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

Mar 21, 2018

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.

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