Tag Archives: Salisbury

Novichock detection and the Salisbury tourists

Image credit: EU Today.

The Salisbury novichok poisonings are a real can of worms. Media coverage is obviously politically, rather than scientifically, driven. Social and mass media reporting is highly partisan and the scientific components and reports (which are mostly classified) can become slaves to the particular political masters. I find the whole drama a mystery and certainly do not want to tie myself to any of the conspiracy theories, official or otherwise, that are floating around. It’s probably a subject to keep well away from.

However, one aspect intrigues me – the claimed identification of novichock residues in the London hotel room used by the Russian duo, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. In particular, is the identification of the material reliable and, further, is the reporting of this identification factual and reliable?

Media reporting: This generally assumes a positive identification, although at trace levels. The Sun, for example, reported:

“Petrov and Boshirov stayed in the City Stay Hotel in Bow, East London, during their time in the UK.

Cops searching their room two months later on May 4 are said to have discovered minute traces of Novichok, a high-grade military nerve agent created by Soviet scientists.”

And later:

“police found traces of Novichok in the hotel room in which the pair stayed for two nights.”

Similarly, the Independent reported:

“Investigators later found traces of novichok in their room at the City Stay Hotel.

They said the amount was too low to present a health risk but are appealing for any hotel guests who stayed there between 4 March and 4 May to contact investigators.”

Since Petrov and Boshirov surfaced and were interviewed the media coverage has become even more partisan and the discovery of these traces of novichock is being portrayed as even more definite.

The police reportIn the absence of an official scientific report of the analyses this is the best we have to go on:

“On 4 May 2018, tests were carried out in the hotel room where the suspects had stayed. A number of samples were tested at DSTL at Porton Down. Two swabs showed contamination of Novichok at levels below that which would cause concern for public health. A decision was made to take further samples from the room as a precautionary measure, including in the same areas originally tested, and all results came back negative. We believe the first process of taking swabs removed the contamination, so low were the traces of Novichok in the room.

Following these tests, experts deemed the room was safe and that it posed no risk to the public.”

This raises more questions, for the scientifically inclined, than the answers, seemingly, provided:

  • How many samples were taken – 2 positives is probably a low proportion of the total measurements?
  • Where were the sample sites located in the room
  • How do the low levels reported compare with the detection limits for the methods used?
  • Was the decision to take further samples based on lack of confidence in the results form the first sampling?
  • Again, how many further samples were taken and from what sites in the room?

I suspect that the two positive detections were probably false positives which the analyst had low confidence in. It is likely many samples were taken from the room so that two positives near, or at, the level of detection is not a good result. I suspect experts would challenge this evidence in court.

Absence of evidence is not proof of innocence

I should stress that in questioning the results I am not trying to argue for the innocence of the two guys. After all, a true professional would not have contaminated the hotel room. If the evidence is genuine, though, it may be more suggestive of a non-professional or non-state actor than a professional hitman.

The problem, though, at this stage is that all the other evidence made public is circumstantial and unlikely to stand up in court. The claimed positive detection of novichock-type compounds in the hotel room could be the key to a successful conviction so any doubts should be removed.

Novichock compounds

The following presents my views on the problems of detecting novichock compounds at low levels and why I think we should not accept the current media reports as positive evidence. A court would have to look very critically at the actual data and detection methods used. At the moment the political and police statements could be expressing far more confidence in the reported findings than is actually warranted by the real evidence.

An Iranian paper from two years ago, Hosseini et al., (2016) provides information on the synthesis, structure and detection of novichock-type compounds. It is probably the most up-to-date information publicly available and its citation is

Hosseini, S. E., Saeidian, H., Amozadeh, A., Naseri, M. T., & Babri, M. (2016). Fragmentation pathways and structural characterization of organophosphorus compounds related to the Chemical Weapons Convention by electron ionization and electrospray ionization tandem mass spectrometry. Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry, 30(24), 2585–2593.

The paper describes the micro-synthesis of two compounds that are listed under Schedule 2.B.04 of the Chemical Weapons Convention. These are:

  • Compound 3: N-[Bis(dimethylamino)methylidene]-P-methylphosphonamidic fluoride, and
  • Compound 4: O-alkyl N-[bis(dimethylamino)-
    methylidene]-P-methylphosphonamidate Novichok derivatives

The figure shows the chemical structures of these compounds.

