Boris Johnson has attempted to renew the faltering case for blaming Russia ahead of the investigation into the Skripal attack, by issuing a fundamentally new story that completely changes – and very radically strengthens – the government line on what it knows. You can see the long Foreign and Commonwealth Office Statement here.
This is the sensational new claim which all the propaganda sheets are running with:
The Foreign Secretary revealed this morning that we have information indicating that within the last decade, Russia has investigated ways of delivering nerve agents likely for assassination. And part of this programme has involved producing and stockpiling quantities of novichok. This is a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
This is an astonishing claim and requires close investigation. If this information comes from MI5 or MI6, there is a process of inter-departmental clearance that has to be gone through before it can be put in the public domain – even by a Minister – which is known as “Action-on”. I have been through the process personally many times when working as head of the FCO Section of the Embargo Surveillance Centre, monitoring Iraqi arms acquisitions. It is not, unless actually at war, a Saturday night process – it would have had to have been done on Friday.
So why is this essential information being released not to Parliament on Friday, but on Andrew Marr’s sofa early on a Sunday morning, backed up with a Sunday morning official statement? This is very unusual. Furthermore, it is absolutely incompatible with what I was told last week by FCO sources – they did not know this information, and one of them certainly would have if it was based on MI6 or GCHQ reporting.
I can see only two possible explanations. One – and the most likely – depends on looking yet again extremely carefully at what the statement says. It says “we have information indicating that within the last decade”. If does not say how long we have held that information. And “within the last decade” can mean any period of time between a second and ten years ago, Very tellingly it says “within the last decade”, it does not say “for the last decade”.
“Within the last decade” is in fact the exact same semantic trick as “sale price – up to 50% off”. That can mean no more than 0.1% off and its only actual meaning is “never better than half price”.
The most likely explanation of this sentence is therefore that they have – since last week when they didn’t know this – just been given this alleged information. And not from a regular ally with whom we have an intelligence sharing agreement. It could have come from another state, or from a private source of dodgy intelligence – Orbis, for example.
The FCO are again deliberately twisting words to convey the impression that we have known for a decade, whereas in fact the statement does not say this at all.
There is a second possible explanation. MI6 officers in the field get intelligence from agents who, by and large, they pay for it. In my experience of seeing thousands of MI6 intelligence reports, a fair proportion of this “Humint” is unreliable. Graham Greene, a former MI6 officer, was writing a true picture in the brilliant “our Man in Havana”, which I cannot strongly recommend enough to you.
The intelligence received arrives in Vauxhall Cross and there is a filter. A country desk officer will assess the intelligence and see if it is worth issuing as a Report; they judge accuracy against how good access the source has and how trustworthy they are deemed to be, and whether the content squares with known facts. If passed, the intelligence then becomes a Report and is given a serial number. This is not a very good filter, because it still lets through a lot of rubbish, but it does eliminate the complete dregs. One possible source of new information that has suddenly changed the government’s state of knowledge this weekend is a search of these dregs for anything that can be cobbled together. As I have written in Murder in Samarkand, it was the deliberate removal of filters which twisted the Iraqi WMD intelligence.
In short, we should be extremely sceptical of this sudden new information that Boris Johnson has produced out of a hat. If the UK was in possession of intelligence about a secret Russian chemical weapons programme, it was not under a legal obligation to tell Andrew Marr, but it was under a legal obligation to tell the OPCW. Not only did the UK fail to do that, the UK Ambassador Sir Geoffrey Adams was last year fulsomely congratulating the OPCW on the completion of the destruction of Russia’s chemical weapons stocks, without a single hint or reservation entered that Russia may have undeclared or secret stocks.
On the Andrew Marr programme, Boris Johnson appeared to say for the first time that the nerve agent in Salisbury was actually made in Russia. But this is a major divergence from the published FCO statement, which very markedly does not say this. Boris Johnson was therefore almost certainly reverting to his reflex lying. In fact the FCO statement gives an extremely strong hint the FCO is not at all confident it was made in Russia and is seeking to widen its bases. Look at this paragraph:
Russia is the official successor state to the USSR. As such, Russia legally took responsibility for ensuring the CWC applies to all former Soviet Chemical Weapons stocks and facilities.
It does not need me to point out, that if Porton Down had identified the nerve agent as made in Russia, the FCO would not have added that paragraph. Plainly they cannot say it was made in Russia.
