in , ,

Skripal case: Britain’s letter to NATO blaming Russia; full of guesses and based on a single source

Letter begs further questions about the source who is providing the British with their information

SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 07: Police officers stand outside the home of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury who was found critically ill on a bench with his daughter, on March 4 and were taken to hospital sparking a major incident, on March 7, 2018 in Wiltshire, England. Sergei Skripal, who was granted refuge in the UK following a 'spy swap' between the US and Russia in 2010, and his daughter remain critically ill after being exposed to an 'unknown substance'. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

As has now become apparent for some time, the British case against Russia in the Skripal case is based entirely on intelligence of a sort that will never be produced in a court of law.

The conclusions of that intelligence – though not it should be stressed the intelligence itself – has now been revealed in a letter sent by Sir Mark Sidwell (Theresa May’s national security adviser) to NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg.

Since this letter sets out the entirety of the British case against Russia in the Skripal case, I will reproduce it in full

Thank you again for your invitation to me to brief the North Atlantic Council on 15 March regarding the recent attack in Salisbury. I am pleased that we have been able to remain in close contact with you and Nato allies following this attack, and particularly grateful for the measures taken by you and many allies in response.

As you will be aware, yesterday the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons published their report summarising the analysis of environmental and biomedical samples relating to the investigation into the attempted assassination of Mr Skripal and his daughter. As signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention, all Nato allies have received the full report, and several will take part in next Wednesday’s meeting of the OPCW executive council which the UK has called.

The OPCW’s analysis matches the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory’s own, confirming once again the findings of the United Kingdom relating to the identity of the toxic chemical of high purity that was used in Salisbury. OPCW have always been clear that it was their role to identify what substance was used, not who was responsible.

I would like to share with you and allies further information regarding our assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian state was responsible for the Salisbury attack. Only Russia has the technical means, operational experience and the motive.

First, the technical means. DSTL scientific analysis found that Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned using a specific novichok nerve agent. OPCW’s analysis confirmed the findings of the United Kingdom relating to the identity of the toxic chemical. This was found in environmental samples taken at the scene and in biomedical samples from both Skripals and police sergeant Nick Bailey, the first responder. DSTL established that the highest concentrations were found on the handle of Mr Skripal’s front door. These are matters of fact. But, of course, the DSTL analysis does not identify the country or laboratory of origin of the agent used in this attack.

A combination of credible open-source reporting and intelligence shows that in the 1980s the Soviet Union developed a new class of “fourth generation” nerve agents, known as novichoks. The key institute responsible for this work was a branch of the State Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology at Shikhany near Volgograd. The codeword for the offensive chemical weapons programme (of which novichoks were one part) was FOLIANT. It is highly likely that novichoks were developed to prevent detection by the West and to circumvent international chemical weapons controls. The Russian state has previously produced novichoks and would still be capable of doing so.

Russia’s chemical weapons programme continued after the collapse of the Soviet Union. By 1993, when Russia signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), it is likely that some novichoks had passed acceptance testing, allowing their use by the Russian military. Russia’s CWC declaration failed to report any work on novichoks. Russia further developed some novichoks after ratifying the convention. In the mid-2000s, President Putin was closely involved in the Russian chemical weapons programme. It is highly unlikely that any former Soviet republic (other than Russia) pursued an offensive chemical weapons programme after independence. It is unlikely that novichoks could be made and deployed by non-state actors (eg a criminal or terrorist group), especially at the level of purity confirmed by OPCW.

Second, operational experience. Russia has a proven record of conducting state-sponsored assassination. The Owen report from the UK’s public inquiry into the death of Aleksandr Litvinenko concluded in January 2016 that he was deliberately poisoned with polonium 210, that there was a “strong probability” that the FSB directed the operation, and that President Putin “probably approved it”. Commenting on other suspected assassinations between 2002-06 Sir Robert Owen wrote: “These cases suggest that in the years prior to Mr Litvinenko’s death, the Russian state may have been involved in the assassination of Mr Putin’s critics” and that “the Russian state may have sponsored attacks against its opponents using poisons”. Since 2006, there have been numerous suspected Russian state-sponsored assassinations outside the former Soviet Union.

During the 2000s, Russia commenced a programme to test means of delivering chemical warfare agents and to train personnel from special units in the use of these weapons. This programme subsequently included investigation of ways of delivering nerve agents, including by application to door handles. Within the last decade, Russia has produced and stockpiled small quantities of novichoks under the same programme.

