I’ve been waiting for something to happen
for a day, or a week, or a year;
with the blood in the ink of the headlines
and the roar of the crowd in my ears.
You might ask what it takes to remember
but you know that you’ve seen it before;
when a government lies to a people
and a country is drifting to war…
Jackson Browne, from “Lives in the Balance”
“People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war, or before an election.”
Otto von Bismarck
During an hour or so of poring over quotes about lying (of course I don’t make these up myself), before the snatch of lyric from “Lives in the Balance” floated into my memory unbidden, I was struck as never before by the prevalence of belief in the truth always coming out. Lyric after quote after stanza has it that you can lie and lie and lie, but eventually the truth will always surface, and the liar will be caught.
Is that true? Was it ever true? Perhaps among the congenitally stupid, who labour simultaneously under their guilt and a suspicion that smarter people (which is everybody else) can read minds; I’m reminded of a story which was set in the American southern states, in which the probable perpetrator of some petty crime or other was brought into the rural sheriff’s office for questioning. He was told that he must take a lie-detector test. Accordingly, a metal colander, such as is used for washing salad ingredients, was placed on his head, with wires from it leading to the photocopier. The deputies had put a piece of paper in the copier which read, “He’s Lying!!”, and whenever they asked the suspect a question, they would press the ‘print’ button following the answer, and out would come a paper which averred that the answer was a lie, which they would show to him. Eventually, confronted with his tapestry of falsehoods and under the apprehension that he was being measured by other-worldly technology, he confessed. But the local law enforcement was already well aware that he was guilty – they just wanted a confession.
So, perhaps in circumstances like that, in which the liar is a desperate fool, perhaps then the truth always comes out. But in reality, not only does truth almost never come out, it only does when all possibility of further elaboration on existing lies has been exhausted. But here’s the real kicker – when the truth does come out, we are led by philosophers to believe that evangelical vengeance will be swift to follow. Does that really happen? Perhaps after the liar is dead, he or she goes someplace featuring a dancing-flames motif, where he or she is prodded the livelong day by imps with little pitchforks. But that sort of forestalls the satisfaction of justice done in the here and now – punishment delayed is punishment denied, am I right?
Look at the case, frequently discussed here, of British intelligence services and the fake rock, which had the guts of a Blackberry cellular telephone inside it, in Moscow. This ‘rock’ was strategically situated so that intelligence assets (you only call them ‘traitors’ if they are western citizens; Russians who betray their country are dissident heroes) could stroll past and flip messages to the rock, and every so often, British intelligence services could remotely extract it; the ‘rock’ only had to be touched to charge the batteries.
But that was six years after the fact. For six years the British stonewalled and denied, and acted hurt that anyone would believe such an obvious Russian-bullshit story; the Foreign Office scornfully retorted, “We are concerned and surprised at these allegations. We reject any allegation of improper conduct in our dealing with Russian NGO’s.” So receiving surreptitious messages through a styrofoam rock is just the above-board, in-plain-sight honest dialogue in which foreign embassies everywhere engage; why the outrage? And when Britain finally admitted what had been going on, minus all the holier-than-thou gilding of trying to build a better world with Russia through an active and engaged civil society…absolutely nothing was done. Not only does the truth not necessarily ever come out – Tony Blair, for example, has never to the best of my knowledge admitted to having lied to influence public opinion in the UK in favour of committing with its partner, the United States, to the Iraq War, which was such a smorgasbord of lies that the weapons-of-mass-destruction whopper was only the biggest. Iraq was wrecked, hundreds of thousands of people were killed, and the liars were never punished, nor ever in fact admitted their guilt. In cases where the guilty must begrudgingly admit they lied, nobody does anything about it, the firebolts of celestial retribution never appear, and the liars go on to lie some more with increased confidence. An eager and gullible audience is always ready to swallow some more horseshit.
