The mainstream media have generally attempted to spin the OPCW’s (Office for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) equivocal support for Porton Down’s analysis of the toxin used in the Salisbury attack as if it proves the government’s case against Russia.
Only the report’s executive summary has been released to the public – and that does little more than damn Boris Johnson’s dishonesty – but the full report, including the OPCW’s identification of the chemical, has been circulated to all member states, including the UK.
So if the report in any way confirmed the UK’s suspicions that the source of the toxin was Russia, you’d expect the Tories to be finding every way possible to vindicate the government and hammer home the point.
And the letter sent on Friday by the government’s national security adviser to NATO would be expected to be emphatic – instead, it’s a study in spinning straw to look like silk, from its first page to its last:
Page 1 – the executive summary
The first page of a letter, when you have a strong case and want to demonstrate it to others, will be front-loaded with the hardest-hitting, least arguable points you have to make – you want to sweep your audience off their feet and then carry them with you to a conclusion.
But Mark Sedwill’s letter to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg contains nothing categoric. It leads with the OPCW’s confirmation – but doesn’t even mention Novichok, just “the toxic chemical“.
The strongest thing Sedwill can bring himself to say is that he would like to share:
our assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian state was responsible
‘Highly likely“? A week or so ago, the Times was claiming that the British government had identified the precise facility where the poison was produced – a claim this blog dismissed as nonsense at the time.
It seems the UK’s national security adviser agrees – because he can still only claim the whole, huge nation of Russia is ‘highly likely’ to be the source.
Page 2 – the case
Finally, Novichok gets a mention – but the fact is not mentioned that the only official conclusion that has been issued about the identity of the poison was that it was a Novichok or a “closely-related compound”, which is significantly less specific. Never mind, let’s move on.
The door-handle is mentioned as the location of the highest concentration of the toxin – but not developed as a point. We’ll come back to it shortly.
Then the best that Mr Sedwill seems to have to offer amounts to ‘some stuff Russia did – or might have done – in the past‘.
Beyond that, Sedwill can only say the Russians may have been involved in the assassination of some critics of Russian president Vladimir Putin before they killed Aleksandr Litvinenko.
Page 3 – the close
This is where the weakness of the case becomes screamingly obvious. In a good presentation of a case, hit your audience hard up front; hit them again in the middle; then hit them hard again at the end.
But there’s no hard blow.
The non-state actors
Sedwill says that Russia had a test programme for methods of delivering toxins and to train personnel. Here the ‘door handle’ argument comes back in and is claimed to be significant.
But there have been at least three plots involving the smearing of nerve toxins on door handles – and none of them involved a ‘state actor’:
For example, in Japan in 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo cult killed twenty people using two nerve agents: VX and Sarin. Most victims were sprayed directly with the toxin – but in one unsuccessful case, a door-handle was smeared with VX.
What’s more, if the UK knew poison on door handles was a Russian ‘MO’, it’s curious that this was not mentioned to police for days after the poisoning, while officers with no protective equipment guarded the house and experts isolated locations around the town but did not isolate or test the door until later.
The ‘small stockpiles’
The government and the media have attempted to claim that Russia must have been the perpetrator in Salisbury because, while some other entities might have small amounts of Novichoks, only Russia had ‘stockpiled‘ them.
This claim, of course, ignored the obvious point that these chemicals are supposed to be so deadly that a tiny amount is lethal.
But now, in one of the most ridiculous claims of his letter, Sedwill tells Stoltenberg that Russia had “stockpiled small quantities” – when the very definition of ‘stockpile’ involves large quantities:
Sedwill just admitted that Russia had only small quantities of Novichoks – which can also be said for other groups that are believed to have purchased the toxins on the black market in the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union.
In other words, the thing that was supposed to be exceptional about Russia so that it must have been them – wasn’t.
Sedwill mentions an alleged hacking of email accounts by Russian military intelligence as indicative of their intent to harm their former intelligence officer. But Sergei Skripal was a known defector – the Russians had captured him and then swapped him with the UK for their own captured personnel. It’s obvious that they would continue to take an interest in him and his family, without necessarily having any intention of doing him harm.
That’s all, folks
And really that’s it. Sedwill rounds off by claiming that the Russians consider some of their defectors as targets – but provides no evidence that this was the case for Sergei Skripal.
Even then, he can only say it’s ‘highly likely‘ that they even consider some as targets – he has no proof this is the case or he would state it as fact.
In fact, it’s highly unlikely that the Russians would wish to kill – in an easily identifiable way – a spy they had already interrogated, picked clean and then exchanged in a prisoner swap. It would jeopardies future exchanges, which would not be in their interest.
And then he summarises – but even in his closing summary he can’t say more than ‘we continue to judge‘ that Russia is responsible.
He can’t claim it’s proven. He can’t claim the evidence is overwhelming – because he’s just written a three-page letter summarising his case that is anything but.
But without any justification in the preceding content of the letter, he then claims:
there is no plausible alternative explanation.
The plausible explanations
Sedwill makes his claim – even though there have been three ‘door-handle’ attacks by non-Russian, non-state perpetrators.
He makes it in spite of the now well-known fact that at least two highly-renowned chemistry experts have said it’s easy to make Novichok and any number of reasonably-equipped commercial laboratories could do so safely.
There’s no particular shortage of ‘plausible alternative explanations’.
In other words, Mr Sedwill wrote a whole three-page letter, putting forward the UK’s best case for blaming Russia for the attack – and it’s almost devoid of anything pointing to Russia except suppositions and possible past form far less substantial than the track record of non-state groups in murdering people using nerve agents.
All this after the OPCW has completed its analysis.
If the UK had compelling evidence of the source of the poison, they’d be using it in their appeal to Nato, if not elsewhere – but instead Sedwill actually weakens past claims, by destroying the claims in the Murdoch press that a specific factory of production had been identified.
As the former head of the OPCW commented this week, the UK acted prematurely in apportioning blame for the Salisbury incident far more quickly than could be done legitimately.
And now the Tory government is desperately trying to cover its tracks, the weakness of its case – and yet another example of their complete incompetence and unfitness for office.
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