The Soviet Chemical Weapons programme was based in Nukus in Uzbekistan. It was the Americans who dismantled and studied it and destroyed and removed the equipment. I visited it as Ambassador to Uzbekistan shortly after they had finished – I recall it as desolate, tiled and very cold, nothing to look at really. The above paragraph seeks to hold the Russians responsible for anything that came out of Nukus, when it was the Americans who actually took it.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has issued a statement to refute my report from well-placed FCO sources that the British government continually re-uses the phrase “of a type developed by Russia” because its own scientists refused government pressure to say the nerve agent was made by Russia, and as getting even agreement to “of a type developed by” was bloody, the government has to stick to precisely that rather odd choice of phrase.
This is the official British Government statement:
“We have no idea what Mr Murray is referring to. The Prime Minister told MP’s on Monday that world leading experts at Porton Down had positively identified this chemical agent. It is clear that it is a military grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. None of that is in any doubt”.
Which is perhaps the most hilarious fail in the history of refutation.
The BBC sprung that statement on me during a live interview on Radio 5 last night. They also sprung on me a statement by the Israeli Embassy and were attempting to lead me into accusing Israel of the attack. But even the BBC interviewer, Stephen Nolan, was flummoxed by the rubbish he had been given from the FCO. Here is an extract from that part of the interview:
Stephen Nolan: The Foreign and Commonwealth Office have said to us tonight: “We have no idea what Mr Murray is referring to. The Prime Minister told MP’s on Monday that world leading experts at Porton Down had positively identified this chemical agent. It is clear that it is a military grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. None of that is in any doubt”. Well, you’ve already covered that Craig and you are zoning in on the fact that they are saying “developed by Russia”, they are unable to say whether it’s made – well they are not saying whether it was actually manufactured in Russia or the source of it or whether it was from Russia, right?”
Craig Murray Yes, exactly. No-one doubts that the Russians had the idea of making these things first, and worked on developing the idea. It has always been doubted up till now that they really succeeded. The Iranians succeeded under OPCW supervision some time ago and the chemical formulae were published to the whole world twenty years ago. So many states could have done it. The “of a type developed by Russia” thing means nothing, undoubtedly.
You can hear the whole interview here beginning about 5 minutes in.
The line that novichoks can only be produced by Russia is now proven to be a complete lie. As I previously proved by referencing their publications, in 2013 the OPCW scientific advisory committee note the evidence was sparse that novichoks had ever been successfully produced, and that was still the line being published by Porton Down in 2016. You can find the hard evidence of all that here.
I have now been sent the vital information that in late 2016, Iranian scientists set out to study whether novichoks really could be produced from commercially available ingredients. Iran succeeded in synthesising a number of novichoks. Iran did this in full cooperation with the OPCW and immediately reported the results to the OPCW so they could be added to the chemical weapons database.
This makes complete nonsense of the Theresa May’s “of a type developed by Russia” line, used to parliament and the UN Security Council. This explains why Porton Down have refused to cave in to governmental pressure to say the nerve agent was Russian. If Iran can make a novichok, so can a significant number of states.
While Iran acted absolutely responsibly in cooperating with the OPCW, there are a handful of rogue states operating outwith the rule of international law, like Israel and North Korea, which refuse to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention, join the OPCW or destroy their chemical weapons stocks. Russia has cooperated in the OPCW destruction of all its chemical weapons stocks, completed last year, which included regular OPCW inspection of all the sites alleged to have been in the original “novichok” programme. Why nobody is even looking at the rogue states outwith the OPCW is a genuine puzzle.
Extraordinarily, only yesterday the Guardian was still carrying an article which claimed “only the Russian state” could make a novichok. Despite the lying propaganda regurgitated by virtually every corporate and state “journalist”, in truth is it is now proven beyond dispute that “of a type developed by Russia” has zero evidential value and is a politician’s weasel phrase designed deliberately to mislead the public. The public should ask why.
Several million people have now read my articles on the lack of evidence of Russian government guilt for the Salisbury attack. That’s over 300,000 unique visitors on this little blog alone so far, and it has been repeated on hundreds of sites all over the internet. My own tweets on the subject have been retweeted over 12,500 times and received 8 million impressions. I know that journalists from every mainstream media outlet you can mention have seen the material, because of numerous tweets from them none of which address any of the facts, but instead call me a “Conspiracy nutter” or variants of that, some very rude.