The F atom in compound 3 is replaced by an organic group (R) to form the novichok derivative. As this can be either of a wide range of organic groups (the authors list nine different groups for derivatives they synthesised) the novichock-type compounds include a range of different chemicals with differing levels of toxicity.

This is why more official reports on the Salisbury poisonings refer to novichock-type nerve agents and not just novichock.

Before any clever reader decides to use this paper to synthesize their own samples of these or similar compounds I must stress the warning provided by the authors:

“It should be noted that, due to the extreme toxicity of these materials, the separation and purification of CWC-related chemical are very difficult and therefore should be carried out only by a trained professional in an efficient fume cupboard equipped with an active charcoal filtration system.”

Detection of novichok-type compounds

Mass spectrometry methods are used for detection. This involves breaking up the molecules into fragments using an electron ionizer (EI). These molecular fragments are then separated according to mass and charge and the amounts of each detected in a mass spectrometer (MS) to produce an EI-MS spectrum.

Each compound has its own “fingerprint” – a pattern of peaks defined by the mass/charge (m/z) of each molecular fragment and the relative intensity of each peak. The figure below shows the EI-MS “fingerprints” for compound 3 and the O-ethyl derivative of compound 4.

We can see why the detection of a compound relies not only on a single peak but also other characteristic peaks and their relative sizes.

For example, the largest peak (H) at m/z = 71 occurs in both compounds. This is because the molecular fragment (see the chemical structure to the right) responsible for it is produced by ionization of both compounds. So that peak cannot be used alone to differentiate between the two compounds. Identification of a specific compound requires locating all the major characteristic peaks and ensuring their relative intensities are correct.

This is straightforward where the compounds are available at relatively high concentrations and the combination of mass spectroscopy with gas or liquid chromatography helps to remove some of the background chemicals. The ability of UK experts to conclude that the type of novichok used to poison the Skripals is the same as that in the fake scent bottle used by the second victims (Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley) means that they were able to recover samples containing the nerve agent at sufficiently high concentrations.

But, at low concentrations one may simply not be able to find all the characteristic peaks, and identification using just the most intense peaks is not so reliable. For example, compounds 3 and 4 could not have been differentiated at low concentrations if all that could be detected were very small peaks at m/z =  71, 135 and 150. Yet that is the situation when searching for trace levels and one is always conscious that the peaks that are detected could be due to low levels of a completely different compound.

Conclusions

I suspect the description of the two possibly positive samples in the London Hotel as trace levels or “at levels below that which would cause concern for public health” were interpretations driven by “wishful thinking” and exaggerated confidence and not surety. After all, scientists often face such pressures when their political masters are looking for results to fit a preconceived narrative. It is easy to be persuaded in such situations. And it is tempting for both scientists and police to describe their findings in a more confident way when presenting to the media than they would during peer discussions in the laboratory or office.

My suspicions are supported by the fact that the total number samples taken from this hotel room must have been quite large so that makes the reliability of the positive values at such low levels for only two samples quite suspect (although information on locations of sampling sites would help this interpretation).

Similar articles

Advertisements

Political interference prevents investigators from considering the “bleeding obvious”

Official investigations contaminated by political pressure are hardly likely to be transparent or give reasonable and rational answers to problems. Once politics is in the driving seat the political aims become the driving force behind any conclusions.

The “novichok” poisonings

Many people see this as the basic problem with the investigation of the nerve agent poisonings in Salisbury and Amesbury, UK. Political forces took this over in the very early days and used the incidents to precipitate a very serious international crisis. Claims were made without evidence – and now it is hard to see how the investigation can ever recover from such a high-level interference.

Right at the beginning, many people drew attention to the fact that these accidents occurred only kilometres away from a government defence laboratory which holds stocks of nerve agents. I did myself – see Where could you get a nerve agent in Salisbury? and Time for a serious auditing of Porton Down’s nerve agent stocks?

Surely one of the first lines of enquiry in these investigations should have been an audit of nerve agent stocks held at the Porton Down Laboratory and investigation of possible scenarios for their accidental loss or even purposeful stealing. Not to do so, and instead launch an international crisis could at best be interpreted as missing the “bleeding obvious.” At worst it could be seen as an intentional promotion of an international crisis.

Yes, I know, there will be people who claim there was no need for such an audit. That we should just trust the professionalism of the staff and security procedures in force.

Well, I am not that easily fooled. People who use this argument should read the latest Annual Report and Accounts (2017/208) from this Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. Here is a pdf copy for you.

