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Assessing the Novichok evidence in the Skripal case

OPCW confirms Novichok used to attack Skripals but does not say who made it

Alexander Mercouris

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The long awaited report of the OPCW on the Skripal case has confirmed that a chemical agent of a type that the British authorities call a Novichok was used in the attack in Salisbury on Sergey and Yulia Skripal.

However the report does not say where this chemical was made, which as British ambassador Craig Murray correctly says is the key point at issue.

In effect the OPCW report therefore takes the Skripal case no further forward than the point it had reached following the admission by Porton Down’s chief executive Gary Aitkenhead that though Britain’s Porton Down scientists had identified the agent as a Novichok, they were unable to say where it was made.

At this point I think it might help if I clarify several points about the Novichok evidence as I understand it.

Firstly, there has been much discussion about Novichok agents and their properties, with many people doubting that a Novichok agent was used at all in the Skripal case given that Novichok agents are supposed to be eight times more powerful than the British agent VX notwithstanding which Sergey and Yulia Skripal are nonetheless supposed to have survived contact with one and were able to walk around Salisbury for several hours after they supposedly came into contact with it.

There have been suggestions that the whole thing is a gigantic fraud and that what struck Sergey and Yulia Skripal down was nothing more than a bad case of food poisoning caused by a sea food risotto which they eat for lunch in a restaurant.

It is important to understand however that saying that a Novichok agent was not used in the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal is a conspiracy theory.

I say this because for this theory to be true it would require the British police  – a notoriously truculent and independent minded group of people who are currently on extremely bad terms with the current British government – the local NHS staff – who are likely to be mostly Labour Party supporters and many of whom are probably supporters of Jeremy Corbyn – and the scientists of Porton Down – whose refusal to point the finger at Russia has caused the British government much embarrassment – to collude with each other in order to pretend that Sergey and Yulia Skripal were poisoned with a Novichok when in fact they were poisoned by something else.

As I have said many times, simply because something is a conspiracy theory does not mean it is not true.  Actual conspiracies happen all the time and always have done.

However I would need to see a lot more evidence before I believed in this one, and frankly the OPCW’s confirmation that the agent used in the Skripal case was indeed a Novichok to my mind puts the whole question beyond doubt.

The fact that Sergey and Yulia Skripal survived their contact with the Novichok agent and appeared unaffected by it for many hours after they are supposed to have come into contact with it are not in my opinion reasons for doubting that they were poisoned by a Novichok.

Rather they are reasons for doubting that the agent they came into contact with is anywhere near as powerful as has been claimed.

Other possibilities are that the quantity of the Novichok agent they came into contact with was very small and/or that they did not come into contact with it in the way that the British authorities say they did ie. on the door knob of Sergey Skripal’s house.

The fact that a Novichok agent was used means that there has to be a very high probability that this was as the British authorities say a murder attempt.

Whilst it is possible to construct alternative theories frankly they don’t seem very likely, and until and unless alternative evidence which casts doubt on the murder attempt theory comes to light, I will stick with it.

The fact that a Novichok agent was used in what looks like a murder attempt does not however prove that the murder attempt was the work of the Russian authorities despite the attempt of the British authorities to argue otherwise.

This is because the linkage between Russia and Novichok agents does not appear to be anywhere near as strong as the British authorities claim that it is.

There has been much discussion about the precise status of the Novichok programme in the USSR in the 1970s and thereafter.

It seems that some early reporting confused what may have been a Novichok programme in the USSR – or perhaps more accurately a chemical weapons research programme which resulted in the development of certain agents which have come to be called “Novichoks” – with a quite different chemical weapons programme which was also underway in the USSR at this time, and which resulted in the development of a completely different set of chemical agents.

It seems that the chemical agent which was used in 1995 in the Kivelidi murder was apparently one of these other agents from this other programme, and was not in fact what is today called a “Novichok”.

The Russians themselves have given muddled information about these programmes, and their statements on this subject are far from clear, a fact which the British have exploited to their advantage.

However so far as I can understand it the Russian position is (1) that there was no ‘Novichok programme’ as such in the USSR or in Russia at any time; (2) that the name ‘Novichok’, though Russian, was first used in the West in order to describe a number of chemical agents which were either researched or were being developed during the Cold War simultaneously in a number of countries, and not just in the USSR (the Russians have mentioned the US, Britain, Sweden and Czechoslovakia – all countries with advanced chemical industries – amongst them); and (3) that neither the USSR nor Russia ever produced or stockpiled any of these Novichok agents in any quantity or made weapons from them, and that the work on Novichoks never went beyond a research programme.

