How Bellingcat Operates as a Tool of Western Intelligence Agencies

Bellingcat has often been denounced, by multiple reputable media outlets, as something other than a media outlet. In 2018, the UK’s The Independent noted that it “has grown a lot beyond its shoestring origins. It has money – where from? It has been hiring staff. It has transatlantic connections. It has never reached any conclusion that is inconvenient to the UK or US authorities.”

In the same year, the UK’s The Spectator revealed, to nobody’s surprise, that Bellingcat paid sources for information on the Skripal case, which is an absolute dereliction of journalist duty, something that would merit immediate firing from any reputable media organization. Or not, because there are so many spooks and compromised people now working in journalism that it’s probably best to describe this kind of thing as a new normal.

Foreign Policy, a magazine that itself has significant ties to the US political elite, last year published this article with so many winks and nods about the mysterious sources that feed Bellingcat information, that one suspects the author was having a laugh at every reader’s expense.

Most significantly, The Grayzone had this exposé earlier this year in which it stresses Bellingcat’s “extensive NATO government ties and a conspicuous pattern of conduct in line with its state sponsors’ interests,” noting that Bellingcat has hauled in grants from the National Endowment for Democracy, a US government-funded CIA cutout. Leaked documents reported by The Grayzone revealed that Bellingcat has collaborated with a UK Foreign Office operation that aims to “weaken Russia.”

The Grayzone’s article focuses on Bellingcat’s role in fuelling the civil war in Syria, by whitewashing the Islamist opponents of the Syrian regime, and attacking those who oppose Western maneouvres there. In particular:

Bellingcat has also been a regular source of interventionist material on Syria, the target of a decade-long, multi-billion dollar proxy war waged by the US, UK, and their allies. This includes participating in a nearly two-year campaign to whitewash a scandal at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) — one of the most shocking and well-documented pro-war deceptions since the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

We all wish that was all, don’t we? But a series of leaks reported by The Grayzone exposed how top OPCW officials (these guys) censored findings which undermined US-led allegations of a Syrian government chemical weapons attack in the city of Douma in April 2018. Together with its NATO state sponsors, Bellingcat has worked to bury the cover-up and denigrate two OPCW whistleblowers who challenged it from the inside — to the extent that Bellingcat was caught publishing fraudulent material about one of the dissenting OPCW scientists.

In addition, emails obtained by The Grayzone reveal that Bellingcat has engaged in more subterfuge than was previously known; it was not the sole author of the now-discredited piece published in its name. It also was not the first one: “Someone outside the Bellingcat organization composed portions of the fraudulent material that ultimately appeared on Bellingcat’s website. An external author even drafted questions that Bellingcat sent to multiple recipients. Bellingcat’s duplicitous conduct took place in the midst of a poorly coordinated effort involving HuffPost UK and the BBC – two outlets that also enjoy close ties to the British state.”

The crazy thing is: it’s not really hard to find just how compromised and prostituted Bellingcat is. They don’t keep their staff a secret and, according to this exposé by MintPress News, it has included: Senior Investigator Nick Waters, a former British army officer with frontline experience in Afghanistan; Cameron Colquhoun, a long-serving spy with the UK intelligence agency GCHQ, and training in the US State Department; Chris Biggers, a former intelligence officer for the Department of Defense now working for a private intelligence outfit operating just out of DC, close to where I live; Dan Kaszeta, a former US Secret Service agent who spent six years with the White House Miltary Office; Nour Bakr, a former member of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office… You get the gist.

It’s all pretty dispiriting, to be honest. For years, Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins denied that that National Endowment for Democracy was funding them; and then he got caught, and now they openly admit that they get tons of money each years from NED, a U.S. government agency directly funded by Congress which has the barest minimum claim to political neutrality. Check out The Grayzone’s and MintPress News’ reports for more details on how Bellingcat was caught, and who fund them — it’s all very, very clear:

Imagine, for one second, the opposite scenario: an “independent” Russian investigative website staffed partially with ex-KGB officials, funded by the Kremlin, with most of their research focused on the nefarious deeds of the U.S., U.K. and NATO. Would anyone take it seriously? And yet Bellingcat is consistently presented in corporate media as a liberatory organization; the Information Age’s gift to the people.

