Story Changed

From the BBC:

The world’s chemical weapons watchdog is to meet in the Hague and discuss the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the UK.

The emergency session was called by Russia, who denies being behind the attack and wants the UK to share evidence.

But the UK government says the only “plausible explanation” is that Russia is to blame.

Yes, this is what the government said from the beginning. They took a sample, sent it off to Porton Down – an indisputable centre of excellence for chemical warfare – who identified the substance as Novichok, which could only have come from Russia. Yup, this is what I remember quite clearly. Oh, hang on:

On Tuesday the UK’s Porton Down laboratory said it could not verify the precise source of the nerve agent used against Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

Ah.

The laboratory, which has previously identified the substance as a military-grade Novichok nerve agent, said it was likely to have been deployed by a “state actor” but said it was not their job to say where it was manufactured.

Right, this is beginning to piss me off. Now Porton Down’s position is perfectly reasonable and doesn’t mean anything in itself – their job was almost certainly to identify the substance not to speculate as to where this particular batch may have been manufactured. But this is not what the public was led to believe. Within a day or two of Porton Down getting involved their name was invoked by government ministers who heavily implied it was their experts who confirmed it almost certainly came from Russia. So where did they get this idea from?

The UK says further intelligence led to its belief that Russia was responsible.

Now this isn’t unreasonable in itself and the intelligence may be 100% accurate. But this is not what we were told. Why is this only coming out now, a month after the event and several weeks after Russia was issued with ultimatums and threats, plunging us neck-deep into a diplomatic row we’ve dragged around thirty other countries into?

To me, there is a big difference between:

Our experts at Porton Down have analysed the substance and concluded it is a nerve agent of the Novichok family, and could only have come from Russia.

and:

Our experts at Porton Down have analysed the substance and concluded it is a nerve agent of the Novichok family. Intelligence sources say it could only have come from Russia.

Whereas I don’t doubt the impartial expertise of the chaps at Porton Down, British intelligence hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory in recent years. What form does this intelligence take? How much was it subject to interpretation? How much political pressure was brought to bear on the analysis? The British government has implied the source of manufacture has been determined by scientific analysis rather than intelligence sources. In other words, they have mislead the public.

Here’s what I reckon’s happened:

The world’s chemical weapons watchdog is to meet in the Hague and discuss the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the UK.

The emergency session was called by Russia, who denies being behind the attack and wants the UK to share evidence.

As a member of the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Russia has the right to request an emergency meeting of the body.

Among other things, it wants to know what kind of evidence the UK has provided to the OPCW, which inspectors visited the site of the attack in Salisbury, who they met and where the samples are being analysed.

The OPCW expects to receive the results of its own independent laboratory tests within a week.

Until now, everyone has been led to believe the Russian connection was made by Porton Down. The independent testing by the OPCW is likely to confirm the substance is Novichok, but will not be able to say where it was manufactured. At this point, the Russians will ask those at Porton Down “Then how did you know?” Anticipating this, Porton Down has distanced itself from making any Russian connection, forcing the government to come clean.

I have said right from the start that Theresa May’s government has handled this affair spectacularly badly. They’ve rushed to judgement for political reasons without getting their ducks in a row. Probably the best thing I can say at this point is that it doesn’t surprise me in the least.

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37 thoughts on “Story Changed

  1. @JUliaM – I’m not sure but the method of delivery has varied from on the door handle of his front door to the vents in his car to in his food to something else I can’t recall at the moment (possibly parachuting flying Elvises like in the film Honeymoon in Las Vegas – or was that teddy bears? I can’t remember) or by an agent that flew in on the same flight as the daughter. Or there again, it could have been some other method of delivery – not the Post Office. They are not reliable enough and may have inadvertently killed his cats and guinea pigs. I kid you not :

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5573751/Skripal-family-call-Britain-make-clear-happened-ex-spys-beloved-pets.html

    And Theresa May has the political and managerial competence of a guinea pig dying of nerve gas poisoning. A nice circular justification and proof.

    As Richard Littlejohn would say “You couldn’t make it up”.

