ClandesTime Special – Just When You Thought it was Safe to Go Back in the Novichok
For the last several weeks the British media has been in full panic mode after two people were apparently poisoned in the English town of Amesbury, a few miles from Salisbury. The official story is that the pair found a perfume bottle containing Novichok that was discarded by Russian assassins after the poisoning of the Skripals several months ago. This week I examine the official story, the major problems with it and the likely motives behind what we’ve been told has happened.
Background: The Politics of the World Cup
In December 2010 Russia were awarded the 2018 World Cup – the first time the country has ever hosted the tournament. England also put in a bid to host the 2018 event, but seemed to think that wheeling out David Beckham and Prince William would be enough, and forgot to bribe any FIFA officials. As a result, the committee went for the Russian option.
That very day, the avalanche of propaganda began. The Telegraph published an article predicting that the Russian World Cup would be beset by racism and hooligan violence. In 2014 Russia hosted the Winter Olympics so the British and other Western media launched an operation to make Russia look homophobic (even though gay people can serve in the Russian military). I call this an operation because that’s what it was – in the two months running up to the Winter Olympics it was an almost daily topic for the press.
Naturally, once the Winter Olympics were over the topic got dropped, before resurfacing as part of the build up to the World Cup. Over and over we were told that this would be the most racist, homophobic and violent World Cup ever, solely because it was being hosted by Russia. The Foreign Office weighed in, advising people not to travel to Russia for the tournament, in the desperate hope that there would be half-empty stadiums so they could stand there saying ‘I told you so’. In short, a huge amount of time and effort was dedicated to trying to sabotage this Russian state PR event.
It failed completely.
In reality the 2018 World Cup saw almost no violence whatsoever, and as far as I can tell not a single major incident of racism or homophobia. The ever-reliable Guardian newspaper – a bastion of politically correct racists – expressed their disappointment about this quite early on, and predicted that the Nigeria-Croatia group stage game would open the floodgates of bigotry.
Herein lies the total hypocrisy of saying ‘those slavic bastards are all really racist’. First, that by isolating a people due to their race or nationality, and criticising them all in one breath, the British press were being pretty racist and bigoted. But even more amusing than that is the idea that there wasn’t any racism at the initial games because the players weren’t black enough, and that the properly dark skinned Nigerians could be relied upon to get abused by the racist Russians. This is quite literally the logic the Guardian was employing, with no shame.
About halfway through the tournament one of England’s players, Danny Rose, gave an interview where he said he had told his family not to attend the World Cup because of fears about racism – fears pushed on him by the media, the FA and the Foreign Office. Rose said that he hadn’t experienced any racism at all and would be happy for his family to come out and experience the tournament for themselves. The BBC published this story but gave it very little play – waiting over 24 hours before they even posted it on social media.
After the tournament they published a piece asking ‘Were Perfect Hosts Russia Misjudged?’, the first and only sign of contrition from the BBC after literally dozens of stories saying Russia is a racist, homophobic shithole. However, the backpedalling lasted for exactly one article, because soon after they put out a piece seeking to reinforce the official narrative. The Russian club Torpedo Moscow pulled out of a deal to sign a player, and denied it was because the player was black and some of their more extreme fans had posted some racist nonsense on social media. So while the facts of the story were ‘club decides not to buy player’ everything in the article was about racism, Russian fans all being racist and so on. I cannot conceive of a more obvious attempt to maintain the failed smear campaign.
Not that the World Cup passed without political controversy – there were a few incidents. Two Swiss players, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaquiri got into trouble for their celebrations after scoring goals against Serbia. Both players made eagle shapes with their hands while celebrating their goals, in a reference to the Albanian flag (both players are ethnically Albanian). Naturally, this pissed off some Serbians so they complained to FIFA and the players were reprimanded.
Meanwhile, some Croatian fans were heard shouting racist chants at games and waving banners with fascist symbols on them. There is an ‘ultra’ section of Croatian supporters who have caused quite a lot of trouble over the last few years, painting swastikas on football pitches, that sort of thing. Nothing violent, but still pretty stupid. Indeed, the real scandal is not that a few fans did this at the World Cup, but that FIFA covered it up and let them off with an informal warning, rather than imposing fines or banning those fans from attending any more games.
