Misleading Accusations

Fake news is becoming more common, and most of it is either political in nature or it is an attempt to be humorous. Last week I posted on the attempted murder of the two Skripals. Since then there have been a raft of accusations, some of which border on the pathetic, and some of which are definitely misleading.

The first example comes from the Russians. A Russian ambassador stated that for the British to be able to identify this agent as a Novichok, they must have a sample, therefore they are making it. There was then the implication that this could have been the source, although he never actually said he believed it. This last implication is just plain stupid. I am quite convinced the British would not do this. If they wanted to get rid of the Skripals, which I do not believe they would, at the very least they would do it in a way that would not harm anyone else. It is almost as if the Russian government sees itself as some sort of gangster organization and thinks everyone else is too. That is why I think it was a stupid comment; it is the sort of thing that immediately backfires.

But what about the point that Porton Down must have samples? That is just plain wrong. They must have some sort of expertise, but since it is the UK national defence laboratory, that expertise should be taken for granted. If so, it is a rather straightforward task to identify something like that. We know what the structures involve, and such structures do not occur in nature. You have to have some idea what it could be before you start if your sample is really small, but given the circumstances, that would be a given. One approach would be to run a mass spectrum of the sample (having done some sort of chromatographic purification), and do it under a few different conditions. One such determination would be low energy ionization to determine the overall molecular weight, which tells you how many atoms are there, and if the instrument is good enough, the molecular formula. That is because although all elements comprise protons and neutrons, which have a constant mass, the binding energy varies from atom to atom, and from relativity there are clear but very small mass differences between the various possibilities from the general molecular weight. The next attempt would be hit it with higher energy, which would break it into fragments, and again the molecular weights of the fragments will tell you how the various groups are assembled. Finally, some small groups will give you more information, and the exercise then is to interpret how to put this back together again. Of course had they ever had access to a sample, they would have records of the fragmentation patterns of all the Novichoks they knew about. So there is little doubt the British authorities would have been able to find out what this was without having to go around making or having samples.

However, then the British politicians made a further statement: we can tell where it came from through the structure. Sorry, but you can’t. That statement violates the first law of thermodynamics, from which you can show the nature of a chemical is independent of how it was made, or from where. Had there been tonnes of the stuff, yes, then you might, not directly from the structure but rather once you knew what it was, you would know who made it because chemical plant, by and large, gets dedicated to making one substance and there would probably be only one making some of these components. But at the gram level, there is no way of knowing from its structure where it came from.

The problem with these sort of comments is they sound convincing to those who do not know much about the general subject However, eventually someone points out the errors and conspiracy theories start up. When it becomes known that the authorities made politically desirable statements, all sorts of rubbish comes out of the woodwork. Another problem with such announcements is that they may look to be politically desirable at the time, but what about the downstream consequences? In this case, the desire to blame Russia has set off some tit for tat diplomatic expulsions, and some sanctions. Now what? Why could that not have waited until the evidence came in? If it can be shown that Russian agents did it, then surely the various actions would be stronger and even the Russians might seem embarrassed. But suppose some individual or small rogue organization did it? Now Russia has been made angry for no good purpose. Nothing has been done that could not have waited, so why not wait and make sure the conclusions are right?

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Science and Sanctions

This may seem an odd title in that most people consider science far away from describing human activities. I am not suggesting the scientific method should govern all of human activities, but I think that a little more attention to its methods would help humanity (and I try to show a little of this in my novels, although I am unsure that most would notice). The first important point, of course, is to clarify what the scientific method is. Contrary to what you may see on TV programs, etc, it is not some super geek sitting down solving impossible mathematical equations. Basically, the scientific method is you form propositions, perhaps manipulate them, then check with reality whether they might be correct. The most important feature here is, check the evidence.

What initiated this post was news that the US House of Representatives has passed a bill that will impose new sanctions on Russia, including (according to reports here) the forbidding of any help with Russia’s oil and gas industry, and President Trump has signed it into law. So, what are the premises behind this?

The first one is that foreign countries will oblige and help carry them out.

The second, presumably, is that Russia will now fall into line and do whatever the sanctions are intended to make it do.

The third is, if Russia cannot export more oil or gas, their prices will rise.

The fourth is, removing Russian hydrocarbons from the international market will lead to further markets for US hydrocarbons. Note the US now has the capacity to be a major exporter, thanks to fracking.

