NOVICHOK: THE POISON, THE PLAYERS, AND THE GOVERNMENT COVER-UP – PART I
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Editor’s note: This is part one of a three-part series.
The Russians have long been known for their witty yet dark sense of humor. “The need to suffer is an inherent feature of Russians throughout the ages,” wrote Dostoyevsky, but from this comes the ability to make light of even the most serious of problems. This is seen on the world stage with Vladimir Putin’s trademark “your inferiority amuses me” facial expression, his wry reaction to the Trump collusion scandal, and now, the country’s response to ongoing accusations that Russian agents are responsible for recent chemical poisonings on British streets with the Soviet-developed nerve agent Novichok.
What other culture would respond by serving “Novichok” cocktails to English tourists during the World Cup, or copyrighting “Novichok” brands of alcohol, household cleaners, and pharmaceuticals for domestic use?
The poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English town of Salisbury in March quickly lead to accusations that Russia was responsible for the use of the Novichok nerve agent on British soil. While most mainstream media outlets were quick to jump on board with the blame game, others, including authors at Liberty Nation, found some aspects of the narrative rather questionable.
Although no direct evidence was used to support the British government’s accusation, other than the fact that the chemical had originally been formulated in the Soviet Union, the result was that 28 countries expelled a total of 152 Russian diplomats. NATO expelled seven diplomats from the Russian mission to Brussels, while the U.S. ejected 60 diplomats – more than any other country, including the U.K. – and closed the Russian consulate in Seattle “in response to Russia’s use of a military-grade chemical weapon on the soil of the United Kingdom, the latest in its ongoing pattern of destabilizing activities around the world.”
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, as they say, and indeed Russia responded to each country in turn; 60 American diplomats were expelled and the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg was closed.
A SECOND POISONING
Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia
A second incident brought the Novichok poisonings back into the press; this time, two English citizens with no apparent connection to Russia appear to have been poisoned by accident. In June, two residents of Amesbury, a town seven miles from Salisbury, where the first incident occurred, were struck down with the same chemical used against the Skripals.
It may be noted that both towns are also in close proximity to the secretive Porton Down Ministry of Defense laboratory, which, according to the U.K. National Archive, has long been a chemical and biological defense research lab. It was also the lab that analyzed the substances found at each crime scene and identified them as Novichoks.
Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley were reportedly poisoned with Novichok on June 30; while there has been some confusion about the source of the poison, it now appears the substance was concealed in a glass perfume bottle that Rowley – a drug addict who frequently went “bin diving” – found. He reportedly gave the perfume to Sturgess, his girlfriend, who fell ill after spraying the substance on her wrists. She died a week later, on July 8. Rowley also became sick after the bottle broke in his hands and is currently being held at an undisclosed police facility, despite being discharged from hospital. Indeed, one curious aspect of both poisonings has been the public absence of the victims.
On July 20, Charlie Rowley was discharged from Salisbury District Hospital, almost three weeks after being poisoned with Novichok. Hospital staff and Public Health England assured the public that Rowley’s release posed no danger to the community and the regional Wiltshire Police Chief Constable, Kier Pritchard, publicly welcomed Rowley’s release.
Not two days later, however, Rowley appears to have been tucked away into a top-secret police safehouse with no access to the outside world, apart from phone communication with his brother. According to Matthew Rowley, Charlie was banned from watching television and reading newspapers, and has been given a special phone – without camera or internet – with which he could call his brother.
“He rang me and said he’s being driven stir-crazy. He’s being kept in a plain room without TV or newspapers because they don’t want to upset him… Police have said he mustn’t say anything about where he is – all he told me was that he was safe.
It was a short conversation because nurses said I shouldn’t wear him out. He sounded really weak, almost as if he’d been drinking too much. He sounded pretty fed up… He’s been given a strange new number which doesn’t always connect. I’ve only been able to speak to him once. I’m hoping I’ll be able to find out where he is and visit him soon.
He said he was too tired to talk. He seemed like he was on some really strong medication… It was really frustrating for me because I haven’t really got any detail from him.”
If Rowley poses no risk to the public and is well enough to be released from hospital, why is he holed up in a police safehouse with no access to the outside world? There may be valid reasons to keep him hidden for investigative purposes, but why limit his access to the media? If Rowley was poisoned by accident, and not specifically targeted, then why does he require continued police protection?
Sergei and Yulia Skripal have also been curiously absent since their own hospital discharges, so much so that Russian OPCW representative Alexander Shulgin claimed they’re “being held hostage by the British authorities.”