On Page 55 a section Incident investigations  reports (my emphasis):

“We actively promote the reporting of near misses and incidents. We investigate incidents proportionately based on the potential the incident could have had as well as in balance with the actual harm or damage caused. The responsible business unit investigates all incidents classified as ‘medium’. Incidents classified as ‘high’ are subject to an independent, corporate investigation.

During the year, we had 53 incidents reported of which 42 were investigated as high potential/actual incidents19 safety, seven business, 12 HR, two whistle-blowing and two security. Six of the safety incidents were reportable to the Health and Safety Executive under RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations). Of the 11 incidents not investigated: eight were reclassified as ‘medium’ and investigated within the Division or Function; two HR allegations were dropped as on review there was no case to answer; and, the final incident was investigated by an external partner.”

Of course, such annual reports are hardly transparent. They are more likely to cover up problems than be honest about them, And the bureaucratic language helps such cover-ups.

But, if nothing else, this report shows that serious”incidents” are possible, even likely, for such a laboratory. Only a fool, or a politically directed investigator would miss out this obvious first step – checking out a local source.

Mind you, I have not seen anything official (who has?) and a final report may actually detail such an audit. Maybe investigators have been able to resist the political pressure to the extent that they did not miss this obvious first step.

Malaysian airline MH17 tragedy report

The same provision cannot be made for the “official” investigation of the Malaysian MH17 tragedy in eastern Ukraine where a commercial airliner was shot down in July 2014 with the death of all 298 crew and passengers on board. The “official” reports have been published.

I have written about the Final Technical Report in the article  MH17: Final technical report.

Readers are no doubt aware of the scenario the investigators have “gone with.” In my view, they “went with ” this scenario form early on – to the extent they put all their efforts into “proving” their favourite scenario and not objectively considering all the evidence. This for political reasons.

Investigators in the Russian Federation have complained that the official investigation team have refused to consider the information they provided on raw radar data and declassified data on the possible missile used. However, I think the negligence of the investigators was even more fundamental.

They missed completely the first obvious step, the “bleeding obvious” step of actually auditing and checking the BUK missile systems known to be on the ground in eastern Ukraine at the time. I do not argue they should not have considered other scenarios, even one as wild as a system being purposely brought across the border and returned after the tragedy all within a day. But the negligence in making the first obvious checks is so blatant one can only assume political interference.

The fact is that BUK missile systems were in the hands of both sides in this conflict at the time. The “rebel” forces had acquired these from the Ukrainian army because of capture of equipment and personnel defections (Ukrainian President Poroshenko claimed a 30% defection rate and his estimate will be low). The missiles on these systems were of an older style still in use in Ukraine but which had been replaced by modern versions in the Russian Federation.

So, an obvious first step – audit the existing BUK systems (yes, I know this would mean the investigation team would need to interact with rebel forces – but come on. This is basic – how could an independent investigator object?). Rebel territory was being mercilessly bombed from the air at the time so those forces certainly had a motive to use such a weapon. (Although the fact that Dutch intelligence had already determined the BUK system in rebel hands was inoperative may explain some of this negligence see Flight MH17 in Ukraine – what do intelligence services know?)

The Ukrainian armed forces had more of these systems and it is likely that at least some of these were operative. Given that the Kiev government was promoting an argument that the Russian armed forces may have been attempting to operate a “no-fly zone” in eastern Ukraine at the time it is easy to see how the pro-Kiev military could also have mistakenly identified a high-flying commercial airliner as a Russian military plane.

But a big problem with this investigation is that the Ukraine government was part of the investigation team. They had veto rights on the publication of findings and could easily have prevented investigation of any scenario which implicated their forces.

We should all learn to be sceptical about politically driven investigations. At least critically read the reports and not rely on media coverage – well-known for distortion and political agendas. And especially look for examples where investigators purposely ignore the “bleeding obvious.”

Similar articles

Time for a serious auditing of Porton Down’s nerve agent stocks?


Amesbury, the site of the latest UK nerve agent poisoning is only 12 minutes drive from Porton Down – which carries stocks of these types of nerve agents.

Isn’t it about time the UK authorities took a serious look at Porton Down – like a rigid auditing of their stocks of nerve agents (especially of the “novichock” group)? In fact, this should have been the first action of investigators – and not just accept assurances from staff.

The “Russia did it!” excuse seems more and more like the story of the dog who ate the homework.

