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By John Helmer, Moscow

Did the Russian espionage operation at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague last April succeed before the Dutch counter-intelligence agents stopped it and caught the Russian agents? 

Did the report of an OPCW laboratory investigation of the Skripal poisoning, released publicly in Moscow the day after the Dutch arrests, reveal that by computer hacking the Russians were able to prove that OPCW’s Technical Secretariat and former Secretary-General Ahmet Üzümcü, together with the British Government, had been falsifying the evidence in the Skripal case, and violating the OPCW charter by keeping that evidence secret from OPCW member states?

As announced last week by Dutch and British officials, on April 13 the Dutch arrested four Russians whom they accused of being agents of the Main Directorate of the General Staff, or GRU, as the Russian military intelligence agency is known. The four men were searched; their belongings confiscated; and because they were carrying diplomatic passports, they were expelled. Details of the allegations against them, together with photographs of the alleged evidence, can be read here

According to the Dutch Defence Minister, Ank Bijleveld,  “the Dutch government has decided to take this step [announcing the case six months after the event]  in order to send a clear message to the Russian military intelligence  service that it must put a stop to its undermining cyber operations. By exposing the GRU’s modus operandi we are hampering its operations and simultaneously boosting our own resilience. This is why we have today taken the highly unusual step of publicly identifying these Russian intelligence officers.”

Left: Dutch Defence Minister Ank Biljeveld at her press conference on Russian spying, October 4; Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov replying to the Dutch in Moscow on October 8.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov replied to the Dutch claims at a press conference  on October 8: “there was nothing secret on the trip of the Russian experts to The Hague in April of this year.  It was a routine trip, they didn’t hide – neither when they checked in at the hotel nor when  they arrived in the airport nor when they visited our Embassy. They were detained; nothing was explained to them; they weren’t allowed to contact the Russian representatives of our Embassy in the Netherlands; and they have been asked to leave. Frankly speaking, all this looked like a misunderstanding,  especially as in April, in regard to the incident, no protests or démarches were addressed to us in Moscow, nor undertaken in The Hague.”

Lavrov also revealed that on October 3,  following press leaks in September charging the Russians with cyber espionage, but on the day before the Dutch press conference,  the Russian Ambassador was summoned to the Dutch Foreign Ministry where he was “handed a note of protest concerning this episode with all the charges about which you have learned from mass media… once again we have an example of megaphone diplomacy, an example of the neglect of legal mechanisms which have been created and exist for consideration of problems arising in the relations between any countries, including between the Russian Federation and the Netherlands.”

Left: Alexander Shulgin, Russian Ambassador to The Netherlands and Russian Representative to the OPCW; right, The Netherlands' Ambassador to Russia Renee Jones-Bos, summoned to the Foreign Ministry in Moscow on October 8.

On April 14, the day after the “routine trip” in The Hague, Lavrov announced details from a report by the OPCW contract laboratory in Switzerland, Labor Spiez. According to Lavrov,  an analysis by Spiez of  samples OPCW inspectors had taken in Salisbury, including blood samples from Sergei and Yulia Skripal,   had not substantiated the British allegation that a Russian chemical poison, Novichok A-234, had been used by Russian agents to attack the Skripals on March 4.

The Spiez Laboratory, 40 kilometres south of Bern in central Switzerland,  is one of several contractors to the Technical Secretariat of OPCW; for the laboratory’s website, click to open.  

Lavrov said: “We learned, according to information from the Swiss Centre for Radiological and Chemical-Bacteriological Analysis in the city of Spiez, obtained in conditions of confidentiality, that the experts of the Centre on March 27 completed the study of samples that were sent to them from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which were sampled by the OPCW on the scene in Salisbury”. Lavrov went on: “Traces of the toxic chemical BZ and its precursors relating to chemical weapons of the second schedule in accordance with the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons were found in the samples. BZ is a nerve agent that temporarily incapacitates a person, the psychotoxic effect is achieved in 30-60 minutes and lasts up to four days.”

