet chemical weapons site where Novichok was stored and tested:
U.S. and Uzbeks Agree on Chemical Arms Plant Cleanup
The United States and Uzbekistan have quietly negotiated and are expected to sign a bilateral agreement today to provide American aid in dismantling and decontaminating one of the former Soviet Union's largest chemical weapons testing facilities, according to Defense Department and Uzbek officials.
Earlier this year, the Pentagon informed Congress that it intends to spend up to $6 million under its Cooperative Threat Reduction program to demilitarize the so-called Chemical Research Institute, in Nukus, Uzbekistan. Soviet defectors and American officials say the Nukus plant was the major research and testing site for a new class of secret, highly lethal chemical weapons called ''Novichok,'' which in Russian means ''new guy.''
Now, after reading that, nobody could possibly say that the presence of Novichok, all by itself, proves that it must have come from modern-day Russia.
Because we know for a fact that both the Uzbekistan and US government had access to Novichok, there’s no “chain of custody” that can be proved here that results in Russia being the only actor with access to Novichok.
To Ms. May’s other accusation: what if was Uzbekistan who lost control of some of that Novichok under its supervision back in the late 1990’s? What would Russia’s responsibility for that slip-up be today? Enough to risk a shooting war over?
Now, to fast-forward, let’s turn to the New York Times' coverage on March 12th, a full eight days after the March 4th nerve agent attack on Skripal. By this time, the paper had had plenty of opportunity to scan it’s own archives:
“It is now clear that Mr. Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia,” Mrs. May said in the House of Commons. “The government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal.”
She said that either the poisoning was a “direct act of the Russian state against our country” or that Moscow had lost control of its nerve agent and had allowed it to get into the hands of others.
At no point in this article, or any other I’ve so far read, does the New York Times recall for its readers that Novichok was kept at a facility in Uzbekistan that the US military helped to dismantle and clean up in 1999.
Isn’t that a relevant fact that introduces credible alternatives to the assertions of Ms. May? Given what we experienced leading up to the Iraq invasion in 2002, we need to be asking these sorts of questions — as the possible consequences are so severe.
What a responsible media organization (which many of my closest friends continue to insist the New York Times is) should do in its coverage is point out that many other world players could easily, and with reasonable doubt, have had access to Novichok. Objective and balanced reporting would have done that.
Further, even if the Novichok used to poison Skripal and his daughter did not come from old stockpiles, it could very easily have been manufactured as Dave Collum (the Cornell Chemistry professor who writes the fantastic annual Year In Review summary that appears on Peak Prosperity each December) makes clear here:
This, too, could have and should have been part of the reporting. Why wasn’t it?
Given this omission, and the eminently-likely probability that the UK itself manufactured Novichok at Porton Down at some point in order to study it (as the US, Israel, North Korea, etc have all likely done, as well) what does the presence of Novichok in the recent nerve agent attack tell us about where it came from, who used it, and why?
In a court of law? Virtually nothing.
And when a war could be triggered? Worse than nothing. It’s dangerous and irresponsible.
A former member of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (the FCO is Britain's equivalent of the US State Department), Craig Murray, writes that the carefully worded phrase “of a type manufactured by” (seen in the articles above) is pure propaganda:
Of A Type Developed By Liars
Mar 16, 2018
I have now received confirmation from a well-placed FCO source that Porton Down scientists are not able to identify the nerve gas as being of Russian manufacture, and have been resentful of the pressure being placed on them to do so. Porton Down would only sign up to the formulation “of a type developed by Russia” after a rather difficult meeting where this was agreed as a compromise formulation. The Russians were allegedly researching, in the “Novichok” programme a generation of nerve agents which could be produced from commercially available precursors such as insecticides and fertilisers. This substance is a “novichok” in that sense. It is of that type. Just as I am typing on a laptop of a type developed by the United States, though this one was made in China.
To anybody with a Whitehall background this has been obvious for several days. The government has never said the nerve agent was made in Russia, or that it can only be made in Russia. The exact formulation “of a type developed by Russia” was used by Theresa May in parliament, used by the UK at the UN Security Council, used by Boris Johnson on the BBC yesterday and, most tellingly of all, “of a type developed by Russia” is the precise phrase used in the joint communique issued by the UK, USA, France and Germany yesterday:
"This use of a military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia, constitutes the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War."
When the same extremely careful phrasing is never deviated from, you know it is the result of a very delicate Whitehall compromise. Porton Down is still not certain it is the Russians who have apparently synthesised a “Novichok”. Hence “Of a type developed by Russia”.
Note developed, not made, produced or manufactured.
It is very carefully worded propaganda. Of a type developed by liars.