The first two depend on each other, and obviously, seeking evidence of the future is not practical, nevertheless we can look at the history of sanctions. Are there any examples of countries “bending the knee” in response to sanctions when they probably would not have done it anyway? I cannot think of any. Obviously, sanctions are less likely to effective if foreign countries refuse to cooperate, which is why the two are linked. The two most recent examples of sanctions are Iran and North Korea. Both have been imposed for sufficient time, and the question is, how effective are they?

In the case of Iran, one objective is claimed to have been met in that Iran argues it no longer has the capacity to make nuclear weapons, however it also claimed that was never its intention. Everyone seems to delight in arguing whether either of those statements is true, but in my opinion nuclear weapons are a poor strategic objective for Iran. I also believe they are a poor option for North Korea, but seemingly someone has to show Kim that is so. For either of them, what would it gain? Iran has opted (if truthful) to avoid nuclear weapons, but then again, what has it gained from doing so? The sanctions America imposed are still largely there. As for the effectiveness of sanctions, it appears that Iran is doing reasonably well, and a number of countries are buying its oil, including China. So I conclude that sanctions are not particularly effective there.

North Korea does not seem in any immediate hurry to “bend the knee” to the US and while it has suffered the harshest sanctions, apparently over the last few years its exports have increased by at least 40%, mainly to China. President Trump has accused China of not helping, and he is correct, but being correct does not get anyone very far. The obvious question is, why is North Korea chasing after better weapons? The answer is obvious: it is at war with the US and South Korea. The Korean War never ended formally. The sides agreed to a ceasefire, but no permanent treaty was signed, so one of the actions that America could have taken in the last sixty years or so would have been to negotiate a formal peace treaty. You may well say, the US would never launch a preemptive strike against North Korea. You may well be right, but are you that sure? From North Korea’s point of view, the US has launched cruise missile attacks frequently against places it does not like, it has significant military bases in Syria, it invaded Iraq, and so on. You might argue that the US was justified because these countries were not behaving, and you may well be right, but from North Korea’s point of view, it is at war with the US already, so it has decided to do what it can to defend itself. One approach to end this ridiculous position would be to at least offer a treaty.

The third and fourth premises are probably ones the US Congress does not advertise, because they are full of self-interest. Apparently there is enough liquefied natural gas able to be produced to substitute for Russian gas in Europe. So, why don’t they sell it? Competition is a good thing, right? The simplest answer is price and cost. Europe would have to build massive lng handling facilities, and pay a lot more for their gas than for Russian gas. And it is here that these sanctions may run into trouble. The Germans will lose heavily from the loss of Russian gas, in part because their industries are involved in expanding the Russian fields and pipelines, and of course, they would have to pay more for gas, and some equipment would need changing for the different nature of the gas.

So, if we return to the evidence, I think we can conclude that these latest attempts at sanctions are more based on self-interest than anything else. There is no evidence they will achieve anything as far as pushing Russia around goes. It is true, if imposed, they would hurt Russia significantly, but they would also hurt Europe, so will Europe cooperate?

Putin and the West

One of the more unexpected items that I saw recently on the web noted some accusations made by Vladimir Putin to the effect that the West, and particularly the US, has made a continual attempt to destabilize Russia. By itself, that is not exactly surprising that he would say that, but the way he argues the West went about it is, assuming this has any truth. And, of course, this continues my theme of asking for actual evidence behind accusations. The following is a précis of Putin’s accusations, together with my comments. The more complete accusations can be found here:

http://journal-neo.org/2015/05/15/what-if-putin-is-telling-the-truth/

The first point that Putin made was that when Afghanistan was under Soviet control, the Mujahideen were funded from the CIA and the Saudis. That is almost certainly true, but the Soviets should have expected that. The next point was that when the Soviet Union collapsed and fell into total disarray the American attitude was, “kick them while they are down”. There was certainly considerable glee in the western press when the Soviet Union collapsed, but that does not mean they set about to make the situation worse. My guess is the West would be really concerned about what happened to the Soviet nuclear material, so they would not welcome a total collapse.

The next point Putin made was that Halliburton had surveyed the oil potentials of the Caucasus region, and it was huge. That is a mixed statement. The oil reserves are huge, but that was known well before, and in World War II, Hitler had decided that if he could get there, his fuel problems were over. (They would not be because there was still a transport problem, but the oil was certainly known.) Halliburton knowing about Caucasus oil reserves is unsurprising, but that does not mean Halliburton did anything. However, Halliburton can clear itself by proving none of their agents visited the region nor did they send any particular amounts of money there. So far they have not.

