by John Bull, England for The Saker Blog
I’m an ordinary member of the British public concerned about the consequences of the Salisbury poisoning. My contribution to the debate is modest and mainly in the public domain, but I do have some personal snippets which may be relevant. Where I have indulged in conjecture, I have made this obvious.
I am not a ‘conspiracy theorist’ nor a Kremlin stooge. I have no axe to grind, politically or personally, against any state, organisation or individual. Initially, I accepted the Government’s view that it was ‘highly likely’ the attack on the Skripals was the responsibility of the Russian Federation. This conclusion was based on the facts available to the public at the time, at a very early stage of the investigation.
Nearly four months have passed since the incident, and while we have been told almost nothing about the on-going investigation (for ‘security reasons’), much information has come to light.
And it is in the light of this new information that I now believe the probability of Russian involvement is significantly lower. There are now more ‘plausible explanations’ which need to be considered.
While this article focuses on just one of them, this does not mean I believe it the correct one, or even the most likely one; just one that needs to be looked at.
Theresa May Statement to the House of Commons, 12th March 2018
The Prime Minister said there are only two plausible explanations for the poisoning: either it was a direct act by the Russian state against the UK; or the Russian Government lost control of their potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others. She based this judgement on two assumptions:-
That the poison was Novichok.
That it could only have come from Russia.
We now know that the second assumption is incorrect. There are several labs in the world – including Porton Down – where the substance could have been synthesised. Indeed it is within their remit to do so in order to research antidotes, and Porton Down should certainly have done this if Russia has been secretly manufacturing the deadly stuff over the last ten years, as claimed by Boris Johnson. To identify it, as Porton Down did a few days after the incident, one must either have the formula or a sample.
Theresa May’s first assumption was based on early sample testing, all of which must have been carried out at Porton Down. Yet there is much evidence to suggest that Novichok was not the poison used:-
- Passers-by saw the pair slouched on the bench, slipping in and out of consciousness. One of them, a female doctor, put Yulia in the recovery position. I have seen a film of a goat being killed by a nerve agent. The body convulses and goes rigid as all the muscles tighten before death occurs. If Yulia and her father had been poisoned by a nerve agent, they would not be slouched on a bench. And nobody could have put Yulia’s body in the recovery position.
- Stephen Davies, Consultant in Emergency Medicine, wrote to The Times on 16th March as follows:- “Sir, Further to your report (“Poison Exposure Leaves Almost 40 Needing Treatment”, Mar 14), may I clarify that no patients have experienced symptoms of nerve-agent poisoning in Salisbury and there have only ever been three patients with significant poisoning. Several people have attended the emergency department concerned that they may have been exposed. None had symptoms of poisoning and none has needed treatment. Any blood tests performed have shown no abnormality. No member of the public has been contaminated by the agent involved.” He seems to be saying that no patients – including the Skripals – had experienced symptoms of nerve agent poisoning. Perhaps he lied to reduce alarm among The Times readers living in and around Salisbury, but I doubt it.
- The targets survived, despite the extreme lethality of the agent and there being no antidote, as explained by the CEO of Porton Down; and despite the training Russian assassins receive in its use – another claim by Boris Johnson.
Perhaps the poison failed because the dose was too small, in which case one must wonder why they fell ill at the same time, some three hours after they left the house where the alleged Novichok had been smeared on the front door handle. And if there was insufficient Novichok on the door handle to do the job, how did they have enough on their hands to distribute it around Salisbury, and how was there was enough left on the door handle to poison Nick Bailey?
- According to the hospital consultant, no member of the public had symptoms or needed treatment. Yet apparently traces of Novichok were found in a number places in the city, including a pub and a restaurant which would have been busy on a Sunday afternoon. Furthermore, it must have taken the police some time to establish the movements of the Skripals after leaving the house and before arriving on the park bench.