Third, the motive. Sergei Skripal was a former Russian military intelligence (GRU) officer, convicted of espionage in 2004. It is highly likely that the Russian intelligence services view at least some of its defectors as legitimate targets for assassination. We have information indicating Russian intelligence service interest in the Skripals, dating back at least as far as 2013, when e-mail accounts belonging to Yulia Skripal were targeted by GRU cyber specialists.

We therefore continue to judge that only Russia has the technical means, operational experience and motive for the attack on the Skripals and that it is highly likely that the Russian state was responsible. There is no plausible alternative explanation.

I would of course be pleased to brief you or Nato allies further regarding this attack. I know that Nato will remain seized of the need to confront the increasingly aggressive pattern of Russia behaviour of which the attack in Salisbury was an acute and recent example.

I am copying this letter to the delegations of all Nato allies as well as the delegations of other EU member states to Nato. I will also send a copy to the Office of the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

(bold italics added)

The first point to make about this letter is that it straightforwardly admits what both Porton Down and the OPCW have now said: that it is impossible to say whether the Novichok agent used in the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal was produced in Russia.

The second point to make about this letter is that the words “highly likely” “likely”, “highly unlikely” and “likely” constantly appear in it.

What these words of course mean is that British intelligence does not know what it appears to assert as fact, but that it merely “assesses” (ie. guesses) that what it says is true.

Thus when we are told that

…..it is highly likely that novichoks were developed to prevent detection by the West and to circumvent international chemical weapons controls….

that does not mean that British intelligence knows this for a fact that Novichok agents “were developed to prevent detection by the West”; it means that British intelligence merely “assesses” ie. guesses it.

As it happens – at least in relation to the Skripal case – this statement is misleading and absurd.  Even if the Russians thought in the 1970s that Novichok agents could not be detected by the West, discussion of Novichoks which has taken place in open literature since the 1990s means that the Russians cannot possibly believe that now.

I would add that British officials have on various occasions suggested that the reason a Novichok agent was used in the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal was so that it could act as a ‘calling card’ from Russian intelligence, brazenly admitting (though in a deniable way) its involvement in the attack.

These two claims – that Novichoks were developed to be undetectable and that a Novichok was used in the Skripal attack as a ‘calling card’ – are of course incompatible.  The fact that the British have made both to my mind shows the extent of their confusion and how little they really know about the Skripal case.

The same of course applies in those other parts of the letter where the words “highly likely” or just “likely” appear.

For example when the letter says that

…..it is likely that some novichoks had passed acceptance testing, allowing their use by the Russian military. Russia’s CWC declaration failed to report any work on novichoks. Russia further developed some novichoks after ratifying the convention….

it is not saying that the British intelligence knows any of this for a fact that this is what happened; it is merely saying that this is what British intelligence believes was the case.

Similarly when the letter says that

……..it is highly likely that the Russian intelligence services view at least some of its defectors as legitimate targets for assassination….

the letter again is not saying that British intelligence knows this for a fact; it is saying that British intelligence merely “assesses” ie. guesses it.

As it happens the letter fails to cite a single example where the Russians have assassinated a defector other Litvinenko, a case where the Owen inquiry in the end only said that he Russians were “probably” responsible, a finding which by the way was almost certainly wrong.

As for the other cases of alleged Russian assassinations of defectors outside Russia, the letter essentially admits that Russian state involvement has not been proved in a single one of these cases since it is only able to say that Russian state involvement in those assassinations is merely “suspected“.

The same principle applies where the words “highly likely” and “likely” are reversed to become “highly unlikely” or in one case “unlikely”.

Thus the fact that the letter says that

……it is highly unlikely that any former Soviet republic (other than Russia) pursued an offensive chemical weapons programme after independence….

once again does not mean that British intelligence knows this for a fact; once again it merely “assesses” ie. guesses it.  I would add that I would personally judge it (to a coin phrase) “highly unlikely” that if there were secret assassination programmes involving Novichok in places in the former Soviet space like Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan that the British would know anything about them.

The one use of the word “unlikely” by itself in the letter is however as it happens rather interesting.

It turns out that it is only

……unlikely that novichoks could be made and deployed by non-state actors (eg a criminal or terrorist group).

To my mind the use of the unsupported word “unlikely” in this sentence comes very close to saying that it is actually possible “that novichoks could be made and deployed by non-state actors (eg a criminal or terrorist group).

