Sinhala  Tamil    Seperate    
Governtment of Sri Lanka

A Loverly Bunch of Coconuts - Philip Alston on Centre Stage Again

At the height of campaigning for the Sri Lankan Presidential election, Prof Philip Alston issued a missive regarding the Channel 4 video which I read with great interest. He reported there that he had finallly engaged three experts to check on the authenticity of the video he saw on Channel 4. This was something he should have done a very long time ago, well before he rushed publicly into the matter. Indeed I noted in my initial response to him that, almost as soon as we got the letter, we were also ‘sent a press release which you had had dispatched to our Mission in Geneva at 15.37 on that same Friday afternoon, a release which seems to make your letter redundant.


Alston is therefore disingenuous in claiming that he was going public with his latest effusion in early January because of ‘the very public nature of the comments already exchanged on this matter’. He it was who had showed a determination to go public from the very start, for reasons that even he must realize are obvious, just as the January salvo seemed intended to have maximum effect at a time of election.


That original letter had not been at all clear about what was to be investigated, as I noted, viz ‘Your letter refers to reports you have received “concerning the alleged summary execution of a significant number of men by the Sri Lankan army”. Have you received reports of such an alleged incident, or are they simply reports of video footage allegedly documenting this alleged incident? Any independent report should be conveyed to us at once but, if your report is only of the video footage, it would be best if you first sought further details about this, to help to establish whether an investigation of the alleged incident would serve any purpose.’


Alston for once replied to me promptly, but answered hardly any of my queries. I pointed this out to him in early September, noting that ‘The most important question you have avoided is that of whether you received any reports of an incident taking place in Sri Lanka on the lines of that shown in the video or whether it was simply a report of the video itself that prompted your letter.


Alston continued to dodge this question, but instead contented himself with denigrating the analysis of the video provided by experts who had reported to the government. I will quote at length from my response to him of September 17th,  since his current position shows he has now finally taken my suggestions seriously, having ignored them previously –


I find very strange your argument as to why you did not see fit yourself to look further into the Channel 4 video. You now go further with your analogy and claim that, “if an individual was beaten up or raped and reported the matter to the police, but because of the trauma suffered was unable to identify when or where the alleged assault took place, it would not be justified for the police to throw up their hands and say “well, if you can’t give us the details, there is nothing we can do in terms of investigating the incident.”


I am duly entertained by your moving on now from your initial claim that our request for details of the incident was “equivalent to a police officer telling an alleged victim that no investigation will take place until the victim can definitely prove to the officer’s satisfaction that the alleged crime took place”. It is surely sleight of hand now to introduce trauma, but can you seriously claim that Channel 4 or those who supplied it with the video are in a state of trauma and cannot supply you with further details? Channel 4 informed me that you had made no attempt when you spoke to them to seek information about the video, which suggests a lack of seriousness on your part about the incident you wish investigated.’


Previously Alston had argued that ”the allegations made are sufficiently credible as to warrant investigation by the Government. Only the Government, or others acting with the support or permission of the Government, would be in a position to undertake the type of investigation required…If it can be convincingly shown to be a fake, so that the scenes of killing depicted in the video were staged or contrived, as your Government apparently believes, I will be immensely relieved and the allegations submitted to me by various sources will be shown to have been unreliable”’. This is typical of Alston’s confusion. It was doubtless an incident in Sri Lanka that he thought could be investigated only by Government or an authorized agent, whereas obviously anyone could have investigated the authenticity of the video. However, having insisted that Government investigates the video, after that was done he claimed that a government investigation was insufficient.


His reasons for this assertion were simply, I noted, ‘that it was conducted by Sri Lankans. You are categorical in your distaste for army experts, though obviously, given your prejudices, you will not be able to understand that experts in computer technology who have produced clear arguments should be challenged in terms of those arguments rather than through personal denigration. Sri Lanka is however used now to shooting of messengers without any concern for the content of the message.


You go further, in denigrating a Sri Lankan University don, simply because ‘he has advised the Government in relation to a number of other similar issues in the past’. You may not understand, given the circles in which you move, that established experts are not so many in Sri Lanka – though your general approach makes clear that even someone who had not advised previously would have been suspect if he were Sri Lankan.


Finally you also engage in denigration of a Sri Lankan now resident in Australia, who had not previously advised the Sri Lankan government. With your customary circumspection where Sri Lankans are concerned, a circumspection you do not extend to Channel 4, you say that he ‘is said to be the former head of Cisco’s global broadcast and digital video practice’. Obviously you have not bothered to check this out yourself, even though a link to his credentials was given in the report, and you could, if you had doubts since he is a Sri Lankan, have checked with Cisco direct.


