Porton Down’s chief Gary Aitkenhead has a giant target sign on his back. Remember in 2003, David Kelly was found murdered close to his home just two days after he was summonsed to testify on his statements that Iraq was not in possession of chemical or biological WMD’s.
In 2003 Kelly leaked to British press that, in his professional capacity as former MoD expert on chemical and biological weapons, and as a member of the UN delegation covering such on Iraq, the middle-eastern country was not in possession of WMD’s nor had the capacity to manufacture them rapidly, as Powell would erroneously state. Kelly was also the man behind attempts to straighten out official reports, and remove presumptive, inaccurate, even pernicious data or conclusions which subordinates with ulterior motives had attempted to plant in to UN reports.
So, will Gary Aitkenhead get taken out too? Will he change or amend his statement? So far, today’s statement doesn’t look good, with Sky News trying to spin this one back on course:
Scientists from Porton Down have not been able to establish where the novichok nerve agent used to poison Sergei and Yulia Skripal was made.
Gary Aitkenhead, chief executive of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at Porton Down, told Sky News they were not yet able to prove it was made in Russia.
He said: “We were able to identify it as novichok, to identify that it was military-grade nerve agent.
“We have not identified the precise source, but we have provided the scientific info to Government who have then used a number of other sources to piece together the conclusions you have come to.”
We know at this moment, the pressure’s on. In fact, as we’ve reported, the pressure’s been on for the team down over at Porton Down labs to make sure they can source the alleged Novichok sample to the Russians. And so far, and quite obviously, the team hasn’t been able to do so.
As Craig Murray, writing for Strategic Culture Foundation wrote on March 19th,
<< 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. >>
Meanwhile, today we find these:
Back at the beginning of this whole affair, Johnson and May started making official pronouncements that the agent used in the attack was “of a type developed by Russia” that were reliably in turn ‘interpreted generously’ by British yellow press, that is the BBC and the rest of the like, that ‘Russia was behind the attack’. How could they not, with May’s statement that its use ‘constitutes the first offensive use … since the Second World War’? That would be ‘offensive’ as opposed to, domestic, internally, terrorist, rogue, etc. Foreign governments – that’s the key phrase in understanding the meaning of ‘offensive’. But maybe they just mean it in the general adjectival sense, as ‘abusive’, not in the noun form when referring to a military phase in war. Yes, it’s all in how these words are lawyered. What words haven’t come out of anyone’s mouths are these: ‘Russia has attacked England’. They are gesturing in that direction, but not saying it. Until Johnson basically messed up his script – that’s the closest thing so far, by way of direct logical deduction.
So it’s no surprise that this was before any independent analysis of the alleged sample could be done, and yet still everyone saw where this was headed.
Think about this for a moment. Johnson began his public campaign with supposed assurances from the scientists at the Porton Down lab, that what we were looking at with this Novichok sample was most certainly of Russian origin. At appears his ‘assurances’ were that there would be someone quotable, on or off record, that they had narrowed the particular strain down, without a doubt, to something which only could have been made by the Russians – and not just any Russians, but the Russian government. It seems Johnson proceeded as if this would be the course, after Johnson would come some appropriately worded statement from a man in a white lab-coat, and that would be all the evidence we’d need.
The play was pretty standard, because we’ve seen this pattern of abuse and gas-lighting taken to levels of high diplomacy in the past. Instantly come reminders of Colin Powell at the UN lying about mobile weapons labs making weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We recalled the Dodgy Dossier, that infamous Downing Street memo, and also the Nigerian yellow cake uranium story. We remembered the lies of Bush and Blair, which have still gone unaccounted for. This brought up any number of recent claims about the Syrian government’s use of chemical or biological weapons, which wound up just like Nigerian yellow cake and Iraqi WMD’s – just lies meant to justify bellicosity.
