The events of the last few days in the Skripal case provide an object lesson of why in criminal investigations the rules of due process should always be adhered to. The reason the British now find themselves in difficulties is because they have not adhered to them.
This despite the fact that – as they all too often like to remind us – it was the British themselves who largely created them.
The single biggest unexplained mystery about the Skripal case is why it attracted so much attention so quickly.
Within hours of Sergey and Yulia Skripal being found passed out on a bench the British media were feverishly speculating that they had been poisoned by Russia.
This despite the fact that no information at that point existed which warranted such speculation, and despite pleas for the investigation to be allowed to take its course from the police and from the government minister responsible for the police, Home Secretary Amber Rudd (who has ever since been conspicuously silent about the whole affair).
Within three days of Sergey and Yulia Skripal being found on passed out on a bench – and before any information linking the incident to Russia had become publicly available – the British government’s COBRA committee was meeting – a fact which caused me incredulity – during which a highly revealing article in The Times of London has now revealed it was already agreed that Russia was “almost certainly” responsible.
A Whitehall source added: “We knew pretty much by the time of the first Cobra [the emergency co-ordination briefing that took place the same week] that it was overwhelmingly likely to come from Russia.”
(bold italics added)
“It” of course refers to the chemical agent which poisoned Sergey and Yulia Skripal, with the clear implication that by the date of the first COBRA meeting on 7th March 2018 – three days after Sergey and Yulia Skripal were found in the bench – “it” had already been identified as a Novichok “of a type developed by Russia”.
If what this article says is true – and despite the fact that the article is full tendentious reporting (of which more below) on this one point I am inclined to believe what it says – then that must mean either (1) that Porton Down is highly familiar with the properties of Novichok agents if it can identify the agent used so quickly; or (2) the British authorities already had “other” information before Porton Down completed its analysis which caused them to think that Sergey and Yulia Skripal were poisoned with a chemical agent “of a type developed by Russia”.
If it was the first then note that Porton Down took no more than three days to identify the poison as a Novichok despite the fact (1) that Novichok agents are not in general use and are supposed to be very rare and there is no known instance of their having been used before (it seems that contrary to previous reports the Kivelidi murder in 1995 in Russia did not involve use of a Novichok); and (2) that confirming Porton Down’s analysis that the poison is a Novichok is taking the OPCW’s experts two weeks.
If it was the second, and the COBRA committee came to its view on 7th March 2018 that Russia was ‘almost certainly responsible’ before Porton Down had identified the poison, then the last few weeks have been an exercise in smoke-and-mirrors, with the British authorities pretending that the reason for their belief in Russian responsibility was that the poison used was a Novichok, whereas in reality they came to that belief for some entirely different reason.
If so then that might partially why Porton Down and the French scientists were able to identify the chemical agent so quickly.
They were able to identify the poison as a Novichok by the weekend prior to Theresa May’s statement to the House of Commons on Monday 12th March 2018 because they were told in advance what to look for.
I do not know which of these alternatives is true. However, for what it’s worth, I believe it is the second because it is the one which makes most sense in light of the known facts.
That this is the likeliest explanation of what happened finds support from The Times of London article which I cited earlier. It contains this highly revealing claim
Security services believe that they have pinpointed the location of the covert Russian laboratory that manufactured the weapons-grade nerve agent used in Salisbury, The Times has learnt.
Ministers and security officials were able to identify the source using scientific analysis and intelligence in the days after the attempted murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal a month ago, according to security sources.
Britain knew about the existence of the facility where the novichok poison was made before the attack on March 4, it is understood……
Security sources do not claim 100 per cent certainty but the source has insisted that they have a high degree of confidence in the location. They also believe that the Russians conducted tests to see whether novichok could be used for assassinations.
The disclosure is the latest part of Britain’s intelligence case against Russia, which has been undermined this week by a series of blunders.
(bold italics added)
In other words the entire British case against Russia derives not from identification of the poison as a Novichok but from information about the supposed existence of a ‘secret laboratory’ making Novichok in Russia which British intelligence had obtained – or thinks it had obtained – before the attack took place.
That the British case against Russia is intelligence based and is not based on the fact that the poison used was (allegedly) a Novichok is further shown by one case of manipulation of language and one case of crude editing in some of the things which have been said.
The example of manipulation of language is the constant British harping on the fact that the Novichok allegedly used in the attack is “military grade”.
I am not a chemist or a chemical weapons expert but I cannot see how it is possibly to say such a thing given that no military – not even the Russian military – has apparently ever stockpiled Novichok agents for use as a military weapon. How can one say therefore that any particular sample of Novichok is “military grade” if no military has ever stockpiled or used it?
As for the example of editing, it is one which I admit I previously overlooked but which was noticed by the invaluable Craig Murray, whose commentary on the Skripal case has been nothing short of outstanding.
