By Aaron Maté / Substack
Musk invoked Bellingcat’s role in “psychological operations” while expressing skepticism about the group’s claims that the mass shooter in Allen, Texas was motivated by white supremacist views. Prominent voices came forward to defend Bellingcat as a “a great journalistic organization” (CNN anchor Jake Tapper), and “a treasure trove of hugely important investigative journalism” (Yale professor Timothy Snyder).
Support our Independent Journalism — Donate Today!
While the available evidence supports Bellingcat’s findings about the Allen gunman, Musk is correct about the group overall. With complete uniformity, Bellingcat’s media cheerleaders omit that the group is funded by NATO states and their contractors. And just as Musk suggested, Bellingcat has regularly promoted propaganda that advances its backers’ foreign policy objectives.
Since 2017, Bellingcat’s top financial donors have included the National Endowment for Democracy, a U.S. government organization founded by Ronald Reagan’s CIA chief, Bill Casey. From its inception, the NED has served as a front for US intelligence operations, including destabilization and regime change in targeted states. “A lot of what we do today was done covertly twenty-five years ago by the CIA,” the NED’s first director, Allen Weinstein, told the Washington Post in 1991. NED board members have included veteran neoconservative bureaucrats Elliott Abrams and Victoria Nuland.
The NED conceals its funding for Bellingcat, to the point where a search of its database does not return any results. For several years, Bellingcat also refused to specify its NED funding, until finally admitting that the US government organization was its highest “non-profit” donor: more than €112,000 in 2020 and €212,000 in 2021. (Bellingcat has potentially received more NED funding via other conduits, according to Declassified UK).
Bellingcat takes in more money from other Western governments and cut-outs, including the Dutch Postcode Lottery. Bellingcat was a founding partner in the Open Information Partnership (OIP), which is funded by the UK government’s Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office, FCDO. Another OIP partner, Zinc Network, which is funded by the UK and US governments, has given Bellingcat at least €160,000.
Bellingcat also rakes in donations from firms that profit from from NATO-backed regime change operations. These include the scandal-plagued foreign aid profiteer Adam Smith International (ASI), one of the largest recipients of UK government contracts abroad. In 2017, a UK government agency suspended all future contracts with the company over what it called “inappropriate” conduct and “serious lack of judgement”, including fabricating glowing testimonials about its aid services. As The Grayzone has reported, ASI and another private Bellingcat donor, Chemonics, have received Western contracts to aid and abet sectarian insurgents in the regime change war against Syria.
A number of Bellingcat’s staffers and contributors have NATO intelligence and military backgrounds, including the UK army, the GCHQ, the Royal United Services Institute, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Pentagon.
Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins spent several years as a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, the arms industry and government-funded think tank that serves as NATO’s de-facto lobbying arm in Washington. During his tenure, Higgins encouraged the US government to make better use of open-source data, which happened to become Bellingcat’s professed specialization. Higgins’ collaborators at the Atlantic Council included John E. Herbst, the former US Ambassador to Ukraine; Frederic Hof, a former US special envoy to Syria who has vocally advocated regime change there; and Ben Nimmo, a former NATO press officer who now serves as “Global Lead for Threat Intelligence” at Facebook’s parent company Meta.
While partnering with a network of NATO state sources and receiving their lavish funding, Bellingcat’s own state partners have privately raised doubts about the group’s credibility. A leaked assessment produced for the UK Foreign Office by Zinc Network concluded that: “Bellingcat was somewhat discredited, both by spreading disinformation itself, and by being willing to produce reports for anyone willing to pay.”
“I was told,” Higgins wrote, that “a third party organisation who put together this report based it on a Sputnik article and a claim by a Russian journalist.”
Higgins offered no evidence for this extraordinary assertion that his own UK state partners – in a report tasked with identifying organizations to confront the “increasing threat from Kremlin-backed disinformation” – had somehow managed to fall victim to Russian manipulation.
In the case of Syria, Bellingcat has covered up crimes by sectarian death squads and their Western backers.
In 2013, leaked chats show, Higgins was informed by Matthew Van Dyke a self-described “Christian” mercenary who had been active in the Libyan and Syrian regime change operations, that Syrian “rebels do have a small quantity of chemical weapons” and could even potentially use them in Aleppo. Higgins promised to keep the disclosure “off the record.”