It would be interesting to know when the public was barred from the pub and the restaurant and how many people visited those establishments following the Skripals visit and before the police cordons were established. Surely some customers and staff would have been affected if Novichok had been present. And traces of Novichok were subsequently found in both places.
(It was also be interesting to know how the police found out where the Skripals had been, as they were in no fit state to provide that information themselves. Were they with someone? Did they have a minder? Was it by any chance Detective Sergeant Bailey?)
- Novichok acts within a few minutes, yet the Skripals were able to drive to the town centre, park, walk to the pub and have drinks, then walk to the restaurant and have lunch before it took any effect at all.
- When the Skripals survived – contrary to the early assessments of the medical staff treating them – we were told they would probably need to remain on life support for the rest of their lives. After they were taken off life support – thanks to the brilliant specialised treatment they received – we were told they may suffer permanent brain damage. Yulia’s video statement read out by her on 23rd May showed her to be in radiant health, apart from the tracheotomy scar.
- We are told Russia continued to develop Novichok in the last ten years as an assassin’s weapon, an attribute of which one would assume to be non-detectability. This would require the substance to break down rapidly in the target’s body after use. It therefore seems strange that the OPCW were able to confirm the presence of Novichok from blood samples taken from the victims so long after the attack (nearly three weeks), particularly as the dose was sub-lethal.
- OPCW’s unclassified report on the poisoning did not name the substance they found.
If the poison wasn’t Novichok, the case against the Russian Federation would be significantly weakened. Anyone could have carried out the attack: the Russian state, the Russian Mafia, aggrieved colleagues, paid assassins or the CIA/MI6/MI5/Mossad, The probability of one or more of those intelligence services bungling what should have been a straightforward wet-job is low, not just because the attempt failed, but also because the operation was so badly planned and its aftermath amateurishly handled.
An anonymous comment:-
“The entire mess wouldn’t have been penned even by the laziest of Hollywood screen writers. It is so bad that it could only come from the minds of politicians. At least even lazy Hollywood screen writers can keep a plot together, this is just embarrassing in its stupidity. Deadly nerve agent where everyone recovers, and only three people exposed.”
Although it’s possible to dream up all sorts of motives for a hit against Mr. Skripal, one that includes killing his daughter makes little sense. Perhaps the perpetrators did not wish to kill the couple; the job wasn’t bungled after all.
Perhaps it achieved its aim which could have been simply to sour relations between the UK and Russia and rally international support against Putin. Or was there a cunning plan to induce the Government to accuse Russia of a war-like act on British soil, then discredit them six months later by showing the world the Brits had got it all wrong? Or rather the British government, which would lead to their defeat in a no-confidence vote and possibly the end of Brexit.
Means of Delivery
If the door handle wasn’t the means of delivery, the poison could have been put in their car, their drinks or more likely their restaurant meal. A possibility is that it was in their food and was put there by nature, i.e. they suffered food poisoning. I understand the onset time can vary from as little as 30 minutes up to days, depending on the type of poison of which there are many. So it could have been in their Sunday lunch at Zizzi’s, or in their meal the evening before, following the arrival from Moscow of the daughter. I am no expert on the subject, but I do have some memorable experiences of food poisoning.
The first was when I was six years old. I was on holiday in France with my parents. My mother ate a bad mussel and was very ill. I remember her propped up on a sloping sea wall, rocking her head from side to side and groaning, slipping in and out of consciousness. It was frightening. I can’t remember if she went to hospital, but she did survive with no lasting effects (except an intolerance of shell-fish). She was 33 at the time. I guess we all ate the mussels, but my mother just happened to eat a bad one.
My second experience happened a few months ago. Following a dinner party, I was struck down by a suspect scallop. I had all the usual symptoms of food poisoning, and in addition a loss of balance and shivering. I am fortunate in being healthy and able to cope with such things, so I did not seek medical advice. I remained ill for over a week until I finally took antibiotics. I was the only diner affected, which suggests to me that in a restaurant like Zizzi’s it’s possible, despite the bulk cooking, for some unlucky individuals to be poisoned and others not.