I understand the Russians also to say that all their chemical weapons stockpiles have been fully accounted for and destroyed, and that the OPCW routinely monitors all their chemical laboratories including the laboratory in Shikhany in the Saratov Region where the British authorities have suggested that the Novichok agent which was used in the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal might have been made.

I am obviously not in a position to say whether or not this Russian account – assuming I am reporting it properly – is true.

I would say that to my knowledge all sorts of strange and exotic weapons were researched in any number of laboratories both in the East and the West during the Cold War – research grants for that sort of thing were plentiful in those days – with only a tiny fraction of this research ever resulting in usable weapons.

In light of this background, the Russian account – if I have reproduced it correctly – does not look to me at all implausible.

What is indisputable – irrespective of whether the Russian account is true or not – is that knowledge of how to produce what are now called Novichok agents is today quite widespread, and is not just confined to Russia.

Moreover academic chemists have questioned claims that a Novichok agent of the type used in the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal could only have been made by a state actor.

Accordingly – as Porton Down has admitted – it is not possible to say that a particular sample of chemical agent was made in Russia simply because it is of a Novichok type, and neither Porton Down and nor it seems the OPCW are able say that any particular sample of Novichok agent was made in Russia, and are not saying this in relation to the Novichok samples which have been tested during the Skripal case.

Moreover based on what some academic chemists are saying, there are good reasons to doubt that only a state actor can make a Novichok agent of the sort that was used in the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal.

In summary, the Novichok evidence in the Skripal case is the same as the polonium evidence in the previous Litvinenko case.

In both cases use of a particular exotic material is said to implicate Russia.  In reality in both cases it does no such thing.  As it turns out the extent of the association of the material with Russia has been exaggerated.

Moreover it looks as if the toxic properties of both materials have also been exaggerated, whilst just as their supposed unique provenance in Russia turns out in both cases to be untrue, so in both cases it has also turned out to be untrue that the material can be scientifically proved to have come from Russia.

As it happens in the Litvinenko case the Russian authorities now say that the polonium probably came from Britain.

In fact the similarity between the polonium evidence in the Litvinenko case and the Novichok evidence in the Skripal case is so strong that I for one am left wondering whether the idea of using an exotic agent like a Novichok in the Skripal case came from the way the presence of polonium in the Litvinenko case was (wrongly) held to implicate Russia.

The fact that a television drama involving Russian gangsters has apparently recently been broadcast in which use of a Novichok agent is apparently an integral part of the plot shown may also have put the idea of using a Novichok into someone’s head, though I should say that I have not seen this drama and obviously I do not know this.

In any event use of a Novichok agent in the Skripal case is an interesting and important fact, but it is not conclusive of anything in and of itself.

Certainly it does not prove the identity of the perpetrator in the way that the British authorities have been saying that it does – or at least not in the way that they have been saying – and it should not be treated as it it does.

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BREXIT chaos, as May’s cabinet crumbles (Video)

The Duran Quick Take: Episode 18.

Alex Christoforou

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The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris take a quick look at the various scenarios now facing a crumbling May government, as the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement is forcing cabinet members to resign in rapid succession. The weekend ahead is fraught with uncertainty for the UK and its position within, or outside, the European Union.

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If Theresa May’s ill-fated Brexit Withdrawal Agreement is eventually rejected this could trigger a vote of no confidence, snap elections or even a new referendum…

Here are six possible scenarios facing Theresa May and the UK (via The Guardian)

1 Parliament blocks Theresa May’s draft withdrawal agreement and political declarations

May faces an enormous task to win parliamentary approval, given that Labour, the SNP, the DUP and 51 Tories have said they will not vote for it.

If the remaining 27 EU member states sign off the draft agreement on 25 November, the government will have to win over MPs at a crucial vote in early December.

If May loses the vote, she has 21 days to put forward a new plan. If she wins, she is safe for now.

2 May withdraws the current draft agreement

The prime minister could decide that she will not get the draft agreement through parliament and could seek to renegotiate with the EU.

This would anger Tory backbenchers and Brussels and would be seen as a humiliation for her government. It might spark a leadership contest too.

