by Sushi for the Saker blog
On April 3rd, 2018, DSTL Porton Down released further statement in regard to the toxic material employed in the March 4, 2018 attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal. On April 4th, the OPCW will meet in closed session at the request of the Russian Federation. This update provides the reader with background information to assist in an understanding of the issues raised by this new Porton Down information release. The Guardian reporting may be found at here. The Sky news interview video is here. The Russian communication to the OPCW is found in PDF format here.
A Military Grade Nerve Agent
Gary Aitkenhead, chief executive of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at Porton Down, told Sky News: “We were able to identify it as novichok, to identify that it was military-grade nerve agent.”
What Does this Mean?
The first step in developing a chemical warfare capability is to identify a substance of sufficient toxicity that it holds promise as a Chemical Warfare Agent, or CWA. Such toxins tend to fall into a number of broad groups based on the underlying chemistry. Organophosphate chemistry includes the well-known VX, and such derivatives of VX as those researched under the Soviet FOLIANT program of the 1980s.
Once the researchers identify a suitable toxin, the next challenge they face is the weaponization of that toxin. This is very different from the original work of synthesis. It involves taking the new toxic chemical and adding additional materials to enhance specific properties while attempting to retain the original toxicity. This weaponization research is often of greater difficulty then the initial work of synthesis.
Weaponization may include the addition of chemicals such as stabilizers, desiccants, flow agents, thinners, or thickeners. For example, it may be necessary to lower the viscosity of a CWA in order to render it suitable for aircraft spray application such as occurred with Agent Orange in Vietnam
Much of the cost of a chemical weapons program comes in the form of long term storage costs. For military use, an inventory of thousands of tons of agent is required. After production the CWA needs to be safely warehoused, secured, and guarded round the clock. As soon as the stockpile is created it begins to decline in toxicity. Post production storage and security costs typically exceed production cost. A military grade agent will therefore likely include stabilizer chemistry in an attempt to preserve the toxic qualities over an extended period of being held in inventory.
The Soviet FOLIANT program had as one of its objectives the use of readily available precursor chemicals such as commercially available pesticides. If this objective was achieved then it helped minimize inventory holding costs; one could divert existing commercial chemical production toward military needs on an as required basis.
A competent lab can examine a CWA sample and identify the additional chemicals present in, or associated with, that specific agent. These additional chemicals are unlikely to be present if the toxin was cooked up by a university chemistry student, and they are also unlikely to be included if the material was created in a terrorist lab. The chemical knowledge and sophistication required for weaponization tends to be much greater than the knowledge needed to duplicate a formula found online, or published in a book by Vil Mirzayanov.
This greater degree of required knowledge presupposes a state actor as it serves to eliminate other creators likely to lack state resources, or the same military weaponization requirements.
DSTL Porton Down now appears to be asserting that the sample made available to them does contain these added components. The presence of such elements suggests weaponization of the toxin by a state actor. This is strong but not conclusive proof of state action. It also does not serve to give evidence of which state actor may have produced the material.
Is this credible?
A “military grade nerve agent” such as VX or its derivatives, is intended to be lethal. Much effort goes into ensuring this lethality is retained during extended periods of storage. Three people appear to have been poisoned by a “military grade nerve agent” in Salisbury on March 4th, 2018. One is now recovering at home, one is now conscious and recovering in hospital, the third remains alive and reported to be in stable condition.
The assertion of an attack using a “military grade nerve agent” would appear to be contradicted by the known facts of the case.
What are “Other Inputs” to this Process?
Gary Aitkenhead stated: “ . . . establishing its origin required “other inputs”, some of them intelligence-based, that the government has access to.”
What Does this Mean?
There is a difference between cooking for your immediate family and cooking to feed the 5,000 person crew of a US navy aircraft carrier. Any food you buy commercially will bear some evidence of being an industrial food product. Each item will be of identical weight, size, shape and colour.
No material produced in any production facility is 100% pure. It will typically contain impurities and these impurities are associated with the process technology utilized, and how it was configured and installed in that specific production facility. These impurities serve as a form of “fingerprint.” If you obtain a sample from a known production facility (such as DSTL Porton Down) you can then “fingerprint” that facility through the identification of impurities specific to that location. Any further toxic agent produced by the same methodology, in the same facility, will, in theory, exhibit an identical fingerprint. Install similar process technology in a new facility in a second location and the associated impurities, and therefore the “fingerprint,” will be different.
By creating a database of fingerprints, it becomes possible to take any new sample of CWA and compare it with fingerprints for known CWA production facilities and thereby identify the source of the CWA.
Can such fingerprints be faked? Only with great difficulty. Falsification requires an even greater degree of sophistication than that required for original production and weaponization of the CWA.
But it will not be possible to use this identification method with respect to the identification of any CWA produced under the Soviet FOLIANT program.
First, the FOLIANT agents never went into production. The production facility commenced construction but was never completed. It was later dismantled with the assistance of the US military and, according to Craig Murray, all of the construction materials were removed and shipped to America. Since no FOLIANT production facility was never completed, no FOLIANT production runs were ever made, there was no production output, and therefore no valid process fingerprint exists.
Second, according to Vil Mirzayanov, all research stocks associated with the FOLIANT program were incinerated when the research was terminated at the time of the collapse of the U.S.S.R. These were research stocks, not production samples. There is a difference.
Third, even if a small quantity of research materials had been retained (some appear to have been sold by one of the original Soviet researchers) these stocks would have now aged and deteriorated to the extent the present day toxicity would be negligible. If you are Vladimir Putin, and you intend to kill someone, you do not start out with a 38 year old toxic agent that may, or may not, have any residual lethality.