Salisbury, the site of the UK nerve agent poisoning 4 months ago is only 18 minutes drive from Porton Down – which carries stocks of these types of nerve agents.

See also: Where could you get a nerve agent in Salisbury?

Similar articles

Mainstream media-political alliance gets vindictive

Hala Jaber, highly Respected Middle East correspondent and author of  The Flying Carpet of Small Miracles: A Woman’s Fight to Save Two Orphans.” Image Credit: Goodreads.

Several things have come together in the last few months – centred around news about the war in Syria, chemical weapons, the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury and the ongoing geopolitical information war:

  • Government propaganda and claims have become more aggressive – particularly from the UK and USA;
  • Syria and chemical weapons have become central to the Russophobic arguments of these governments;
  • The mainstream media has enthusiastically and unquestioningly promoted these claims;
  • Alternative media, journalists and critics of this propaganda and government policies are being singled out for personal attack, and
  • Readers and viewers are aggressively being directed away from alternative news sources.

OK,  readers here will have picked up on the tone of some of my recent posts so will not be surprised that I think this way. But, let’s be clear, it is not only me.

Journalists also concerned

The highly respected Middle East correspondent, Hala Jaber, who used to work for the London Times wrote in a series of Tweets last week (see @HalaJaber – 18:36 UTC – 19 Apr 2018):

“In my entire career, spanning more than three decades of professional journalism, I have never seen MSM resolve to such ugly smear campaigns & hit pieces against those questioning mainstream narratives, with a different view point, as I have seen on Syria, recently.

This is a dangerous manoeuvre a witch hunt in fact, aimed not only at character assassination, but at attempting to silence those who think differently or even sway from mainstream & state narrative.

It would have been more productive, to actually question the reason why more & more people are indeed turning to alternative voices for information & news, than to dish out ad hominem smears aimed at intimidating by labelling alternative voices as conspirators or apologists.

The journalists, activists, professors & citizens under attack are presenting an alternative view point. Surely, people are entitled to hear those and are intelligent enough to make their own judgments. 

Or is there an assumption, (patronizing, if so), that the tens of thousands of people collectively following these alternative voices are too dumb & unintelligent to reach their own conclusions by sifting through the mass information being dished at them daily from all sides? 

Like it or hate it, agree or disagree with them, the bottom line is that the people under attack do present an alternative view pointLeast we forget, no one has a monopoly on truth. Are all those currently launching this witch hunt suggesting they do?”

Moon of Alabama provides an excellent summary of recent events – far better than what I tried to do with the same material. So I will just quote from their article – The Media War On Truthful Reporting And Legitimate Opinions – A Documentary.

The media smears begin

Remember PropOrNot?

“In fall 2016 a smear campaign was launched against 200 websites which did not conform to NATO propaganda.”

They even provided a browser add-on which would warn you that you were reading material from a website they classified as a “Russian propaganda outlet.” Despite being promoted by some of the mainstream media it was considered a bit of a joke –  independent writers and sources who missed out on the classification were somewhat pissed off.

It still exists as a promoter of extreme Russophobic views on Twitter ().

Government propaganda gets childish and journalists become stenographers

Then came the infamous “dashboard’ which the UK and US governments appear to be using as a source of claims for increased activity of “Russian bots.”

“The neoconservative Alliance For Securing Democracy declared that any doubt of the veracity of U.S. propaganda stories discussed on Twitter was part of a “Russian influence campaign”. Their ‘dashboard‘ shows the most prominent hashtags and themes tweeted and retweeted by some 600 hand-selected but undisclosed accounts. (I have reason to believe that @MoonofA is among them.) The dashboard gave rise to an endless line of main-stream stories faking concern over alleged “Russian influence”. The New York Times published several such stories including this recent one:”

This is from that NYT article  (Trump Declines to Add Sanctions Against Russians, Contradicting Haley) discussing the recent illegal FUKUS missile attack on Syria:

“Russia did not respond militarily to the Friday strike, but American officials noted a sharp spike in Russian online activity around the time it was launched.

A snapshot on Friday night recorded a 2,000 percent increase in citing the hashtag #isupportsyria on Russian troll networks, according to a senior official at the Department of Homeland Security who was not authorized to discuss the issue by name and spoke on condition of anonymity. Additionally, the official said, the known Russian hashtag #SyriaStrikes had a 4,443 percent increase in activity while another, #Damsucs, saw a 2,800 percent jump.”