Poison in their food would account for it taking effect at the same time, despite the difference in their body weight, as women tend to eat less.
An Alternative ‘Plausible Explanation’
Perhaps Sergei and Yulia were just unlucky (about 20,000 people per year in the UK are hospitalised because of food poisoning and about 500 die). Perhaps there are no assassins to be hunted down and brought to justice: no perpetrators, no motives. All three victims have now recovered, so this particular ‘plausible explanation’ has a happy ending.
Or at least it would have done, had it not been for the possibility that someone, somewhere, succumbed to the temptation of using the incident for political purposes when they found out the victims happened to be an ex-Russian spy and his daughter.
Perhaps it was too good to miss. An opportunity to turn us, and our allies, against the enemy: the evil Putin, who continues to grow in popularity in his own country and is well on the way to making Russia a superpower again, reclaiming the Crimea without firing a single shot and thwarting the West’s attempt at regime change in Syria (see Timber Sycamore). And winning – by hook or more likely by crook – its bid to host the football World Cup.
And why not use a bit of trickery ourselves? Isn’t that how foreign policy works and always has done? The great game? In this case, such a strategy would have significant risks. The obvious one is harming the relations between the West and Russia and taking us all one step nearer to WWIII.
Next is the possibility of our government and our nation becoming the laughing stock of the world if the truth were ever revealed. In that case, our allies would realised we had cried wolf and would no longer trust us.
Finally, there would be the damage done to the reputation of our own intelligence services, police force and policy-making machinery – so soon after the dodgy dossier which took us into Iraq with such dreadful consequences.
While the investigation of this alternative ‘plausible explanation’ might not lead to a prosecution for attempted murder, other crimes may have been committed such as abduction and assault (for example, the ‘invasive and painful’ treatment inflicted on Yulia, no doubt under the instructions of the experts from Porton Down). On the political side, there could be a case of malfeasance, or grounds for impeachment for misleading Parliament.
A good starting point is the session in the House of Commons on 12th March. The PM stressed not only her two plausible options but also the need to “proceed in the right way, led not by speculation but by the evidence”. In the highly charged session, most members who spoke ignored her second explanation and also her words of caution, accusing the Russian Federation for the attack.
Who can blame those MPs? On the face of it, the crime was horrific with potentially appalling consequences, and Russia does has a dreadful record of such deeds. And to make matters worse, party politics played its part.
Jeremy Corbyn’s contribution was interesting for two reasons. Firstly, he was the only person apart from the PM urging caution – which encouraged many Tory MPs to do the opposite and abandon caution and demand direct, decisive action; predictably, the word ‘appeasement’ was mentioned. Secondly, Corbyn referred to a meeting that morning of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, stating that the chairman, Tom Tugendhat, said he would be “surprised” if the Prime Minister “did not point the finger at the Kremlin”.
Tom Tugendhat’s own contribution to the debate ignored the PM’s second plausible explanation completely, and flouted her plea for caution, He did not even speculate but did what he had thought his leader would do. He ‘pointed the finger’. He said the attack:-
“… was certainly a warlike act by the Russian Federation, and it is not the first that we have seen. Some in this House have stayed silent or decided to join the information warfare that that state is conducting against us and our allies, but we have seen it invade countries in the east, attack allies and attempt to kill Prime Ministers. Even now, it is backing the murderous Assad regime which thinks nothing of gassing its own people, yet the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition stays silent. Does my right hon. Friend agree that now is the time for us to call on our allies—the European Union, which has worked with us so well on sanctions, NATO and particularly the United States—and ask what they will do to assist us in this moment when we are in need?”
There was no question of him waiting for the Russian response to the PM’s two plausible explanations. He had already rejected the second one, and he was certain about the first.
Following Russia’s negative response the following evening, the PM updated the House on 14th March with a further statement in which she declared:-
“There is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr Skripal and his daughter, and for threatening the lives of other British citizens in Salisbury, including Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey. This represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom.”