Yulia, a Russian citizen, left the hospital on April 9. Her release was followed by a statement from Scotland Yard, apparently on her behalf. It rejected any assistance from the Russian consulate and asked that her cousin, one of her closest family members, not be in touch. Nothing more has been heard from her, except for one media appearance in May when she spoke to Reuters at an undisclosed location. She said:
I’m grateful for the offers of assistance from the Russian embassy but at the moment I do not wish to avail myself of their services. Also, I want to reiterate what I said in my earlier statement, that no one speaks for me or my father, but ourselves.
Yulia’s father, Sergei Skripal, was released from hospital on May 18, but neither hide nor hair has been seen of him. Are the Skripals laying low for fear of further attacks, possibly from their own motherland? Or is there another reason that they have declined to tell their story? And why is Charlie Rowley being kept from his home and family, despite hospital blessings?
Police continue to investigate both poisonings.
No further sanctions against Russia have been announced as a result of the second Novichok incident, but U.K. Home Secretary Sajid Javid recently accused Russia of using the U.K. as a “dumping ground for poison.” Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, went so far as to call the use of Novichok a “war crime” by Russia.
The U.K., the U.S., and dozens of other countries all leaped to the conclusion that Russia must be one and only responsible party for these attacks on British soil – but is there any evidence to back up this claim? Stay tuned for Part Two, where we look at exactly who had access to this deadly chemical weapon.
NOVICHOK: THE POISON, THE PLAYERS, AND THE GOVERNMENT COVER-UP – PART II
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Liberty Nation presents part two of our Novichok series. In part one, we addressed the details of the two Novichok poisonings that have taken place on English soil in 2018, and their political ramifications. In this installment, we look into the allegations that Russia is the prime – and indeed, only – suspect for these crimes.
“There is no alternative conclusion, other than that the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr. Skripal and his daughter, and for threatening the lives of other British citizens,” said British Prime Minister Theresa May in an accusation that worsened the already bad relations between Russia and the West.
May was referring to the use of the Soviet-developed chemical Novichok to poison Sergei and Yulia Skripal on English soil, in March 2018. The incident has had major diplomatic ramifications, yet there is still no proof that Russia was responsible for the attack. The case against Russia depends simply on the idea that no other country could possibly have had access to the Novichok family of chemicals.
British PM Theresa May
Moscow has repudiated the charge by arguing that the toxin could have originated in a handful of other countries, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the U.S., the U.K., and Sweden. Is Russia simply trying to pass the buck, or is there a basis for this claim? Did anybody else have access to this toxic chemical?
YES, THEY DID
In 2016, Iranian researchers published in the scientific journal Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry that they had analyzed samples of Novichok. They reported passing their findings on to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for use in their database. Although the experiments at the time held little interest for the public, a summary was also published in the industry e-zine Spectroscopy Now, in 2017.
According to investigative reporters from German broadcasting outlets NDR and WDR, and the Die Zeit and Suedeutsche Zeitung newspapers, Sweden and Germany also had access to Novichok dating back to the 1990s, when the German foreign intelligence service (BND), was reportedly given a sample of the chemical by a Russian defector. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl then allegedly ordered the BND to share the substance with Berlin’s “closest allies,” including the U.S. and the U.K., and later Canada, France, and Holland. “Some NATO countries were secretly producing the chemical agent in small quantities” in order to develop protective equipment and antidotes, reported the media outlets. German authorities have not commented on the assertions.
The government of the Czech Republic has been somewhat divided on whether they have or have not produced (and subsequently destroyed) a version of Novichok in 2017. President Milos Zeman ordered an investigation into the possibility, and in May told a local TV channel that the country’s Military Counter-Intelligence had confirmed the production of the substance in a Czech lab. This was later disputed by civilian counter-intelligence agency BIS, which claimed the substance produced had been a-230, not the substance found in Salisbury, which was identified as a-234. While Russians have decided that a-234 was the Skripal poison, this has not been confirmed by the OPCW or British government, who merely identified the chemical vaguely as belonging to the Novichok family. According to the book Compendium of Chemical Warfare Agents, by forensic chemist Steven L. Hoenig, a-230, a-232, and 2-234 are all designated Novichok agents.
ONLY RUSSIA…OR ANYONE WHO READ MY BOOK
Publishing in 2007, Hoenig admitted that when it came to Novichoks, there was little information available. Had he waited a year or two to write his compendium, however, he may have had a little more to go on. In 2008 not only was the existence of Novichok disclosed to the public, but even the formula itself was published. Vil Mirzayanov was a Soviet chemist who worked in a secret chemical weapons laboratory developing substances including Novichok for over 25 years. In 1992, he was charged with treason after publishing “state secrets” about Russia’s chemical weapons program. The case was eventually dropped over a lack of evidence and in 1995 Mirzayanov moved to the U.S., where he was granted asylum and informed the authorities of his Novichok research.