The use of such “dashboard” data is, of course, disingenuous. The Times attributed the “bot” claims to Tyler Q. Holton. the spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security:

“One suspects that Holton used the bizzare statistic of the infamous ‘Dashboard‘ created by the neoconservative, anti-Russian lobby. The dashboard creators asserted that the use of certain hashtags is a sign of ‘Russian bots’. On December 25 the dashboard showed that Russian trolls and bots made extensive use of the hashtag #MerryChristmas to undermine America’s moral.


bigger

One of the creators of the dashboard, Clint Watts, has since confessed that it is mere bullshit:

“I’m not convinced on this bot thing,” said Watts, the cofounder of a project that is widely cited as the main, if not only, source of information on Russian bots. He also called the narrative “overdone.”

But, worse still – not only do we get governments making such stupid statements, we are now getting journalist reporting them without any questions:

As government spokesperson Holton is supposed to spout propaganda that supports the government’s policies. But propaganda is ineffective when it does not adhere to basic realities. Holton is bad at his job. Baker, the NYT author, did even worse. He repeated the government’s propaganda bullshit without pointing out and explaining that it obviously did not make any sense. He  used it to further his own opinionated, false narrative. It took a day for the Times to issue a partial correction of the fact free tale.”

This as a concern – these days the media is simply repeating government propaganda without any of the questioning we should expect from journalists. Some media critics are now describing these “journalists” as “stenographers.”

Personal attacks

“Last December the Guardian commissioned a hatchet job against Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett. Beeley and Bartlett extensively reported (vid) from the ground in Syria on the British propaganda racket “White Helmets”. The Guardian piece defended the ‘heros’ of the White Helmets and insinuated that both journalists were Russian paid stooges.”

Both these independent reporters have provided important eye-witness reports from Syria and done much to expose how our mainstream media misrepresents the situation. I referred to Vanessa Beeley’s reports in my articles Anti-Syrian propaganda and the White HelmetsWhite Helmets dupes New Zealand government? and The first casualty . .

“In March the self proclaimed whistle-blower and blowhard Sibel Edmonds of Newsbud launched a lunatic broadside smear attack(vid) against Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett. The Corbett Report debunked (vid) the nonsense. (The debunking received 59,000 views. Edmonds public wanking was seen by less than 23,000 people.)”

Recently government and media apologists have used the “fact-checking” site Polygraph.info. (a project of the CIA propaganda outlets Voice of America and Radio Free Europe):

“On April 4 the Polygraph wrote a smear piece about the Twitter account Ian56 (@Ian56789). Its headline: Disinfo News: Doing the Kremlin’s Work: A Fake Twitter Troll Pushes Many Opinions:
“Ben Nimmo, the Senior Fellow for Information Defense at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, studies the exploits of “Ian56” and similar accounts on Twitter. His recent article in the online publication Medium profiles such fake pro-Kremlin accounts and demonstrates how they operate.”

…Nimmo, and several other dimwits quoted in the piece, came to the conclusion that Ian56 is a Kremlin paid troll, not a real person. Next to Ian56 Nimmo ‘identified’ other ‘Russian troll’ accounts:

“Ben Nimmo @benimmo – 10:50 UTC – 24 Mar 2018 One particularly influential retweeter (judging by the number of accounts which then retweeted it) was @ValLisitsa, which posts in English and Russian. Last year, this account joined the troll-factory #StopMorganLie campaign.”

Nimmo’s employer, the Atlantic Council, is a lobby of companies who profit from war.”

The crude level of these claims is indicated by the fact that @ValLisitsa is the twitter account of  Valentina Lisitsa, a famous American-Ukrainian pianist.

“Yes, she sometimes tweets in Russian language to her many fans in Russia and the Ukraine. Is that now a crime? The videos of her performances on Youtube have more than 170 million views. It is absurd to claim that she is a ‘Russian troll’ and to insinuate that she is taking Kremlin money to push ‘Russian troll’ opinions.”

Polygraph.info wrote:

““Ian56,” it seems, is not a real person. He (or she) does seem to be the creation of a flesh and blood Russian, experts say, not a “bot” but a “troll.””

But  is, in fact, the Twitter account of a very real British Pensioner, Ian Shilling. He was interviewed by Sky News:

I should point out this definition of a bot:

“A Twitter bot is a type of bot software that controls a Twitter account via the Twitter API. The bot software may autonomously perform actions such as tweeting, retweeting, liking, following, unfollowing, or direct messaging other accounts.”