While she chose her words carefully, she had clearly dropped her second plausible explanation. There was no logical reason for her to do that. She’d changed her mind. Why?
During the weeks following, Boris Johnson said on German TV that the CEO of Porton Down had assured him the Novichok was from Russia. Then we found out the CEO had said nothing of the sort. The denial from Porton Down was quickly followed by the deleting of the FCO tweet which read:-
“Analysis by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology laboratory at Porton Down made clear that this was a military grade nerve agent produced in Russia.”
Der Spiegel came up with an interesting observation:-
“The Foreign Office had ignored a fundamental rule of the digital battlefield: Only amateurs delete problematic tweets,”
The German TV interviewer also asked Boris several times if Porton Down held any Novichok samples. He ducked the question, over and over again. I wanted to know the answer too, so I wrote to my MP, who happens to be Tom Tugendhat. I asked him if he could find out for me. He replied with what appeared to be a standard letter, ignoring my question and saying, amongst other things:-
“This was an attack on British soil by Russia, as confirmed by the OPCW.”
The OPCW had not confirmed this. When I pointed this out to him, he replied:-
“You are of course quite right but I think it fair for me to draw the implication I did…”
Thus both Boris Johnson and Tom Tugendhat had lied. Perhaps they both felt the need to beef up the Government narrative. If so, was it because they both knew it was fabricated? If this were the case, did either of them, or both, play a part in its fabrication?
Being chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Tom Tugendhat is in a very powerful position. His committee holds the Foreign Office to account, so in some ways Boris Johnson answers to him and his committee. On the other hand, Boris outranks him. Could the two of them together have exploited the poisoning incident to bring to bear some much needed pressure on Putin?
The pair of them had the means, in that the Director of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service answers directly to the Foreign Secretary. ‘C’ would have done what he was told, perhaps using the facilities and expertise of his I-Ops and ‘Jolly Fun Tricks’ departments. Despite the rush, that organisation has the ability to handle the theatre, press releases, sleight of hand and all the other shenanigans required to pull off such a scam – and the willingness to do so if they were persuaded, perhaps by their ultimate boss the Foreign Secretary, that it were in the best interests of the Nation.
No doubt elements within Porton Down could have likewise been persuaded to co-operate, perhaps by their overall boss, our new Secretary of State for Defence. In a speech he gave on 12th March 2018, eight days after the poisoning, he said:-
“And today I can announce we are building on our world class expertise at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory in Porton Down. We are investing £48 million in a new Chemical Weapons Defence Centre to maintain our cutting edge in chemical analysis and defence.”
I guess that no hand-held detector has yet been developed and produced which detects Novichok in the field, so I assume the thousands of swabs taken around Salisbury, and the blood samples from the victims, would have gone the labs at Porton for testing. It would not have been difficult, once they were there, to lace them with Novichok before testing, or fiddle the results, or provide the testers with a comparator which wasn’t Novichok, or simply file a false report. No Novichok would have left the buildings and no-one would have been hurt.
When the CEO of Porton Down was interviewed for Sky TV, following Boris’s gaff on German TV, he was asked if the Novichok allegedly used in the attack could have come from his establishment. He could have simply said ‘we don’t have any’, but instead he explained in some detail and with conviction that there was no way a substance like that could have left the buildings. Perhaps it didn’t need to.
The culture at Porton Down is of interest. They unlawfully killed a serviceman with nerve agent in 1953, and during the early 70s they did call for service volunteers to help find ‘a cure for the common cold’, when they really wanted them for NBC research. This is no myth. I saw the appeals myself. They probably thought it acceptable to take risks and be deceitful, if it were in the interests of the Nation. It was strange that the CEO emphasised at the end of his Sky interview that the Novichok was ‘military grade’. Surely that’s true of any Novichok. I can’t imagine there is a civilian grade.