But that too would probably not have made a difference to your approach since Mr Hewavitharana’s main crime is that ‘it would appear that he is a member of a network of Sri Lankan Professionals’. You seem to live in an Orwellian world in which Sri Lankans are generally bad and untrustworthy, but anyone who attacks the Sri Lankan government, Channel 4, Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, is good and trustworthy.


I concluded my letter by saying that ‘Your performance however is slightly redeemed in that, at the end of your release, you say that, following our report, “my conclusion is that the views expressed do indeed raise several issues which warrant further investigation before it could reasonably be concluded that the video is authentic”. We can only hope then that now, instead of introducing hypothetical traumatized victims to justify your initial less restricted critique, and contradicting yourself continuously, you actually check on the points made in the analysis, carefully studying the video yourself, and then point out what precisely you find inaccurate in our presentation. Any explanation you can offer for the moving leg of a purportedly dead person would be particularly welcome, and would I am sure provide immense relief.’


Fortunately Alston seems to have taken my advice, and commissioned his own inquiry. Significantly, Alston does not in his Technical Note reveal where he got his copy of the video, but one of his experts, Mr Spivack, lets the cat out of the bag in saying that he looked at ‘a recording provided by Ms Sarah Knuckey, acting on behalf of Prof Alston, originally provided to her by a group identified as “Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka”’. Alston then, or rather Ms Knuckey, laid themselves open to the charge of allowing the source of the original evidence to tamper with a subsequent version. Mr Hewa has noted that the ‘original video that SL govt. got, which is high quality, is different to this video that UN analyzed, which seems to indicate low frame and low quality similar to cell phone (based on Mr Spivack’s data). We can conclude that this video is recreated to show that it came from a Mobile phone with low bit rates but some one missed the metadata layer’.


Alston does not explain why he did not approach Channel 4, with whom he had been in contact earlier, but instead went to a source that it had been explained to him was tainted. Obviously his prejudice against Sri Lankans does not extend to those opposed to the current government.


Still, Alston has at least now made the sort of effort he should have made at the very start, and which I repeatedly pressed him to make. Sadly, his new found energy does not seem to have extended to a heightened analytical capacity. Whereas earlier I had assumed he was simply an excitable idealist, he has now shown himself deceitful too, though again he is so self-righteous that it is conceivable that he is simply not aware of the fraudulent nature of his arguments.


He also leaves several questions unanswered. For instance, did he ask Channel 4 for the video it showed? Failure to do so seems culpable on his part given that he claims to have responded to their showing of the video. If he did ask, and they refused, indicating some sort of diffidence on their part, he should have made this clear. The result is that he has sent to his experts a version of the video that seems different (ie tampered with further) from the one Channel 4 showed.


Then, too, why did he ask Journalists for Democracy for their video, but not for further details about the time and place of the purported incident? Failure to do so seems culpable on his part, since he should be concentrating on an incident, if any such occurred, rather than a video of an incident. If he did ask, and they refused, or expressed ignorance, that makes even more suspicious their anxious circulation of the video, along with an alleged date, to all and sundry.


In short, one gets the impression of a man anxious to make a noise, at politically significant moments, but without any concern to use his office to actually find out more about incidents he purports to find appalling.




To come back to his detailed Note, he begins as mentioned by suggesting that he has gone public only because of ‘the very public nature of the comments’, when in fact he was the one who began the practice of engaging in press conferences without allowing government a chance to respond.


Second, he claims that the reports by his three experts ‘strongly suggest that the video is authentic’, but in fact two of them deal only with the content of the video and only one deals with technicalities. The report of this last is very detailed, whereas the other two are brief. One of them has written only two pages, which Alston has summarized as ‘Dr Spitz found that the footage appeared authentic, especially with respect to the two individuals who are shown being shot in the head at close range. He found that the body reaction, movement, and blood evidence was entirely consistent with what would be expected in such shootings’.


Alston conveniently omits the two questions that Spitz says remain, including ‘it remains uncertain as to what accounts for the movement of this individual’s left leg’ and (with regard to another person it seems), ‘Under normal circumstances and without something maintaining his leg in this position, I would not expect his leg to remain in this position if he were deceased’.