The Convention lists BZ — Agent Buzz in US Army jargon — as a toxic chemical in its Second Schedule. The military use of BZ suggests it is incapacitating, not lethal. Depending on the chemical concentration, BZ has also been used for medical purposes. The US National Academy of Sciences reports that “it produces anticholinergic delirium, a non-specific syndrome of cognitive dysfunction, hallucinations, and inability to perform tasks. Inhalation exposure would likely involve an aerosolized solid.”

Reuters reported, also on April 14:  “Lavrov read out parts of the report that he said showed the substance had traces of the BZ agent. ‘This formulation was in the inventory of the United States, Britain and other NATO states,’ Lavrov said, at an assembly of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy… the report from the Swiss lab mentioned no nerve agents by name, such as Novichok, but instead gave a long chemical formula that points to a substance that has been developed by many countries. ‘We, as you understand, have abilities to receive confidential information. And as this information concerns questions of life and death, we won’t keep this information secret,’ Lavrov said.

Lavrov said the Swiss laboratory also identified a high concentration of A-234 agent, known as Novichok. Such a concentration would have quickly resulted in Skripal’s death, Lavrov said. ‘Taking into account its (A-234) high volatility, the issue of identification of this poisoning substance in its initial state and in high concentration by specialists at the Spiez (research) center seems to be very suspicious,’ Lavrov said.”

Click to read in full: https://www.reuters.com/

Lavrov intended experts to understand that when he referred to Russian “abilities to receive confidential information”, he was referring to espionage.  He was not denying that the Skripal samples delivered by the OPCW to Spiez contained A-234 (Novichok). However, he implied this had been added after the original samples had been obtained because the time lapse since exposure on March 4 ought to have degraded the concentration level reported, and because, had the Skripals  been exposed,  the dose would have been fatal. Lavrov’s statement was explicit that the chemical agent to which the Skripals were exposed in Salisbury was BZ.

Two days later on April 16, Lavrov repeated the Spiez evidence in an interview with the BBC:

Watch the BBC interview in full -- https://www.youtube.com/

By then, however, the Spiez laboratory had responded by tweeting that it was up to OPCW, not Spiez, to confirm or deny the contents of the Spiez report on the Skripal samples. The Spiez tweet was not a denial of Lavrov’s disclosure of the Spiez report.  It also evaded the two forensic issues which Lavrov’s public reading of the Spiez report had pinpointed: was BZ identified in the Skripal samples? Was the concentration of Novichok A-234 too high to be present in the Skripals’ blood without killing them?

Source: https://twitter.com/spiezlab/ The Swiss state news agency reported: “Swiss lab stays silent on Lavrov poison claims”. 

The Swiss state media also referred to an earlier Swiss newspaper report from a Spiez chemist named Stefan Mogl. “The institute added that ‘everything we can publicly say is in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung article’. In the same post, they retweeted the article in which Mogl said the UK findings were credible and the British laboratory’s reputation  ‘indisputable’.” Mogl’s remarks were published on April 5 in Neue Zurcher Zeitung. 

Mogl (right), who identified himself with NATO investigations of alleged chemical warfare incidents in Syria, told the Zurich newspaper: “I have no doubt that the [British Porton Down] lab has properly measured [the Salisbury evidence] and it really concerns Novichok.” However, unreported since, is the newspaper dateline. April 5. Mogl was giving a general endorsement of Porton Down. He did not say he had examined the samples sent to Spiez before March 27, when Lavrov’s copy of the laboratory report was dated.  According to the newspaper, “two trusted labs of the OPCW network [one of them Spiez] are evaluating them currently [April 5]; their findings should be already given in the beginning of the next week [April 9].” Mogl has not been reported in the Swiss press after Lavrov’s disclosure of the Spiez report had identified BZ and A-234. Mogl, a Swiss educated in the UK, served for most of his career at the OPCW. 