Yet what I wrotehas not been refuted. It would be very easy to refute were it not true. The government would just have to say “Porton Down have stated that they have definitely identified the nerve agent as made in Russia”. They have not said that. Most extraordinarily, not one mainstream media “journalist” has asked a minister the question: “You keep using this phrase the nerve agent is “of a type developed by Russia”. Are you able to confirm it was actually made in Russia?” .
There is no excuse for this. Literally hundreds of mainstream media “journalists” have slavishly reproduced the propaganda phrase “of a type developed by Russia” without a single one of them every querying this rather odd wording, or why it is the government always uses that precise wording again and again and again.
It goes without saying that not a single mainstream media “journalist” has reported that fact either that until recently Porton Down believed that “novichoks” had probably never actually been synthesised successfully and that the OPCW has never banned them on the grounds that there was no evidence of their physical existence.
Finally I wish to repeat these important facts:
1) Israel has major undeclared stocks of chemical weapons
2) Israel is one of a handful of countries, including North Korea, not to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention and commit to destroy its chemical weapons
3) Israel is not a member of the OPCW and refuses to declare its chemical weapon stocks to the OPCW.
These are also facts you will never, ever see reported in mainstream media and entirely predictably the corporate lickspittles of the mainstream media have been out in force on socal media justifying their refusal to act on any of the information I have given on the grounds I am an “anti-semite”. A more extreme example of using any criticism of Israel to allege anti-semitism is hard to conceive.
The contribution of Jewish people to human development in fields including science, literature, music, art and commerce has been simply magnificent and utterly disproportionate to their numbers. The genocidal policy of Israel towards the Palestinians these last seventy years, and its rogue state status as regard chemical and nuclear wmds is a completely different question, for which I in no way blame the generality of Jewish people. In fact my position on this is the opposite of a BDS position. I actually want Israel to join OPCW, be a full member and cooperate in the destruction of its chemical weapon stocks.
I think I might now have a vodka. Of a type developed by Russia. Made in Warrington.
I have now received confirmation from a well placed FCO source that Porton Down scientists are not able to identify the nerve gas as being of Russian manufacture, and have been resentful of the pressure being placed on them to do so. Porton Down would only sign up to the formulation “of a type developed by Russia” after a rather difficult meeting where this was agreed as a compromise formulation. The Russians were allegedly researching, in the “Novichok” programme a generation of nerve agents which could be produced from commercially available precursors such as insecticides and fertilisers. This substance is a “novichok” in that sense. It is of that type. Just as I am typing on a laptop of a type developed by the United States, though this one was made in China.
To anybody with a Whitehall background this has been obvious for several days. The government has never said the nerve agent was made in Russia, or that it can only be made in Russia. The exact formulation “of a type developed by Russia” was used by Theresa May in parliament, used by the UK at the UN Security Council, used by Boris Johnson on the BBC yesterday and, most tellingly of all, “of a type developed by Russia” is the precise phrase used in the joint communique issued by the UK, USA, France and Germany yesterday:
This use of a military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia, constitutes the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War.
When the same extremely careful phrasing is never deviated from, you know it is the result of a very delicate Whitehall compromise. My FCO source, like me, remembers the extreme pressure put on FCO staff and other civil servants to sign off the dirty dossier on Iraqi WMD, some of which pressure I recount in my memoir Murder in Samarkand. She volunteered the comparison to what is happening now, particularly at Porton Down, with no prompting from me.
Separately I have written to the media office at OPCW to ask them to confirm that there has never been any physical evidence of the existence of Russian Novichoks, and the programme of inspection and destruction of Russian chemical weapons was completed last year.
Did you know these interesting facts?
OPCW inspectors have had full access to all known Russian chemical weapons facilities for over a decade – including those identified by the “Novichok” alleged whistleblower Mirzayanov – and last year OPCW inspectors completed the destruction of the last of 40,000 tonnes of Russian chemical weapons
By contrast the programme of destruction of US chemical weapons stocks still has five years to run
Israel has extensive stocks of chemical weapons but has always refused to declare any of them to the OPCW. Israel is not a state party to the Chemical Weapons Convention nor a member of the OPCW. Israel signed in 1993 but refused to ratify as this would mean inspection and destruction of its chemical weapons. Israel undoubtedly has as much technical capacity as any state to synthesise “Novichoks”.