Having worked at a similar UK research establishment, I have some knowledge of security procedures. The Official Secrets Act and the ‘need to know’ culture does a good job in keeping our secrets secret, and not only from our enemies. Operation Grapple in the 1950s provides a fine example of how a government establishment was allegedly able keep from the Nation and our allies – and from most of their staff – the dark secret of Britain’s non-H-bomb (Hansard 4 Dec 2002 : Column 252WH).
Was Boris Johnson impetuous enough to initiate such a hoax? Was this some Machiavellian plan made in haste by inexperienced politicians with little thought about how it might develop? Probably not. But to both him and Tugendhat, such a plan would have had great attraction. Not only would it give their leader a big stick to hit Putin with, but it would also distract from the debacle of Brexit, enhance the standing of the PM and the Conservative party, secure the support of our allies, and provide an opportunity to skewer Corbyn, allegedly one of Putin’s useful idiots. And nobody would be killed, so the Intelligence Services Act of 1994 would not be breached. But would those involved have risked their political careers with such a harebrained scheme?
Or did they brainwash themselves – or each other – into believing the Putin was definitely the culprit, and they felt the Government needed to take swift and decisive action against the Nation’s arch-enemy, rather than wait for confirmatory evidence which would – they wrongly assumed – soon come to light? In other words, did they start out having any plan at all? Had they any idea of what they were getting into? Were they driven by arrogance, patriotism, ambition or plain stupidity?
It’s worth noting their outspoken loathing of Russian media – RT and Sputnik in particular. They accuse them of pumping out nothing but propaganda and conspiracy theories to manipulate the minds of the Great British public; they cry out for their broadcasting licences to be revoked; and they urge their parliamentary colleagues not to take part in any of those Russian programmes as it would give credibility to their lies.
These TV stations have been offering alternative theories about the poisoning, but if Britain had been accused – in the absence of any credible evidence – of attacking a British double agent and his daughter in Moscow, would not the BBC be doing the same? The situation is made far worse, because we, the British public, are being told absolutely nothing. The media are eerily quiet. RT and others are filling the vacuum.
Perhaps Tugendhat thought the OPCW would confirm the attack was by Russia. Perhaps Johnson assumed the CEO of Porton Down would back up his claim that the Novichok used came from that state. When the evidence to support their accusations did not materialise, did Johnson seek help from within that secret organisation of which he is the ultimate boss, MI6?
It is strange that Tugendhat should be such a champion of English Common Law (see his address to the RUSI, 29th May 2018), yet in this case he abandoned the concept of a presumption of innocence, leaping to a verdict of guilty and demanding a heavy sentence before the crime had been properly investigated.
If indeed there are no Russian assassins to hunt down, a quiet word with Tugendhat and Johnson might be appropriate, if only to eliminate this particular ‘plausible explanation’. But if it was food poisoning, or another explanation which lets Russia off the hook, someone will have to decide on how we get out of the mess. The options would be:-
- Come clean and confess we got it wrong.
- Stick to the story, make sure the police investigation takes ages and hope the whole thing gets forgotten about.
- Find a couple of patsies and stage a shoot-out in a Swindon suburb as a result of a tip-off (can’t reveal sources). Russian passports found at the scene along with two pairs of Marigolds and a handbook on how to smear Novichok on doorknobs. Usual stuff.
The trouble with 2 and 3 is that they would rely on the continued silence of the many parties involved. My fear is that what might have started out as a fairly straightforward but hastily planned psy-ops operation ends up with the premature demise of some innocent people. Cover-ups are usually more drastic than the actions they try to hide.
The economist John Maynard Keynes was once challenged for altering his position on some economic issue. His alleged reply was:-
“When my information changes, I change my mind. What do you do?”
Having made the accusations and found Putin to be guilty and passed sentence, Tugendhat, Johnson and certain other MPs don’t have the luxury of changing their minds without consequence. Unless the early conclusion they jumped to is the correct one, they and the government are in a very, very difficult position.
The world is watching…