3 Extend article 50

May could ask the European council to extend article 50, giving her more time to come up with a deal that could be passed by parliament – at present, the UK will leave on 29 March 2019.

Such a request would not necessarily be granted. Some EU governments are under pressure from populist parties to get the UK out of the EU as soon as possible.

4 Conservative MPs trigger a vote of no confidence in the prime minister

If Conservative MPs believe May is no longer fit for office, they could trigger a no-confidence vote.

Members of the European Research Group claim that Graham Brady, the chair of the powerful 1922 Committee, will receive the necessary 48 letters this week.

A vote could be held as soon as early next week. All Tory MPs would be asked to vote for or against their leader. If May wins, she cannot be challenged for at least 12 months. If she loses, there would be a leadership contest to decide who will become prime minister.

5 General election – three possible routes

If May fails to get support for the current deal, she could call a snap general election.

She would table a parliamentary vote for a general election that would have to be passed by two thirds of MPs. She would then set an election date, which could be by the end of January.

This is an unlikely option. May’s political credibility was severely damaged when she called a snap election in 2017, leading to the loss of the Conservative party’s majority.

Alternatively, a general election could be called if a simple majority of MPs vote that they have no confidence in the government. Seven Tory MPs, or all of the DUP MPs, would have to turn against the government for it to lose the vote, triggering a two-week cooling-off period. May would remain in office while MPs negotiate a new government.

Another route to a general election would be for the government to repeal or amend the Fixed-term Parliaments Act which creates a five-year period between general elections. A new act would have to be passed through both the Commons and the Lords – an unlikely scenario.

6 Second referendum

May could decide it is impossible to find a possible draft deal that will be approved by parliament and go for a people’s vote.

The meaningful vote could be amended to allow MPs to vote on whether the country holds a second referendum. It is unclear whether enough MPs would back a second referendum and May has ruled it out.

 

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Brexit Withdrawal Agreement may lead to Theresa May’s downfall (Video)

The Duran – News in Review – Episode 151.

Alex Christoforou

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The Brexit Withdrawal Agreement has been published and as many predicted, including Nigel Farage, the document is leading to the collapse of Theresa May’s government.

During an interview with iTV’s Piers Morgan, remain’s Alistair Campell and leave’s Nigel Farage, were calling May’s Brexit deal a complete disaster.

Via iTV

Alastair Campbell: “This doesn’t do remotely what was offered…what is the point”

“Parliament is at an impasse”

“We have to go back to the people” …”remain has to be on the ballot paper”

Nigel Farage:

“This is the worst deal in history. We are giving away in excess of 40B pounds in return for precisely nothing. Trapped still inside the European Union’s rulebook.

“Nothing has been achieved.”

“In any negotiation in life…the other side need to know that you are serious about walking away.”

“What monsieur Barnier knew from day one, is that at no point did Theresa May intend to walk away.”

“Fundamental matter of trust to the electors of our country and those who govern us.”

The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris discuss Theresa May’s Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, and why the deal is a full on victory for the European Union and a document of subjugation for the United Kingdom.

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Coming in at 585 pages, the draft agreement will be closely scrutinized over the coming days but here are some of the highlights as outlined by Zerohedge

  • UK and EU to use the best endeavours to supersede Ireland protocol by 2020
  • UK can request extension of the transition period any time before July 1st, 2020
  • EU, UK See Level-Playing Field Measures in Future Relationship
  • Transition period may be extended once up to date yet to be specified in the text
  • EU and UK shall establish single customs territory and Northern Ireland is in same customs territory as Great Britain

The future relationship document is less than seven pages long. It says the U.K. and EU are seeking a free-trade area with cooperation on customs and rules: “Comprehensive arrangements creating a free trade area combining deep regulatory and customs cooperation, underpinned by provisions ensuring a level playing field for open and fair competition.”

The wording might raise concerns among Brexiters who don’t want regulatory cooperation and the measures on fair competition could amount to shackling the U.K. to EU rules.

As Bloomberg’s Emma Ross-Thomas writes, “There’s a clear sense in the documents that we’re heading for a customs union in all but name. Firstly via the Irish backstop, and then via the future relationship.”

Separately, a government summary of the draft agreement suggests role for parliament in deciding whether to extend the transition or to move in to the backstop.