Until this week, the near universal belief among chemical weapons experts, and the official position of the OPCW, was that “Novichoks” were at most a theoretical research programme which the Russians had never succeeded in actually synthesising and manufacturing. That is why they are not on the OPCW list of banned chemical weapons.
Porton Down is still not certain it is the Russians who have apparently synthesised a “Novichok”. Hence “Of a type developed by Russia”. Note developed, not made, produced or manufactured.
It is very carefully worded propaganda. Of a type developed by liars.
This post prompted another old colleague to get in touch. On the bright side, the FCO have persuaded Boris he has to let the OPCW investigate a sample. But not just yet. The expectation is the inquiry committee will be chaired by a Chinese delegate. The Boris plan is to get the OPCW also to sign up to the “as developed by Russia” formula, and diplomacy to this end is being undertaken in Beijing right now.
I don’t suppose there is any sign of the BBC doing any actual journalism on this?
In 13 years of running my blog I have never been exposed to such a tirade of abuse as I have for refusing to accept without evidence that Russia is the only possible culprit for the Salisbury attack. The abuse has mostly been on twitter, and much of the most venomous stuff has come from corporate and state media “journalists”. I suppose I am a standing rebuke to them for merely being stenographers to power and never doing any actual research, but that hardly explains the visceral levels of hatred exhibited.
Today they are all terrifically happy and sharing amongst themselves a lengthy twitter thread by a Blairite and chemist called Clyde Davis in which they all say I am “owned” and my article disproven. There are two remarkable things about this thread.
The first remarkable thing is the remarkably high percentage of those who are sharing it with commendations who are mainstream media journalists. Last I saw was George Monbiot five minutes ago, but there are dozens. I suppose it is important to them as validating their decision to support uncritically the government line without doing any actual journalism.
The second remarkable thing is that the thread they are all sharing misses out almost all my side of the conversation. An objective observer might think that made it hard to say who “won” the argument. To be fair, that is probably not deliberate but appears to be a result of how twitter does threading. Here I reconstruct by paste the thread with my responses. It may give a better idea of whether Mr Davis completely “destroys” my article, as the “professional” journalists are all claiming. And as Mr Davies is critiquing my article, perhaps you might refresh yourself on that first here.
Neither my reply nor Davies’ rejoinder are included in the thread which the mainstream “journalists” are circulating. Note that Davies responds to being challenged, with a riposte which is untrue. The OPCW have never changed their position on the physical existence of “novichoks” from the position I gave and referenced in my article. By contrast, Mr Davies gives no reference for his claim the OPCW has changed its mind. Personally I find it problematic that somebody like Mr Davies who blusters so loud on scientific method, responds to a challenge to his position with an apparent invention.
It is indeed true that Porton Down (which here means the British government), however, have changed their position since 2016 when, as I again demonstrated in my article with references, they said there was no evidence for the physical existence of “novichoks”. Now apparently they have said not only do they have one, but it is indubitably Russian. If a “novichok” is indeed in the possession of Porton Down, of course scientists, like diplomats and the others involved, will change their position on the existence of Novichoks. As will I. But that, in any sense, that will prove it is of Russian manufacture is a totally different question.
Then along came the man who really did put me to shame. A Mr Kevin Smyth who completely demolished Davis with a simple polite question:
That part of the exchange is also missing from the thread being circulated so gleefully at the moment.
So what does Davies tell us in this article delivered by twitter which “demolishes” my article.
1) Davies acknowledges that until recently Porton Down and OPCW doubted the physical existence of “novichoks”. He says they have now changed their minds. [Porton Down has indeed undergone a remarkable change of mind in the last week , but the OPCW has yet to see the evidence].
2) Davis states that chemists can tell if a compound corresponds to one of the “novichoks” described by Mirzyanov, but Davis specifically accepts that does not prove Russian manufacture.
3) Davis nevertheless states strongly it is Russia because he believes Russia has form and motive.
Nothing here can remotely be said to be conclusive. The question that puzzles me, is why are so many mainstream media journalists gleefully seizing on this series of tweets as a destruction of the need for sceptical inquiry? A possible answer:
1) Davies by claiming credentials as a chemist conforms to the corporate media urge for an appeal to authority. He validates the government line and he is a chemist. He can throw in the names of chemicals and molecular diagrams. That kind of thing impresses journalists. That he explicitly admits the chemistry cannot prove Russia did it, is apparently irrelevant.
