by Sushi for The Saker Blog
On April 14 the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov revealed an OPCW laboratory had detected the presence of the Chemical Warfare Agent (CWA) named BZ in samples collected by the OPCW technical team in Salisbury England during the period March 21 to 23.
Those with an interest in the Skripal affair are attempting to re-frame the issues and determine: 1) the nature of BZ; 3) the credibility of the BZ finding; 3) the implications of this finding with respect to the curious incident of the Skripals.
The BZ revelation is of less importance than another factor in this case. This other factor gives strong evidence of the Skripal assault being a staged event.
Before we address that point, it is important to ensure an agreed understanding of the facts. This article attempts a factual presentation of the issues so the reader may better appreciate the most critical. The presentation is intended to permit critique by readers. Such feedback is a fundamental aspect of the scientific method. You make a public claim and your peers then offer their critique. The result permits all participants to benefit from: 1) A set of agreed facts; 2) Identification of facts in dispute which require further investigation.
The article commences with a review of naming conventions. This is followed by a basic description of how a nerve agent works, a listing of case theories, and a presentation of critical evidence.
What can be said at all can be said clearly and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence. Everything in our world has a name. Because it has a name we can speak of it with some assurance. If the name is foreign to us, or the name is applied incorrectly, we create great difficulties for ourselves. If the name has no valid external referent we quickly become confused.
The chemical warfare agent BUZZ is a case in point. In the US military it was first known as EA2277 then as agent TK before being assigned the NATO code BZ. The USSR called the same compound Substance 78 while the Iraqi military called it Agent 15. The best identifier is the chemical formula C21H23NO3, or the name 1-azabicyclo[2.2.2]octan-3-yl hydroxy(diphenyl)acetate.
Novichok, or Novichkov, is even more difficult to identify.
Novichok is like a unicorn ghost. Everyone knows what a unicorn ghost is but no one has any actual experience of one beyond viewing a picture in a book. Novichok frightens people. With its Slavic connotations it may be used to falsely attribute a place of origin, be employed as the basis of a deception program, or even form a plot element in a television show.
Only three people are known to have first-hand knowledge of novichok: Vil Mirzayanov, Vladimir Uglev and Leonard Rink. All three were engaged in Soviet CWA research undertaken under the codename FOLIANT. According to Uglev this research developed four next generation nerve agents: A-1972, B-1976, C-1976, and D-1980.
Mirzayanov published a book on these agents but used a different naming convention which is found in Table 2 of Part II. Mirzayanov asserted that one aspect of FOLIANT was a subsidiary research program named NOVICHOK. This sought to create binary versions of the CWA developed under FOLIANT. Uglev claims this attempt was unsuccessful (but see this Washington Post story). Uglev also asserts Mirzayanov was not a member of the actual research team but was part of an external counter-intelligence group which monitored the research. Uglev asserts Mirzayanov gives a lot of chemical formulas but “If you take a formula from that [Mirzayanov’s] book you could conduct screening for several years.” Asked about Mirzayanov’s claims, Gen. Stanislav Petrov, commander of Russia’s radiation, chemical and biological defense troops, said, “These ghosts, we don’t even want to chase them.”
In 2016 Iranian researchers synthesized CWA similar to those first synthesized in the FOLIANT program. These CWA give evidence of being unstable compounds. The chemical structure of the molecule is prone to fragmentation. This is a key point. It implies that these chemicals will decompose relatively quickly and will not long remain in the environment in their pure form.
The Iranian materials were all O-alkyl N-[bis(dimethylamino)methylidene]-P-methylphosphonamidate compounds (i.e. molecules with the typical nerve agent phosphorus group coupled to N,N,N’N’-tetramethylguanidine). This is a technical description of the molecules in the CWA the UK government alleges to have been used to poison the Skripals on a park bench in Salisbury. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson identified this Skripal poison as A-234 in a March 12 meeting with the Russian Ambassador to Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The Iranian synthesis sought to duplicate the original Soviet research so as to obtain characteristic spectra to be incorporated into the OPCW database of CWA. Because of the fugitive nature of these molecules, and the lack of authoritative descriptions of the Soviet FOLIANT CWA, it is not possible to assert that these Iranian compounds are identical to those developed by the FOLIANT program. Uglev has refused to divulge his knowledge of the formulae.