But, for pure fun, let’s have a look at this recent article in the New Yorker.

It’s an extremely, albeit involuntary, revealing piece. It purports to tell the story of “How Bellingcat unmasked Putin’s assassins,” meaning the (presumably) extremely incompetent people who first tried to poison Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny and then panicked and sent him to recover in Germany (some people need to relearn the lessons of Stalin era! Never send the people you try to murder to recover in a foreign hospital!)

The story itself is not as important; what really matters in the article is the way Bellingcat is, unwillingly, unmasked as what it really is: not a media enterprise, but rather something else, much more useful to anti-Russian powers. Notice, IN THE VERY FIRST PARAGRAPH, how Bellingcat is indeed described as an “open-source investigation collective”:

In November, Christo Grozev, a researcher at Bellingcat, an open-source investigation collective, called Alexey Navalny, the Russian opposition leader. Three months earlier, Navalny had fallen grievously ill on a flight departing the Siberian city of Tomsk; he was evacuated, in a coma, to Berlin, where the substance that had nearly killed him was identified as Novichok, a Russian-made nerve agent, the use of which appeared to lead straight to the Kremlin. When Grozev reached Navalny, he was recuperating in Ibach, a small town in Germany’s Black Forest. As Grozev recalled, he told Navalny, “I think I may have found the people who tried to kill you.”

This is all fantastic: Bellingcat is NOT described as any sort of media thingy. It’s an “investigation collective.” But it’s not about investigating things neutrally: the “researcher” (a word that in journalistic parlance typically means “somebody who operates as a journalist but is not really allowed to do so openly” — for example, a Chinese employee of a Western media company) contacts one of the parties in his story, to let him know confidential information. And savor the “open-source” bit, because in the very next paragraph we have this:

Grozev, who is fifty-one, is originally from Bulgaria and spent much of his career opening independent radio stations in Russia. His affiliation with Bellingcat grew out of investigations that he had published on his personal blog, where he had documented Russian covert operations in Bulgaria, Greece, and Ukraine. At the time of his call to Navalny, Grozev had recently completed an investigation for Bellingcat into the St. Petersburg State Institute for Experimental Military Medicine of the Department of Defense, which he believed played a central role in Russia’s undeclared Novichok program. After Navalny was poisoned, Grozev searched his reams of telephone metadata—leaked records of calls made with Russian mobile-phone numbers—and discovered a flurry of calls between high-ranking figures at the institute and numbers linked to the F.S.B., Russia’s domestic-security service.

Let me tell you something right away: leaked records of calls made with Russian cellphones, including metadata… THAT’S NOT OPEN SOURCE, OK? Never in two decades as correspondent with the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News I’ve had any access to any cell-phone records, much less “reams” of them.

The story goes on along the same lines; Grozev asked Navalny to provide information on his recent travels around Russia, which Grozev and others could cross-check with whatever data he could collect on the movements of F.S.B. officers. A month later, the results of Grozev’s investigation into Navalny’s poisoning were published on Bellingcat: using telephone metadata and flight records, he had identified more than a dozen F.S.B. officers, many with backgrounds in nerve agents, who had shadowed Navalny on thirty-seven trips, including his fateful visit to Siberia. The New Yorker positively gloats:

Bellingcat had unravelled the F.S.B.’s operation without ever launching a spy satellite, tapping a phone line, or deploying a single agent to the field. “We stumbled onto the truth purely by observing data from thousands of kilometres away,” Grozev told me.

I do love “stumbling onto the truth” (did a Bulgarian native speaker put it that way, while speaking in English? Who cares about such journalistic details, right?) In his new book, “We Are Bellingcat,” the group’s founder, Eliot Higgins, describes the group as “an intelligence agency for the people.” As he puts it, “We are not exactly journalists, nor human-rights activists, nor computer scientists, nor archivists, nor academic researchers, nor criminal investigators, but at the nexus of all those disciplines.” He claims that they have a “moral compass,” which presumably is off when protecting human rights violators, such as those promoting the war in Syria.