Like now, with the Skripal case. We are supposed to believe mysterious Russian assassins daubed Novichok nerve agent on the Skripals’ front doorknob, which transferred to their hands, and then they drove downtown, enjoyed a good meal in a restaurant, and then started feeling poorly, and collapsed on a public bench, victims of a nerve agent much more toxic than VX. Five to eight times, says FOX News. Ten times more deadly than its better-known predecessors, says Anne Applebaum. But the Skripals did not die. They were carefully shielded and monitored by the British security services so that they could not be questioned by the public, but they did not die.
And that’s possible – in the case of a mild dose of, say, VX (much less deadly than Novichok, remember), as a liquid through a skin-contact vector, it might take up to two hours for symptoms (local sweating and muscular twitching) to appear, according to the US Army’s Armament, Munitions and Chemical Command Chemical Research, Development and Engineering Center’s Reigle Report. The trouble with that scenario as applied to the Skripals is that the duration of those effects would be about 3 days for a mild exposure, and 5 days for a severe exposure. The Skripals showed no such effects; they ate dinner in what must have been to all appearances a normal fashion, and then collapsed unconscious on a bench outside. Some accounts suggested they had a quantity of foam around their mouths, which might result from salivation. At least one report says Yulia Skripal had vomited. No reports mentioned excessive sweating and muscular twitching, both of which are hallmarks of nerve-agent poisoning via liquid (as opposed to gas) exposure through the skin.
There are a couple of other problems with the British approach. We’ve all seen the pictures of the chemical-warfare types in their green dung-beetle suits, meticulously taking samples, while unprotected firemen in simple turnout gear with no masks or breathing apparatus stood just a couple of feet away. VX as a liquid could become a gas, but it’d have to be pretty hot. If that happened, it would not be persistent beyond a couple of hours. VX as a liquid, under very cold conditions, can actually persist for a couple of months. Quite a bit colder than it typically is in even England, though, in spring and summer. Daily averages for Salisbury, UK in March are above freezing, an average of about 45F, and it customarily gets much warmer going into summer. So you can’t have it both ways – if it’s a liquid, it’s more persistent in its toxicity over time, but that effect is greatly attenuated by temperature. If it’s a gas, breathing apparatus for anyone who might be exposed is an absolute rule.
Another discrepancy came up, in a timeline of the Skripals’ movements. They left the father’s home at some time close to but prior to 1:30 PM, and drove into town. This, it is estimated, would take about 10 to 15 minutes. They are observed by CCTV entering a multi-story car park in Salisbury at around 1:32 PM. Here one of the Skripals – both of whom apparently touched the front doorknob on the way out, the second one perhaps just for luck – then touched the ticket machine with their bare hand. This machine remained unchecked for 8 days after the event. How many other people touched it between that time and the time anyone checked it for toxicity? Yet nobody else showed any symptoms.
It was an extremely oddball event, which continues to inspire skeptical questions and scornful refutations. But I don’t want to get too bogged-down in the Skripal affair – instead, I want to focus a bit on the more recent incident, the ‘poisoning’ of Dawn Sturgess and Charles Rowley, in nearby Amesbury. This incident, also, has featured a wildly-improbable British-government narrative and skeptical questioning, and one of the foremost skeptical questions has been “How the hell could a nerve agent that did not kill the people who were its targets accidentally kill a chance victim four months later?”
Enter, stage left, the American Chemical Weapons Expert, who announces that Novichok was specially engineered to remain persistent over a long time. So that it could, you know, kill incidental victims months later and further incriminate the country where it is supposed to have originated. That’s why it is the go-to poison for Russian assassins. It might not kill the people you wanted to kill, but it could kill someone totally unrelated, months later. True story.
There are a few things you should know about the expert quoted, Dan Kaszeta. One, he’s the Managing Director of Strongpoint Security (it seems like all the UK’s go-to commentators are executives in the security industry, like FireEye or Crowdstrike). Sounding off in the media, taking a position which unreservedly supports the government narrative – no matter how nutty it is – is a good way to get noticed in the security business, and Strongpoint is a fairly new operation. Two, he’s the resident CBRN expert at Bellingcat. Three, he is not a Trump fan, broadcasting for his anti-Trump audience how the President of the United States’ motorcade and security detail might be confused, frustrated and sidetracked so that he would get the message he was not welcome. I can hardly fault Kaszeta for that, since Trump is over-the-top unpopular just about everywhere he goes, but it’s a little unusual to see a former White-House consultant handing out advice on how to screw up a White House visit.
Four, he is a much bigger noise on the CBRN front than you might have imagined if you’ve never heard of him before, confidently chatting up the wide-eyed press corps on all things chemical-warfare. And always supporting the UK government’s contention that Novichok was always Russian, only Russian, and that it could not have been anyone else. Here he is, letting the WBUR Boston audience know in no uncertain terms, “I don’t know anybody who knows how to make it except these guys in Russia. They’ve been a deep, dark secret.” But their purported engineer, Vil Marzayanov, claimed their precursors were ordinary organophosphates which are commercially available; “One should be mindful that the chemical components or precursors of A-232 and its binary version novichok-5 are ordinary organophosphates that can be made at commercial chemical companies that manufacture fertilizers and pesticides [nerve agents, after all, arose from research into pesticides and are really advanced versions of pesticides]. In my opinion, this research program was premised on the ability to hide the production of precursor chemicals under the guise of legitimate commercial chemical production of agricultural chemicals. And if America was concerned that its manufacture was devious and covert, it is kind of difficult to imagine why an American publisher published a book which featured the formula for making it, courtesy of Marzayanov, and which anyone can obtain for around $30.00. Is that how you keep something a deep, dark secret? And obviously the Defense Research establishment at Porton Down, only a couple of miles from the site of the Salisbury poisoning, had samples of Novichok, since they were able to identify it in a couple of hours. It’s beginning to shape up like the worst-kept deep dark secret in the world.
According to Dan, the Soviets wanted to engineer chemical agents that NATO equipment could not detect. Gosh! Those tricky sons of bitches. So then they engineered it to be extra-persistent, so it would stay around for months, just to make it fair, so NATO could have lots of time to take more samples. The thing is, the whole raison d’etre of a nerve agent is that it be non-persistent; you want it to rapidly and efficiently kill off the enemy, but you want to move your own troops into that same area in a matter of days, to consolidate your gains and establish your own military presence. Months just doesn’t cut it.
Asked why an assassin would use such a distinctive agent, pointing straight back at his own country, Dan suggests that given the historic secrecy of the project, someone might have reasoned that it would go undetected. Uh huh; sure – the Stimson Report came out in 1995. And the agent used is ‘specially engineered to remain a toxic menace for months’.
Here’s Dan again, backstopping the White House’s assertion that only Assad could have been behind an alleged sarin gas attack at Khan Sheikhoun; the Russian version, he says, is “highly implausible”. “Nerve agents are the result of a very expensive, exotic, industrial chemical process — these are not something you just whip up.” Oh, dear – put John Gilbert, senior science fellow at the Centre for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, in the “Disagree” column: he says all you would need to make sarin is about a 200 square-foot room and a competent chemist.
Two other attributes compound sarin’s insidiousness. First, it’s not especially hard to produce, in terms of both resources and expertise. “A competent chemist could make it, and possibly very quickly, in a matter of days,” says John Gilbert, a senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, who spent much of his Air Force career assessing countries’ WMD capabilities. Producing sarin doesn’t require any kind of massive facility; a roughly 200 square foot room would do.
According to Dan – yet again, this time in the Los Angeles Times – one form of Novichok is as a solid at normal temperatures, and it might have been deployed as a dust or powder. Uh huh, might have been. But (a) that would have been the least-persistent method except for as a gas, it would never have lasted four months outside, through rain, and (b) not even a rummy like Charles Rowley would have tried to pawn off a bottle of dust to his girlfriend as perfume.
Because here we are again, at another ‘Novichok’ poisoning, and Dan helpfully dispels the myth that Novichok would not still be around and deadly after four months, by announcing the Soviets specially engineered it to do just that. And not only that – they made it especially for contaminating large areas of land, such as ports, and equipment, like tanks, so that they would be dangerous for months. That was supposedly ‘the idea’ when they were developed.
Horseshit. Nerve agents are most effective against unprotected troops in the open, and if you want to contaminate an area the size of a port, the only possible way you could do it would be with a spray – the least persistent form of all. All organophospate-based nerve agents can be effectively dealt with – before unprotected personnel are exposed – by spraying and washing contaminated areas with water; moisture makes them break down quickly. Nobody has engineered a miracle waterproof organophosphate nerve agent. Once nerve agents are known to have been used, troops in the field are in TOPP (Threat-Oriented Protective Posture) Medium at least, in full chem suits with breathing apparatus available for rapid donning. Nerve agents were not developed as a weapon of covert assassination, although they have definitely been used in that role; they were developed as a weapon of mass destruction to be used against a military adversary who presumably is trained in CBRN countermeasures. They were not developed to spray tanks, in the hope that some mook would put his bare hand on it two months later, and fall over jerking and drooling. How the fuck would you disperse enough nerve agent to contaminate an airfield? Fly over with a water-bomber and drench it from end to end? You don’t think that might offer a bit of a clue? If you want to disperse a large amount of nerve agent, it will have to be vaporized, and it will have to be carried in the dispersal vehicle as a liquid. Liquids are heavy – the more you want to disperse, the bigger your dispersal vehicle will have to be. The Soviet Union developed gas warheads, to be used on a ballistic missile, but if you can land a gas warhead next to an airfield you might as well go the whole nine yards and blow it up, because a warhead that lies there hissing and dispersing a cloud of vapour is kind of a giveaway. Unless, of course, you only want to kill the military personnel in the area, and not damage the airfield, so you can quickly take it over and deploy your own aircraft from it. In which instance you would have been pretty stupid to envelope it in a toxic nerve agent that is still going to be active next spring. And the whole idea of a nerve agent is to deploy a small amount of it, using an unobtrusive dispersal vehicle, so as not to call attention to it until personnel in the target area are affected.
It’s nice of Dan to try and fill in the blanks the way he did, but there are just too many blanks. The latest story from HM government is that a perfume bottle was found in Charles Rowley’s home, and tests revealed – surprise! – that it contained Novichok. The story is that Rowley found it in Queen Elizabeth Park. Somehow, Dawn Sturgess is supposed to have sprayed the contents of the bottle on her wrists and face, like perfume. Oops! now it’s an aerosol, the fastest-acting form of nerve agent, and she probably would have been affected in minutes at most, not hours. But she was not at Rowley’s home, where the bottle was supposedly discovered. So he either took the bottle with him to meet her, and after noticing her exhibiting symptoms of nerve-agent poisoning, took the bottle home with him and put it in his house, or they were both affected at roughly the same time, and somebody thoughtfully posted the bottle to his home address. If she was poisoned at his house, she would not likely have made it out.; remember, it was dispersed as a vapor. So there is a question as to how the bottle got there, and another as to how it laid there in the park for nearly four months, until Rowley discovered it. And how it remained powerful enough to kill after all that time, when the fresh-off-the-shelf Novichok, four months previously, failed to kill the Skripals. Not to mention how it got there in the first place – are we supposed to believe that highly-trained assassins straight from the Kremlin did the Skripal job, and then tossed away their backup supply in a local park?
Perhaps of greatest concern, if chemical-weapons professionals were aware that Novichok could persist in deadly concentrations for months – that it was specially engineered to be not only virtually undetectable by NATO sensors, but to remain deadly through the deleterious effects of the elements…why did they say nothing when the dozy police assured the public that it was in absolutely no danger?