Putin then accused the West of trying to keep this oil from Russia. That, to me, doesn’t make sense. Putin then accused a General Richard Secord of organizing revolts. He persuaded two thousand of the Wahabbis of the Afghan Arabs to redeploy into these areas, and he was helped by a CIA agent called Osama bin Laden. Again, multiple accusations. The “Afghan Arabs” had little effect on getting rid of the Soviets from Afghanistan, and were apparently intensely disliked by the Afghans who were doing the fighting, nevertheless there were about 35,000 of these Afghan Arabs who received military training and about $800 million from the US. You can make what you will of that, and more details are at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegations_of_CIA_assistance_to_Osama_bin_Laden However, you can reasonably argue that from Putin’s point of view, he is not that interested in fine detail, and Putin’s statement was about these Afghan Arabs. Furthermore, there is evidence that people who were Osama’s closest associates did benefit from US funding. However, there is no clear evidence I could find that anyone from the CIA ever met Osama bin Laden.

General Richard Secord’s plan (according to Putin) was to set up a front company, MEGA oil, which was the agency for bringing the terrorists and arms into the Caucasus. Again, this is a multiple point statement. If MEGA oil was a registered company, the shareholding should be known, but of course these might be nominees. Thus Secord may well have helped set up that company but even of he did, that does not show he had anything to do with bringing in terrorists, i.e. the Afghan Arabs. We need supporting facts. The first success of this strategy, according to Putin, was to topple the elected President of Azerbaijan in a military coup, and replace him with an American puppet. Certainly, the President was deposed, but we have no reason to suspect the Afghan Arabs had anything to do with this.

The Afghan Arabs then turned their attention to Chechnya. A flood of US dollars allowed bin Laden to ensure that Chechen moderates were soon out of the way. Prior to this intervention, Chechens were mainly moderate Sufi Muslims but the Afghan Arabs quickly spread al Qaeda’s hard-line philosophy. Leaving aside the role of Osama, we know the Afghan Arabs did have a serious role in Chechnya, and we have no way of knowing whether the accusation of cash is true, although that would not be surprising if there was such cash, or if there was such cash, its origins. Again, a shortage of facts.

Meanwhile, according to Putin, the Saudi terrorist Ibn al-Khattag was organizing terrorists for a more general jihad. The CIA and Saudi financed terrorists also carried out the October 2002 massacre at the Dubrovka theatre in Moscow, and the September 2004 Beslan school massacre. According to Putin, this activity was funded by, and many fighters were provided by, Osama bin Laden from Kandahar. The objectives were, from the CIA, to destabilize the collapsing Russian federation, while the Saudis wanted to spread Wahabbi fundamentalism. The two named massacres certainly happened, but this was after 9/11, and I find it very hard to believe the US was funding the terrorists then. The more unexpected the statement, the stronger must be the supporting facts, and they are absent. Following the Beslan massacre, which the Russian troops handled poorly, Putin noted that the western media demonized him and Russia, but no mention was made of al Qaeda or the Saudi involvement. That may be because the western media had no reason to suspect Saudi involvement.

The item then noted that by late 2004, Putin had had enough of Chechnya, and ordered a more vigorous response by Russia into Chechnya. What they found was that most of the Afghan Arab terrorists had already fled, and had safe havens in NATO member countries, or reliable US allies. The allegation that the Afghan Arabs had fled Chechnya was presumably true because there is fair evidence they were there, and they were not there when the Russian troops came in, but where they went to must be unknown. My guess is many of them ended up in Iraq or Syria.

So the problem is, many of Putin’s allegations are not supported by evidence that I could find. On the other hand, just because I could not find evidence does not mean they are not true, or, for that matter, they are false. As for Halliburton, their general involvement and incompetence in Iraq may have made them a convenient whipping boy. However, the role of al Qaeda in the Chechen revolt and the two pieces of terrorism in Russia were outlined in a report that the Putin allegation asserts was published by the UN Security Council in 2010. That report is verifiable. Accordingly, I believe that is an endorsement of the truth of that part of Putin’s accusation.

In short, what Putin alleges about the Afghan Arabs and their role in Chechnya appears to be verified, but the argument that the CIA was backing them then has no support that I could find. So, my overall conclusion is there is no direct evidence that the CIA actively tried to organize terrorism in the Russian Federation, BUT they had almost certainly funded and trained the people who were to become terrorists when the US thought they were liberating Afghanistan. In short, our current problems were bred by CIA intervention, and the CIA simply did not understand the motivation behind those it was funding. Assuming it is true, the spending of $800 million on some militant religious fundamentalists may have seemed a good idea at the time, but it ended up being very silly.