In 2008, he published the English-language book State Secrets: An Insider’s Chronicle of the Russian Chemical Weapons Program, which included detailed information about the development of Novichok, as well as the precise details of each version’s chemical formulation. According to Mirzayanov:
“Some people from Washington persistently advised me not to include the formulas of the chemical agents… I asked why it would be a bad idea to publish this information, since it would be for the safety of all people. Then the governments would work to have those chemical agents and their precursors included into the Control List. They responded, “Terrorists could use them for their criminal actions.” This kind of reasoning is used all the time now to scare people and prevent any discussion. We are already used to ignoring a lot of real problems thanks to that…
All of the advice people gave me not to publish formulas of the Novichok chemical agents, based on the argument that terrorists would use them, does not ring true. These agents should be acknowledged and immediately put under the control of the OPCW, the organization that administers the Chemical Weapons Convention.”
Mirzayanov claims his motivation for publishing was to increase awareness of Novichok agents, “for the sake of the world safety,” as well as information for use in further research. He also says that only experts in well-funded government labs would be capable of safely producing such chemical agents without accidentally poisoning themselves and that some of his colleagues had died as a result of mishandling the substance.
Are the formulas provided by Mirzayanov accurate? The Associated Press reported that Russian Defence Ministry General Igor Kirillov called the book “complicity to terrorism,” implying he thought they were genuine. Professor Leonid Rink, another scientist who worked to create Novichok, also admitted that other countries could use the book to synthesize their own samples of the chemical.
Rink, previously convicted for selling similar poisons used in murders, told Reuters it was unlikely that Russia would be so careless as to use an agent obviously connected to them, but according to the Independent newspaper:
Though the formula for the nerve agent was once secret, Rink said other countries including Britain, the US and China were now capable of manufacturing versions of the substance, however, analysis of the poison used in Salisbury should reveal whether or not it was “cooked up” in Russia.
The OPCW didn’t take Mirzayanov seriously, it appears, as its Scientific Advisory Board claimed in 2013 that “it has insufficient information to comment on the existence or properties of ‘Novichoks.’” This attitude was mirrored by scientists at the U.K. Ministry of Defence lab Porton Down, who analyzed the samples used in the 2018 poisonings, as well as being situated only a few miles from the incidents. Leaked documents, however, show that they may well have been playing down their knowledge of Novichok and its formulas.
WHO KNEW WHAT?
Was the U.S. government aware of Novichok and Mirzayanov’s book? It certainly was, as Wikileaks documents reveal none other than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton instructed envoys to “Avoid any substantive discussion of the Mirazayanov book “State Secrets: An Insider’s View of the Russian Chemical Weapons Program” or so-called ‘Fourth Generation Agents.’” The classified document also instructs delegates on how to respond if anybody raised the topic of the book at a 2009 meeting of the Australia Group, an affiliation of various allied countries to control the export of controlled substances and prevent the spread of chemical weapons:
• Report any instances in which the book is raised.
• Not start or provoke conversations about the book or engage substantively if it comes up in conversation.
• Express a lack of familiarity with the issue.
• Quietly discourage substantive discussions by suggesting that the issue is ‘best left to experts in capitals.
U.S. State Department cables reveal that the topic was discussed during a Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) at The Hague, but U.K. and U.S. diplomats “indicated a lack of familiarity with the subject matter and indicated no interest in pursuing the discussion further.” The documents also reveal that the diplomats asked the CIA, the National Security Council, and the State Department how to deal with questions about Mirzayanov’s book and that the U.S. had discussed the book with counterparts in the U.K., Finland, and the Netherlands.
It also shows that the U.K. “Ministry of Defense has spoken to its counterparts in the Netherlands and Finland, apprised them of the conversation, and asked each country to provide guidance to its del[egate] members not/not to raise this issue in the future.”
So, is there truly “no alternative conclusion” than that Russia was behind the Novichok poisonings in England? Perhaps the Skripals were indeed targeted by the Kremlin, however, that is far from the only possibility. Not only did multiple countries know about Novichok and its chemical makeup, but so did anyone who had read a book that was widely available to the public since 2009. Not to mention that Porton Down, a major lab that is likely to possess samples of the chemical, is situated only a few miles from both poisonings.
In the third and final installment of this series, we will explore the strange connections between the Novichok poisonings and the dossier that tied President Trump to the Russian Collusion scandal.