All of this is to say that there are a large number of ghost unicorns at play in these events. These ghost unicorns work to the advantage of any party with an interest in creating a deception program as it allows them to define reality in a way that suits their political agenda while at the same time making it extremely difficult to refute any allegations made.
CWA Mode of Action
This is a vastly oversimplified presentation of how your eyes are able to follow this line of text.
The human body depends on a complex system of bio-chemical signalling. Muscular motor neuron signalling depends on the neurotransmitter Acetylcholine (ACh). The diagram below is an image of a synapse which forms the connection between a neuron (a signalling pathway) and the muscle which controls eye movement. The ACh jumps the gap and provides a chemical signal to the muscle which then contracts, causing your eye to traverse within its socket.
A second chemical, the enzyme acetylcholinesterase (ACHE), then breaks down the ACh and interrupts the signalling. Proper bodily function depends on a continuous supply of the ACHE enzyme. Certain CWA act to interfere with the actions of these chemicals. Organophosphate toxins (such as VX and a variety of pesticides and herbicides) inhibit the production of ACHE and result in an excess of ACh. The result is that the motor neurons are constantly triggered and there is no opportunity for muscles to relax. Since breathing depends on repeated muscle contractions (exhalation via contraction of the diaphragm) and the subsequent muscle relaxation (inhalation via relaxation of the diaphragm) the ultimate consequence is death by asphyxiation.
If the synapses are constantly triggered, the ACh receptors can “age” such that when the CWA is finally excreted from the body the synapse will no longer function as it did in its prior healthy state. This is the basis for the assertion that the FOLIANT CWA have no available antidote and no possible means of recovery. Once poisoned, the receptors are permanently damaged and you never regain a healthy state. The victim remains in a coma and requires constant life support.
The CWA BZ operates in a very different manner. Rather than suppress ACHE, BZ works by outcompeting ACh when targeting the same receptors thus causing the synapses to constantly fire in a random fashion. You stay alive but you temporarily lose control of your body. Affected individuals are prone to self-injury and paranoia and mania are common effects.
BZ proved unattractive to the US military. Field application resulted in a visible white cloud and improvised masks made from layers of cloth held over the nose and mouth could defeat it. To cover a six square mile target required the application of 100,000 pounds of BZ at a production cost in 2018 dollars of $163 per pound. This does not include the cost of the number of aircraft sorties required to apply the agent, or the cost of storing the agent, or the transport costs of moving it to the place of use.
BZ acts in a way similar to Atropine which is common field antidote for organophosphate poisoning. It is therefore possible that the trace evidence of BZ may be due to its use as a medical therapy in treating the Skripals. Such use is conjecture but it does provide a valid reason for its presence in the bio-physical samples. Since BZ is a persistent chemical, its presence in environmental samples from the scene of the attack would suggest it played some role in the attack.
Theories of the Crime
The following section seeks to identify the various theories surrounding the attack on the Skripals. The reader is invited to review the listing and enter any missing elements in the comments. Any additional elements will then be incorporated into a revised presentation.
Thesis 1 – No Poisoning
The Skripals are acting in collusion with elements of HMG to create a staged incident that may be used to provoke Russia, or to incite the population of the UK against Russia.