And of course we knew this, and reported it this way from the start. It’s simple – when you have evidence, you present it. If you jump to conclusions, and moreover, jump to the punitive round that comes after those conclusions without presenting the evidence, without due process, without adhering to international norms and treaties which regulate the treating of these matters, then guess what, you’ve just got nothing.
That’s why we reported this Novichok story similarly to how any sensible journalist treated the Downing Street memo – it’s clear that the ‘facts’ are being fixed around the policy. The policy is simple – Russians are simply very bad people that must be contained, and things like transparency, due process, rule of law just don’t apply to those the West accuses of very bad things.
But what’s really nasty this time, and sad really, is the Brits couldn’t even line up the head of their own chemical weapons lab at Porton Down, to go along with the game plan. Was Gary Aitkenhead, chief executive of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at Porton Down, not checking his email? Didn’t he get the memo? Will Gary Aitkenhead go the way of David Kelly, the former MoD employee and UN weapons expert who found no WMD’s in Iraq? Keep in mind that Aitkenhead is in part running an operation which is in direct conflict with England’s own commitments under the non proliferation treaty.
When we understand Craig Murray’s piece – that the phrase used ‘of a type developed by Russia’ was ‘agreed to’ after much deliberation, pressure, and haranguing, doesn’t that tell us enough?
This tells us something pretty glaring as an admission: the labs just want to make their report that the substance’s origin can’t be identified. The word novichok is generic, literally referring to a now defunct program in the 1980’s to make nerve agents from readily available commercial products. This doesn’t work like ‘intellectual property’ where manufacturers go out of there way to use designer molecules or unique analogs meant to tie the product back to them. So what would Aitkenhead’s group hope to find? Well they were pretty clear about the parameters of their work – it would not determine the manufacturer’s origin.
It also forces us to then peer behind the ‘negotiations’ between an over-zealous government, and a government weapons lab’s boss who isn’t about to perjure himself, over what any of these other words means. ‘Military-grade’? Is that the same thing as ‘produced by a military’? Apparently not. The term ‘grade’ has over time been introduced into common parlance, but it refers to any number of things.
At core it is a marketing term; ‘military grade’ means to connote a high quality product. The US military only uses the expression ‘MIL-SPEC’ or ‘MIL-STD’ for weapons and parts meaning that the product is precisely interchangeable with those now in use as the standard, it meets those specs. Novichok is not used by any military, officially, and given its actual meaning – an agent made from readily available commercial products – seems to be something quit different from a military grade weapon. At the very most, a ‘military grade’ weapon means its of the same quality as those demanded by militaries for military use. But perhaps it is not interchangeable, it is just a layman’s expression, giving an opinion about the quality. It does not mean it was produced by or for a military, or as the outcome of a government project towards that aim.
Wouldn’t the normal course of diplomacy between two countries in fact take the opposite course from that of unfounded accusations? The rush to judgment itself speaks volumes.
This was the basic script:
- Tell the public that Novichok is Russian and only the Russians have it. Which means if its Novichok, then it was Russia.
- Do a bunch of hasty and irreparable things beyond the scope of due process in international law and beyond one’s own domestic procedures, like defame whole foreign governments, expel diplomats, increase the Russophobic hysteria campaign, and make sure the west can more and more posture on a war footing.
- Keep telling the public it’s the Russians and that Novichok is Russia and Russia is Novichok.
- Finally when Porton Down labs releases that Novichok indeed is a Russian word and that Russian words are of Russian origin, then claim that this is the laboratory evidence that *this* Novichok sample was made at the Kremlin under Putin’s direct supervision.
Unfortunately, this is not exactly what’s happened. Something went wrong between 3 and 4. Johnson appears to have ‘effed up’ pretty royally and went off script. It’s typical in sales to exaggerate. It’s typical of politicians for identical reasons. But there are moments when the script is meant to be stuck to. It must be simultaneously legally sound but also said in such a tone and within a staged context that the audience is shoved into a box of particular interpretation.