  2. “everyone has been led to believe…” Well only if you take Boris Johnson’s word as gospel. Those of a more sceptical turn of mind might have realised that you can’t determine the origin of the nerve agent from its molecular structure. Do you really think the intelligence agencies have got the rest of the story wrong? If so, which alternative version of events would you prefer? You’ve plenty to choose from, generated by Mr Putin’s lie factories.

    I’m sure the Russians have taken enormous care that there is no incontrovertible physical evidence against them. Is that an argument for suspending judgement and letting them get away with it? If it isn’t, what action should we take? My view is that Theresa May has handled this very well indeed; the fact that Boris spoke out of turn doesn’t detract from the central fact that Russia seems to be doing everything in its power to instill fear and dissension in the western world.

  3. Well only if you take Boris Johnson’s word as gospel.

    So we shouldn’t believe the Foreign Secretary when he addresses parliament over a matter of national security? I think you’ve just proven my point.

  4. I note Porton Down reiterate the ‘military grade’ claim, though they do not explain what they mean by this. Party jokes aside, this could mean they find the agent to be pure, made by a properly designed process by people that knew what they were doing, rather than some impure and low effectiveness product of bucket chemistry by some Japanese suicide-cult nutcases (for example).
    But to be ‘military grade’ it needs to kill (or atleast render ineffective) the enemy quickly, so you don’t have to fight them. That’s really rather the point. An agent that takes hours to have an effect is hardly ‘military grade’: what would be the point of it, if it does nothing until after everyone has fought and gone home to tea and medals?
    The elephant in the Goverment’s increasingly lame story is that both victims were knocked out together – or one would have begged help – yet we are led to believe they were exposed at home, drove into town, had a drink in a pub, ate lunch, and then, hours after exposure, and TOGETHER, they suddenly fell ill. Random exposure dosage, massively different physiologies. But identical period before effect. Hours later. Oh come on, tell us another, this one has got bells on.

    It is absolutely clear that if indeed the agent was ‘military grade’ as claimed, the exposure must have been only seconds before they reached the bench. A spray in the face perhaps (from a very brave assassin!) or a booby trapped gift. Or self inflicted & deliberate… So why all the nonsense about house door handles and car airvents? Something to hide? Distraction? Oh look a squirrel!
    The joint suicide pact suggestion looks more plausible by the day. And OMG, wouldn’t that be embarrasing….definitely need some squirrels….

  5. I notice that Ms May is now banging on about the gender pay gap. I’m somewhat surprised she has not blamed the Russians for it..

  6. I really fail to see the story change. These are the exact words from May’s speech on March 12:

    Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down; our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so; Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations; and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations; the Government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal.

    which is completely logically consistent and very much in line with your formulation:

    Our experts at Porton Down have analysed the substance and concluded it is a nerve agent of the Novichok family. Intelligence sources say it could only have come from Russia.

    Who actually said that Porton Down determined that it was made in Russia? Boris said that there is evidence they have been making it and stockpiling it, but even that is not the same thing. Otherwise, would you not consider that you have allowed yourself to misinterpret the government’s position?

  7. Well, if it’s Novichok, then, who made it?
    From previous attempts at avoiding doing anything to Russia (Litvinenko, Georgia, Crimea, Ukraine, Malaysian Air, various Russian exiles dying mysteriously) I’m assuming that blaming Russia was a last resort for the UK. And then getting the French, US, Germans and NATO allies – probably after the intelligence sharing) – to support the UK indicates to me that the UK had very good grounds for suspecting Russia. And I don’t think the Russians stole the US Presidential election in 2016. Hillary Clinton lost it herself.

  8. The Russian state is culpable on the balance of probabilities, but not beyond reasonable doubt.

    How about that?

  9. But to be ‘military grade’ it needs to kill (or atleast render ineffective) the enemy quickly, so you don’t have to fight them. That’s really rather the point. An agent that takes hours to have an effect is hardly ‘military grade’: what would be the point of it, if it does nothing until after everyone has fought and gone home to tea and medals?