Concealing what he had learned in private, Higgins went on to make a name for himself by publicly attacking journalists who reported that insurgents may have launched false flags to frame the Syrian government.
Higgins’ targets have included Seymour Hersh, one of the most decorated and accomplished journalists in US history. In two articles in the London Review of Books, Hersh reported that US intelligence had collected evidence pointing to Syrian insurgent responsibility for a 2013 sarin attack in Ghouta, which the US had publicly blamed on the Syrian government.
“The Hersh story posed many questions; the problem was, I had answered most of them long before,” Higgins later wrote. “…Hersh needed only to read my blog.” In 2016, Hersh’s story received additional corroboration when Barack Obama confirmed that he had been warned by his top intelligence official that the case against the Syrian government over Ghouta was no “slam dunk” – a deliberate reference to the Iraq WMD hoax. Unlike his treatment of Hersh, Higgins has yet to correct the US president, or direct him to his blog.
Most notably, Bellingcat has played an integral role in efforts to blame the Syrian government for an alleged chemical attack in the Syrian town of Douma in April 2018; dismiss evidence pointing to a false flag by sectarian insurgents; and justify the US-led airstrikes that resulted from it. And when leaks emerged showing that investigators with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) found no evidence of a chemical attack in Douma, but had their findings censored and manipulated, Bellingcat has whitewashed the cover-up and disparaged the veteran OPCW inspectors who challenged it from within.
Bellingcat’s role in covering up the Douma incident began within days. On April 9th 2018, Higgins posted a tweet — based on photos he had received from contacts on the ground — showing a gas cylinder positioned above a hole on the roof of the Douma apartment building where dozens of dead bodies were filmed. But Higgins then deleted the tweet. When new images soon emerged from the exact same location, the cylinder had been rotated 180 degrees so that the nozzle now aligned with a hole in the roof. This was a clear manipulation of the alleged crime scene, with Higgins’ apparent complicity.
Since the first OPCW leaks surfaced in 2019, Bellingcat has published multiple articles aimed at dismissing the concerns of the dissenting OPCW inspectors. But in the process, Bellingcat outed itself as a partner in the OPCW’s deception. As of at least September 2019, Bellingcat claimed on its website that the OPCW was one of its “partners.” However in February 2020, Higgins suddenly announced on Twitter that Bellingcat’s claim of an OPCW partnership was wrong, and the result of a “copy & paste” error. Bellingcat, Higgins claimed, had mistakenly “copy and pasted the list of names from another document and didn’t mean to leave it in… We’ve not collaborated with the OPCW, apologies for the confusion, totally my fault.”
Yet when Bellingcat published the “corrected” list, only one organization was now missing: the OPCW. Higgins has never explained what the supposed “another document” was, nor how it could be that every one of the groups that Bellingcat said was a “partner” in September 2019 was still a partner in February 2020 — except for one organization now mired in a cover-up, the OPCW.
Higgins’ “correction” happened to come one day after Bellingcat published an attack on the OPCW whistleblowers that identified the key dissenting inspector, Dr. Brendan Whelan, by name. By all appearances, Bellingcat was indeed “partnering” with the OPCW’s cover-up, and covering that up as well.
In October 2020, Bellingcat fraudulently attacked Whelan, along with several journalists (myself included) by falsely accusing us of concealing an OPCW letter that, I quickly revealed, did not in fact exist. When I exposed Bellingcat’s falsehoods at The Grayzone — including by publishing the real letter that the OPCW sent to Whelan — Bellingcat was forced to add a note that, while still characteristically disingenuous, nonetheless conceded that the original text that they had published “differed significantly” (in reality, differed entirely) from the real version.
Bellingcat also apologized to one of the journalists that it had named in the article, Peter Hitchens. (Even though it had lodged the same false allegations against me and others that it apologized to Hitchens for, Bellingcat did not offer us the same courtesy. That discrepancy is likely because Hitchens is a high-profile columnist for a mainstream outlet in the UK, which has strict libel laws.)
Bellingcat staffers also deleted a series of embarrassing tweets that had boasted about uncovering a deception that, in reality, was entirely their own creation. Bellingcat’s hit piece was such a sham that I later exposed that they had copied an external author for some of their false material.
Despite multiple attempts, Bellingcat has never responded to my queries about this incident.
Bellingcat has devoted the bulk of its energies to the lead US-UK geopolitical foe Russia. Leaked documents reported by The Grayzone reveal that Bellingcat was deployed by the UK Foreign Office as part of covert programs to “weaken Russia.” In 2020, Bellingcat claimed to have uncovered Russian agents who were tailing Russian anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny at the time he was poisoned. But in another indication of Bellingcat’s US-UK intelligence overlap, the New York Times quietly disclosed that “representatives from the Central Intelligence Agency and Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service provided members of the German government with details about the poisoning, including the identities of the Federal Security Service officers involved, that directly implicated the Russian government.”
While Bellingcat staffers have denied ties to Western intelligence, retired spooks have not been shy to embrace them. “I don’t want to be too dramatic, but we love [Bellingcat],” Marc Polymeropoulos, the CIA’s former deputy chief of operations for Europe and Eurasia told Foreign Policy in 2020, in a story headlined “Bellingcat Can Say What U.S. Intelligence Can’t.” (Polymeropoulos is a self-described victim of Havana Syndrome, the mystery ailment that was falsely blamed on microwave weapons from US rivals, including Russia and Cuba. He was also a key signatory of the infamous 2020 letter that baselessly accused Russia of responsibility for the Hunter Biden laptop story).
In a leaked email exchange, UK media personality Paul Mason gushed over Bellingcat’s role in receiving what he called “a steady stream of intel from Western agencies,” thus allowing it provide “intel service input by proxy.” Mason made the comment while plotting with a British intelligence contractor on how to engage in a “relentless deplatforming” of myself and my colleagues at The Grayzone, hoping that Bellingcat would participate. (When Mason’s emails were made public, Bellingcat disavowed them).
While Western intelligence officials and their cheerleaders fawn over Bellingcat, Western media outlets routinely omit any mention of Bellingcat’s documented deceptions and NATO state funding. Instead, it is common to see puff pieces describing Bellingcat as “a team of online data detectives” that “has created a method of mining online data and social media to put the lie to disinformation and unmask Vladimir Putin” (Scott Pelley of CBS’ 60 Minutes); an “open-source investigation collective” engaged in “a rare form of journalistic investigation” and “innovation” (Joshua Yaffa of the New Yorker); a “global corps of sleuths… responsible for several eye-popping scoops” (the Washington Post).
When I pointed out to the Post that they had omitted the fact that these “global sleuths” are funded by NATO states, a Post reporter declined to update the story, claiming that it “was fairly limited in focus.” Indeed – limited to omitting vital information about Bellingcat’s state funding. The Post reporter also expressed confidence that “this point will come up in some future stories about Bellingcat.” More than two years later, it has not. In fact, the media’s whitewashing of Bellingcat’s state funding is so devout that the Times of London has even falsely declared that the group “wisely refuses money from governments.”
The media’s portrayal of Bellingcat as a serious investigative outlet is made all the more remarkable in light of the public behavior of its founder Higgins. On social media, Higgins has been fond of repeatedly telling detractors to “suck my balls.”
In yet another puff piece in the New York Times, Higgins offered a revealing window into his credentials. “Mr. Higgins attributed his skill not to any special knowledge of international conflicts or digital data,” the Times reported, “but to the hours he had spent playing video games, which, he said, gave him the idea that any mystery can be cracked.”
(Incidentally, this 2019 article, one of scores in the Times lauding Bellingcat, marks the only instance where the Times has even acknowledged the existence of the OPCW’s Douma leaks. The Times only mentioned the Douma cover-up in passing, and devoid of any substance: rather than as a trove of documents showing an extensive cover-up, the Times instead only vaguely referred to “an email from an investigator with the organization” which “raised questions about the findings”).
In an establishment media environment where an oft-cited “open source expert” can derive “his skill” from “playing video games,” it is perfectly consistent that his NATO state-funded propaganda outlet can be treated as both credible and independent.
Accordingly, while Musk may have erred on the Texas mass shooter, establishment media outlets that have whitewashed Bellingcat’s state ties and deceptions have much more to answer for.
Aaron Maté is a journalist and producer. He hosts Pushback with Aaron Maté on The Grayzone. In 2019, Maté was awarded the Izzy Award (named after I.F. Stone) for outstanding achievement in independent media for his coverage of Russiagate in The Nation magazine. Previously, he was a host/producer for The Real News and Democracy Now!.