The Neue Zurcher Zeitung reported Lavrov’s disclosures from the Spiez report on April 16.   The headline acknowledged that “half the truth” about the poisoning agent was available to the public.

“ ‘The plot thickens’, as the British are in the habit of saying if an exciting crime film suddenly takes a bewildering twist, and the reader does not know any longer what he should believe now. Could it be that the real attack was committed in Salisbury with BZ? The Spiez lab takes no stand on this question. This is clear, because the case is completely politicised, and the experts in the Bern highlands do not want to be looked at as instruments during an east-west war of information.”

The OPCW session on April 18, to which Lavrov and the Spiez lab tweet referred, ignored the challenge to corroborate the British allegations with the technical reports.    

In the days which followed, a fresh press campaign opened in Switzerland. Tages Anzeiger reported  in Zurich on April 19, followed by Tribune de Geneve  on April 20, that the Spiez laboratory report read out by Lavrov was, in the headline, fake news; the sources cited by the reporters did not confirm that. According to the Zurich and Geneva newspapers, a spokesman for the Swiss defence ministry, Urs Wiedmer, announced:   “it is clear that the Spiez Laboratory has not given [the report] information to Russia.”  A Swiss representative at OPCW, Nadine Olivieri Lozan, was quoted as saying: “Such actions [Lavrov’s] weaken the credibility and integrity of this organization and are absolutely unacceptable. The agreements on confidentiality between the OPCW and its designated laboratories exist precisely to guarantee the impartiality of the analysis.”

The OPCW had already redefined its charter on confidentiality to stop the release of the laboratory reports on the Skripal samples. For how this was done, read this

According to the Tribune de Geneve report of April 20, Lavrov’s reading of the Spiez report was half-right, half-wrong. “Marc-Michel Blum [right], who runs the laboratory of OPCW, officially excludes  that the famous substance BZ  was found in the samples taken in Salisbury. ‘This substance was contained in a control sample prepared by OPCW in keeping with the existing procedures for quality control.’  When it sends samples for analysis to its laboratories, OPCW indeed accompanies them with control samples,  to identify substances other than the one which interests them directly, to blur the traces, so that the researchers do not know what is the ‘true’ sample.”

Blum produces Twitter feed  in which he calls himself: “(Bio)chemist who tries to save the world from the bad guys messing around with chemical weapons.”

Blum’s acknowledgement accounts for BZ; it fails to account for the lethal concentration of Novichok more than two weeks after the exposure incident. Blum also went halfway towards Lavrov’s reading of the Spiez report that tampering may have occurred between the “control” and “true” samples – or if not tampering, significant differences of forensic  interpretation. Because the OPCW has refused to circulate the laboratory reports to the OPCW member delegations, or publish  them in the media to which Blum and other OPCW and Spiez officials have given interviews, it is impossible to say what the evidence means. It is equally impossible to say that the Russian espionage operation had resulted in a fabrication of the Spiez report.

In June the Swiss press first confirmed that two months earlier, in April, there had been Russian hacking into the Spiez laboratory computers. On June 19, after the Swiss reports of Russian hacking appeared, Blum tweeted: “Tighten security, do some impromptu audits and be vigilant when encountering seemingly innocuous attachments.”

In mid-September the Swiss press amplified on the hacking story, reporting from the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service (FIS) that two Russians had  been caught spying electronically on the Spiez laboratory.  The Tribune de Geneve claimed Russian agents targeting Spiez had been detected six times in and around Geneva.

At the time the Spiez Laboratory spokesman was quoted in the Swiss press as saying he “could not comment on the FIS information. He did, however, confirm that the lab had been targeted by hackers, but added that it was well prepared and that no data was taken.” A Zurich paper claimed at the same time that a Swiss Attorney-General investigation into Russian espionage had been opened “in March 2017 in another context.”

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