    The government’s and Porton Down’s decision to use the words ‘military grade’ is frustrating because it is so unspecific and left open to silly interpretations. Military grade would normally imply that it is something produced only for (or to a standard only for) military purposes – things like batteries which are not too dissimilar to consumer equivalents but where performance is prioritised over cost and safety. Anyway, the points mentioned above have nothing to do with anything being ‘military grade’.

    Incidentally, the nerve agent would have taken effect within seconds of it coming into contact with their bodies, whether it was totally pure or some dodgy batch cooked up wherever. If they left traces of it over the course of a few hours then it must have been on their clothes or some other object before making contact with their skin or anything else.

  10. Tim, in so far as your point is that Boris is an arse and an embarrassment and unfit to be Foreign Secretary, I don’t demur. But as far as I can see from Hansard he hasn’t misled Parliament on this; the “slip of the tongue” (to be charitable where perhaps it isn’t warranted) seems to have taken place in an interview with Deutsche Welle. And it does nothing to undermine the case that Russia was responsible – the French and the Germans and the Finns and Italians were surely not convinced by Boris’s bluster, but by intelligence which made it almost impossible for a reasonable person to doubt that Russia was behind the attempted murder of the Skripals.

  11. I note Porton Down reiterate the ‘military grade’ claim, though they do not explain what they mean by this.

    Damian Counsell gave me a schooling on this yesterday.

  12. Otherwise, would you not consider that you have allowed yourself to misinterpret the government’s position?

    If that’s the case, it seems strange that Porton Down feel the need to make a statement clarifying their position and the BBC considers it worthy of headline news. And judging the reaction on social media – not a great gauge of much, but reliable enough for public opinion – quite a few people believe the story has changed.

  13. The Russian state is culpable on the balance of probabilities, but not beyond reasonable doubt.

    No problem with that.

  14. If that’s the case, it seems strange that Porton Down feel the need to make a statement clarifying their position and the BBC considers it worthy of headline news. And judging the reaction on social media – not a great gauge of much, but reliable enough for public opinion – quite a few people believe the story has changed.

    As far as I can tell this “statement” from Porton Down is a response from the chief executive to an interview question by Sky News – a response consistent with what has been said already. If the media decide to frame this as “news” and people get suckered in by that then who is it who is really changing the story?

  15. the French and the Germans and the Finns and Italians were surely not convinced by Boris’s bluster, but by intelligence which made it almost impossible for a reasonable person to doubt that Russia was behind the attempted murder of the Skripals.

    Okay, but there appears to be a greater onus now on this intelligence than at any time in the previous few weeks. Certainly there’s been no discussion of it, or speculation as to what form this intelligence might take. Now I don’t expect the government to say too much for obvious reasons, but “intelligence tells us only Russia could have done it” seems rather vague and I’m not surprised the Russians have laughed it off.

  16. According to Craig Murray

    The exact formulation “of a type developed by Russia” was used by Theresa May in parliament, used by the UK at the UN Security Council, used by Boris Johnson on the BBC yesterday and, most tellingly of all, “of a type developed by Russia” is the precise phrase used in the joint communique issued by the UK, USA, France and Germany yesterday

    Pressure has been placed on Porton Down to express something they could not prove and the result was this very odd phrase. On the eve of the official OPCW conference, it was obvious that the Govt and Porton Down did not want to be instantly discredited so we finally have the clarification, such as it is, of what Porton Down have learned. May and Co are handling this so badly that this big fuss over gender pay looks like another attempt at covering up their ineptitude for the domestic audience

  17. If the media decide to frame this as “news” and people get suckered in by that then who is it who is really changing the story?

    That’s my point: the communication on this matter should have been clear, precise, and properly worded from the beginning such that a perfectly-accurate response to a reasonable question cannot suddenly become news because it appears to contradict the government’s previous position. I understand we’ll not agree on this, but the whole thing appears to me to have been handled in a hurried and amateurish fashion to the point I can confidently predict there will be more surprises before this story plays out.

  18. According to Craig Murray

    Alas, I think he’s a cretin and in the event I think he’s right it’s on the principle that even a blind squirrel will find a nut on occasion.

    But I agree with your words.

  19. Fraser Nelson in the Speccy is worth reading.

    He seems to agree that the communication around this whole affair isn’t as good as what it should have been.