NOVICHOK: THE POISON, THE PLAYERS, AND THE COVER UP – PART III
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Liberty Nation presents part three of our Novichok series. In part one, we addressed the details of the two Novichok poisonings that have taken place on English soil in 2018, and their political ramifications. Part two looked at which nations had access to the poison and why Hillary Clinton was trying to cover up U.S. knowledge. In this final installment, we look at the connections to the Trump-Russia Collusion narrative and the people involved.
A transmitter disguised inside a fake, plastic rock and placed on a Moscow street – this may sound like the type of equipment used by agents in the 1960s spy comedy Get Smart, but British Intelligence wasn’t saying “Good thinking, 99” when Russian TV revealed that this very piece of equipment was being used by MI6 to collect information from its sources in Moscow.
This tragically hilarious piece of espionage incompetence involved a number of British agents and Russians secretly working for the Brits, including one of the main characters in our Novichok saga, Sergei Skripal. Mr. Skripal, a Russian military intelligence officer, had been caught passing information to the Brits by using the rock (other reports suggest he was betrayed by a Spanish agent), and was arrested. While Skripal worked as a double agent throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, nobody yet knew that his MI6 handler and reportedly close friend would end up working for none other than Christopher Steele, author of the Fusion GPS Trump-Russia dossier.
Don Adams as Maxwell Smart, using a sophisticated piece of spy equipment worthy of MI6
SKRIPAL THE SPY
While the British government publically denied involvement in the “Fake Rock” scandal until 2012, it was eventually admitted by Prime Minister Tony Blair’s former Chief of Staff that, “The spy rock was embarrassing, I mean they had us bang to rights. Clearly, they had known about it for some time and had been saving it up for a political purpose.” Indeed, the Russians clearly knew about and monitored the rock for at least two years before they decided to make their accusations since Skripal was arrested in 2004 but the TV exposé wasn’t broadcast until 2006.
Skripal was tried and convicted of high treason, following his December 2004 arrest. Although he was sentenced to 13 years in prison, he was pardoned and released after six years, as part of a spy swap in 2010 – prompting speculation that the Kremlin eventually poisoned him in revenge. He relocated to England where he purchased an average home in the town of Salisbury and reportedly lived a quiet, retired life until he was poisoned in March 2018. Salisbury also happened to be the residence of his former MI6 handler and friend, identified as Pablo Miller.
Liberty Nation has previously examined the existence of DSMA notices (or “D notices”) issued by the British government to pressure the media into ignoring certain stories. The Novichok affair has been the source of two D notices urging the media not to publish certain details of the case.
After a few hints and rumors about the existence of the D-notices, the documents – if they are genuine – were eventually obtained by and published by Spinwatch, a website that campaigns for lobbying transparency in the press.
The Fake Rock exposed on Russian TV
The first D-notice was released on March 7, shortly after the initial Skripal poisoning. According to the document provided by Spinwatch, it instructs media outlets not to reveal the identity of an intelligence operative connected to the case:
The issue surrounding the identify [sic] of a former MI6 informer, Sergei Skripal, is already widely available in the public domain. However, the identifies [sic] of intelligence agency personnel associated with Sergei Skripal are not yet widely available in the public domain. The provisions of DSMA Notice 05 therefore apply to these identities.
The Daily Telegraph newspaper ran an article that did not identify this mysterious agent by name, although it included a few tidbits that left many readers intrigued:
The Telegraph understands that Col Skripal moved to Salisbury in 2010 in a spy swap and became close to a security consultant employed by Christopher Steele, who compiled the Trump dossier. The British security consultant, according to a LinkedIn social network account that was removed from the internet in the past few days, is also based in Salisbury.
On the same LinkedIn account, the man listed consultancy work with Orbis Business Intelligence, according to reports. Orbis is run by Mr Steele, a former MI6 agent, who compiled the notorious dossier on President Trump that detailed his allegedly corrupt dealings with Vladimir Putin…
The consultant’s wife told the Telegraph, when asked if her husband had worked for Orbis and knew Col Skripal: “He won’t be talking.”
Devil’s Dozen of Counterintelligence by Nikolai Luzan
As evidence of the D-notice began to surface, such as a tweet by the chief correspondent for Channel 4 News, Alex Thomson, the authorities evidently weren’t happy. March 14 saw the release of a second D-notice “to remind editors” not to publish the identity of the mysterious agent connected to the Skripal case. So who is this person? He is now believed to be Pablo Miller, Skripal’s former handler and apparent friend.