But perhaps most importantly, regarding the controversial issue of the Irish border, the future relationship document says both sides aim to replace the so-called backstop – the thorniest issue in the negotiations – with a “subsequent agreement that establishes alternative arrangements for ensuring the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland on a permanent footing.”

On this topic, recall that the U.K.’s fear was of being locked into the backstop arrangement indefinitely in the absence of a broader trade deal. The draft agreement includes a review process to try to give reassurance that the backstop would never be needed. Basically, the U.K. could choose to seek an extension to the transition period – where rules stay the same as they are currently – or opt to trigger the backstop conditions. In fact, as Bloomberg notes, the word “backstop,” which has been a sticking point over the Irish border for weeks, is mentioned only once in the text.

As Bloomberg further adds, the withdrawal agreement makes clear that the U.K. will remain in a single customs area with the EU until there’s a solution reached on the Irish border. It’s what Brexiteers hate, because it makes it more difficult for the U.K. to sign its own free-trade deals, which they regard as a key prize of Brexit.

Predictably, EU Commission President Juncker said decisive progress has been made in negotiations.

Meanwhile, as analysts comb over the documents, Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the European Research Group, has already written to Conservative lawmakers urging them to vote against the deal. He says:

  • May is handing over money for “little or nothing in return”
  • The agreement treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the U.K.
  • It will “lock” the U.K. into a customs union with the EU
  • It breaks the Tory election manifesto of 2017

The full document…

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4 resignations and counting: May’s government ‘falling apart before our eyes’ over Brexit deal

The beginning of the end for Theresa May’s government.

The Duran

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Via RT


Four high profile resignations have followed on the heels of Theresa May’s announcement that her cabinet has settled on a Brexit deal, with Labour claiming that the Conservative government is at risk of completely dissolving.

Shailesh Vara, the Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office was the first top official to resign after the prime minister announced that her cabinet had reached a draft EU withdrawal agreement.

An hour after his announcement, Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab – the man charged with negotiating and finalizing the deal – said he was stepping down, stating that the Brexit deal in its current form suffers from deep flaws. Esther McVey, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, submitted her letter of resignation shortly afterwards. More resignations have followed.

Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister, Jon Trickett, predicted that this is the beginning of the end for May’s government.

The government is falling apart before our eyes as for a second time the Brexit secretary has refused to back the prime minister’s Brexit plan. This so-called deal has unraveled before our eyes

Shailesh Vara: UK to be stuck in ‘a half-way house with no time limit’

Kicking off Thursday’s string of resignations, Vara didn’t mince words when describing his reservations about the cabinet-stamped Brexit deal.

Theresa May’s EU withdrawal agreement leaves the UK in a “halfway house with no time limit on when we will finally become a sovereign nation,” his letter of resignation states. Vara went on to warn that the draft agreement leaves a number of critical issues undecided, predicting that it “will take years to conclude” a trade deal with the bloc.

“We will be locked in a customs arrangement indefinitely, bound by rules determined by the EU over which we have no say,” he added.

Dominic Raab: Deal can’t be ‘reconciled’ with promises made to public

Announcing his resignation on Thursday morning, Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted: “I cannot in good conscience support the terms proposed for our deal with the EU.”

Raab claimed that the deal in its current form gives the EU veto power over the UK’s ability to annul the deal.

No democratic nation has ever signed up to be bound by such an extensive regime.

Former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith said that Raab’s resignation as Brexit secretary is “devastating” for May.

“It sounds like he has been ignored,” he told the BBC.

Raab’s departure will undoubtedly encourage other Brexit supporters to question the deal, political commentators have observed.

Esther McVey: Deal ‘does not honor’ Brexit referendum

Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey didn’t hold back when issuing her own letter of resignation. According to McVey, the deal “does not honour” the result of the Brexit referendum, in which a majority of Brits voted to leave the European Union.

Suella Braverman: ‘Unable to sincerely support’ deal

Suella Braverman, a junior minister in Britain’s Brexit ministry, issued her resignation on Thursday, saying that she couldn’t stomach the deal.

“I now find myself unable to sincerely support the deal agreed yesterday by cabinet,” she said in a letter posted on Twitter.

Suella Braverman, MP Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department for Exiting the EU © Global Look Press / Joel Goodman
Braverman said that the deal is not what the British people voted for, and threatened to tear the country apart.

“It prevents an unequivocal exit from a customs union with the EU,” she said.

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