12 October 2021
Martin Dewhirst reviews We Are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People by Eliot Higgins. Hardback. 272pp. £18. ISBN 9781526615756. (Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2021.)
Late last week Bellingcat was added to the already impressive list of organisations considered by the Russian authorities to be foreign agents, so I immediately moved my copy of this book, which was near the bottom of the pile of works I plan to read before Christmas, to the very top. This, I think, was a natural reaction to a stupid Kremlin decision that will make it even easier for Bellingcat to raise additional funding for its invaluable activities. It again raises the question of whether clever and well-educated Russians, such as Putin’s spokesman, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeslady and the leader of the propaganda outfit called ‘Russia Today’, are in reality ‘wreckers’ or ‘saboteurs’ (‘vrediteli’), tirelessly voicing utterly ridiculous messages that are bound to be counterproductive (except for the current ‘useful idiots’), so far as the Putin regime’s longer-term viability is concerned.
The fat cats in power in Russia can, of course, still ‘captivate’ even a mouse-king like Naval’ny, as well as try to stop other metaphorical mice (regarded by the neo-Soviet leadership more as bydlo, the common herd) from squeaking (or mooing) too loudly, but the latter can always ‘answer back’, so to speak, by implementing various strategies of dumb insolence. This makes for a very unhealthy society, which is dangerous for everyone, including those at the top of the pile.
Many readers of this short book review, intended merely as a taster, will probably be most interested in chapters 2 and 4, about the downing of the Malaysian airliner, MH17, over Eastern Ukraine in 2014 (the investigation in The Hague into this horrific crime is now approaching its final stage) and the attempted double murder in Salisbury in 2018 (‘Whitehall’, no doubt for good reasons, is still being very economical with the truth about this despicable event, but has recently confirmed the new information Higgins provides here about the third main suspect in the attempted killing).
However, I would urge you to read the entire book, because it is about the 21st century, which is qualitatively different from all earlier centuries in one crucial way: there is now more information, misinformation and disinformation in circulation than ever before, and, unless you become a computer wizard, it is increasingly difficult to separate the ‘real’ truth from involuntary mistakes and deliberate lies, fact from fiction. To help us to negotiate this new digital territory is the aim and, it seems, the lifelong mission of Eliot Higgins. So far as Russia in particular is concerned, he is searching for istina, not pravda.
The organisation he started to create just ten years ago, focusing first on Libya and Syria, now that the real ‘facts are easier to come by than ever’ before (p.3), is an intelligence agency run by the people and for the people. OSINT stands for Open-Source INTelligence, and is completely different from what WikiLeaks has been up to. Some people wonder whether ‘open-source investigation was what WikiLeaks did. Absolutely not. WikiLeaks was about leaking classified information, while open-source investigators analyse what sits in public’ (see pp. 58 and 156). But you have to know how to find it. Bellingcat, whose motto is ‘Identify, Verify, Amplify’, is opposed to the Counterfactual Community’s alleged proposition, ‘Believe, Insist, Ignore’ (pp. 115-16, 156, 221).
Higgins is an extraordinary ordinary person. He ends his book by looking confidently into the future: ‘I started off doing a blog in my spare time. Now we are Bellingcat. This is only the start.’ (p. 221.)
P.S. Whether or not you, dear reader, are a Russophile, if you could lobby to have ‘Rights in Russia’ designated as a Foreign Agent, it would really help us with our efforts to raise more funds!