Let me propose that antagonizing a major nuclear power using such flimsy “evidence” and weaselly wording is insane. The UK may well get a “conviction” in the court of public opinion (and may have already done so), but what’s been released so far would never stand up in a court of law. Sadly, as already noted, it wouldn’t be the first time the intelligence and political machinery went entirely off the rails in the UK or the US.
I’ve written extensively over the years (here, here and here) about the forms of propaganda being used to demonize Russia (as well as sell us all more consumer goods), and the risks that those deceptions entail. In short, if this all ends in a shooting war between the West and Russia, you can kiss goodbye a lot of things — your standard of living probably the least worrisome of the lot.
As a counterbalance to the high degree of existential threat the western military powers apparently perceive as coming from Russia, I would simply offer these two facts:
- Entire Russian Military budget for 2017 = $70 billion
- The US’ increase in military expenditures for 2018 will be $90 billion (from $610b to $700b)
In other words: merely the increase in the US' military budget will be 128% of Russia’s entire military budget.
So here’s the bottom line: when war is on the line, shouldn't we insist that the very highest standards of evidence be used? And because the general public bears the worst costs of war, shouldn't that evidence be made freely and publicly available with full transparency?
Should we readily believe the UK government which has only so far made two claims: (1) it looks like Russia did this and (2) “trust us”?
I, for one, cannot. Not after the Iraq WMD fiasco.
I admit that, as a critically-thinking individual, I'm personally annoyed and offended that the level of evidence being offered up here falls so far below the minimum standards of proof. The implication is clear: those in charge think we're easily-led idiots.
The question for us as a society to answer is: Are we?
Well, we are if we allow our leaders to drive us all again into an unnecessary and preventable war.
The case presented (so far) against Russia by Teresa May could not and would not stand up in a court of law. The standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” has not been met. In fact, the case falls so ridiculously short of that standard that we're reminded of the slip-shod rush to war in Iraq back in 2003.
The elements are all the same: (1) serious charges levied against a proposed enemy, (2) a lack of any actual evidence presented to the public, and (3) a near universal and non-stop repetition of the charges by the press without any serious questioning or appropriate context.
My concern, as always, is avoiding an unnecessary war, especially one that could be so damaging.
As I wrote back in 2016 in the report Do We Really Want a War With Russia?
Where we could analyze the Russian-US situation from a variety of directions – political, historical, etc. – I am going to do it from the psychological perspective.
I see the neocons and likuds as very damaged and traumatized individuals. They carry a set of internal wounds that express on the outside as a very belligerent and hostile set of postures and actions.
If I were to guess at their internal wound, it might be something along the lines of “I was really hurt as a child and nobody will ever hurt me again like that.”
The best way to not be hurt is to lash out as fiercely and as rapidly as you can, in every circumstance. The motto is “Do on to others before they do on to me.”
The mistake you and I could make would be to assume on any level that these people share our world view and will not “go all the way” before turning back. They are not built the same. The ends always justify the means to these people. They do not rationally calculate outcomes because they are operating from a very wounded and highly irrational spot.
Have you ever tried using logic on someone who is in a full emotional meltdown? How did that work out? Not well, right? In fact, it almost certainly made things worse.
Well, as I worried, here we are.
Yes, somebody really wants a war with Russia and they seem determined to get it. Shame on the media for again failing to perform its role even minimally. Again.
I remain confused why so few others in the public see these patterns of deception yet. I'm especially confused as to why Europe would go along with all this given that they receive so much of their daily energy needs, from Russia. Should Russia ever turn off the spigots, Europe would collapse in a hurry, economically, financially, and possibly socially.
I fully anticipate an emotional reaction to this piece, but my role is to call things as I see them. I'll ignore any responses that are merely ad hominem, or attempt to portray opinions as facts (i.e. “look this is the sort of thing Russia does, so I believe they did it!!”)
Instead I appeal to the use of logic, data and reason. Let's have an open debate based on those.
Given the stakes involved, shouldn’t we appeal to our greatest intellectual and rational abilities? It’s what Stephen Hawking would have encouraged.
Thanks for persisting through this long article. The punchline to it all is: War with Russia is a distinct possibility, and the West is increasing that risk through escalating provocation.
Should a war break out, it could be along a variety of dimensions which are outlined in Part 2 below.
For now, it should be (hopefully) sufficient for you to take the threat seriously and to make whatever provisions seem prudent to you. To our European readers, such preparations seem even more necessary because you will be close to the front lines of any direct, conventional hostilities that break out.
In Part 2: How To Prepare For War (Updated Version), we explain how conflict can take many forms: trade wars, energy wars, financial wars, cyberwar, shooting wars, and nuclear war. We lay out in great detail the steps we, as individuals, can do to prepare for each.
And fortunately, this preparation comes with an upside: as many of these precautions will be life-enhancing steps even if — hopefully, if — tensions de-escalate from here.