BRIAN TOOHEY. Teresa May’s rush to judgment on nerve agents

The British Prime Minister Teresa May failed to produce any evidence that the Russian state used a nerve agent called Novichok before she announced measures to punish the Kremlin.  At least Tony Blair famously produced a “dodgy dossier” claiming Saddam Hussein possessed a deadly arsenal of chemical and biological weapons. The Bush White House peddled similar nonsense masquerading as “intelligence”.  Politicians and journalists around the world promptly accepted this rubbish as justification for the disastrous invasion of Iraq 2003.   There is a risk a new rush to judgement could now be occurring. 

At least May is on solid ground in claiming that toxic chemical was used in the attempted murder of the former Soviet double agent  Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury or March 4 .  However, she did not show that Soviet Union or Russia had produced Novichok – something experts at the British chemical weapons laboratories at Porton Down and the official international Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had earlier queried. In 2013, OPCW’s Scientific Advisory Board said it had ‘”insufficient information to comment on the existence or properties of Novichoks”. Porton Down’s head of detection Robin Black published a journal article in 2016 saying there was no independent verification of Novichok’s properties.

Most of the available information came from a Soviet chemist Vil Mirzayanov who said he‘d worked on developing Novichoks before moving to the US in the 1990s. Few doubt that he did development work. The issue is whether any was actually produced, or, if so, whether it was destroyed or stolen in the chaos following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Given that Mirzayanov published the Novichok formula, someone else could have been produced it. The online publication  spectrometryNow  reported in January 2017 that Iranian researchers had synthesised five Novichok nerve agents. To their credit, they added the spectral data to OPEC’s database.

There is little reason to doubt Porton Down has now identified the substance used at Salisbury as a member of the Novichok class of nerve agents. But this doesn’t show the Russian state supplied the chemical. Unfortunately, the British government did not supply a sample to OPEC for testing before May’s announcement.

One puzzling aspect is that the government initially said the Salisbury nerve agent was much more powerful than VX, which has been proven to kill people within a minute or two. The Salisbury attack reportedly began in Skripals’ home or car , but they were still alive. although severely ill, several hours later. Meanwhile, they had gone out to lunch and were able to walk into the park where they were found. Whatever the explanation, it suggests May’s description of what was used as a “military grade” agent is not accurate.

The Foreign Minister Boris Johnson went a step further than his PM when he subsequently claimed it was “overwhelmingly likely” that the Russian President Vladimir Putin had personally ordered the attack. Maybe Putin  did, but it’s hard to see a credible motive when he badly wants to reduce, not increase, sanctions that are harming Russian economic growth which he  likes to sees as one of his successes compared with the dismal record Boris Yeltsin while president. In any event, if you want to kill someone it would be much simpler to use about an unregistered gun,

The US has shown it is relatively easy to lose control of weaponised toxins.  In 2001, someone mailed finely milled anthrax powder to two US senators and several media offices. Five postal workers were killed, but no senators or journalists. After a long investigation, the FBI concluded a scientist in the Fort Detrick weapons laboratory Bruce Ivins was the culprit. He suicided before being arrested.

In one of the more disturbing responses to what happened at Salisbury, May referred in parliament to NATO’s “commitment to collective defence and security”. This was interpreted in British media as raising the issue of whether the UK should invoke article 5 of the Treaty which requires all members to respond to an attack against one as an attack against all.

So far, May hasn’t gone on to invoke article 5. Nor should she. It would be highly imprudent to do so, especially when she hasn’t presented any solid evidence for who was responsible. After all, the treaty never envisaged an attempted murder of two people to be the same as an armed attack on a nation state. In these circumstances, a serious military response but could inadvertently spark a major war.

Brian Toohey is a Sydney-based writer.


Brian Toohey is author of Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State.

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5 Responses to BRIAN TOOHEY. Teresa May’s rush to judgment on nerve agents

  1. Peter Martina says:

    Putin doesn’t like defectors but given the negative effect that the bans and sanctions that would follow an obvious ‘hit’ would have on the Russian economy why wouldn’t the Russians make it look like an accident or just postpone until a better time? Unfortunately, the history of lying by our leaders makes me skeptical of their claims that the Russians are responsible. Innocent until proven guilty anyone?

  2. Vin Matthews says:

    The cynics should read Luke Harding’s book A Very Expensive Poison about the murder of former Russian Litvinenko on Putin’s orders. The evidence is all there in the book. Polonium put in victim’s cup of tea by agents Harding names.
    Skripal was to Putin a traitor and KGB agents had a way to dealing with traitors.
    The chemical poison on Skripal and his daughter is made in Russia.
    This time Putin’s agents have been skilled in hiding their dirty work. But the British have enough evidence to establish a clear guilty verdict against Vladimir.

  3. Tony Kevin says:

    Re Simon Warriner’s interesting comment: Would there not be red faces all around if it turned out to be simply a restaurant’s accidental food poisoning? Probably too good to be true, unfortunately. We live in hope and await the OPCW findings on the samples. Tony Kevin.

  4. Simon Warriner says:

    “At least May is on solid ground in claiming that toxic chemical was used in the attempted murder of the former Soviet double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury or March 4 . ”

    How so? Where is the evidence on which that claim is based?

    Yes I am being picky. The stupid twit and her halfwit mates have been given a free pass and they have produced nothing by way of hard evidence. Lots of qualifying terms, BUT NO HARD EVIDENCE.

    On the other hand, this:

    The London Times reported on March 14th that 40 people in Salisbury needed treatment because of poisoning. A reader’s letter to the paper written by “Steven Davies – Consultant in emergency medicine, Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust” disputes that report. (The NHS database lists Davies, GMC membership number 4122151, as specialist in accident and emergency services at the Salisbury District Hospital.) The letter seems to say that none of the hospital’s patients were effected by “nerve agents” at all:

    Sir, Further to your report “Poison exposure leaves almost 40 needing treatment”, Mar 14), may I clarify that no patients have experienced symptoms of nerve agent poisoning in Salisbury and there have only been ever been three patients with significant poisoning.


    The wording of the letter is not 100% clear. Does the “no patients” refer to only the 40 the Times mentioned or to all patents including the Skripals? Are the three patients with “significant poisoning” the Skripals and the affected policeman? Commentator Noirette had suggested here that the Skripal case was about food poisoning or a food allergy, not nerve agents. The Skripals had visited a fish restaurant one hour before they were found. The letter points into a similar direction. Food poisoning would also explain why a doctor who gave emergency help to the unconscious Yulia Skripal for over 30 minutes was not effected at all.

    Sorry Brian, but your article lost me at the first hurdle. I have a 17 year old kid. # of my neighbours 4 kids are in the military or subject to call ups in event of a kinetic war. Half wits trying to start wars on the strength of lies are fair game as far as I am concerned, and this issue fits the bill.

  5. R. N. England says:

    Dosage is everything. An otherwise deadly compound can do no more than make you sick for a while if much less than the fatal dose is delivered, however tiny that is.

    The important thing is that the British Government has lied before under similar circumstances. The present circumstances are interesting. The rabid dogs of The Independent and The Guardian have suddenly abandoned their attacks on May and all turned on Putin. That is a much more satisfactory situation for the careers of people in the security services, the armed services, and the arms industry. Cui bono is the key question to ask if you want to know who did it. Both the Russian state and the Anglo-American deep state are suspects.

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