  20. @Tim the Coder,

    “Military grade” doesn’t guarantee rapid or reliable effect – as you say, it’s relevant to the purity and a pointer to the process used.

    However, nerve agents aren’t all used for their “immediate Raggedy Ann doll” effect – that’s achieved by high doses and exposure by droplet inhalation, canonically by BM-21 rockets with a Sarin fill (which fill the air with so much aerosolised agent that anyone breathing it will be out of action within a minute or two, yet which will break down to safe-ish levels by the time the motor-rifle infantry are debussing on your position to bayonet you as you thrash about helplessly)

    Many, particularly persistent agents like VX, are used to make areas difficult to use for some time once attacked: having slimed an airfield with, say, an Iskander warhead airbursting to splatter a quarter-ton of agent over the area, for instance, flight operations can still continue. However, everything now happens at a much slower pace since everyone’s having to either work in full protective gear, or they and anything they’re working on have to be decontaminated and brought inside the collective protection (and not a lot of high-tech gear copes with the sort of aggressive decontamination needed to get rid of chemical weapons). The threat there isn’t immediate lethality, it’s contact with anything carrying droplets of the agent, or vapour from where the agent has leached into soil, concrete, wood, painted surfaces…

    Even though the agent used was “military grade”, you could wander around the base unprotected and feel fine, for a while, then the dimmed vision, tight chest, runny nose and drooling would start setting in and you’d better have your Combopens handy…

    How is that relevant here? If – just as a hypothetical for-instance – it was applied to the door handle of Skripal’s house intending that he’d get skin contact (and hence quick onset and high lethality), but he was actually wearing gloves that day, he and anyone nearby would be exposed to a cumulative threat from vapour hazard and seepage through the gloves. That would account for the delayed onset, the trail of contamination, the other victims… doesn’t mean it’s what happened, but it fits the reports.

  21. Not a good look, indeed:

    That FCO tweet was deleted last night, BTW.

  22. Jason Lynch

    Thanks for that.

    Comment more frequently; you always bring something to the party.

  23. Aside from the politics of this, isn’t the official line credible in its facts?

    I’m not an expert in chemical weapons, but given we can identify not only the country of origin of (eg) plutonium but the specific reactor and core that produced it (via comparison with known samples of said core’s output), might it not be the case that Porton Down started the analysis off, arrived at Novichok- which everyone agrees is a Russian made nerve agent- but found that it couldn’t type it against a held sample?

    More generally, it seems that if any kind of determination can be made as to the quality of an agent (bucket made vs professional industrial quality) then, with adequate reference samples, they could ascertain where it came from and when.

    If you ain’t got the samples, though

  24. ” this big fuss over gender pay looks like another attempt at covering up their ineptitude for the domestic audience ”

    And that would be another fail.

  25. He seems to agree that the communication around this whole affair isn’t as good as what it should have been.

    True, the hapless boss at Porton Down shouldn’t have agreed to an interview.

    If that’s the case, it seems strange that Porton Down feel the need to make a statement clarifying their position and the BBC considers it worthy of headline news. And judging the reaction on social media – not a great gauge of much, but reliable enough for public opinion – quite a few people believe the story has changed.

    It was neither a statement not a clarification as Bloke in Sweden says and there’s no surprise in the BBC giving the story a disobliging slant. And as for public opinion and social media – I’m afraid that folk tend to plump for conspiracy theories over more humdrum explanations.

  26. Okay, we know Russians are absolute masters at disinformation, denials, and straight-up lying. We know their current government has form in this area to a degree which would make their Cold War predecessors blush.

    We also know we can’t absolutely prove the Russians did it, the best we can do is go on a balance of probabilities. Half the stuff we can prove we can’t share with the British public because it comes from intelligence sources that need to be protected. We also know that Russia will exploit these weaknesses in our case to the fullest extent.

    Therefore, the government should be running a communication operation so tight shit comes out in diamonds. Instead it’s coming out of a damned muckspreader with Boris Johnson saying one thing, the FCO tweeting another, Porton Down seemingly contradicting what the FCO and Boris have said, and God knows how many different version of where this nerve agent was actually found. In addition,high-ranking people connected to the case – such as the chap at Porton Down – is free to talk to the media. Can you imagine if this was a legal case?