You might ask – why all these former Yugoslavian countries? Why is it those teams that got embroiled in these political spats in this year’s World Cup? Well, part of the reason is that NATO got into bed with fascists in order to destroy Yugoslavia, and thus one of the legacies of those wars was and is the rebirth of fascism in South-Eastern Europe.
Naturally, the Western media doesn’t want to draw attention to this, just as they avoid the issue of NATO backing a government in Ukraine which includes neo-Nazi elements. So when the Croatian player Domadoj Vida appeared in a video after their quarter-final victory over Russia shouting ‘Glory to Ukraine’ no one made this connection. Vida was told off and the assistant coach who posted the video online was sacked.
So there were some political controversies at this year’s tournament, but none of them involved racist Russian hooligans beating up gay people just for being gay. By contrast, all of them were in some way responses to NATO actions in Europe, but not a single media outlet reported this.
The Amesbury Poisoning
In the absence of anything they could parade around as proof of Russian bigotry and authoritarianism the British were embarrassed. They had to come up with something, not just to make Russia look bad but also to prevent any discussion of their lies. Given how well the Skripal poisoning story went down, they opted to just repeat it.
Over the weekend of June 30th two people – Charles Rowley and Dawn Sturgess – were taken ill in Amesbury, a town just up the road from Salisbury, and from the MOD’s chemical warfare lab Porton Down. Initial reports suggested some kind of drug overdose, and portrayed the pair as a couple of low-down dope fiends even though they lived in a comfortable new build house in a nice area. After a few days it was reported that they had been poisoned with Novichok.
On July 7th – the same day as the Russia-Croatia quarter-final – it was reported in the morning that a policeman had been rushed to hospital with suspected Novichok poisoning. A few hours later, after Russia had lost that game, he was given the all-clear. The next day Dawn Sturgess died in hospital, and the police announced that this is now a murder inquiry. Even though there is no evidence that the pair were deliberately poisoned, the assumption is that someone in the Russian government intentionally attacked two people with no connections to intelligence, politics or international relations.
This story failed to grab the public’s attention in the same way as the Skripal poisoning did, but the media persisted. On July 19th the BBC and others reported that suspects in the Salisbury poisoning had been identified on CCTV, though this was attributed to anonymous sources within the investigation. Since then no CCTV has been presented, no one has been named, there has been no follow up.
Rowley has since recovered enough to give an interview, and he was asked about a perfume bottle found in their home that Porton Down says contained the Novichok that poisoned them. Though the video clips shown by ITN do not include this quote, their reports say Rowley explained that the bottle was still in its box, sealed in cellophane and that they had to use a knife to cut into it. Exactly where this perfume bottle came from – whether they found it or bought it or were given it – is not at all clear.
Despite all the uncertainty, one thing has been consistently reported by all Western media – that Russia is to blame. The most common version of this theory is that the assassins who painted Novichok on the front door of Sergei Skripal’s house then discarded their leftover Novichok somewhere in Salisbury, which Sturgess and Rowley visited the weekend they got sick. This brings us back to the implausible door handle story, which requires us to believe that rather than killing Sergei in an untraceable way that Russian intelligence decided to reveal their decades-old super secret Novichok program in order to assassinate one ex-spy.
And that despite being a double agent that Skripal had no CCTV at his house enabling the authorities to quickly identify the culprits.
And that only one policeman was exposed to this Novichok on the door even though numerous pictures show the police leaning against the door or standing nearby in the days following the Salisbury poisoning.
And that the police never removed the door in order to carry out tests or preserve evidence.
Likewise, this new twist on the story requires us to believe that after painting the door handle with Novichok the Russian state assassins put their perfume bottle of poison back in its box, resealed it with plastic wrapping, and then discarded it somewhere in Salisbury.
And that no one from the police, military or intelligence services found it in the four months between the Salisbury poisoning and the Amesbury poisoning despite extensive searches.
And that somehow two people visiting from another town stumbled across it, took it home, cut off the wrapping and sprayed themselves with the poison inside. Like you would if you found a gift-wrapped box containing perfume in the same town as the most famous poisoning in recent British history.
In short, nothing about this story makes any sense. You’d have to be stupid to believe it.
Nonetheless, the so-called journalists, particularly at the BBC, keep pushing this ridiculous story without paying the slightest attention to these contradictions. Indeed, when the reports came out saying the Salisbury suspects had been identified on CCTV the Security Minister Ben Wallace denounced them on twitter, calling them ‘ill informed and wild speculation’.