Fourth, it is not possible to determine what the decomposition by-products of the original toxin might be. To achieve this requires that you possess an original research sample and are able to document the process of chemical breakdown. Try and drink a 38 year old bottle of wine and you will find yourself drinking vinegar. It is not the same chemistry as the original bottled product.
Fifth, laboratory processes tend to be similar the world over and laboratory production tends to be to a higher standard than full scale industrial production. It is therefore unlikely that you could successfully fingerprint a small laboratory sample. Even if you were to make the attempt you would face great difficulty as laboratory environments tend to change on a regular basis. The production facility for a toxic chemical is typically locked down in a set configuration for an extended period of time.
Sixth, to obtain the necessary “fingerprints” requires that you employ a number of secret agents who devote their time to the identification of foreign laboratories and production facilities, covertly obtain samples, analyse those samples, and record the results in a database. The OPCW seeks to do this work on behalf of all signatory states but it is likely that individual states with sufficient resources would attempt to maintain their own parallel records. These records and intelligence activities are the “other inputs” Aitkenhead is referencing.
Is this credible?
The technical means for conducting such an identification are credible. However the application of these technical means against the FOLIANT program is not possible.
In the beginning of March a man and his daughter were sitting on a park bench in Wiltshire when they were impaled by a unicorn. Theresa May claims the unicorn was Russian and was sent by “Bad Vlad.”
Thirty eight years ago the U.S.S.R had a program that is rumoured to have bred unicorns but these were all destroyed when the U.S.S.R collapsed. A Mr. Mirzayanov, who claims to be the government in exile of Tatar wrote a book which contains images of unicorns. Because of the passage of time all of the original unicorns are dead. The breeding stables were dismantled and shipped to the USA in the 1990s.
When evidence of these unicorns was presented to the Technical Secretariat of the OPCW it was discounted as speculative. No one has seen the unicorn that impaled the man and his daughter in the middle of Salisbury. It is believed that the unicorn may have been hidden in the air vents of their car, or dropped from a drone. The British Foreign minister has categorically stated that unicorns exist because “I asked the guy and he said yes.” The Prime Minister has nudged the world closer to WWIII by leading a global demand for sanctions against “bad Vlad” and his unicorn attacks against the UK. No other plausible explanation exists.
If you wrote this up as a movie script it would be rejected as no audience would accept the premise.
Is this only in the capabilities of a state actor?
Gary Aitkenhead stated the substance required: “extremely sophisticated methods to create, something only in the capabilities of a state actor”.
Is this credible?
During the Watergate investigation of US President Nixon there was a meeting in the oval office between Nixon and some of his senior officials. The conversation went like this:
PRESIDENT: You think, you think we want to, want to go this route now? And the — let it hang out, so to speak?
DEAN: Well, it’s, it isn’t really that —
HALDEMAN: It’s a limited hang out.
DEAN: It’s a limited hang out.
EHRLICHMAN: It’s a modified limited hang out.
PRESIDENT: Well, it’s only the questions of the thing hanging out publicly or privately.
The reason for the “limited hangout” was the awareness that the original cover story in regard to the Watergate burglary was verging on collapse. The limited hangout is a strategy of delivering partial truth coupled with disinformation.
This statement by Aitkenhead carries the distinct whiff of a modified limited hangout. Faced with an OPCW review, the UK has likely been forced into making these revelations.
To create a weaponized version of any toxin does require a sophisticated and knowledgeable state actor. State actors are the only parties able to support a military capable of utilizing such an agent in waging war. Making 40,000 tons of anything requires a significant commitment of resources and a wide range of technical sophistication.
Making 4 grams of the same material does not require the same resource commitment.
A university professor has reported that any of his senior students would be capable of creating the CWA alleged to have been used in Salisbury. That may be true. There are other reports of students working on commercial pesticides and organophosphate weed killer who have inadvertently created a highly toxic substance by accident and nearly killed themselves.
Given the fact the basic chemical formula has been published, and the toxin was designed to be formulated using readily available commercial precursors, it is highly likely that a reasonably competent non-state actor may have carried out the Salisbury attack.
The fact that none of the three victims died, one is in stable condition, and two are in recovery, is strong evidence that no competent state actor was involved in the attack.
The available evidence implicates Freedonia. The UK government should immediately attempt to determine the present whereabouts of Rufus T. Firefly, Chicolini and Pinky.
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Prior articles in this series:
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Many persons commenting on the Saker blog, and in information sources other than the MSM, have made statement similar to the following:
While scanning for news that morning I noticed that all of the MSM had basically the same text to describe the event, but in a few cases different headlines, mainly dependent on which side of the Pond they came from. I skipped them, they seemed too coordinated.
This lack of critical coverage on the part of the MSM reduces your ability to come to your own conclusions with respect to the truth. This is a critical issue both with respect to an understanding of this Curious Incident, and to the proper functioning of any democratic polity.
The Saker does not tell me what to write. But he is generous enough, and sufficiently concerned over the current state of geo-strategic chess, that he makes these, and other articles, freely available to a global audience. I see he is presently making an appeal for donations to help defray the cost of hosting the site. I am paid nothing, but I do have an IT background and IT is not inexpensive. I ask that if you find this series informative that you support the site.
The Saker has not asked me to make this request.
Part VIII presents the motives of the attacker.
In memory of David Christopher Kelly, CMG (14 May 1944 – 17 July 2003)