Yet these interviewers ask a flesh and blood person if he is a bot! Also, they had the hypocrisy to suggest he may not be carefully checking out the veracity of the stories he retweets – a question they never put to the government spokespersons and media journalists who make these unverified and stupid claims all the time.

Academics in the frame

“On April 14 Murdoch’s London Times took personal aim at the members of a group of British academics who assembled to scientifically investigate dubious claims against Syria. Their first investigation report though, was about the Skripal incident in Salisbury. The London Times also targeted Bartlett and Beeley. The piece was leading on page one with the headline: “Apologists for Assad working in universities”. A page two splash and an editorial complemented the full fledged attack on the livelihood of the scientists.


bigger

Tim Hayward, who initiated the academic group, published a (too) mild response.”

The Guardian channels UK government propaganda

A Guardian article, Russia spread fake news via Twitter bots after Salisbury poisoning – analysis, uncritically repeated UK government claims and in the process smeared Ian Shilling (see video above) and Maram Susil, a Syrian-born Australian scientist, as “Russian bots” claiming:

“Russia used trolls and bots to unleash disinformation on to social media in the wake of the Salisbury poisoning, according to fresh Whitehall analysis. Government sources said experts had uncovered an increase of up to 4,000% in the spread of propaganda from Russia-based accounts since the attack,– many of which were identifiable as automated bots.

But civil servants identified a sharp increase in the flow of fake news after the Salisbury poisoning, which continued in the runup to the airstrikes on Syria.

One bot, @Ian56789, was sending 100 posts a day during a 12-day period from 7 April, and reached 23 million users, before the account was suspended. It focused on claims that the chemical weapons attack on Douma had been falsified, using the hashtag #falseflag. Another, @Partisangirl, reached 61 million users with 2,300 posts over the same 12-day period.”

The Guardian journalist who authored this story responded to criticism of her article with the tweet:

“As I make very clear in the story, that’s the analysis of British government cyber experts – with whom you are quite welcome to disagree.”

I think that sums up the complete abandonment of their job by many mainstream media and why the term “stenographer” to describe them is so justified.

The Sky News interview of one of these “Russian Bots” Ian Shilling is shown above. He also published a written response:

“I have been campaigning against the Neocons and the Neocon Wars since January 2002, when I first realised Dick Cheney and the PNAC crowd were going to use 9/11 as the pretext to launch a disastrous invasion of Iraq. This has nothing to do with Russia. It has EVERYTHING to do with the massive lies constantly told by the UK & US governments about their illegal Wars of Aggression. “

The other “Russian bot” in the Guardian story, Maram Susli (@Partisangirl) posted her own video debunking the Guardian:

Partisangirl also showed that the government analysts and the Guardian couldn’t even get their figures right – again illustrating how journalists simply do not do any checking:

Ian Shilling (@Ian56789) posted a similar tweet illustrating how the figures given for his tweets were also highly inflated.

The take-home message

The Moon of Alabama article started with this quote about the Spanish civil war from George Orwell:

“Early in life I have noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie. I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’.
George Orwell, Looking back on the Spanish War, Chapter 4″

So it is fitting that Moon of Alabama finished this excellent article with the comments:

“The governments and media would like to handle the war on Syria like they handled the war in Spain. They want reports without “any relation to the facts”. The media want to “retail the lies” and eager propagandists want to “build emotional superstructures over events that never happened.”

The new communication networks allow everyone to follow the war on Syria as diligently as George Orwell followed the war in Spain in which he took part. We no longer have to travel to see the differences of what really happens and what gets reported in the main stream press. We can debunk false government claims with freely available knowledge.

The governments, media and their stenographers would love to go back to the old times when they were not plagued by reports and tweets from Eva, Vanessa, Ian, Maram and Sarah or by blogposts like this one. The vicious campaign against any dissenting report or opinion is a sorry attempt to go back in time and to again gain the monopoly on ‘truth’.

It is on us to not let them succeed.”

Similar articles

Novichock – a marketing ploy?

A new line of sunflower oil on Russian supermarket shelves.
Image credit: 

I came across this on twitter – a new line of sunflower oil launched on the Russian market. The labels claim the product is conducive to a long life and has a special flavour.