Alston’s answer to this is to admit that there were ‘a small number of characteristics which the experts were not able to explain’, but to claim that ‘Each of these characteristics can, however, be explained in a manner which is entirely consistent with the conclusion that the videotape appears to be authentic’’


Why the devil then did neither he nor his experts bother to explain them? If the experts he hired cannot explain them, are we to believe that there are greater experts who could provide the explanations Alston thinks are possible?


Significantly his second content expert, Mr Diaczuk, practically confines himself to the accuracy of the ‘recoil seen in the video’, and then another recoil. He grants that ‘the quality of the recording is poor, so I am trying to interpret minute details from a piece of evidence that is marginal at best’ (which lends credence to the view that this version, supplied to Alston, has been further tampered with).


Diaczuk’s conclusions are tentative – ‘Some questions may simply not be definitively answerable, but between the two discharges, I perceive recoil that is commensurate with that class of firearm’.


He then has a section entitled ‘Parts of the video that appear authentic’. An ordinary reader may see this as meaning that other parts are not, but even this analysis is very tentative. It grants that ‘the use of blank ammunition will produce gasses and slight recoil’, though this is not as forceful as with live ammunition – and Diaczuk can tell the difference through ‘evidence that is marginal at best’.


He explains the ‘sudden body movement’ by the person lying directly in front of the person shot by saying that ‘Although not fully within my area of expertise, it is quite reasonable that a bullet could pass completely through one person and hit another. I can state from experience that bullets fired from an AK-47 firearm, using 7.2 x 39 mm full metal jacket ammunition, have gone through 6 inches of wood consistently.’ But, ‘The low resolution does not allow me to observe a bullet impact on the victim(s)’.


With regard to the second victim, this expert discerns a plume of ‘high-pressure gases’ though ‘The plume is subtle and somewhat difficult to distinguish from the background “noise” due to the sporadic nature of the video’. He then discusses a ‘visible defect in the victim’s head’ and says ‘An expert in wound ballistics should perform further interpretation of this possible bullet wound’. Mr Spitz, who is an expert in forensic pathology and toxicology, but evidently not in wound ballistics, has not engaged in this desired further interpretation, though whether the lapse is his or Alston’s is not clear.


There remain, after these two very hesitant experts, who do not at all discuss the views of the experts cited by the Sri Lankan government, Alston’s star turn, Mr Spivack. It is on the basis of his references to the findings of Sri Lankans that Alston categorically states that ‘most of the arguments relied upon by the Government of Sri Lanka to impugn the video have been shown to be flawed’. In the case of the others there are some contradictory findings, but no references at all to the arguments of the Sri Lankans.


Spivack’s analysis is very detailed, and contains much technical detail which is not easy for a layman to understand. However it is strange that Alston does not seem to understand even the non-technical language. For instance Spivack says that ‘the metadata contained in the file submitted for analysis cannot be considered absolutely conclusive with respect to accuracy or containing all possible file attributes…altering the class of metadata recovered in this analysis is no trivial matter; it requires a high degree of technical proficiency’. Alston transliterates this to mean that ‘it would have been very difficult to alter the metadata’.


What might have been difficult for a layman would not presumably have been difficult for someone with ‘a high degree of technical proficiency’, but Alston may not understand the difference.


Again, Spivack says that various factors, which Alston classifies as metadata, are ‘entirely consistent with multimedia files produced by a wide variety of mobile phones’ but Mr Hewa’s allegation about the source of the video was based on other factors. Spivack’s own approach is apparent from his presumption that the ‘source of the recording was a Philips mobile phone or camera’. That last alternative suggests he is not precluding a camera, but he does ignore the possibility that the marks ‘PHLO’ and ‘Philips” came from chips used in phones (or cameras) of other makes.


Interestingly, yet another forensic video specialist, Mr Fredericks, commissioned by ‘The Times’ and quoted by Alston, says that the code ‘embedded in the footage appeared to match with software used in Nokia mobile phones’. Incidentally, given the scope of this video, if indeed it came from a mobile phone, it must have been a very expensive mobile phone, and one wonders how many soldiers would have carried such with them.


Another of Spivack’s arguments is that the sound being later than the image is not a problem because ‘Audio may be “ahead of the video, or it may be delayed’. He notes that there are two areas in which there is no synchronization but says that ‘video/audio synchronization for both events ranges from an audio delay of 0.068 to 0.122 seconds, well within acceptable limits. Mr Hewa’s response is sharp –  ‘ To say it is within acceptable limits is misleading and dishonest since editing also create the same anomaly and if it is original video, then audio should not be few frames late to video. This indicates video is heavily manipulated since audio is never late for basic video and it should be in sync with video or early to video’. Significantly, Spivack’s own little experiments with a Nokia mobile phone (not a Philips one) confirm this claim.


