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Observations on the OPCW Report
The OPCW report dated April 12th, 2018 was released in two versions. The minimal public version is available here. The full report is only being made available to State Parties and will likely make its way into the public domain at a later date.
The OPCW public report contains a surprising amount of information if you know what to look for.
OPCW – Key Finding
At paragraph 11 the OPCW report states:
The TAV team notes that the toxic chemical was of high purity. The latter is concluded from the almost complete absence of impurities.
This is an explosive finding. It completely undermines the statements of the May government.
Observation 1 – Purity
Industrial bulk production of any product will introduce impurities into that product. The product may be 99.99% pure but removing that last .01% is either uneconomical, and / or unlikely to make any real difference to the end user.
The same principle applies to the production of “military grade nerve agents” of the type rumoured to have been utilized in Salisbury. The fact the production process leaves minute trace evidence in the form of impurities offers a forensic method that may be used to identify the source of the material. Each unique production plant will leave unique trace evidence, or a “fingerprint,” which makes it possible to establish the point of origin of any suspect material.
If you can identify the production location then you can identify the State Party associated with the production of that material.
If there are no impurities in the chemical then it is not possible to identify a “fingerprint” and it is therefore impossible to associate the toxin with any specific State Party.
Observation 2 – Lab Grade
The absence of impurities is strong evidence of the suspect toxin not having come from a production run of toxic chemical. It is evidence of the toxin having been created in a laboratory environment. Science is based on shared universal knowledge. A key aspect of all scientific practice is ensuring the validity of any research process. This includes the necessity to remove all possible contaminants that may compromise the research.
Materials created in a laboratory will typically exhibit a greater degree of purity than the same product derived from bulk industrial production. The “almost complete absence of impurities” suggests that the Salisbury toxin was produced in a competant laboratory, one able to work to the required high standard. This implies the availability of well trained and knowledgeable technicians, and laboratory support workers, in addition to the research scientists. It also implies a significant budget for materials, beakers, wash stations, test instruments, glove boxes, ventilation hoods, the safe disposal of any vapours, or any other waste material, a means to ensure a constant stream of filtered air, airlocks, a positive or negative pressure containment, a set of written laboratory guidelines and an enforced set of practices intended to maintain the necessary work environment.
All of the foregoing costs money. A lot of money. The OPCW report provides confirmation that the toxin was not cooked up in a bedsit by a single individual bent on mayhem. It required a degree of resources only to be found in a sophisticated laboratory setting. Lesser university labs would be unable to create the compound without introducing impurities. A university with a strong research emphasis would have the capacity to synthesise a pure compound as would a competent state laboratory. A crime syndicate might develop a similar capability. But why spend all that time and money when a 9mm parabellum round costs under a dollar?
Observation 3 – Military Grade
Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and Gary Aitkenhead have made repeated use of the phrase “a military grade nerve agent.” As described in Part VII a “military grade nerve agent will typically include additives intended to ensure the efficient application of the toxin, ensure stability during storage, or meet another unique military requirement.
A “pure” toxin is not a “military grade nerve agent.” This would have been known to DSTL Porton Down. Gary Akenhead would have been aware of this fact at the time of his interview with Sky news. He acted to mislead the public.
Observation 4 – Military Additives
The military must deal with a wide variety of circumstances many of which are beyond their control. The military may also seek to use various methods of application for the same agent. This will typically require the use of additives to facilitate the desired application and enhance the toxic effects.
A toxin intended for percutaneous application may have a chemical added that will assist the toxin in being absorbed through the skin. An agent used in an airborne spray may require diluents. Many agents are liquid at room temperature and may require the addition of talc, or fine clay, to create a paste which might adhere to an object such as a door handle. A variety of other means may be used to delay the body’s absorption of a toxic chemical and to ensure a timed three hour release.
The fact that no such additives of any kind were found in the samples reviewed by the OPCW suggests that a laboratory grade toxin was applied without modification to the Skirpal’s door handle and that none of the means by which a lethal toxin may be modified to ensure a 3 hour delayed reaction were present. This suggests the Skripal doorknob could not have been the source of the toxin which incapacitated them.
Observation 5 – Appellation
VX is one of a family of organophosphate acetylcholinesterase inhibitors. “Pure” VX is an oily liquid. According to Vladimir Uglev the first 3 toxins developed under the FOLIANT program: A-1972; B-1976; and C-1976; were all liquids. Only D-1980, the last substance developed, was a solid. According to Vil Mirzayanov, A-232 was one of the earlier compounds developed. It was not the last compound developed under FOLIANT and hence is unlikely to be a solid.