Perhaps the events in Salisbury are simply a marketing trick. Perhaps some old hacks from the KGB (prominently displayed on the label) have gone into the (sunflower) oil business.

Given the lack of transparency in the investigation and the confusing information we do have, I simply have not been able to make head nor tail of this whole event. None of the conspiracy theories seem at all credible

At this stage, this is the best explanation for the Salisbury poisoning I can find.

If nothing else it shows the Russian people certainly aren’t panicking and have not lost their sense of humour.

Similar articles

OPCW on Salisbury poisoning – one step forward, two back?

Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons headquarters in The Hague. Image credit: Prensa Latina Ready Syria to Cooperate with Organization Against Chemical Weapons

Chemical weapons are a current hot topic. We are bombarded daily with media reports mentioning them. They seem to be driving an increase in international tensions. And all sorts of conspiracy theories are circulating.

In the midst of the fast-moving narratives and claims, sensible people are asking for evidence. That is where the international watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) should come in. So I welcome two bits of news which may help in the search for evidence;

  1. The completion of the OPCW work requested by the UK to provide independent confirmation of the UK findings on the toxic chemical behind the poisoning of three people (Sergei and Yulia Skripal, a father and daughter, and a local police officer Nicholas Bailey) in Salisbury, UK, and
  2. The beginning of the work of an OPCW investigation team, in the Syrian city of Douma where there are claims of a chemical weapons attack.

I will only discuss the OPCW report resulting from the UK request on the Salisbury poisonings – and then only the summary of the report. The UK agreed to declassify the summary but not the full report. We will have to wait until another member state releases the full report – if they ever do. I understand it is “voluminous.”

The summary can be downloaded from the OPCW –  SUMMARY OF THE REPORT ON ACTIVITIES CARRIED OUT IN SUPPORT OF A REQUEST FOR TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE BY THE UNITED KINGDOM OF GREAT BRITAIN AND NORTHERN IRELAND (TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE VISIT TAV/02/18)  These bureaucrats love long titles, don’t they?

It’s only two pages long and really only contains two important paragraphs worth discussing.

Confirmation of UK findings on “identity of the toxic chemical”

This was all the UK requested of the OPCW – that they provide an independent confirmation of the UK findings on the toxic chemical used. Unfortunately the OPCW was not given the mandate to make a full investigation of the incident (as they are now doing in Douma, Syria).

So their findings are (apparently) summarised in paragraph 10:

“The results of analysis by the OPCW designated laboratories of environmental and biomedical samples collected by the OPCW team confirm the findings of the United Kingdom relating to the identity of the toxic chemical that was used in Salisbury and severely injured three people. “

I have two comments on this paragraph.

1: It has been widely misreported. Ideologically driven news media have widely extended the “confirmation” to the UK narrative – the claim that a specific “novichock-type” chemical was used, that it originated in Russia – or even to claim that the OPCW is confirming the whole UK political story. The politicians have, of course, encouraged these misinterpretations. Boris Johnson, UK Foreign Secretary, has claimed a confirmation that the chemical “was a military grade nerve agent – a Novichok,”  (wrong) and that “there remains no alternative explanation about who was responsible – only Russia has the means, motive and record “(see Salisbury incident: Foreign Secretary statement on OPCW report).

Oh well, you know how to detect when politicians are lying, don’t you? Well, we should add “when they give a press release” to “their lips moving.”

An example of media misrepresentation is this from the Wall Stree Journal –  The report puts beyond doubt that it was highly likely Russia carried out the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter, using a nerve agent “of high purity”

This is just another example of fake news – especially considering that the UK simply asked for confirmation of their findings on the identity of the chemical used.

2: This paragraph does not actually identify the toxic chemical. It simply confirms the UK findings, without saying what these were. And it goes on to say in paragraph 12:

“The name and structure of the identified toxic chemical are contained in the full classified report of the Secretariat, available to States Parties.”

That is not much use, is it? Apparently they do have specific information about the toxic chemical but they are going to keep it secret. or more specifically the UK is because they could have allowed declassification of the whole report – in the “interests of the transparency” that Boris Johnson claims to support.

Well, let’s look further into this summary to see if we can get an idea of what exactly the OPCW is confirming.

The toxic chemical “identified by the UK”

The most informative section of the summary for this is paragraph 7:

“The team was briefed on the identity of the toxic chemical identified by the United Kingdom and was able to review analytical results and data from chemical analysis of biomedical samples collected by the British authorities from the affected individuals, as well as from environmental samples collected on site.”

