The Skripal case and the perils of a rush to judgment
by James O’Neill - OffGuardian
April 16, 2018
[Amended to remove reference to the Spiez laboratory, which is not mentioned directly in the OPCW summary]
The perils of coming to premature conclusions before all the facts are available has been starkly demonstrated by the latest developments in the alleged nerve gas attack upon the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English town of Salisbury on 4 March 2018.
Followers of this particular saga will be aware that British Prime Minister Theresa May and her Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson have made a series of statements to the United Kingdom House of Commons and to the media. They alleged, without qualification, that the Skripals were poisoned with a nerve agent of the “Novichok” class, of a type “developed by Russia.”
That these statements were made before it was possible for the British chemical and biological research facility at Porton Down to have made an analysis and reached a scientifically valid conclusion did not matter. The object of the exercise was to demonize Russia in general and its President Mr Putin in particular.
As serious questions about the United Kingdom’s version of events were increasingly raised, the government’s explanations changed, along with increasingly bizarre allegations. The one common denominator to all of these “explanations” was that they were devoid of that troublesome substance known as “evidence.”
Very belatedly, and contrary to their obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the United Kingdom made a request to the OPCW to conduct an independent investigation. While this investigation was ongoing, the propaganda continued unabated. One aspect of that was the United Kingdom persuading a number of its NATO and EU allies, plus Australia to expel Russian diplomats.
Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop issued a media release on 27 March that blamed the Skripal attack upon Russia, relying on
“advice from the United Kingdom government that the substance used on 4 March was a military grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia…
“The attack is part of a pattern of reckless and deliberate conduct by the Russian state that constitutes a growing threat to international security, global non-proliferation rules against the use of chemical weapons, the rights of other sovereign nations and the international rules based order that underpins them.”
The OPCW has now issued its report dated 12th April 2018. At the time of writing (15 April) there has been no mention of this report, much less its implications, in the Australian mainstream media. The report is in two versions. The first part, headed Note by the Technical Secretariat was released for public use. The second and more detailed version was released to all nations who were parties to the CWC, which includes Australia.
Even the two page summary report contains valuable information. The first revelation is that the samples collected by the OPCW technical team that went to the United Kingdom on 21 March 2018 (17 days after the attack on the Skripals) were of a “high purity.”
The alleged significance of this is that it could only have been produced in a very sophisticated laboratory, which almost certainly rules out any resources other than those of an advanced nation state.
The second point is that a “pure toxin” is not a “military grade nerve agent.” This latter phrase is one used by the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary and repeated in Foreign Minister Bishop’s media release. The suggestion to the contrary by Gary Aitkenhead, the CEO of Porton Down, was therefore misleading. Mr Aitkenhead is not a scientist and may not have known better, but he was relying on a statement prepared for him. The Porton Down scientists certainly knew better.
Thirdly, the OPCW summary notes that there were no additives to the substance, which would have been necessary had the substance been applied to the Skripal’s front door handle. That particular version was seriously advanced by Boris Johnson who also claimed to have evidence that Russia had been training its agents for several years in how to apply nerve agents to door handles!
Perhaps needless to add, like most of Mr Johnson’s pronouncements on this topic, this was bereft of evidence and logic, let alone scientific validity.
One of the two most important points in the OPCW summary is that the environmental samples collected by the OPCW technical team were of “high purity” and demonstrated “the almost complete absence of the impurities.” This is literally impossible if the samples related to the time when the OPCW technical team was in the United Kingdom for that purpose. Of the various nerve agents in existence, the most durable is VX, which has a durability of 2 to 3 days, not the three weeks between the attack and the collection of the samples.
The irresistible conclusion is that the places where the samples were taken had evidence planted immediately (within a few hours at most) prior to the OPCW technical team’s arrival at the locations from where the samples were collected. It defies common sense and logic to suggest that the Russians were responsible for the planting of such fake evidence. The most logical candidate is the United Kingdom government or someone acting on their behalf.
That finding alone destroys the argument of the United Kingdom government and its acolytes in the Australian government and media. There was however, a further fatal blow to the UK government’s claims. As noted, the full OPCW report was made available to all governments who were signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention.
There is no prohibition on any of those governments from publishing the full report or parts thereof. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has released what he claims is another key finding of the report. That is, that the agent used on the Skripals was in fact a substance known as BZ (3-Quinuclidinyl benzilate). BZ is an hallucinogenic incapacitating chemical warfare agent. It afflicts both the peripheral and central nervous systems.
The signs of its use are disorientation, tremors, ataxia, stupor and coma. It is administered by and aerosol spray. These symptoms accord with the descriptions given by eyewitnesses and Salisbury Hospital as to the Skripal’s medical conditions. BZ is not produced in Russia. It is an agent that is used by the United Kingdom and the United States.
When one puts together the now known nature of the substance, its means of delivery and the symptoms that its victims exhibit, it is a further compelling inference that they were “sprayed” at some point between leaving Zizzi’s restaurant and moving to the park bench.
Given the ubiquitousness of CCTV cameras in the vicinity it should be possible to identify the actual perpetrator. One might draw further negative inferences about the UK government and the Police investigation from the fact that no details of the Skripal’s movements at this time have been released.
The British, Australian and other governments who rushed to judgement have a dilemma. Do they attempt to rebut the information that Mr Lavrov released? To try and do so would serve to highlight the revelations and any denials would be easily rebutted by the release of the full report.
On the other hand, ignoring this new evidence inevitably raises further questions about the veracity of the government’s version of events. The details outlined briefly above have already been widely disseminated on the alternative media and at least some British mainstream outlets.
The option that appears to have been taken thus far by the Australian media is to ignore Mr Lavrov’s revelations. Bishop and Turnbull, so recently and frequently condemnatory of alleged chemical warfare misbehaviour by Russia are now completely silent.
Their rush to judgement has now been exposed for the empty propaganda that it was. It is probably too much to expect an apology and a withdrawal of their false claims. Such an apology seems the very least they can do in the light of the actual evidence revealed by the investigation which stands in such stark contrast to the hyperbole and falsehoods perpetrated by the British government and their acolytes.
James O’Neill is a Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst. He may be contacted it firstname.lastname@example.org