Spivack also provides an explanation for a factor which the expert in the area found questionable. With regard to the rising leg, Spivack says ‘it has not been definitively established whether this person was already deceased, or merely wounded, intoxicated, sleeping, or possibly even uninjured and feigning death after being shot at and missed in order to evade actual injury or death at the hands of a more competent marksman’. The idea of the wicked people who shot two victims through the head at close quarters having adopted a different approach which led to one of the victims feigning death is almost as bizarre as someone who is sleeping through this whole performance lifting up his leg and then letting it collapse. One can only opine that Alston has found experts with similar thinking skills to his own.


There is much more to Spivack, but I should move quickly to his two admissions that suggest at least some sort of deceit. First, the encoded dates in the file submitted for analysis are long after the alleged date of the incident. Spivack points out that the date for ‘Philips mobile phone devices sold and/or operable in Sri Lanka….can be set by the user to any desired date and time’. And he then claims that ‘the individual who used the device to record these events may have deliberately altered the time and date settings to provide plausible deniability of his/her participation in and/or knowledge of the incident.


This is another example of Spivack’s brilliant thinking skills. He knows that dates and times can be altered, but he claims that changing them provides plausible deniability. Perhaps the person involved assumed that no one else would think that such alteration was possible.


Certainly the encoded date cannot prove that the recording was made in July but, since the material was circulated in August, that fits in with whoever wanted to make use of it doing so reasonably quickly, after whatever preparations were necessary. It is much less plausible to assume that someone in January set a false date six months later on his/her mobile phone camera in order to fool the world into thinking that he or she was not present at the events being recorded.


Finally, Spivack combats the assertion that ’30 frames at the end of the video stream only contained a letter “A” against a blank background. This is not consitent with an original video from a mobile telephone source’ by saying that ‘The multimedia file submitted for analysis actually contains 17 frames of the uppercase letter “A” in white against a red background. The presence of this character is suspect, though not conclusive; however Brigadier Samarasinghe does not provide a basis for his assertion that this phenomenon is inconsistent with video from a mobile telephone source.’


Earlier he had also dismissed the anomaly by declaring that, ‘Without access to the specific device that generated this recording, it is not possible to determine if this text or title feature is consistent with the normal operation of the device using default settings, user defined settings, as a consequence of device malfunction, or as a characteristic of proprietary transfer and/or conversion software.


Later however he grants that ‘There are unexplained characteristics of this file, the most troubling of which from a file integrity standpoint is the text which appears in the final 17 frames of video. Notwithstanding the potentially suspicious feature, there may be a legitimate explanation, and as stated previously, file integrity must not be confused with authenticity. Even if the file was transcoded from another format to .3gp, the conversion does not by itself invalidate the events recorded.’


I have no idea whether his putative legitimate explanation is on the lines he had offered earlier, or whether in spite of those possible explanations of possible consistency ’with the normal operation of the device’, Spivack is still troubled about file integrity. Thankfully he does not attempt an explanation on the preposterous lines he advanced earlier for a moving leg, that it was possibly due to an intoxicated individual raising a leg when a bullet from a Kalahnikov hit him through another person – and then gently lowering the leg down again to the ground.


Spivack’s penultimate sentence indeed makes clear where he is coming from. File integrity is not the issue, he can vouch for the authenticity of ‘the events recorded’, even if there was transcoding. Surely he must realize that one frame of a video being strange is  enough to cast doubt on any video clip, and Spivack recognizes that there are suspicions about 17 (admittedly fewer than the 30 noticed earlier, a fact that also suggests some tampering, unless it is argued that the Sri Lankan expert could not or did not count properly). What Spivack then seems to be saying is, the video looks like it may have been tampered with, but there are possible explanations for this which are not put forward and, even if it was tampered with, the events it recorded are real.


One is tempted to apply to Alston and his experts a traditional Sri Lankan saying, they are all from the same bunch of coconuts. However, given that two of them, although Alston commissioned them, scrupulously record suspicions and questions, while the third notes that the evidence ‘is marginal at best’, one feels that they should not be classed with Alston, a coconut that is quite unique.


Daily News 2 June 2011   & Daily News 3 June 2011



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