2) Davies thus provides a smokescreen of respectability by which they can continue to advance their careers by cutting and pasting the government line without question.
In fact, all of Davies’ “chemistry” in this exchange sets out to prove something which was never disputed – that chemists are able to identify whether or not a substance is one of the “novichok” compounds described by Mirzyanov. But as he published the formulae two decades ago, and has been living in the USA, and as the US dismantled and studied the Nukus plant, and as Porton Down had never seen any evidence the Russians actually succeeded in synthesising “novichoks, this in no way adds up to evidence of Russian manufacture. As Davies, to his credit, finally acknowledged when confronted by an interlocutor for whom he did not have automatic hatred.
I can’t say the midgies bother me that much. But they are interesting to study.
As recently as 2016 Dr Robin Black, Head of the Detection Laboratory at the UK’s only chemical weapons facility at Porton Down, a former colleague of Dr David Kelly, published in an extremely prestigious scientific journal that the evidence for the existence of Novichoks was scant and their composition unknown.
In recent years, there has been much speculation that a fourth generation of nerve agents, ‘Novichoks’ (newcomer), was developed in Russia, beginning in the 1970s as part of the ‘Foliant’ programme, with the aim of finding agents that would compromise defensive countermeasures. Information on these compounds has been sparse in the public domain, mostly originating from a dissident Russian military chemist, Vil Mirzayanov. No independent confirmation of the structures or the properties of such compounds has been published. (Black, 2016)
Robin Black. (2016) Development, Historical Use and Properties of Chemical Warfare Agents. Royal Society of Chemistry
Yet now, the British Government is claiming to be able instantly to identify a substance which its only biological weapons research centre has never seen before and was unsure of its existence. Worse, it claims to be able not only to identify it, but to pinpoint its origin. Given Dr Black’s publication, it is plain that claim cannot be true.
The world’s international chemical weapons experts share Dr Black’s opinion. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is a UN body based in the Hague. In 2013 this was the report of its Scientific Advisory Board, which included US, French, German and Russian government representatives and on which Dr Black was the UK representative:
[The SAB] emphasised that the definition of toxic chemicals in the Convention would cover all potential candidate chemicals that might be utilised as chemical weapons. Regarding new toxic chemicals not listed in the Annex on Chemicals but which may nevertheless pose a risk to the Convention, the SAB makes reference to “Novichoks”. The name “Novichok” is used in a publication of a former Soviet scientist who reported investigating a new class of nerve agents suitable for use as binary chemical weapons. The SAB states that it has insufficient information to comment on the existence or properties of “Novichoks”. (OPCW, 2013)
OPCW: Report of the Scientific Advisory Board on developments in science and technology for the Third Review Conference 27 March 2013
Indeed the OPCW was so sceptical of the viability of “novichoks” that it decided – with US and UK agreement – not to add them nor their alleged precursors to its banned list. In short, the scientific community broadly accepts Mirzayanov was working on “novichoks” but doubts he succeeded.
Given that the OPCW has taken the view the evidence for the existence of “Novichoks” is dubious, if the UK actually has a sample of one it is extremely important the UK presents that sample to the OPCW. Indeed the UK has a binding treaty obligation to present that sample to OPCW. Russa has – unreported by the corporate media – entered a demand at the OPCW that Britain submit a sample of the Salisbury material for international analysis.
Yet Britain refuses to submit it to the OPCW.
A second part of May’s accusation is that “Novichoks” could only be made in certain military installations. But that is also demonstrably untrue. If they exist at all, Novichoks were allegedly designed to be able to be made at bench level in any commercial chemical facility – that was a major point of them. The only real evidence for the existence of Novichoks was the testimony of the ex-Soviet scientist Mizayanov. And this is what Mirzayanov actually wrote.
One should be mindful that the chemical components or precursors of A-232 or its binary version novichok-5 are ordinary organophosphates that can be made at commercial chemical companies that manufacture such products as fertilizers and pesticides.
Vil S. Mirzayanov, “Dismantling the Soviet/Russian Chemical Weapons Complex: An Insider’s View,” in Amy E. Smithson, Dr. Vil S. Mirzayanov, Gen Roland Lajoie, and Michael Krepon, Chemical Weapons Disarmament in Russia: Problems and Prospects, Stimson Report No. 17, October 1995, p. 21.
