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Mysterious death of White Helmets co-founder spotlights toxic propaganda

A month after the suspicious death of White Helmets co-founder James Le Mesurier in Turkey, British officials are being urged to conduct a thorough investigation of the incident. Friends and colleagues fear Le Mesurier may have been murdered or driven to suicide by a relentless campaign of character assassination. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports on how propaganda maligned him.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now a story of humanitarian trying to help Syria, the suspicious death in Turkey last month of James Le Mesurier, the co-founder of the White Helmets rescue organization in Syria.

    Friends and colleagues fear that he may have been murdered or driven to suicide by a campaign of character assassination.

    Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant has the story.

  • And a warning:

    Viewers may find some of these images distressing.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The body of former British army officer James Le Mesurier was discovered by worshipers outside a mosque in the western part of Istanbul.

    According to Turkish state television, Le Mesurier died from the impact of falling from an upper floor of his apartment. Le Mesurier, seen here in 2015, ran a nonprofit called Mayday Rescue, which trained members of the White Helmets, also known as Syrian Civil Defense.

    They are first responders who help civilians caught in sustained Syrian and Russian airstrikes and were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016.

  • James Le Mesurier:

    In the last two years, they have saved over 15,250 lives, people who have literally been dragged from the rubble of buildings that have been blown up inside Syria.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Syria's President Assad was one of the first to express a theory behind Le Mesurier's death. He told Russian television that Western intelligence was to blame.

  • Bashar al-Assad (through translator):

    Of course it's the work of the secret intelligence services, but which ones? When we speak of Turkish and some other secret services in our region, these are not secret services of sovereign states. These are subdivisions of the chief intelligence service, the CIA. That is the truth. They're all obeying one master, in coordination with each other.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Le Mesurier's Swedish wife, Emma, has reportedly told Turkish detectives that her husband was taking medication for stress. Suicide has not been ruled out.

    But friends and colleagues find it hard to believe that Le Mesurier would have intentionally leapt from such a relatively low height.

  • Col. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon:

    In the last probably two years or so, an awful lot of people who've disagreed with the Russians in particular have fallen off balconies. So, I think there is — it is very suspicious.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a British Army chemical weapons expert and former colleague of Le Mesurier. They last met a month before his death.

  • Col. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon:

    I didn't leave that meeting thinking, here is somebody, he is really troubled. But having said that, the amount of abuse, the amount of ill-placed propaganda, disinformation that's on social media and the Internet coming out of Russian bots and Syria, Syrian regime, and others was unbearable.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Days before his death, on Twitter, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused Le Mesurier of being a spy with a history of facilitating terrorist groups, a claim Britain's U.N. ambassador, Karen Pierce, has vigorously denied.

    On a hillside at Christmas Common in Southern England, Le Mesurier was honored at an art installation commemorating wartime military heroes. The artist Dan Barton added white helmets to the silhouettes to pay tribute to the humanitarian work for which the former Army captain was decorated by the queen.

    The artist was also eulogizing the 250 White Helmet volunteers killed since they started work in 2014.

    James Le Mesurier died on Armistice Day, when Britain remembers its fallen veterans. Whatever the cause, Le Mesurier was a victim of a very modern war. There is no hiding place in cyberspace.

    Le Mesurier was at the epicenter of a propaganda war, and his friends are appalled at what they regard as a campaign of character assassination.

  • Col. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon:

    There must be a decency line, and if you cross that, then something should be done. Some of the stuff coming out of these people, I think, crosses that decency line, some of the — accusing people of being al-Qaida, of supporting terrorism.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    De Bretton-Gordon is most critical of Vanessa Beeley, a frequent contributor to Russian media outlets. She belongs to a collection of academics and others calling themselves the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media.

    This group backs President Assad's claims that the White Helmets have staged attacks to trigger Western retaliation against the Syrian regime.

    Earlier this year in Norway, Beeley alleged the White Helmets were linked to al-Qaida and claimed they engaged in organ harvesting, charges dismissed by other Middle East experts. She accused Le Mesurier of complicity, pointing to his prior role as a U.N. peacekeeper in former Yugoslavia, where he encountered the Kosovo Liberation Army, the KLA.

