Peddling certainty

Some of you may remember the ‘Dodgy Dossier’ produced by the British government prior to the invasion of Iraq. This laid out the government’s evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. I gave it a read at the time. It was most unconvincing, consisting of numerous statements along the lines that ‘Iraq could have this’, ‘It might have that’, and so on. The Executive Summary, by contrast, was very different. All the caveats had disappeared, to be replaced by an almost 100% certainty that Iraq was knee deep in deadly weapons. The next day when the media reported the dossier, they just reported the Executive Summary. The ‘coulds’, ‘mights’ and ‘possiblys’ in the main text were nowhere to be seen. I knew then that something fishy was going on.

My career in military intelligence was relatively short, but one thing I learnt from it is that intelligence analysts tend towards caution in their assessments. They don’t want to be proven wrong, and so lace their reports with words like ‘possibly’ and ‘probably’. This is especially true when providing analysis rather than reporting pure data. Whenever you read something which claims 100% certainty, you should be immediately suspicious.

As regular readers will know, I am of the opinion that there are good reasons to suspect Russian involvement in the poisoning of Sergei and Yuliia Skripal in Salisbury. The behaviour of the alleged poisoners, Petrov and Boshirov, was, to say the least, odd, and their interview on RT utterly unconvincing. Which is where we come on to the organization Bellingcat, which claims to have identified Boshirov’s real identity.

The first thing to say about Bellingcat’s research is that it is ingenious. Unfortunately, their claims about Petrov’s and Boshirov’s passport applications are unverifiable, as we don’t have access to the originals, and so can’t check want Bellingcat is saying. Still, it’s undoubtedly interesting. Likewise, the organization’s latest investigation, which claims to identify Boshirov as a colonel in the GRU, named Chepiga, deserves to be added to the file as something worth further investigation. I absolutely don’t dismiss this stuff out of hand.

But there’s something which annoys me about Bellingcat nonetheless. It’s the certainty with which it makes its claims, and then the certainty with which those claims are reported by the press. The intitial Bellingcat report on Petrov’s and Boshirov’s alleged passport application stated that the organization’s investigation,

Has confirmed through uncovered passport data that the two Russian nationals identified by UK authorities as prime suspects in the Novichok poisonings on British soil are linked to Russian security services.

Note the word ‘confirmed’. This is incorrect. What the investigation does is provide information to suggest a link between the suspects and Russian intelligence. It doesn’t prove it. If you find the evidence convincing, I’d allow you to say ‘probable’, or to put in some sentence like ‘we assess with a high degree of confidence that,’ or whatever. If you did that, then you’d be writing like a proper intelligence analyst, pointing out to the reader that this is an assessment not a fact, and that there is some uncertainty. But Bellingcat doesn’t do that. It’s ‘confirmed.’

The second Bellingcat report on the subject makes the same error, beginning with the headline ‘Skripal Suspects Confirmed as GRU Operatives’. Note again the word ‘confirmed’ – no doubt there at all. The same happens again with Bellingcat’s latest. This starts with the headline ‘Skripal Suspect Boshirov Identified as GRU Colonel Anatoly Chepiga.’ In this case, the word ‘identified’ is categorical. Bellingcat is claiming that this is definitely true, not raising the possibility that it might be so. As the article which follows says,

Bellingcat and its investigative partner The Insider – Russia have established conclusively the identity of one of the suspects in the poisoning of Sergey and Yulia Skripal. … Bellingcat was able to conclude with certainty that the person identified by UK authorities as ‘Ruslan Boshirov’ is in fact Colonel Anatoliy Vladimirovich Chepiga.

But have they established this ‘conclusively’? What they’ve actually done is tracked down a Russian military officer, Colonel Chepiga, and provided some evidence to suggest that he might be in the GRU. They’ve then provided some photos to show that Boshirov looks a bit like Chepiga. But that is absolutely not ‘conclusive’ proof that Boshirov is Chepiga. Again, Bellingcat  is making categorical claims that its evidence doesn’t support. Boshirov may indeed be Chepiga – I don’t rule that out – but it is wrong to say, as Bellingcat does, that on the basis of its evidence one can ‘conclude with certainty’ that the two are the same.

This is especially true as Bellingcat  made no forensic effort to compare the photos of Boshirov and Chepiga. I’m no fan of Craig Murray, who it seems to me has popped far too many red pills but, as you can read here, he at least bothered to run some facial recognition software, and got results which suggest that the two aren’t the same guys at all. I’m not at all qualified to comment on forensic matters. Perhaps further investigation will reveal that the two faces are in fact identical. Or maybe they won’t. I merely raise the issue to say that if you want to make the sort of identification Bellingcat makes you have to do a bit more work before coming out with statements about concluding ‘with certainty’. It’s dishonest reporting.

And it matters. The reason it matters is that the press doesn’t tend to go for nuance. If you make claims of certainty, the press will run with them and repeat them as if they are true. And this is what we saw in the British press following the Bellingcat story:


Observe how all these headlines treat Bellingcat’s claim as proven fact. Now, perhaps further investigation will prove Bellingcat to have been right. I consider it perfectly possible. But as a former intelligence officer, the claims to absolute certainty bug me. Proper reporting requires analysts to make the reader aware of all the underlying assumptions and uncertainties, as well as the additional information which is required to confirm the hypothesis being advanced. Bellingcat doesn’t do any of that. It peddles certainties. And that sort of thing has gotten us into all sorts of trouble in the past. Reader beware.


23 thoughts on “Peddling certainty”

  1. I agree that it is within the realm of possibility that the Russian government may have been involved in the attacks on the Skripals. That is to say, the Russian government, like virtually every other government, including the U.S., would not have let moral qualms get in the way of trying to get rid of, or frighten, some person X IF it determined that doing so was in its vital interests, and worth the fall-out. It would, in other words, be foolish to make an a priori assumption that it could not have been the Russian government. I also make no such assumption.

    Thus far we are in agreement.

    I also agree that the appearance on RT of Boshirov and Petrov was unsatisfying, in the sense that they were obviously not telling the whole story. Indeed they themselves said several times they did not want to tell the whole story, including who their work associates are — so as, they said, not to bring unnecessary harm to them by putting them in the public gaze in such an unflattering context. But it is a a very big leap — and here I differ with your position — from their interview being odd and unsatisfying, to concluding that therefore ‘Boshirov and Petrov probably are guilty of having brought the deadly military-grade nerve agent Novichok in their hand luggage from Moscow and then applied it to the door handle of the Skripals.’ You may reply: ‘well, I didn’t say how they went about being involved, it may have been something else.’ But how else, then? Because the Russians, to be proven guilty, must be proven guilty of something more than ‘acting kind of fishy.’ They have to be proven guilty of committing the actual crime which has a detailed timeline and list of particulars that have been laid out for us: the deadly Novichok nerve agent applied to a door handle without anyone noticing (and presumably, yet implausibly, done by persons not wearing protective suits suitable for safely handling military-grade nerve agents); the Skripals’ subsequent exposure by both touching the door handle on the way out; the happy stroll of the Skripals about town for four hours, the Skripals’ being in contact with several other people and objects, but causing no harm to anyone else; their final simultaneous collapse four hours after the exposure, only to recover fully some weeks later, and then to disappear again. It is possible that Russia was involved in what has happened to the Skripals, I agree. The problem is that the evidence offered thus far is unconvincing regardless of who was involved; and I have seen no evidence that plausibly connects Boshirov and Petrov to the crime that has just been described. The crime itself is extremely fishy, as presented by the British government. I certainly don’t trust the Russian government to always tell the truth. That would be foolish. I also don’t trust the British government to do so — certainly not as a matter of course (recall, for one highly pertinent example, Boris Johnson’s statement that Porton Down told him in no uncertain terms that the nerve agent was of Russian-manufacture, when in fact they precisely did not made such a statement).

    I suppose Occam’s razor should be included as one element of ordinary logic. In any case logic alone leads me to find quite unconvincing the story provide by the British government, and I find Rob Slane’s questions today (in which he appeals to Occam’s razor) as at least as pertinent as those raised by Craig Murray. I think Murray has raised a number of points worth investigating further about the relation of British intelligence to Mr. Skripal (which relationship, if the linkages with the Steele dossier check out, could possibly explain the reluctance of both sides in this case to be honest and open about what is going on). Be that as it may, today’s blog post by Slane is an enjoyable read, and, to my mind, enlightening:

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Propaganda organs are broadcasting narratives concocted by their experts. Narratives. They want these narratives to become common knowledge, common sense.

    Why would they weaken the effect they themselves are trying to produce by introducing uncertainty in it? Makes no sense.

    Also, why would you want to read about various possible but uncertain scenarios? Yeah, space aliens could’ve done it, but it’s highly unlikely. Is this an exciting news?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. f the Russian government wanted to get rid of Skripal, they would have done a Gareth Williams or a Dr David Kelly on him. They would not waste time with a risky theatrical West End performance. Ah, the story is that they did it this way to put fear into other prospective defectors allegedly. Which others? Who knows. Assuming this holds for the Russians, there is a lot of risk for little reward.

    On the other hand, Skripal was of limited use to the UK secret services with no current active information to provide. He also formed a not-insignificant expense with mortgage, salaries, etc. He may also have been feeling homesick and thinking of going back to Russia. Then he would be a current threat to UK state security as he would knowledge of some of their actions. So the UK has a motive for a theatrical attack in order to pin everything on Russia, as part of the general pre-war demonisation process (Is Putin the New Hitler (TM) yet?).

    As for the non-convincing ‘performance’ of the two Russians, I would be in a similar position to them performance-wise, if after a trip to Moscow when something bad happened to a Brit ex-spy living there, I was named by the Russian government as a person of interest. It would be more nerve-wracking if I was involved in some dodgy drug-import / tax evasion scheme for example.

    At the end of the day, whatever happened, the UK regime has a more convincing motive for, and more to gain from, the Skripal affair than the Russians.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. “My career in military intelligence was relatively short”

    Ah, Professor! You know what they say – “Once CheKist, always CheKist” 😉


      1. An amusing rumor (from a source I would trust about as far as I can throw an Armata, but the guy is funny) I heard is that the GRU had, at one point, to prove to Putin himself that they did not do anything concerning electoral manipulations in the USA, the reason for that being that such operations are clearly SVR turf and well, turf wars between Russian spy agencies are pretty serious business.

        Apparently, to do this they procured the internal emails of a certain American “cybersecurity” firm which was instrumental in assigning blame to the GRU. The main factor influencing the attribution was a google query for “Russian Spy Agency” added with “NOT FSB” and “NOT KGB”.

        Because the GRU had a lot less name changes then their chekist colleages, GRU was the result chosen by google.

        I for one eagerly await that getting leaked to wikileaks.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. “As you should know, GRU-ists and Chekists aren’t the same, and don’t always get along!”

        Your legenda is safe with me, comrade major! 😉


  5. Would suggest you keep this “on the one hand……on the other” business for your classroom. People come to your blog to get your view on a topic, not a ‘scholarly’ dissertation.

    Cut out the crap!


    1. Actually, one of the themes of this blog is that there is too much black and white in the way the world is viewed. Things are complex and we have to acknowledge that.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. “Actually, one of the themes of this blog is that there is too much black and white in the way the world is viewed. Things are complex and we have to acknowledge that.”

