UK urged to counter ‘disinformation’ from Russia over novichok

Steven Morris and Caroline Bannock — The Guardian April 4, 2018

Boris Johnson claims Porton Down says it was RussiaA leading chemical weapons expert has called on the UK government to give more details of why it is sure Moscow was behind the Salisbury attack after the head of the Porton Down defence research laboratory said it had not established the nerve agent that poisoned Sergei and Yulia Skripal was made in Russia.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, who was a commander of the now-disbanded Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Regiment, said the lack of detail from the British government was allowing Russia to win its “disinformation” campaign about the attack on the former Russian spy and his daughter.

De Bretton-Gordon told the Guardian: “Having seen a lot of various intelligence sources I feel 100% confident that the prime minister is correct that the Russians are guilty. The Russians do appear to be on the front foot with communications and their disinformation campaign is putting the UK on the back foot.”

He accepted that it was difficult for sensitive information to be given out without the danger of betraying sources, but said the British government had to find a way of explaining more effectively how it had reached its conclusion that Russia was to blame.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, De Bretton-Gordon said the government needed to “throw some more evidence in that is compelling that does not betray sources because we need to get on the front foot”.

On Tuesday in a round of television interviews, Gary Aitkenhead, the chief executive of the government’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at Porton Down, said the poison had been identified as a military-grade novichok nerve agent, which could probably be deployed only by a nation-state.

Aitkenhead said the government had reached its conclusion that Russia was responsible for the Salisbury attack by combining the laboratory’s scientific findings with information from other sources.

The comments came hours before an extraordinary meeting in The Hague on Wednesday of the executive council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), called by Russia.

The UK government moved quickly to make it clear that the prime minister, Theresa May, had always been clear the assessment from Porton Down was “only one part of the intelligence picture”.

However, the government’s position is being undermined by an interview the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, gave to Deutsche Welle, Germany’s public international broadcaster.

Asked how the UK had been able to find out the novichok originated from Russia so quickly, 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 Russians immediately seized on Aitkenhead’s comments.

Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Britain would have to apologise to Russia for its “mad accusations” that “have no foundation whatsoever”.

The Russian embassy in London said the UK’s claims that Moscow was behind the attack was a “bluff”, adding: “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.”

De Bretton-Gordon said: “Porton Down have done the job that they’re required to do. They have identified the nerve agent and said that it’s a novichock. The prime minister has stated that a number of other intelligence sources have led the UK government to believe that the Russian government are responsible for the attack in Salisbury.

“Russia, as a signatory to the chemical weapons convention should be helping investigations including assisting the OPCW to visit Shikhany, [the base of a military research establishment in central Russia], to verify if the novichok came from there. If the Russians are as innocent as they say they are, they should allow them to visit as soon as possible.”