Factors in Support of this Thesis
1.1 Simultaneity of effects onset
1.2 Controlled, or doctored, communications
1.3 Denial of Consular access
1.4 Denial of press access
1.5 Consultant letter to the Times (asserts no evidence of poisoning)
1.6 Financial incentive in paid relocation to US and lifetime pension
1.7 Few other affected individuals
1.8 Lack of decontamination concern
1.9 Legal irregularities (the Court not informed of relatives in Russia, habeas corpus)
1.10 Destruction of evidence
1.11 Repeated mendacity on the part of HMG government
1.12 Other unique factor not listed
101 presence of chemical warfare toxins
102 statements from 8 independent witnesses
103 Other factor not listed
Thesis 2 – Accidental Saxitoxin Poisoning
The Skripals eat a meal of seafood and are incapacitated by saxitoxin poisioning.
Factors in Support of this Thesis
2.1 Simultaneity of effects onset
2.3 Consultant letter to the Times (asserts no evidence of CWA poisoning)
2.4 No member of the public observed an attack
2.5 Pets die of starvation
2.6 Other unique factor not listed
101 Alleged presence of CWA at residence, Zizzi and Bishop’s Mill Pub
201 DS Bailey alleged to have been affected
202 Other factor not listed
Thesis 3 – CWA Poisoning (Novichok A-234)
Skripals are assaulted between departure from Zizzi and discovery on park bench
Factors in Support of this Thesis
3.1 statements of 8 independent witnesses
3.2 DS Bailey alleged to have been affected
3.3 Other factor not listed
301 Simultaneity of onset
302 Presence of pure A-234 (see next section on critical factors)
303 Effect discrepancy – lethal toxin but no fatality
304 Lack of decontamination concern
305 No other affected individuals
306 HMG false and misleading statements
307 Doorknob not credible mode of application
306 Starvation of pets
307 No evidence of CWA to explain delayed onset of effects
308 Speed of HMG response – Johnson implicating Russia on March 6
309 No graveyard attack – perfect secluded location
310 No CCTV images, no perp description
311 8 witnesses yet none saw the attack
312 Efforts to incriminate Russia despite lack of evidence
313 Destruction of evidence
314 Immediate response of DS Bailey
315 Improbable GCHQ Mount Troodos intercept
316 No plausible mode of application
317 Evident political agenda
318 HMG rejection of rational approach, accusations of disloyalty
319 Continual mendacity of the type developed at Eton
320 Other factor not listed
If A-234 was used in the attack, and is the agent found applied to the doorknob, then HMG must explain how such a highly fugacious chemical remained on the doorknob despite an extended period of exposure to the elements.
If the A-234 was found on the interior doorknob, then HMG must explain how it is that three household pets survived a highly toxic atmosphere and died of starvation and thirst rather than being poisoned by the toxic fumes of A-234.
The reason given for the death by starvation was that investigators were unable to enter the house due to the presence of a toxic atmosphere. Given the appreciable difference in body mass between an adult human being and a Guinea pig, the two pets should both have died from exposure to a toxic atmosphere not from starvation.
The house is a crime scene and the attack on the Skripals is a criminal offense. Cremating the pets frustrates the intent and purpose of the police investigation and constitutes an obstruction of justice.
Given the high volatility of A-234 no residual trace evidence of this substance should have been present at the time the OPCW technical team collected its environmental samples. The toxicity of this CWA, coupled with its volatile and fugacious nature, was the primary reason for its use as a warfare agent as it left no observable trace and frustrated all methods of detection.
The fact that the public version of the OPCW makes reference to the “high purity” of the sample and “the almost complete absence of impurities,” strongly suggests that this substance was a recently placed laboratory grade material and that it was deposited in select locations after the March 4 attack and immediately before the arrival of the OPCW technical team.
The fact the OPCW saw fit to make repeated mention of the “high purity” and “almost complete absence of impurities,” supports this thesis.
That “the Swiss specialists discovered strong concentration of traces of the nerve agent of A-234 type in its initial states,” is also supportive of this thesis. [emphasis added in bold to the original]
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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.
In memory of David Christopher Kelly, CMG (14 May 1944 – 17 July 2003)