Salisbury, UK – Top scientists at British defense laboratory Porton Down announced on Tuesday that they were unable to confirm the government’s assertions that novichok, the nerve agent used to poison Sergei Skripal and his daughter, was made in Russia.
The Guardian reports that Gary Aitkenhead, the chief executive of the government’s Defense Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), said that while the substance had been identified as a military-grade novichok nerve agent, which could likely only be deployed by a nation-state, there was no confirmation of Russian origins.
Aitkenhead, in an interview with Sky News, said it was not possible for scientists alone to say precisely where the novichok had been created.
“It’s a military-grade nerve agent, which requires extremely sophisticated methods in order to create – something that’s probably only within the capabilities of a state actor,” Aitkenhead said.
When asked if the nerve agent could have come from Porton Down, which is only 8 miles from Salisbury, Aitkenhead said “there’s no way that anything like that would ever have come from us or leave the four walls of our facilities.”
“We were able to identify it as novichok, to identify it was a military-grade nerve agent. We have not verified the precise source, but we have provided the scientific information to the government, who have then used a number of other sources to piece together the conclusions that they have come to,” Aitkenhead said.
After the announcement, the UK government attempted to assert that prime minister Theresa May had always been aware that the assessment from Porton Down was “only one part of the intelligence picture.”
A British government spokesman sought to downplay the significance of Aitkenhead’s remarks, stating: “We have been clear from the very beginning that our world-leading experts at Porton Down identified the substance used in Salisbury as a novichok.”
“It is our assessment that Russia was responsible for this brazen and reckless act and, as the international community agrees, there is no other plausible explanation,” the spokesman said.
Just two weeks ago, when UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was asked how the UK was able to swiftly determine the novichok originated from Russia, he replied:
“When I look at the evidence, the people from Porton Down, the laboratory, they were absolutely categorical. I asked the guy myself, I said: ‘Are you sure?’ And he said: ‘There’s no doubt.’ So we have very little alternative but to take the action that we have taken.”
The comments from Porton Down came hours before a meeting of the executive council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), called by Russia.
The Russian embassy in London has called the accusations by the UK a “bluff” and added: “This has been confirmed by the head of the secret lab. This only proves that all political declarations on the Russian origin of the crime are nothing but assumptions not stemming from objective facts or the course of the investigation.”
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Former UK ambassador Craig Murray pointed out that in each of the declarations made by the UK attempting to connect novichok to Russia, the British government uses the wording “of a type developed by” rather than specifying they had determined it was actually produced or manufactured in Russia— a significant distinction.
Murray wrote on March 16:
I have now received confirmation from a well placed FCO source that Porton Down scientists are not able to identify the nerve agent 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.’
Murray told RT that “what we have seen today is news management because the Government had to get over the hurdle the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will shortly be telling people there is no evidence this came from Russia.”
“The Government decided for damage limitation it was best Porton Down came out and said that first. We will see careful news management over the next day or two,” he said.
The Guardian reports that Russian ambassador to Ireland, Yury Filatov, said Moscow wanted Britain to “provide every possible element of evidence” it had, adding: “We certainly reject any notion or claim of Russian involvement in the Salisbury incident. We will not tolerate this kind of irresponsible and basically indecent behavior on the part of the British government. They will have to answer for that.”
Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Alexander Grushko, said the attack was a “provocation arranged by Britain” to justify high military spending because “they need a major enemy.”