In light of what some academic chemists are now saying about the simplicity of making a Novichok I do not find that at all surprising.

Over and above this litany of guesses, there is one grossly defamatory sentence which is straightforwardly mendacious.  This is this one

President Putin was closely involved in the Russian chemical weapons programme.

The sentence taken by itself is actually true.  Placed in the middle of a paragraph containing “assessments” – ie. guesses – about Russia’s alleged post 1991 Novichok programme, it however insinuates – and is intended to insinuate – that President Putin was personally involved in the Novichok programme, and by extension in the assassination programme which supposedly derived from it.

In reality President Putin “close involvement in the Russian chemical weapons programme” is a matter of public knowledge.  He was “closely involved” in it in the sense that he worked to close it down.

In fact if one drills through the letter carefully there is only one paragraph which straightforwardly asserts something which is not a guess.  That one paragraph which is the core of the whole letter is this one

During the 2000s, Russia commenced a programme to test means of delivering chemical warfare agents and to train personnel from special units in the use of these weapons. This programme subsequently included investigation of ways of delivering nerve agents, including by application to door handles. Within the last decade, Russia has produced and stockpiled small quantities of novichoks under the same programme.

All the claims in this paragraph have previously appeared in the British media, and in the case of the claim that the Russians have “stockpiled small quantities of novichoks under the same (assassination) programme” it has in effect been made to the media by no less a person than the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

There are however two obvious problems with the claims made by this paragraph..

The first is that if the British intelligence agencies had this information for much time before Sergey and Yulia Skripal were poisoned, then one would have expected them to pass it on to the OPCW after it certified last November that Russia had destroyed all its chemical weapon stockpiles.

Even if one allows for the fact that Novichok agents are not formally on the OPCW’s list of prohibited substances (as it turns out because of objections from the US) the British should surely have complained to the OPCW if they had information that the Russians were circumventing the Chemical Weapons Convention in this way.

There is no information that anything of the sort ever happened, or that the British ever passed on any intelligence about a secret Russian assassination programme involving Novichoks to their NATO partners before the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal happened, and one would expect Sir Mark Sidwell’s letter to mention the fact if they did.

That strongly suggests that this information (which according to some media reports derives from something which is being described as a Russian assassination manual) has reached British intelligence very recently, perhaps even contemporaneously with the events in Salisbury which make up the Skripal case.

That must in turn beg questions about the source who has provided this information, and the knowledge this source has about the events in Salisbury, and the extent to which the source may be using this knowledge to manipulate British perceptions of the Skripal case through the information it is providing (see my recent extensive discussion of this).

The other problem is that the whole superstructure of guesses (“highly likely”, “highly unlikely”. “likely”, “unlikely”) upon which the rest of the letter is based strongly suggests that this intelligence is uncorroborated by any other source.

Frankly, it looks to me as if the whole intelligence case against Russia is based on information provided by a single source, with British intelligence going on to draw various guesses from the information this source has provided in a way which is intended to make it seem that the British have more information and more sources for what they say than they really do.

As I have no knowledge of the source who has provided the information I am in no position to judge how reliable the source is.  Nor can I say anything about what agenda the source might be following.

What I would say is that since the source can never give evidence in court in terms of obtaining a conviction – the supposed objective of a criminal inquiry – its information is worthless.

Since it is precisely a criminal investigation which in the Skripal case is supposed to be underway, this information – which can never be tested in court or used to make a finding of guilt or innocence  in a properly conducted trial – should never have been published.

The effect of doing so has been to prejudice the criminal investigation which is underway by in effect publicly directing the investigation’s outcome, something which to be clear is a deplorable thing.

The Duran
EUR
Donate
When you donate €20 or more, we'll send you our custom-made mug FREE! Your donations help us expose media lies and keep the fight at their doorstep.

Will you help expose the lies of the mainstream media?

As a reader of The Duran, you are well aware of all the propaganda and disinformation reported by the mainstream media. You know how important it is to bring real news to light.

Please support The Duran and help us keep reporting on news that is fair, balanced, and real.

Advertisements

What do you think?

9 points
Upvote Downvote

Total votes: 9

Upvotes: 9

Upvotes percentage: 100.000000%

Downvotes: 0

Downvotes percentage: 0.000000%

Leave a Reply

Loading…

Assessing the Novichok evidence in the Skripal case

US and France claim proof that Syria is responsible for Douma chemical attack