It is a scientific impossibility for Porton Down to have been able to test for Russian novichoks if they have never possessed a Russian sample to compare them to. They can analyse a sample as conforming to a Mirzayanov formula, but as he published those to the world twenty years ago, that is no proof of Russian origin. If Porton Down can synthesise it, so can many others, not just the Russians.
And finally – Mirzayanov is an Uzbek name and the novichok programme, assuming it existed, was in the Soviet Union but far away from modern Russia, at Nukus in modern Uzbekistan. I have visited the Nukus chemical weapons site myself. It was dismantled and made safe and all the stocks destroyed and the equipment removed by the American government, as I recall finishing while I was Ambassador there. There has in fact never been any evidence that any “novichok” ever existed in Russia itself.
1) Porton Down has acknowledged in publications it has never seen any Russian “novichoks”. The UK government has absolutely no “fingerprint” information such as impurities that can safely attribute this substance to Russia.
2) Until now, neither Porton Down nor the world’s experts at the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) were convinced “Novichoks” even exist.
3) The UK is refusing to provide a sample to the OPCW.
4) “Novichoks” were specifically designed to be able to be manufactured from common ingredients on any scientific bench. The Americans dismantled and studied the facility that allegedly developed them. It is completely untrue only the Russians could make them, if anybody can.
5) The “Novichok” programme was in Uzbekistan not in Russia. Its legacy was inherited by the Americans during their alliance with Karimov, not by the Russians.
With a great many thanks to sources who cannot be named at this moment.
The same people who assured you that Saddam Hussein had WMD’s now assure you Russian “novochok” nerve agents are being wielded by Vladimir Putin to attack people on British soil. As with the Iraqi WMD dossier, it is essential to comb the evidence very finely. A vital missing word from Theresa May’s statement yesterday was “only”. She did not state that the nerve agent used was manufactured ONLY by Russia. She rather stated this group of nerve agents had been “developed by” Russia. Antibiotics were first developed by a Scotsman, but that is not evidence that all antibiotics are today administered by Scots.
The “novochok” group of nerve agents – a very loose term simply for a collection of new nerve agents the Soviet Union were developing fifty years ago – will almost certainly have been analysed and reproduced by Porton Down. That is entirely what Porton Down is there for. It used to make chemical and biological weapons as weapons, and today it still does make them in small quantities in order to research defences and antidotes. After the fall of the Soviet Union Russian chemists made a lot of information available on these nerve agents. And one country which has always manufactured very similar persistent nerve agents is Israel. This Foreign Policy magazine (a very establishment US publication) article on Israel‘s chemical and biological weapon capability is very interesting indeed. I will return to Israel later in this article.
Incidentally, novachok is not a specific substance but a class of new nerve agents. Sources agree they were designed to be persistent, and of an order of magnitude stronger than sarin or VX. That is rather hard to square with the fact that thankfully nobody has died and those possibly in contact just have to wash their clothes.
From Putin’s point of view, to assassinate Skripal now seems to have very little motivation. If the Russians have waited eight years to do this, they could have waited until after their World Cup. The Russians have never killed a swapped spy before. Just as diplomats, British and otherwise, are the most ardent upholders of the principle of diplomatic immunity, so security service personnel everywhere are the least likely to wish to destroy a system which can be a key aspect of their own personal security; quite literally spy swaps are their “Get Out of Jail Free” card. You don’t undermine that system – probably terminally – without very good reason.
It is worth noting that the “wicked” Russians gave Skripal a far lighter jail sentence than an American equivalent would have received. If a member of US Military Intelligence had sold, for cash to the Russians, the names of hundreds of US agents and officers operating abroad, the Americans would at the very least jail the person for life, and I strongly suspect would execute them. Skripal just received a jail sentence of 18 years, which is hard to square with the narrative of implacable vindictiveness against him. If the Russians had wanted to make an example, that was the time.
It is much more probable that the reason for this assassination attempt refers to something recent or current, than to spying twenty years ago. Were I the British police, I would inquire very closely into Orbis Intelligence.
There is no doubt that Skripal was feeding secrets to MI6 at the time that Christopher Steele was an MI6 officer in Moscow, and at the the time that Pablo Miller, another member of Orbis Intelligence, was also an MI6 officer in Russia and directly recruiting agents. It is widely reported on the web and in US media that it was Miller who first recruited Skripal. My own ex-MI6 sources tell me that is not quite true as Skripal was “walk-in”, but that Miller certainly was involved in running Skripal for a while. Sadly Pablo Miller’s LinkedIn profile has recently been deleted, but it is again widely alleged on the web that it showed him as a consultant for Orbis Intelligence and a consultant to the FCO and – wait for it – with an address in Salisbury. If anyone can recover than Linkedin entry do get in touch, though British Government agencies will have been active in the internet scrubbing.