On March 12, eight days after the March 4 attack on the Skripals, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson met with the Russian ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, and informed him that A-234 was the chemical substance employed in the attack on the Skripals. A-234 is not shown in the detail images of Table 2 found in Part II. Table 2 was obtained from a report written by Mirzayanov.
According to a secret U.S. Army report, A-234 is an ethyl analog of A-232, as developed under the FOLIANT program and is “as toxic as VX, as resistant to treatment as soman, and more difficult to detect and easier to manufacture than VX.”
The Mirzayanov Table 2 documentation does not include A-232 as a “NOVICHOK” agent. It is shown to be a precursor chemical for the binary agents later researched under the “NOVICHOK” code name. According to Uglev the appellation “NOVICHOK” was used specifically to describe a program designed to develop binary versions of the toxins developed in the FOLIANT program. Again, according to Uglev, Soviet researchers failed to develop binary versions of the toxic chemicals discovered by them prior to the termination of the research program on the collapse of the Soviet Union.
This detail is included as it provides conclusive evidence that Foreign Secretary Johnson had knowledge on March 12 2018 that the substance employed in the attack on the Skripals was A-234 and was not a “NOVICHOK” as Novichok is the code name for a research program and not the name of any specific organophosphate acetylcholinesterase inhibitor.
The chemical formula for A-234 is:
And the scientific name is N-2-diethylaminomethylacetamidido-ethoxyphosphonofluoridate. None of these references allude to a place of origin. Novichok carries a clear Slavic connotation and its use by the UK government serves no purpose other than to prejudice the public against the Russian Federation.
The detail in this section is intended to convey the complexity, and variety of the different naming conventions surrounding these toxins. Despite this confused set of facts, Johnson had on March 12 the knowledge that the agent used was A-234.
The scientific identification of the substance used in the Skripal attack is not given in the public version of the OPCW report.
Observation 6 – Toxicity
If the above documentation is correct, than the substance used in the attack on the Skripals is not 8 to 10 times more toxic than the organophosphate acetylcholinesterase inhibitor VX, a substance developed in the UK at Porton Down.
VX is an extremely toxic substance. The median lethal dose (LD50)—the exposure required to kill half of a tested population—as estimated for 70 kg (154 lb) human males via exposure to the skin is reported to be 10 mg (0.00035 oz). The constant reference to a substance 8 to 10 times more toxic than VX achieves no purpose other than to create public alarm. You cannot kill a person 8 to 10 times. Once is sufficient.
Observation 7 – Bio-physical Samples
Two types of samples were utilized in the preparation of the OPCW report. Environmental samples and bio-physical samples.
A bio-physical sample provides indirect evidence of the presence of a substance as the substance will have been processed through the subject’s body and its chemical form modified. These modified forms of the substance are metabolites and the common metabolites of VX are:
1) ethyl methylphosphonate,
2) methylphosphonic acid
It must be noted that the only way of determining the metabolites of an unknown substance is through prior test records of a similar poisoning. While it is possible to identify unknown metabolites in the serum of a poisoning victim, the only possible means of identifying the original chemical cause of the poisoning is through prior research into similar poisoning events. Since ethical concerns prevent the use of human subjects, animal test subjects are employed and the metabolites produced are carefully documented.
It is reported that DSTL had access to blood samples from the Skripals and DS Bailey and was able to identify the toxin. DSTL must have had access to a documentary record of the metabolites of A-234 in order to correctly identify this as the toxin.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in the destruction of the research materials associated with the FOLIANT program, there must be another location which has synthesized A-234 and carried out an animal test program to verify the metabolites of A-234.
It cannot therefore be true that the Russian Federation is the only location able to manufacture or otherwise synthesize A-234. The required research program must have been undertaken before the March 4 2018 attack on the Skripals as there was insufficient time to conduct the required testing between the date of the attack and March 12, the date of the first positive identification of the chemical used in the attack.
Information from a US Patent filed in 2015 states that “little is known about Novichock.” If this is correct then some agency had to work very diligently to ensure DSTL Poston Down had access to the necessary information by March 2018.
Observation 8 – Environmental Samples
An environmental sample is one which is obtained prior to the chemical having been processed through an organism. The OPCW public report states that these environmental samples were of “high purity” and demonstrated “the almost complete absence of impurities.”
What is being said here is that a chemical substance was distributed through a number of locations in Salisbury and each such sample demonstrated the “almost complete absence of impurities.”