It’s worth remembering Syria because the rest of the New Yorker article is about depicting Bellingcat’s heroics there and in other conflicts where it faced multiple conflicts of interest between always serving the interests of its Western funding sources and mercilessly attacking their enemies, always avoiding the unsavory bits. Russia is foremost in their mind, though, in line with the anti-Russian obsession that gripped Western elites in 2016 and gives no sign of abating. The Russian example is the one that provides a figleaf of an explanation for the open-souce inteligence claim. We go back to the Skripal case, again:

In September, 2018, six months after Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent, and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with Novichok in Salisbury, a city in southwest England, British prosecutors announced attempted murder charges against two undercover Russian operatives. They provided the names of their cover identities—Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov—and published their photos, taken from security-camera footage and passport images. “It was an immediate challenge,” Grozev told me.

No open-source information was available on the aliases of Petrov and Boshirov. Instead, Bellingcat unmasked their identities, in large part, using data purchased on Russia’s vast gray market of “probiv,” a term that comes from the Russian verb for an online search. As Ben Smith explained in a recent column for the Times, “Today, it refers to the practice by which anyone can buy, for a couple of dollars on the social media app Telegram or hundreds on a dark web marketplace, the call records, cellphone geolocation or air travel records of anyone in Russia you want to track.”

Right, right. A few hundred dollars to crack the Skripal case. Money well spent! (And take this from me: respectable media don’t buy stuff from shady operators, as it may or may not be manipulated) But no only geo-location shit. These guys buy all sorts of shit in those wonderful open-source Russian markets:

Grozev’s investigation for Bellingcat into Navalny’s poisoning was heavily reliant on probiv databases—flight data showed F.S.B. officers with chemical-weapons backgrounds flying to the same destinations as Navalny, car-registration files linked undercover officers to F.S.B.-linked offices and scientific institutes, and telephone billing records revealed how the hit team kept in touch before and after the assassination attempt. Higgins told me that Bellingcat’s foray into the world of probiv presented a “complex moral question.” “This data shouldn’t be available,” he said, “but it is.” Ultimately, the stakes of the investigation felt too high and the utility of the information potentially too decisive: “Russia appears to be running an illegal nerve-agent program, and there’s literally no other way that I could imagine we could pull off this investigation.”

Toward the end of the investigation, however, data that brokers had promised to deliver to Grozev inexplicably didn’t show up. When he ordered the passenger manifest of the flight from Tomsk to Moscow on which he assumed the F.S.B. hit team would have flown home…

A flight manifesto for sale? Does that cost $10? $15? Money no problem, uh?

…he didn’t see their names, even though he later found them on an archived version of that same document. He assumed the probiv market was being scrubbed of incriminating data. “At some point, we knew that they knew,” Grozev said of the F.S.B.

You know the absolute best thing about this New Yorker story? No Bellingcat critic in the West is quoted in the story. None. Not the reporters in the UK, not those in the US. None of the many people who have been exposing Bellingcat for years. The ones in charge of criticizing Bellingcat are the dastardly Russians, and they have no evidence that it is spooks rather than Russian maffiosi straight from 1990s movies who have been providing Bellingcat with all that wonderful open-source info:

Such an evolution also raises the degree of confrontation with the Kremlin. In the wake of the Skripal revelations, Alexander Yakovenko, Russia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, called Bellingcat a “tool for the deep establishment.” When asked for evidence, he replied, “I cannot present you the evidence. . . . We have a feeling.” That same year, the Russian foreign ministry issued a statement referring to the “pseudo-investigators from Bellingcat, which is well known for spreading false information.” This past December, Putin responded to Bellingcat’s report on Navalny’s poisoning. “It’s not an investigation,” he said. “It’s the legalization of the materials of American intelligence agencies.”

About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
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