This did not stop the BBC from quoting a former Army intelligence officer called Philip Ingram who said that he considered the Salisbury poisoning a ‘professional attack’ designed to send a ‘political message’. Ingram pointed out that it happened two weeks before the Russian presidential election. He said, ‘My view is that the primary reason behind it was to send a message out to dissenters – and Sergei Skripal was chosen because he was based in Salisbury and that gave the Russians plausible deniability by saying, oh it must have leaked from Porton Down, because it’s just up the road’.
Let’s examine this opinion for a moment. First, the idea that the Russian government needs to poison two people in a foreign country in order to send a message to dissidents doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why not kill dissenters in Russia? Furthermore, why do it and thus reveal a super-secret chemical weapons program when they could have just shot Sergei Skripal or killed him in any number of almost untraceable ways? Also, there was no doubt that Putin was going to win that election, regardless of poisoning or not poisoning two people in Britain. He ended up with 77% of the vote, and though video evidence suggests ballot tampering in some places, he would have won even without that. So the motive Ingram attributes is utter twaddle.
However, it’s his second claim that made me laugh and roll my eyes back in my head at warp speed. Ingram said that they picked Sergei because he lived in Salisbury, just down the road from Porton Down, thus providing ‘the Russians’ with plausible deniability. But it has done no such thing – the only suspect the government, the police, MI5 and the national media are willing to consider is Russia. And again, he’s sidestepping this ludicrous notion that Novichok was the only way they could have killed him, or tried to kill him. Finally, there’s an aspect of doublespeak here whereby the Russians supposedly did this to send a message, but did it in such a way that they could deny responsibility. So where does the message-sending end and the plausible deniability begin? You’d have to be a very clever Russian dissenter to understand all this.
Novichok: The Perfume for All Seasons
In the midst of all this we have Novichok – the family of poisons developed by the Soviet Union and then Russia, which is supposedly responsible for the death of Dawn Sturgess and the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, the detective who found them, and Rowley. Even though we’ve been told, over and over, that these are extremely powerful nerve agents, five to eight times more deadly than VX gas, only 20% of the people exposed to the poison have died as a result. All five took several hours, if not longer, to start showing symptoms, in stark contrast to the chemical weapons experts who keep being quoted saying that it acts within minutes, possibly even within seconds.
But that is only the beginning of the problems with the legend of Novichok. For this story to be true the Skripals would have had to both touch the door handle when leaving the house, become poisoned with Novichok, wander around Salisbury for a few hours including having dinner in a restaurant, where they would have come into contact with furniture, napkins, cutlery, staff and customers – all without poisoning even one other person – but still be sufficiently covered in Novichok to infect the police detective who later found them on a bench in the middle of town.
We were told at the time that up to 500 people were at risk of being poisoned but the advice given was to just wash your clothes using a normal washing machine. We were also told that the reason the Skripals didn’t die is that the Novichok on the door handle became diluted by rainwater. The same advice was issued after Rowley and Sturgess became ill, that anyone who thought they might have been Novichoked should just wash their clothes in ordinary water. Likewise, many pictures of the mass decontamination of Salisbury carried out by hundreds of military personnel showed a pretty careless attitude, often with people stood just a few feet away without any protective clothing.
We’re also expected to believe that this crack decontamination team along with the rest of the authorities failed to find the Novichok that poisoned Sturgess and Rowley. At one point the press were reporting that it could last for decades if it was in a sealed container, and hence everyone in Britain was at risk. This was supposedly before they found the perfume bottle, which wasn’t reported found until nearly two weeks after Sturgess and Rowley fell ill. In all likelihood, they found that bottle in their house within 24 hours and simply sat on the information, or this whole story about the perfume bottle is made up.
Adding to the contradictions, the BBC quoted Vil Mirzayanov saying that it couldn’t be the same Novichok used on the Skripals, because it would have decomposed in the months in between the events. He said it was unstable, especially in damp conditions. The BBC have not interviewed him again since those statements, because he isn’t endorsing the official story, that the Novichok was discarded by Russian assassins.
We also have to believe that the assassins were so careless as to discard this super-secret deadly chemical poison, but also really careful to hide it in such a place that it wasn’t found in four months of searches. So where does the carelessness end and the carefulness begin?
In sum, Novichok is both extremely unstable and can be washed away with water, and so stable that it could remain active and deadly for 50 years if it’s in a sealed container. Even though the official story has the container being opened at least twice – first by the Russian assassins who painted the door handle and then four months later by Sturgess and Rowley.