  • Vanessa Beeley:

    The KLA were running organ trafficking operations, cross-border organ trafficking operations, and they were being whitewashed by James Le Mesurier, former MI6, who, in 2013, set up the White Helmets that are effectively al-Qaida dressed in humanitarian clothing.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Beeley is a frequent visitor to Assad's Syria.

    Via Twitter, I asked whether her attack on Le Mesurier could be justified.

  • Her response:

    "What amazes me consistently is the emphasis from channels like yours on attacking those who raise the issue of such alleged crimes and heinous activity, while never investigating the atrocities committed against Syrians, testified to by Syrians. However, you are so quick to condemn the Syrian government based on unverified and fraudulent testimony from the White Helmets. Shameful. Where is your humanity? I stand by every statement."

    And when pushed about the consequences of the personal campaign against Le Mesurier, this was her reply:

    "You might seriously consider liability issues if you even remotely suggest publicly that critics of James Le Mesurier or the White Helmets are responsible for his demise."

    Professor David Miller is another member of the Syria working group to which Beeley belongs.

    It claims the White Helmets faked this 2018 missile attack in Douma, close to Damascus. Up to 50 people were killed and hundreds more, including children, were wounded. Convinced the missiles contained chlorine, the U.S.-led coalition launched airstrikes against Syrian government targets.

    But Miller's group claims the missile strike was staged to provoke Western retaliation against Damascus, and insists it is backed by whistle-blowers within the U.N.'s specialist watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

  • David Miller:

    The Douma case undermines the investigation into the Douma alleged chemical attack.

    But it must also throw into question previous reports that have been done. We have written about some of the previous alleged attacks, some of which appear to us to have been fraudulent or faked.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The U.N. watchdog, whose inspectors are seen here in Damascus, is reexamining the Douma case.

    But in an e-mail to the "NewsHour," the organization said it stood by the initial impartial assessment that toxic chemicals were used, as does chemical weapons expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon.

  • Hamish de Bretton-Gordon:

    I have investigated a number of chemical weapons attack in Syria in the rebel-held areas, one in particular in 2014 in a place called Talmenes, which is what these Assad useful idiots and Assad is claiming was done by the White Helmets.

    Now, I didn't see any White Helmets doing anything there. I saw helicopters with Syrian army insignia on them dropping chlorine barrel bombs.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Richard Benyon, who used to sit on Parliament's intelligence and defense committees, says the Syria Working Group are little more than trolls.

  • Richard Benyon:

    There's a much more sinister element, which is very often people from within top academic institutions, universities in the United Kingdom, who are relentlessly pursuing those who support the work of humanitarian organizations like the White Helmets, and relentlessly pursuing a line that supports the actions of one of the most brutal regimes we have seen since Nazi Germany.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    What do you think of these criticisms that you are apologists for the Assad regime and also for their Russian comrades in this fight?

  • David Miller:

    I mean, it's ridiculous. The idea that we lonely academics in the U.K. writing briefing papers which we put on the Web are anything to do with our views on Russia or Syria is preposterous.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    As the Turkish inquiry continues, Richard Benyon is calling for a full British investigation into Le Mesurier's death, and for universities to review the employment of staff involved in this controversy.

  • Richard Benyon:

    The universities employing who are extremely suspect individuals with disgusting views, where they are prepared to be the apologists for the kind of brutality that we are seeing in Syria, universities themselves have got to take responsibility for this.

  • David Miller:

    This is not a question of my views. This is a question of social science research methods and material that we have produced.

    And if it's — as I say, if it's wrong, then let's show it to be wrong, and let's not have this McCarthyite, hysterical witch-hunt to try and get academics sacked for simply doing their jobs.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    After the body of the White Helmets' founder was returned to Britain, his friends lamented that, if anyone was subjected to a witch-hunt, it was James Le Mesurier.

  • Artist Dan Barton:

  • Dan Barton:

    To me, he's a total hero. The world's going to be a much sadder place without James.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    A man who helped save countless Syrian lives, but who couldn't save his own.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant at Christmas Common.

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