        With all due respect, Professor, but while laudable, such desire for “neutrality” does not work. E.g. – your blogroll. It reminds me of the late Antiquity’s pan-pagan syncretism. It’s as if a well respected citizen of the Roman Empire, would build his own domestic “pantheon”, and populate it with the idols, statues and votive images of not only Jupiter/Zeus or Hermes/Mercury, but also of Epona, Toutatis, Moloch, Cybela, Isis, Mythra and Jesus Christ. But, being well respected law abiding citizen of the Roman Empire, he’d still make all necessary (obligatory) sacrifices in the central temple dedicated to Jupiter and the Divine Genius of the Emperor. Such demonstration of “ecumenism” would be either for show or from the lack of faith for, really, you can’t combine incompatible even in the name of “neutrality” or “let’s be friends!” sentiments.


      2. Lyttenbourg, thanks for making me aware of who I responded to. Believe it or not, I did not notice.

        But more generally, I would suggest that on your dive into history up to the present you’d reflect a little on Hamlet along the way.

        But yes, more generally the problems around objectivity were on my mind early in the post 9/11 years.


      3. “But more generally, I would suggest that on your dive into history up to the present you’d reflect a little on Hamlet along the way.”

        As always, I;m completely baffled to the level on uncomprehension of your comment, Xenotude. As for the “Hamlet” – there are too much “digging” that could be have here. One can start it by asking yourself these simple questions:

        a) Who’s eligible to be the King of Denmark?
        b) Who the hell is Horatio?


  6. Would you send a “decorated colonel” to do a “silly hit” in a hostile country? During the interview none of them looked and acted like a “decorated colonel”. Unless things got lost in translation and we are dealing with a corporal.


    Liked by 2 people

  7. My own guess is that these are private security couriers working for some Oligarch.

    Certain documents you only want to send per courier, not electornically, not per Mail. Letters of representation etc. Such letters can cause massive damage if they fall into the wrong hands. Earlier, such courier may well be transporting cash, now it seems to be more about documents.

    -The 2 shout that they are some type of security by their bearing
    -Being in the same hotel room means you can take shifts sleeping/watching
    -Explains why they visited twice. First time, they gave their contact something to sign, second time, they picked off the signed document.
    -A pair of couriers would indeed travel to Britain under their own names
    -They would also be very mum in publically explaining what they were doing

    Liked by 1 person

  8. What Eliot Higgins / Bellingcat has done cannot be considered ingenious if as I suspect (and I’m sure others do), all that he did is hack into a database or databases – or had someone do this for him – and then trawl through the records to find a photograph of a man who resembles Ruslan Boshirov and whose biographical details either fit in with Boshirov’s details (real, supposed or both) or can be made to fit in with them. The name of this doppelganger might be Anatoly Chepiga and he might have served with the Russian Army in Chechnya or some other area that happens to be of current geopolitical concern. Or these details may have come from trawling through other databases.

    Until Higgins / Bellingcat shares the process by which he found the information that links Boshirov and Chepiga, and this process can be duplicated by others with the same or similar results, there is no reason to think that what he did is remarkable sleuthing.


    1. Well, one prominent face recognition expert once mentioned that only conspiracy theorists make conclusions from superficial similarity of some faces they see on photos found on internet:


      1. Seems, I lost interest after I stumbled across efforts to distinguish between the real Osama bin Laden vs some that were considered fake.

        Are you trying to suggest that EHG/his supporters have all the expertise that is needed? Irony Alert, no harm meant: is he that well connected. Or isn’t it such a hard job after all once you have the right software? Any examples were his earlier efforts show he was right after all?


  9. Eliot Higgins / Bellingcat / brown Moses
    Is a propagandist

    Starts with a conclusion – then finds manufactures the evidence to support the conclusion.

    The media no longer investigates anything – they just post information.

    The BBC is at the forefront of government propaganda.

    The government said it was the Russians and they have proof – yet we get this constant stream of stories to convince who? The public that it the Russians.

    This is a clear sign the story about the Skripals is a made up propaganda tool. Mr Skripal was of no use to anyone – that’s why he was swopped.

    The story is about anti Russian propaganda to manufacture consent for war.

    If the story was about a crime being committed – notify Interpol


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