On the same day as the ‘Novichok could last for 50 years’ story the BBC published an article written by Professor Alistair Hay of Leeds of University. Hay has been widely quoted throughout both the Skripal poisoning and the Amesbury poisoning because he’s a relatively high-profile chemical weapons expert. And, it should be noted, a friend and colleague of none other than Dr David Kelly.
So it is perhaps no surprise to find Hay tying himself in knots to try to defend this official story. His article says:
Nerve agents will take effect within minutes or even seconds if inhaled and slightly more slowly if exposure is the result of skin contamination.
So why did none of the five victims show symptoms within minutes? With Rowley it was more like 24 hours between the time he was supposedly poisoned and the time he became sick. Hay has no answer for this. His article went on:
So what do we know about Novichok and how long it remains in the environment?
Regrettably, very little.
There is insufficient scientific data to be certain about the time it takes for this chemical to degrade and for the threat it poses to end.
Some people have suggested that it disappears relatively quickly and that the poisoning of Ms Sturgess and Mr Rowley is therefore a separate attack to the one on the Skripals.
But that would be jumping to conclusions.
Reducing Mirzayanov – a man who worked on Russian chemical weapons programs, blew the whistle on them and then published a book on them – as merely ‘some people’ is deceptive and disrespectful. Even more ridiculous, Hay makes out that believing one of the foremost authorities on Novichok on the face of the planet is ‘jumping to conclusions’ but seems to have no problem with jumping to the opposite conclusion, that this Novichok must be the same batch of Novichok used on the Skripals. Finally, Hay claims that Novichok is one of the more persistent chemical weapons out there (even though it can apparently be destroyed by an everyday domestic washing machine) stating:
The chemical structure of what has been published about Novichok places this chemical in the more persistent category.
Given that most of what has been published about Novichok has been published online, it has no chemical structure. And I’m not convinced that analysing the chemical structure of newspapers containing stories about Novichok tells us anything about Novichok itself. Perhaps he meant ‘the chemical structure of Novichok, which has been published, places this chemical in the more persistent category’. The fact this utterly nonsensical line made it past the chemical weapons expert writing the article, along with several BBC editors, shows that they didn’t care about accuracy or precision, they just wanted an authoritative-sounding piece to substantiate the official story.
As such we’re supposed to believe that Novichok both decomposes quickly, and also very slowly. And that it works very quickly, and also very slowly. And that the Russians carelessly discarded it, but not so carelessly that it was found in the four months before Sturgess and Rowley found it. And that the Russians are the only people who could have made it, even though the chemial formulas have been published and any competent organic chemist could make it. And that it took the police nearly two weeks to find a perfume bottle full of Novichok in one medium-sized house. And that the Russians resealed the perfume bottle in a box and plastic wrapping before carelessly discarding it in a super-secret location that prevented anyone from finding it, and prevented the Novichok from decomposing, until Rowley and Sturgess happened upon it.
Stop me when this story starts to sound implausible. Or unrealistic. Or unbelievable. Or just plain untrue.
I reiterate: you’d have to be stupid to believe this story. And fortunately, it doesn’t look like the public are buying this flagrant attempt to smear Russia. People seem more convinced by the Trump-Putin press conference than by all of this Novichok nonsense. There has been no social media grief vigil for Dawn Sturgess. There is no outcry, no demand for justice.
So let’s invert this story for a moment and see if that makes any more sense:
The Salisbury poisoning was done by British intelligence two weeks before the Russian election in order to promote dissent against the government, and try to ruin the World Cup. When the racist, homophobic violence we’d been promised failed to materialise, and just in time for Trump’s demand that NATO members spend more on their military budgets, we got the second version of the same story. British intelligence deliberately poisoned Rowley and Sturgess to smear Russia during their World Cup. The fact that five people have been poisoned, apparently by the same extremely rare weapon, all within a few miles of Porton Down is not a coincidence, but instead points to the most likely source of the Novichok.
Does that story make any more sense? Not that this is the only other possibility, and not that I’m excluding the Russian state from the list of suspects, I’m just trying to make sense of what has happened.
Subscribe to Spy Culture
If you enjoyed this content then keep up with new posts here at Spy Culture by subscribing via email, RSS, Instagram, tumblr or google+: