Friday, March 16, 2018

How credible are the British government's claims in the Sergei Skripal assassination attempt?

I don't have any special insight on the assassination attempt in Britain against Sergei Skripal that became a prominent issue for Britain and NATO this week. there has been a pattern of untimely deaths of journalists and others that Vladimir Putin's government somehow found inconvenient. And the British government is expressing its confidence that Russia was involved. And if the former Russian diplomat Vyacheslav Matuzov's presentation in this Al Jazeera program is any measure, the responses coming from the Russian side don't sound especially convincing, How will a divided west tackle a resurgent Russia? Inside Story 03/15/2018:

So I'm considering at this point that the most likely explanation is the one endorsed by the British government. That doesn't mean I think it's been definitively demonstrated, only that I'm not hearing a more plausible explanation so far.

David Ignatius is on the bandwagon, too, in this Washington Post column, Putin has finally gone too far 03/16/2018. He displays the hawkish verbal posturing that is the default position of the Beltway pundits and most of the political establishment.

But let's give Ignatius a tiny bit of credit. This Morning Zoo segment has Joe Scarborough taking the Russian responsibility for the attempted murder as a given, and none of his panel is especially challenging it. And Ignatius joins in. But it does drop in a qualification missing in his column in his comments starting around 8:00: "it's way over the line, even for an ex-KGB officer to go out and do this kind of reprisal killing [sic] - again, we need to have more evidence to link this directly to Putin. But it's clear that this is a Soviet-era nerve agent. ..." (my emphasis). Special Counsel Robert Mueller Subpoenas Trump Organization For Russia Records Morning Joe/MSNBC 03/16/2018:

Not many Democratic politicians will be heard asking probing questions in public about this. Although that is part of the job of Members of Congress, regardless of party. They are too busy stressing the need to fully investigate and understand the Russian interference is the 2016 election and possibly compromising involvements by Trump and his closest associates to Russian entities. The more conscientious Democrats won't be eager to let Russia off the hook on this. But few of them will risk stepping on their public anti-Russia theme at this point.

For the rest of us, close reading and listening is usually in order. Despite the certainty in his column, Ignatius is already promoting the assassination attempt to an actual murder, even though the poor guy isn't dead yet. He does mention that we don't have the evidence to link the attack to Putin. Which, of course, is not the same as linking it to the Russian government. And when he says the toxin involved was a Soviet-era substance, he's referring to the USSR whose existence came to an end in 1991. So that's not at all the same as saying that it's a substance that is somehow distinct to the Russia of 2018.

I don't apologize for being cautious on claims like these, however plausible this one seems on its face. I remember when the British government of Tony Blair was declaring confidently that Saddam Hussein had operable chemical weapons that could be deployed on 45 minutes notice. (See: Vikram Dodd et al, 45-minute claim on Iraq was hearsay Guardian 08/15/218. Let's be very generous and say that governments do, uh, make mistakes about such things. Especially when they are pushing a phony story about "weapons of mass destruction" to justify a genuinely criminal war of aggression.

Another event that is also a constant reminder to me about the uncertainty of some intelligence assumptions. And that is the AMIA bombing, the deadly bomb attack on the main Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994. This event is routinely referred to as an attack orchestrated by Iran through Hizbullah. But the case itself is still open. The Argentine government's official theory of the case has been, under both conservative and left governments, has been consistent with the common assumption, that it was orchestrated by Iran.

But even after 24 years, that is far from a certainty based on what is in the public record. Former President Cristina Fernández when she was a senator prior to becoming President had raised questions about the official theory, based on considerable indications that radical right Argentines may have been deeply involved. She took a strong interest in the case and actively pursued it as President - despite infamously dishonest arguments that she did not - and proceeded on the official theory of Iranian involvement and direction.

But the case has never been resolved. That means while there are reasons to believe based on information in the public record that Iran was behind it, that is by no means clearly established. And, we are likely to keep hearing about the AMIA attack as though it is a certainty that Iran pulled it off. Because the AMIA case is used as a primary example, by far the most dramatic, of how Iran has long had the ability to project terrorist attacks worldwide. One of the revelations from Wikileaks documented that Dark Lord Dick Cheney, not known for being scrupulous in honest use of intelligence findings, pressured the US Embassy in Argentina to try to get Argentine prosecutors from backing off a related case involving Carlos Menem, who was President in 1994, a case that might have called into question Iranian responsibility. Neither Cheney nor other advocates of war against Iran want to give up the AMIA case as a propaganda claim against Iran.

In the case of the nerve gas incident in Britain, former British diplomat Craig Murray offers some reasons for reservations about the official British case. (Russian to Judgement 03/13/2018) I don't find the alternative scenario he suggests in the linked post plausible. But some of the questions he raises are worth keeping in mind.
The same people who assured you that Saddam Hussein had WMD’s now assure you Russian “novochok” nerve agents are being wielded by Vladimir Putin to attack people on British soil. As with the Iraqi WMD dossier, it is essential to comb the evidence very finely. A vital missing word from Theresa May’s statement yesterday was “only”. She did not state that the nerve agent used was manufactured ONLY by Russia. She rather stated this group of nerve agents had been “developed by” Russia. Antibiotics were first developed by a Scotsman, but that is not evidence that all antibiotics are today administered by Scots.

The “novochok” group of nerve agents – a very loose term simply for a collection of new nerve agents the Soviet Union were developing fifty years ago – will almost certainly have been analysed and reproduced by Porton Down. That is entirely what Porton Down is there for. It used to make chemical and biological weapons as weapons, and today it still does make them in small quantities in order to research defences and antidotes. After the fall of the Soviet Union Russian chemists made a lot of information available on these nerve agents.
Porton Down Murray mentions is described by Rob Evans, "Porton Down, founded in 1916, is the oldest chemical warfare research installation in the world," with a somewhat ghoulish reputation. (The past Porton Down can't hide Guardian 05/06/2004)

Leaving aside our President's Twitter spasms and his impulsive public statements, for most countries of the world, paying attention to the exact phrasing of important foreign policy statements is usually important. And it does presumably mean something that Theresa May wasn't mentioning any specific links of the toxin to the Russia of 2018. That doesn't mean she doesn't have any. But it's a carefully worded claim.

Murray also makes this observation about the circumstances:
From Putin’s point of view, to assassinate Skripal now seems to have very little motivation. If the Russians have waited eight years to do this, they could have waited until after their World Cup. The Russians have never killed a swapped spy before. Just as diplomats, British and otherwise, are the most ardent upholders of the principle of diplomatic immunity, so security service personnel everywhere are the least likely to wish to destroy a system which can be a key aspect of their own personal security; quite literally spy swaps are their “Get Out of Jail Free” card. You don’t undermine that system – probably terminally – without very good reason.

It is worth noting that the “wicked” Russians gave Skripal a far lighter jail sentence than an American equivalent would have received. If a member of US Military Intelligence had sold, for cash to the Russians, the names of hundreds of US agents and officers operating abroad, the Americans would at the very least jail the person for life, and I strongly suspect would execute them. Skripal just received a jail sentence of 18 years, which is hard to square with the narrative of implacable vindictiveness against him. If the Russians had wanted to make an example, that was the time. [my emphasis]
Now this doesn't mean that the Russians aren't changing their approach. But such considerations are important to consider in evaluating such claims.

Murray also states his broader perspective:
I am alarmed by the security, spying and armaments industries’ frenetic efforts to stoke Russophobia and heat up the new cold war. I am especially alarmed at the stream of cold war warrior “experts” dominating the news cycles. I write as someone who believes that agents of the Russian state did assassinate Litvinenko, and that the Russian security services carried out at least some of the apartment bombings that provided the pretext for the brutal assault on Chechnya. I believe the Russian occupation of Crimea and parts of Georgia is illegal. On the other hand, in Syria Russia has saved the Middle East from domination by a new wave of US and Saudi sponsored extreme jihadists.

The naive view of the world as “goodies” and “baddies”, with our own ruling class as the good guys, is for the birds. I witnessed personally in Uzbekistan [where Murray was British Ambassador 2002-2004] the willingness of the UK and US security services to accept and validate intelligence they knew to be false in order to pursue their policy objectives. We should be extremely sceptical of their current anti-Russian narrative. There are many possible suspects in this attack.
It's helpful in this things to keep some basic things in mind. Governments lie. Intelligence claims are often based on incomplete information. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you. Threat inflation is a chronic problem for US foreign policy.

In subsequent posts, Murray reacts to critics of his position and to additional information.

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