By John Helmer, Moscow
The British government’s scheme of secrecy surrounding the public inquiry into the alleged Novichok attacks against Sergei and Yulia Skripal and Dawn Sturgess in 2018 has been opposed by the BBC and the London Times.
“A requirement for confidentiality undertakings”, a BBC lawyer wrote to the inquiry chairman, Lord Anthony Hughes, in a document released by Hughes’ spokesman last Friday, “is itself an impediment to transparency… as well as general, healthy discourse among legal and editorial colleagues.” David Attfield is the head of the BBC’s programme legal advice department which signed the document. But the name on the signature line has been blacked out. “The media should be trusted to act responsibly,” the BBC told Hughes.
In a letter dated July 1, Brid Jordan, deputy head of the legal department of Times Newspapers Ltd. (TNL), told the Hughes Inquiry her media group “opposes the blanket anonymization of categories of individuals. TNL is particularly concerned that the restrictions are requested to be indefinite with no periodic review of necessity or appropriateness. The restrictions sought have the potential to stifle reporting of a significant inquiry and, as proposed, represent a disproportionate restriction on the fundamental principle of open justice.”
At the close of the letter, Jordan’s name has been kept secret by the Inquiry; the evidence of this is not quite erased.
The state media corporation and the London press group owned by Rupert Murdoch have led the British government’s efforts to accuse the Russian military intelligence agency GRU, and President Vladimir Putin personally, of launching the Novichok chemical warfare weapon against British targets.
The BBC’s dramatized retelling of the Russian cause of Sturgess’s death, titled “The Salisbury Poisonings” was broadcast in June 2020. This followed fabrication of evidence in interviews and a book released by a BBC correspondent and MI6 informant, Mark Urban.
The BBC and the Murdoch media have refused to interview the Skripals for their account of what allegedly happened to them in Salisbury on March 4, 2018. They have also failed to report or investigate the announcement, which Dawn Sturgess’s family made public through their lawyer on July 15, that they suspect British officials, prosecutors, and police of fabricating the Novichok story.
The Hughes Inquiry was appointed in March of this year to replace the four year-old coroner’s court inquest in order to avoid the requirement in British coronial law prohibiting evidence in secret. For details, open the book; and for the record Lord Hughes has been making since he began hearings in March, click to read.
The government’s lawyer told Hughes in court on July 15 that secrecy of documents and other evidence, as well as witnesses, is required because the Russian government may send cyberwar weapons and assassins to threaten, capture or destroy the evidence.
Left to right: Lord Anthony Hughes, the Dawn Sturgess Inquiry chairman; Sergei Skripal, designated core participant in the Inquiry; and Georgina Wolfe, lawyer representing the Home Office and other government agencies, including the Secret Intelligence Service, the Defence Ministry’s chemical warfare laboratories at Porton Down; and the Cabinet Office.
“Russia’s cyber capability,” said Georgina Wolfe , “when combined with its willingness to deploy that capability in a malicious capacity, is a matter of grave concern and poses an immediate and urgent threat to our national security. And it goes on. That all applies to the present application;” ” Wolfe was speaking for the security and intelligence services. “The attacks on Alexander Litvinenko and the Skripals demonstrate that Russia’s intelligence services have conducted reckless criminal attacks on UK soil with the deliberate aim of murdering UK residents… In our submission, this shows that there is a very real risk of harm to the relevant staff and others and a risk of damage to national security if the relevant names are disclosed. That risk is substantial and immediate. Revealing the names would provide Russia, but also hostile foreign intelligence services, terrorists and capable non-state actors, with a target list of the most highly cleared individuals in the Government, with the most relevant knowledge and expertise into the sensitive matters being investigated by the Inquiry. It would endanger the safety, privacy and careers of those Government staff. It would increase the UK’s vulnerability to espionage and foreign targeting of the Government and the military, especially by Russia but also by others. This would increase the threat to the UK of future attacks and would endanger our national security. These risks must, in my submission, weigh heavily in the balance. They are risks that cannot be mitigated. Making a restriction order, however, would avoid and significantly reduce the serious risk of harm and damage.”
In a written submission to Hughes, HMG (Her Majesty’s Government) said it wants him to sign “restriction notices” to keep secret eight categories of “themes, issues or information”. But even this list, the government is insisting to the Inquiry Legal Team (ILT), “is not comprehensive”.
In a single bulletin issued after the July 15 hearing and the subsequent release of documents, the BBC reported “lawyers for the Government and police said there were ‘special sensitivities’ which presented ‘significant challenges’ to evidence being provided. The identity and whereabouts of the suspects and the current political landscape were factors which had added to these challenges, the lawyers said…Several individuals involved in the investigation are expected to seek anonymity for their own protection.”
The Times has not reported on the Hughes Inquiry at all. Its last report on Dawn Sturgess was published last November. The newspaper’s most recent report on the Skripals appeared eight months earlier, on March 21, 2021; that repeated allegations presented to NATO by Sir Mark Sedwill in April 2018; at the time Sedwill was Cabinet Secretary and National Security Advisor in charge of the Novichok operation. The Times also gave three favourable reviews to the BBC’s film, “The Salisbury Poisonings”, commenting “it’s unlikely there’ll be a more moving moment on TV this week.”
Sir Mark Sedwill told the NATO Secretary-General by letter in April 2018: “We have information indicating Russian intelligence service interest in the Skripals dating back at least as far as 2013, when email accounts belonging to Yulia Skripal were targeted by GRU cyber specialists.” The allegation was put into the Sturgess inquest evidence and quoted in court by the inquest counsel, Andrew O’Connor QC, on March 30, 2021 – see the transcript, page 33.
At the July 15 hearing Lord Hughes told Wolfe “I quite understand that, to the extent that there is a risk either of personal targeting, which there might be, or absent personal targeting, nevertheless with providing potential hostile actors of any kind with a helpful directory of personnel.”
The lawyer for the police, Jason Beer QC, told Hughes the rationale for tight secrecy in the public inquiry is the conclusion the police have already reached that the Novichok allegations against the Russians are to be accepted from the beginning, and that the evidence should be kept secret so that the Russians can’t attack again. “The underlying subject matter of the inquiry involves the attempted assassination of an agent by a hostile foreign state, using a chemical weapon, a military grade nerve agent, on UK soil, in a cathedral city in the south of England. Second, the inquiry requires investigation, by its terms of reference and its provisional scope, into responsibility for the attempted assassination, including the involvement of Messrs Petrov, Boshirov and Sergeev, the source of the Novichok and Russian state responsibility for it. Thirdly, the geopolitical political landscape in which this inquiry is being held, includes, as you have heard, the devotion of disproportionately large and powerful resources by Russia to its intelligence services in circumstances where Russia considers the UK to be one of its top intelligence targets and a key adversary; and it has proven recent intent and capability to carry out attacks. That is not a feature or a collection of features that has been seen in the past.”
Hughes asked whether the police and other lawyers in court “doubt the proposition that… in a case where the possible activity of a hostile state with enormous cyber resources is involved, those – let’s take for example the counter-terrorism police in Mr Beer’s application – to provide a ready-made directory of those to potential hostile actors would be to court an unacceptable risk?”
When told there is no doubt about this risk, Hughes replied: “All right…Thank you”, and closed the hearing. A secret session was then held, although its date has been kept secret.
On July 19, Hughes issued orders for the lawyers to send him additional proposals for the scheme of secrecy they are now calling a “confidentiality ring” before August 3.