This is difficult to understand. Any chemical placed in the natural environment will be subject to degradation through hydrolysis and the effects of UV. The same chemical will also become mixed with other materials found in the natural environment and will demonstrate cross contamination.
It would be standard practice for the OPCW team to conduct their own environmental sampling. They would need to do this in order to properly establish chain of custody. The earliest the OPCW team might have conducted environmental sampling is March 21 a full 17 days after the release of the subject chemicals into the environment.
VX is known to be the most persistent of the nerve agents. But this persistence is measured in a duration of 2 to 3 days not 2 to 3 weeks.
The presence of environmental samples exhibiting a near “complete absence of impurities” suggests the salting of the samples. A laboratory grade chemical was placed at specific points immediately prior to the arrival of the OPCW team.
Observation 9 – Timing
The OPCW team arrived in Salisbury on March 21 and departed on March 23 with the public report being issued on April 12, a span of twenty days. If we assume two days to distribute the samples and three days to compile the report and we are left with 15 days to perform laboratory identification of the samples.
The Skirpals were attacked on March 4th but the first evidence of unusual activity in the case occurred on March 5th at 1100 when Salisbury District Hospital (SDH) was placed in lockdown. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson provided the A-234 identification to the Russian Ambassador on March 12, a span of 7 days to properly assess a chemical agent from the initial bio-physical blood samples and accurately identify a chemical little known in September 2015.
It is noted that Boris Johnson spoke in the House of Commons on March 6 and was already implicating Russia at that date:
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has vowed that Britain will respond “robustly” if evidence of state responsibility emerges after a Russian double agent was left fighting for his life following suspected exposure to an unknown substance.
Sergei Skripal, 66, was found unconscious in Salisbury, Wiltshire, along with his 33-year-old daughter Yulia shortly after 4pm on Sunday.
Answering an urgent question in the Commons, Mr. Johnson said he wanted to address speculation about the “disturbing” incident.
Noting that the case has “echoes” of the death of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian dissident who was fatally poisoned in London in 2006, he told MPs: “While it would be wrong to prejudge the investigation, I can reassure the House that should evidence emerge that implies state responsibility, then Her Majesty’s Government will respond appropriately and robustly.”
Mr. Johnson said it was clear that Russia is now “in many respects a malign and disruptive force and the UK is in the lead across the world in trying to counteract that activity”.
If the SDH lockdown at 1100 on the morning of March 5th represents the first awareness of the Skripal poisoning being from other than Fentanyl, then March 6 was insufficient time for DSTL Porton Down to have conducted the necessary work to prepare the blood samples for identification of the metabolites of a substance not well known in September 2015.
Yet on March 7 the police announced the Skripals had been “poisoned by a nerve agent in a targeted murder attempt.”
Observation 10 – Decontamination Protocol
The above image shows personnel assigned to the Skripal incident removing protective clothing. This clothing is worn when entering a contaminated environment. It must be assumed that the protective outerwear will be contaminated by toxic agent.
Standard decontamination protocol mandates that immediately after exit from the contamination zone personnel should walk through a step bath to remove contamination from their footwear. They should then enter a wash-down station where they may be scrubbed down with water which may contain an agent to neutralize the suspect toxin. Only after completing this wash-down should the protective suit be removed.
Failure to follow this protocol will likely result in contamination from the exterior of the protective garment being transferred to the hands, face, and clothing of the worker. If there is no wash-down then dry particles of toxin may become airborne and be inhaled by the worker. Inhalation is one of the fastest routes to poisoning due to the presence of air / blood exchange occurring in the lung alveoli.
In all of the publicly available imagery of persons wearing protective clothing there has been not one single image showing a step bath or a wash-down station.
The personnel in the images are dealing with a toxin reported to be 8 to 10 times more lethal than VX. Skin contact with 0.00035 oz of VX is sufficient to kill one half of all exposed persons. Yet not a single person suffered an exposure injury.
Winston Churchill once said “Nothing so concentrates the mind as the thought of one’s own demise.” Having had to enter into, and work within, environments equally as toxic as VX, I can assure you that your mind becomes wonderfully concentrated.
Not a single person in the available imagery of Salisbury shows any personnel exhibiting this degree of concern for their own safety.
The Guardian timeline of the event reports that at 1713 on March 4 “members of the pubic still strolled nearby” the site of the attack. None suffered injury.
The OPCW arrives 17 days later and finds environmental samples of “high purity.”