Seriously! We are told that the OPCW investigation confirmed the UK expert findings – but we are not told what those findings are – unless we have a security clearance!

I agree – we can vaguely infer what those findings are from the statements of politicians like Theresa May and Boris Johnson. But, as a chemist and not a politician, I would actually like to know what the expert findings of the scientists at Porton Down are.

Findings like these get massaged when they are transferred to politicians and then issued to the media.  Scientists are often put in the position of having their findings misrepresented, exaggerated or downplayed for political interests – and as the misrepresentation is carried out by their political masters they have no comeback. They are effectively silenced.

So, I would love to see the technical findings from the Porton Down scientists, and the technical findings of the OPCW team. Currently, I have no way of reading these unless at some stage another member state (not the UK which classified the report) releases the full document.* I sincerely hope this happens. In this respect, Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, has commented:

“We are currently engaged in a detailed study of this report, there are very interesting moments that arise from reading this document.We will in the very near future try to make them public when experts, both ours and the relevant departments, will deal with this rather voluminous document.”

At the moment all I have is a summary which is strangely very uninformative about the facts. I find its presentation circular – confirmation of the “findings” but the only revelation of the findings is to refer back to the unpublished UK “findings.” Mind you, such circular arguments are commonly used by bureaucrats involved in issues which have political consequences.

So, one step forward. The OPCW has independently confirmed the chemical and structural nature of the toxic chemical used in Salisbury. Good.

But, no specific or scientific information on the very subject the OPCW was asked to confirm – the nature of the toxic chemical used in the Salisbury poisonings.

That, in my view, is two steps back.

*Note: There is already alternative “confidential” information circulating in the media that the Swiss laboratory involved in the “confirmation” of the toxic chemical in the UK samples produced results not mentioned in the OPCW report. These sort of rumours will inevitably continue while the full report remains secret.

Similar articles

 

 

Where could you get a nerve agent in Salisbury?

Conspiracy theorists, especially those in the mainstream media and political spheres, seem to have no real imagination these days. Just look at how they have responded to news of the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, his daughter Yulia and police Sergeant Nick Bailey in Salisbury, UK, last week.

Isn’t it just too easy to claim “Putin did it” these days? Yes, Skripal is a Russian and former spy for the UK MI6 who ended up in the UK as part of a spy exchange. And yes, there is a compulsion for western media and politicians to demonise the Russian Federation and their president every chance they get. But isn’t that particular conspiracy theory rather thoughtless – the conspiracy theory you automatically go with when you haven’t the energy or skills to actually look for something in the way of evidence.

As we would say in New Zealand – a “Clayton’s conspiracy theory.” The conspiracy theory you use when you don’t have a conspiracy theory! (For the uninformed, this comes from an old advertisement for alcohol-free drinks).

Why can’t the news media, seeing they are only speculating at this stage anyway, look at little closer to home for the source of the nerve agent used in the poisonings?

Only a short distance from Salisbury (8.1 km if you are a crow or an 18 min drive is Porton Down. This is the site of the UK Ministry of Defence’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory – known for over 100 years as one of the UK’s most secretive and controversial military research facilities. And well-known for their secretive work on chemical and biological weapons.

The map above shows how quickly one would get to Porton Down from Salisbury and back

Even closer (only a 15 min drive, or 6 km for crows) is the Defence Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Centre (the Defence CBRN Centre or DCBRNC for short) at Winterbourne Gunner in Wiltshire. It is a tri-service site, with the Royal Air Force being the lead service. The centre is responsible for all training issues relating to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) defence and warfare for the UK’s armed forces.

The map below shows how short the trip is to this facility from Salisbury.

Porton Down has barely been mentioned in the media reports of this poisoning – except more recently because experts from Porton Down are participating in the inquiry. But it seems to me rather fanciful that Russophobe conspiracy theorist Luke Harding should rave on about a weapons lab in Moscow that might not even exist as a possible source of the nerve agent and ignore this other source much, much, closer to Salisbury (see Russia’s Lab X: poison factory that helped silence Soviets’ critics).

Hopefully, the current inquiry will be open and come to a satisfactory conclusion (unlike the Litvinenko inquiry) and, given the murky world of spies and ex-spies, nothing would surprise me.

However, I do wish our mainstream media could surprise me once in a while by refusing to follow the obligatory narratives and perhaps do some speculating using real evidence.

Similar articles