PABLO MILLER AND CHRISTOPHER STEELE
Russian counterintelligence started claiming in 2000 that Pablo Miller was an MI6 agent recruiting Russian spies while working undercover at the British embassy in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. At the time, spies who were arrested identified Miller as their handlers. In 2007, tax inspector Major Vyacheslav Zharko surrendered himself to Russian authorities and admitted to spying for the Brits, naming Miller as his recruiter, according to the FSB.
According to Meduza, a site specializing in Russian news, and the BBC, the details of Skripal’s spy career were published in the 2015 Russian language book “Devil’s Dozen of Counterintelligence” by Russian secret service historian Nikolai Luzan. According to the book, Miller recruited Skripal while working under the alias Antonio Alvarez de Hidalgo, and the two had a working relationship for almost a decade, during which they compromised around 300 Russian agents.
Let’s not forget our friend Christopher Steele in all this – what was he doing while all of this was going on? Why, he was also working for MI6 and was reportedly known as an expert on Russia. During Skripal’s active years, he was stationed at the British Foreign Office, but from 1990 to 1993, he worked undercover in Moscow, and between 2006-2009, he worked at MI6’s Russia Desk in London.
Pablo Miller, according to Russian state outlet RT
In 2009, he reportedly left MI6 and founded Orbis Business Intelligence, the company that was eventually sub-contracted by Fusion GPS to research Donald Trump on behalf of the Clinton campaign and the DNC. Between 2014 and 2016, Orbis compiled 100 reports on Russia and Ukraine, some of which were used by the U.S. State Department.
Curiously, Pablo Miller and Christopher Steele also have links to another famously poisoned Russian defector, Alexander Litvinenko, who died from exposure to radioactive polonium-210, in 2006. Steele was reportedly Litvinenko’s case officer and the person who identified his death as a “hit” by the Russian state. Litvinenko allegedly worked with Miller and introduced him to possible assets, such as the earlier mentioned Zharko. How closely together did Miller and Steele work?
SKRIPAL THE SPY, CONTINUED?
Is it possible that Skripal had continued his spying career under the radar? Valery Morozov, a Russian political refugee who now lives in the U.K., told Channel 4 that Skripal was still working cyber-security and was in monthly contact with military intelligence officers at the Russian Embassy. Morozov added that he avoided Skripal because it might “bring some questions from British officials.” Was the British government aware of the possibility that Skripal was still involved in espionage – and for which side?
According to the Independent:
The Russian double agent poisoned in Salisbury may have become a target after using his contacts in the intelligence community to work for private security firms, investigators believe. Sergei Skripal could have come to the attention of certain people in Russia by attempting to “freelance” for companies run by former MI5, MI6 and GCHQ spies, security sources say.
Private security firms such as Orbis, run by former spies, such as Christopher Steele with help from Pablo Miller, perhaps? Naturally, Orbis has denied that Skripal had contributed to the Trump dossier, but did not comment on whether he had worked on the company’s other reports.
The Telegraph’s report was also quickly denied by reporters at the BBC and The Guardian, including Luke Harding, who appears to be in contact with Steele and has just released a book called “Collusion: How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win.”
Of course, Steele had been the object of his very own D-Notice in 2017, as the British government unsuccessfully attempted to hide his identity as the creator of the Trump dossier.
Is it to be expected that three key figures in MI6’s Russian intelligence operations knew each other and continued to work together? Is it mere coincidence that Skripal was poisoned soon after Steele’s Trump dossier began to fall apart, and that two major incidences driving the West’s current anti-Russian narrative involved the same key figures?
Or is there something else connecting these three men? Was Skripal involved in creating the spectacular failure that was the Steele dossier? What information may he have on the production of this document that may affect those who commissioned the paper and even the Mueller investigation into the Trump-Russia collusions scandal? Or was the dossier actually authored by a Russian spy, as posited by Paul Roderick Gregory at Forbes, possibly by Skripal himself?
Alas, it is with these questions that we must close our Novichok series, but let us part with one new piece to the puzzle. As the only victim who has actually died from exposure to this apparent weapons-grade chemical, Dawn Sturgess, is put to rest, Public Health England has taken “protective” measures at her funeral. There will be no pallbearers, her coffin will be placed in situ when mourners arrive, and her family will be permitted 15 minutes with the coffin, before a private cremation.
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Socio-political Correspondent at LibertyNation.com
Eclectic in interests and political philosophies, Laura came to journalism after years of working as an educator. Her background as a historian has informed her research and writing styles, as well as her approach to current affairs. Born and raised in Australia, Laura currently resides in Great Britain.