It was of course Christopher Steele and Orbis Intelligence who produced for the Clinton camp the sensationalist dossier on Trump links with Russia – including the story of Trump paying to be urinated on by Russian prostitutes – that is a key part of the “Russiagate” affair gripping the US political classes. The extraordinary thing about this is that the Orbis dossier is obvious nonsense which anybody with a professional background can completely demolish, as I did here. Steele’s motive was, like Skriapin’s in selling his secrets, cash pure and simple. Steele is a charlatan who knocked up a series of allegations that are either wildly improbable, or would need a high level source access he could not possibly get in today’s Russia, or both. He told the Democrats what they wish to hear and his audience – who had and still have no motivation to look at it critically – paid him highly for it.
I do not know for certain that Pablo Miller helped knock together the Steele dossier on Trump, but it seems very probable given he also served for MI6 in Russia and was working for Orbis. And it seems to me even more probable that Sergei Skripal contributed to the Orbis Intelligence dossier on Trump. Steele and Miller cannot go into Russia and run sources any more, and never would have had access as good as their dossier claims, even in their MI6 days. The dossier was knocked up for huge wodges of cash from whatever they could cobble together. Who better to lend a little corroborative verisimilitude in these circumstances than their old source Skripal?
Skripal was at hand in the UK, and allegedly even close to Miller in Salisbury. He could add in the proper acronym for a Russian committee here or the name of a Russian official there, to make it seem like Steele was providing hard intelligence. Indeed, Skripal’s outdated knowledge might explain some of the dossier’s more glaring errors.
But the problem with double agents like Skripal, who give intelligence for money, is that they can easily become triple agents and you never know when a better offer is going to come along. When Steele produced his dodgy dossier, he had no idea it would ever become so prominent and subject to so much scrutiny. Steele is fortunate in that the US Establishment is strongly motivated not to scrutinise his work closely as their one aim is to “get” Trump. But with the stakes very high, having a very loose cannon as one of the dossier’s authors might be most inconvenient both for Orbis and for the Clinton camp.
If I was the police, I would look closely at Orbis Intelligence.
To return to Israel. Israel has the nerve agents. Israel has Mossad which is extremely skilled at foreign assassinations. Theresa May claimed Russian propensity to assassinate abroad as a specific reason to believe Russia did it. Well Mossad has an even greater propensity to assassinate abroad. And while I am struggling to see a Russian motive for damaging its own international reputation so grieviously, Israel has a clear motivation for damaging the Russian reputation so grieviously. Russian action in Syria has undermined the Israeli position in Syria and Lebanon in a fundamental way, and Israel has every motive for damaging Russia’s international position by an attack aiming to leave the blame on Russia.
Both the Orbis and Israeli theories are speculations. But they are no more a speculation, and no more a conspiracy theory, than the idea that Vladimir Putin secretly sent agents to Salisbury to attack Skriapin with a secret nerve agent. I can see absolutely no reason to believe that is a more valid speculation than the others at this point.
I am alarmed by the security, spying and armaments industries’ frenetic efforts to stoke Russophobia and heat up the new cold war. I am especially alarmed at the stream of cold war warrior “experts” dominating the news cycles. I write as someone who believes that agents of the Russian state did assassinate Litvinenko, and that the Russian security services carried out at least some of the apartment bombings that provided the pretext for the brutal assault on Chechnya. I believe the Russian occupation of Crimea and parts of Georgia is illegal. On the other hand, in Syria Russia has saved the Middle East from domination by a new wave of US and Saudi sponsored extreme jihadists.
The naive view of the world as “goodies” and “baddies”, with our own ruling class as the good guys, is for the birds. I witnessed personally in Uzbekistan the willingness of the UK and US security services to accept and validate intelligence they knew to be false in order to pursue their policy objectives. We should be extremely sceptical of their current anti-Russian narrative. There are many possible suspects in this attack.
There was a revealing coincidence of timing yesterday. Philip Hammond made a speech in which he pleaded with the EU to allow the UK continued free access to their financial services markets, on the basis of mutually recognised standards. At the same time, Theresa May met the Saudi Crown Prince in Downing Street and discussed specific legal reductions of those standards in the City of London, to allow for the stock exchange flotation of part of Saudi state oil giant Aramco.