    The government needs to realise it’s playing a big boy’s game here, not bullying hapless citizens like it’s used to. The Russians aren’t going to take any shit, they won’t back down, and they will exploit the slightest weakness or inconsistency in the government’s story. Yet they’re acting like a bunch of incompetents or petulant children (the defence secretary’s “shut up and go away” comment was cringe-inducing). Regardless of whether Putin ordered this – and let’s say for now that he did – May is making an absolute hash of this, and I have no confidence this will be the last example.

  27. might it not be the case that Porton Down started the analysis off, arrived at Novichok- which everyone agrees is a Russian made nerve agent- but found that it couldn’t type it against a held sample?

    No – radioactive material is a special case, it is effectively impossible to determine geographical origin from chemical analysis alone.

    That FCO tweet was deleted last night, BTW.

    That it is indeed inconsistent with the official position and appears to be a quote from the ambassador to Russia who has mis-chosen one or two words. Which unfortunately is all the media and especially Russian spokespeople need to spin this as a government who can’t get its story straight. But it hardly makes any difference – if the government tightens up communications so that either information only comes from one source or that everyone is on message then they’ll just paint it as suppression of dissent with all the hallmarks of a conspiracy. I imagine at this point it’s fairly small minority in the West who actually believe Russian claims of innocence.

  28. @BISweden

    “No – radioactive material is a special case, it is effectively impossible to determine geographical origin from chemical analysis alone.”

    But they do this with bio weapons and viruses. And lots of refinery products, as well as more mundane things like seawater.

    I’m not claiming that chemically pure H2SO4 (for instance) will be different if they make it in China vs Switzerland, but they seem to be able to match samples based on spectrographic analysis through impurities and byproducts.

    All I am saying is, if a samples of Novichok from plant X and plant Y exist, and the UK sample can be matched to plant X, but not Y, Plant X probably made it. If it matches neither, it was made somewhere else. But not necessarily by someone other than the owner of plant X and Y.

  29. I’m not claiming that chemically pure H2SO4 (for instance) will be different if they make it in China vs Switzerland, but they seem to be able to match samples based on spectrographic analysis through impurities and byproducts.

    This is true but I can’t imagine that’s possible in this case since even if they do have a reference sample from a known source they surely don’t have a good enough quality sample from the crime scene. Apparently the Russian ambassador said he was told the agent was identified specifically as “A-234” – there’s a couple of alleged structures for that on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A-234_(nerve_agent) – if that’s true and whichever one of those it is, Porton Down have probably identified it on the basis of the breakdown products, since it will be decomposing in the atmosphere but the products will still be quite distinctive. But I would have thought that’s all they can determine.

  30. When even a die-hard Conservative like me treats with scorn anything that HM Gov puts out, then the damage has been done, and not by the Russians.

  31. For me, ‘military-grade’ = produced by the lowest bidder. I cringe whenever someone uses the term.

  32. http://mikenormaneconomics.blogspot.co.uk/2018/04/moon-of-alabama-operation-hades-model.html?m=1

    I am not sure how much credence to place on this. I do not remember it hitting UK news in 1994 and Google just shows some links to odd blogs. Nothing shows up in English wiki. However, it seems that in 1994, Germany staged a hoax purchase of plutonium from Russia in order to embarrass Russia and make intelligence advances into Russian security. Does anyone know of this or remember it? Is it just another conspiracy theory?

  33. Graeme,

    I’m aware of an Operation CERBERUS (not the Channel Dash but a 1970s joint German-Israeli collection operation, with Chinese help, on Soviet air-defence radars, headlined as informing the design of what became the Tornado strike aircraft and its defensive countermeasures) but there’s nothing in the usual journals about any plutonium-related shenanigans involving Germany, nor anything specific about an Op HADES.

    Doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but it hasn’t turned up in the nearest things the spook world has to house journals ([Journal of Intelligence History, Studies in Intelligence…)

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