Observation 11 – Radio Message
You are a trained intelligence agent. As such you are aware of the great variety of technical means used to capture any and all communications of a suspect. You have just committed a murder in Wiltshire. Your objective is to safely exit the country un-noticed. The first thing you do to achieve this outcome is make a phone call.
According to a report in the Sunday Express an RAF flight lieutenant in southern Cyprus picked up a message on March 4, the day of the Skripal assault, that “the package has been delivered.”
It is believed the message intercept would have occurred at the GCHQ listening post on Mount Troodos in Cyprus. According to Craig Murray who has visited the facility and been introduced to its operations:
Troodos is valued enormously by the NSA. It monitors all radio, satellite and microwave traffic across the Middle East, ranging from Egypt and Eastern Libya right through to the Caucasus. Even almost all landline telephone communication in this region is routed through microwave links at some stage, picked up on Troodos.
How many messages do you think are processed by this facility in the course of one hour? Six? Twelve? Twenty-two? How about Twenty-two thousand? Perhaps two or three times that number. And a flight lieutenant picked an incriminating message out of that volume of traffic?
It is doubted that any message traffic is processed on Cyprus. It is more likely that the entire take is transmitted back to GCHQ in Cheltenham via a fibre optic link. There exabytes of take are processed, not by a bored flight lieutenant, but by banks of high speed computers.
Clearly someone in Cheltenham has committed a programming error. Anyone with any knowledge of secret communications knows that the code phrase used to confirm a murder in Salisbury is “small pizza, no anchovies.”
Observation 12 – Information Requests
On April 9th the police offered a reward of £20,000 to anyone who can help them track down two men who committed an assault. A grainy CCTV image depicting the suspects was presented together with a description of each individual.
The Skripal case was not a common criminal assault. May and Johnson allege that the Skripal incident was a State Party attack against the UK, an act of war. This attack provoked an international incident with May seeking to invoke NATO Article 5, obtain the assistance of allied State Parties, and apply a wide variety of sanctions. Surely the welfare of the UK is worth at least £20,000.
It is now day 36 since the attack. No CCTV images of any suspects have been presented. No artist’s sketch based on witness interviews (think Unibomber) has been presented. There have been no descriptions of the possible attackers. No indication of their potential movement prior to, or immediately following the attack. No reward money has been offered.
What plausible explanation can there be? Nobody wants to know? Or nobody in HMG wants to know because they already know and are determined to conceal the truth from the public?
Observation 13 – Skripal Image
This is an image of the two Skripals alleged to have been taken on March 3rd in the Zizzi restaurant. According to discussion on the Moon of Alabama web site, the person in the mirror is Pablo Miller, Skripal’s former MI6 case officer. This identification has not been verified.
This image was widely available on the web and appeared in many early stories of the curious incident.
The camera used is not a cell phone. It is a “point and shoot” of a type popular prior to the wide acceptance of cell phone imaging devices.
An image captured via cell phone is easily shared and distributed. A wide variety of apps are available to perform this sharing. Point and shoot cameras typically lack such communication functions. Images are stored on an SD memory card and you need to remove this card and place it in an SD card reader attached to a PC or laptop, download the image files, and then use another program to distribute the image. PCs or laptops lack the range of social media image sharing apps commonly found on cell phones.
Question 1 – Since the image capture was performed on a device that does not permit easy sharing how did it receive such quick and wide distribution?
Question 2 – Is the man in the mirror Pablo Miller?
Question 3 – It is reported that the image was made available through the East-West Agency. This agency operates in the UK and in the Ukraine. How did they obtain it so quickly?
Question 4 – Was this image circulated in order to cast the Skripals in a positive and sympathetic light?
Spying is a repugnant profession in which cheating, lying, deception, and general moral turpitude are job requirements. Skripal is reported to have revealed the identities of more than 300 agents operating against the west. Some of those agents may have lost their lives due to Skripal’s treachery. The wide distribution of this image was intended to generate positive public sympathy toward Skripal. Here we have an old gent and his daughter hoisting a pint. Less than 24 hours later they will be fighting for their life on a park bench. One immediately feels sympathy for them and hostility the person who committed this attack. The rapid wide dissemination of the image supports the inference of a calculated program of deception.
Observation 14 – Motive
This map is a portion of a larger map found in a Stimson Centre publication describing the chemical and biological weapons facilities in the former Soviet Union. The square symbols represent the location of chemical weapons research facilities and each pentagon represents a biological weapon research facility. The area of the Crimea has been recoloured to represent the UN recognized self-determination of the residents following the 2014 coup.
The next article in this series seeks to unpack the complex issue of motive.
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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)