It is symbolic because the toxic addiction of the ruling classes to Saudi cash has been lowering British standards of basic decency for generations. The most blatant example was when Tony Blair as Prime Minister intervened directly in the justice system to prevent the pursuit of corruption charges against the stench-ridden arms dealers of BAE, on grounds of “national security”. The myths about the impartiality of British justice have seldom been so comprehensively exposed. Where there is really dirty money, Blair is seldom far away.
The use of British supplied weapons by the Saudis to maim and kill children in Yemen on an industrial scale has penetrated public consciousness despite the best efforts of mainstream media to sideline it, and Jeremy Corbyn was absolutely right to highlight the involvement not just of arms manufacturers but of the British military. The government and royal fawning has been accompanied by an extraordinary deluge of pro-Saudi propaganda from the mainstream media this last two days for Saudi Arabia and its “reforming” Crown Prince.
There is no doubt that Mohammed Bin Salman has shown a ruthless genius in internal power consolidation in Saudi Arabia, with rivals arrested, shaken down or dying by accident. That he is seeking to end corruption appears less probable than that he is seeking to monopolise its proceeds and thus concentrate power, but time will give a clearer picture. There is no evidence whatsoever that Saudi Arabia is stopping its funding of Wahabbist jihadism across the Middle East and South Asia; indeed it has been stepped up by him, as has the bombing of Yemen.
Bin Salman may have a slightly different take on religion to those previously controlling Saudi Arabia, but in fact he is a much more dangerous fanatic. He is an extreme Sunni sectarian, driven by a visceral hatred of Shia Muslims. This is expressed in an aggressive foreign policy, causing a further destabilisation of the Middle East which threatens to tip over into catastrophe, as Bin Salman seeks to turn up the heat against Iran in proxy conflict in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere. That he is doing so in active and functional alliance with Israel is the world’s worst kept diplomatic secret. Saudi/Israeli cooperation in Lebanon and Syria is to my mind the most dangerous global flashpoint at present.
But despite his fawning reception in London, Bin Salman is not having it all his own way. I returned from Doha two weeks ago and in Qatar, Bin Salman has seriously overreached. Angry at Doha’s lack of hostility to Iran, including revenue sharing agreement on cross-border fields, Saudi Arabia has blockaded the small Emirate of Qatar for six months now. The excuse given to the West – that Qatar funds jihadist terrorism – is perhaps the worst example of the pot calling the kettle black in History. But the Saudi demands, including the permanent closure of Al Jazeera, expulsion of Arab dissidents and removal of a Turkish military base, reveal an altogether different agenda.
Qatar has proved much more resilient than anybody expected. The blockade has caused some economic damage but it has been survivable, and the effect has been entirely counter-productive for Bin Salman. Qatar has become closer economically to Iran and has developed new port facilities which reduce import reliance on Saudi Arabia and its satraps. The Saudis had massed troops on the border and threatened invasion, but the Qataris vowed to fight.
Then something remarkable happened which the world mainstream media has almost entirely ignored. Despite Saudi sponsored adverts all over US media portraying named senior Qataris as terrorist sponsors, and despite strong Israeli pro-Saudi lobbying, Donald Trump suddenly called Bin Salman to heel. With Saudi troops massed on the Qatari border, on 30 January the United States signed an agreement with Qatar “to deter and confront any threat to Qatar’s territorial integrity”. This was a massive slap in the face to Bin Salman from Donald Trump, and a result of Tillerson recognising the real threat to the world from Bin Salman’s extreme ambition.
I can only conjecture this received none of the publicity it deserved from the corporate media because it went against the prevailing narrative that Trump can never, in any circumstance, do anything strikingly good, and because it was a blow to Israel. The uber-hawk Clinton would certainly not have crossed Saudi Arabia and Israel in this way. It is an important sign that there is more to Tillerson’s Middle Eastern diplomacy than the stupid decision, motivated by US domestic politics, to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The elite loves Saudi money all around the world. But the UK is unique in allowing that to blind them absolutely to human rights abuses, the appalling bombing of Yemen, and the extreme dangers posed by Bin Salman’s hyperactive regional aggression towards Shia Muslims. We should be used to seeing Tories kowtowing to money by now. But this week makes me still more sick than usual.