The editing is of what was said by Porton Down chief executive Gary Aitkenhead. Since it was Craig Murray who noticed it rather than discuss it myself I will link and quote to what Craig Murray has to say about it
It is in this final statement that, in a desperate last minute attempt to implicate Russia, Aitkenhead states that making this nerve agent required
“extremely sophisticated methods to create, something probably only within the capabilities of a state actor.”
Very strangely, Sky News only give the briefest clip of the interview on this article on their website reporting it. And the report is highly tendentious: for example it states
However, he confirmed the substance required “extremely sophisticated methods to create, something only in the capabilities of a state actor”.
Deleting the “probably” is a piece of utterly tendentious journalism by Sky’s Paul Kelso.
I did not notice that the key word “probably” had been deleted from what Aitkenhead had said, and as a result my previous article wrongly quoted his words, saying them not as he had said them but as they had been wrongly edited.
It turns out that even what Aitkenhead actually said – that the Novichok agent would have required “extremely sophisticated methods to create, something probably only within the capabilities of a state actor” is almost certainly wrong.
Here is what Craig Murray has to say about that
Motorola sales agent Gary Aitkenhead – inexplicably since January, Chief Executive of Porton Down chemical weapons establishment – said in his Sky interview that “probably” only a state actor could create the nerve agent. That is to admit the possibility that a non state actor could. David Collum, Professor of Organo-Chemistry at Cornell University, infinitely more qualified than a Motorola salesman, has stated that his senior students could do it. Professor Collum tweeted me this morning.
The key point in his tweet is, of course “if asked”. The state and corporate media has not asked Prof. Collum nor any of the Professors of Organic Chemistry in the UK. There simply is no basic investigative journalism happening around this case.
That the entire British case against Russia depends on intelligence is further shown by a further strange development in the case today.
This is that the British authorities are now apparently claiming that the fact that the poison which was used to poison Sergey and Yulia Skripal was supposedly found on Sergey Skripal’s door knob is the ‘smoking gun’ which points to Russia.
Whether that is so or not – and I share Craig Murray’s deep skepticism about this – the alleged presence of the poison on the door knob cannot be the reason why on 7th March 2018 the British government’s COBRA committee had already come to the conclusion that the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal “was almost certainly” the work of Russia.
That is because the theory that Sergey and Yulia Skripal were poisoned when they came into contact with the poison on the door knob only appeared several weeks after 7th March 2018.
All the evidence points to fact that the ‘intelligence’ the British government used to come to the conclusion – reached within hours of Sergey and Yulia Skripal being found passed out on a bench – that the attack on them had been carried out by Russia must have come from a human source.
If the British authorities really do possess what they believe to be a Russian assassin’s manual (see Craig Murray again) then that all but confirms it. How else would such a manual have come into their hands?
If that human source really was able to identify the particular poison used in the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal in advance, then that suggests a very well informed source indeed.
That might be because the source does have genuine access to secret information about a top secret Russian assassination programme, in which case the Russian authorities will by now almost certainly know who that source is.
However given the complete absence of any other evidence of a top secret Russian assassination programme I must say I doubt this (as I have discussed elsewhere, the Litvinenko case does not provide such evidence).
The alternative – which of course is what many people believe – is that this whole affair is a provocation, staged by someone who then tipped the British off that Novichok – a poison of “a type developed by Russia” but which can in fact easily be made elsewhere (see above) – had been used, whilst misleading the British by giving them a trail of false leads which appeared to point towards Russia.
The claim that the fact that traces of the poison were found on the door knob is the ‘smoking gun’ which points to Russia to my mind rather supports this second theory.
If this claim was made before the poison was found on the door knob it suggests that the source knew in advance that it was there, which would tend to implicate the source in the attack.
If the source provided the information about the alleged ‘assassin’s manual’ after reports appeared in the British media about the poison being found on the door knob – which by the way is what I suspect – then that strongly suggests that the source is adapting its information to the changing news, which suggests manipulation of the intelligence in order to implicate Russia.
Whatever the case the fact that Novichok was probably used to poison Sergey and Yulia Skripal (we will only know with any measure of certainty when the OPCW reports its tests) is not proof that Russia was involved.
The British have got themselves into a total mess by pretending that it is.
They would have avoided getting into this mess – and avoided being manipulated by whoever is giving them ‘secret’ information, if that is what is happening – if they had instead done what their law and traditions dictate they should have done, which is allowed the criminal investigation to take its course.
It bears repeating that at this stage no suspect has been identified in the case and even the theory that Sergey and Yulia Skripal were poisoned by touching Sergey Skripal’s door knob is pure conjecture.
Once again – as in the Litvinenko case and the Russiagate scandal – the course of a criminal investigation has been corrupted by the misuse of ‘intelligence’.