Podcasts: Nerve Agent Attack — How Russian Propaganda Exploited a UK #MediaFail

Decontamination personnel in Winterslow, England, March 12, 2018

UPDATE, APRIL 5: In an emergency meeting of the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons on Wednesday, called by Russia, Moscow’s motion that it should be involved in the investigation of the Salisbury nerve agent attack — the attempted assassination of a former spy and his daughter, in which Moscow is the prime suspect — was rejected by a 41-6 vote.

I carried out an additional nine interviews throughout Wednesday, eight of them with BBC radio outlets, to explain the OPCW’s role; the latest politics, information, and disinformation around the case, and what happens next:

Listen to BBC Three Counties

Listen to BBC Ulster

See also Russia and the Nerve Agent Attack: The Weight of Evidence


Russian State propaganda exploited a failure in the UK media on Tuesday, using the lapse to falsely indicate that the British Government had lied when it said Moscow was “culpable” in a March 4 nerve agent attack in southern England.

The episode began innocently with the head of Porton Down, the UK’s research facility for chemical weapons, saying that the attempted assasination of former spy Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia — threatening scores of other people in a Salisbury mall — had been identified as a Novichok-class agent, developed in the Soviet Union from the late 1970s.

Gary Aitkenhead then said that Porton Down had not identified the source of the agent — because their remit was just to establish the nerve agent used, not where it was produced. He explained that this was the responsibility of other Government agencies, i.e., intelligence services such as MI6 and GCHQ.

This clearly set out responsibility, much as a forensic pathologist only establishes cause of death, not who committed the murder.

Listen to Scott Lucas’s interview with BBC Radio Foyle

Listen to Scott Lucas’s interview with talkRADIO from 10:22 in 0630-0700 Segment

But Russian outlets — in their ongoing campaign to cause uncertainty and distance Moscow from any responsibility — quickly distorted Aitkenhead’s remarks. They claimed that the UK now had no idea of possible involvement by Russian officials, and that UK Prime Minister Theresa May had been misleading for indicating this in her statements to Parliament.

Leading British media fell into the trap. The Guardian headlined, “Porton Down Experts Unable to Verify Precise Source of Novichok”. It was only deep in the article that they carried the explanation from a Government spokesperson:

This is only one part of the intelligence picture….This includes our knowledge that within the last decade Russia has investigated ways of delivering nerve agents probably for assassination – and as part of this programme has produced and stockpiled small quantities of novichoks; Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations; and our assessment that Russia views former intelligence officers as targets.

An example of the disinformation campaign of Russia State outlet RT, aided by the former UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray:

And another, using polemicist Neil Clark:

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Scott Lucas is Professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham and editor-in-chief of EA WorldView. He is a specialist in US and British foreign policy and international relations, especially the Middle East and Iran. Formerly he worked as a journalist in the US, writing for newspapers including the Guardian and The Independent and was an essayist for The New Statesman before he founded EA WorldView in November 2008.

29 COMMENTS

  1. Sloppy article Scott.

    You left our the key fact that the lie began with Boris Johnson’s claim that he had spoke to the head of Porton Down, who had assured him there was no doubt the Russians perpetrated the attack. This is not a case of misreporting. Either Johnson lied or the head of Porton Down did.

    Secondly, you claim there is evidence implicating Russia when in the same breath you claim MI6 is still investigating who was responsible. This tells again points out that the British government lied as it has based it’s assessment not on evidence.

    You are also being dishonest about who has stocks of Novichok. For Porton Down to be able to establish that a Novichok was used, it would have to have it’s own stocks of the chemical in order to identify it. Indeed, Portion Down have not denied that such stocks exist, only that it would be impossible to smuggle it out.

    The expulsion of the diplomats by other countries was not done because of concerns about the attack, but as a sigh of solidarity under NATO. European diplomats have admitted they were pressured heavily by Britain to take this action. This was a political move. They were not shown any intelligence, because there isn’t any.
    The government’s story keeps changing, but the conclusion that the Russians did it remains the same. We’ve been told that the Novichok was planted in Yulia Skripal’s suitcase. We were told that it was administered via the air vents in their car. We were told that it was delivered by a weaponized miniature drone. We were told that the Novichok was smeared on the family’s car door handle. Now it’s either the house door or Russian buckwheat cereal, depending on who you’re reading.

    Does that sound like the product of secret intelligence? Seriously Scott, I can’t believe you are swallowing this rubbish.

    Again, you are giving far too much credibility to the May government. The hysterical response to Jeremy Corbyn’s very reasonable arguments suggest that the government’s case is baseless. After the Iraq war lies fed to the public by the brain government, the claim of secret intelligence that the government cannot share with the public no longer passes the smell test.

    • Johnson is a headline-seeking politician who has made a series of erroneous statements in the pursuit of publicity. This is one of them.

      So my analysis has no connection with Johnson. It’s based on the established facts, including Porton Down’s remit.

      The rest of your post is garbled, both in misunderstanding (deliberately or otherwise) what I said or in its mush of assertions and misinformation.

      • Whatever you make of Johnson , he is the foreign secretary, and therefore speaks on behalf of the British government.

        The story being run by RT was connected to the claims made by Johnson, so you cannot simply argue that you are ignoring what he said while accusing RT of misreporting.

        And my point stands with regard to your hollow claims of so called Brights intelligence which you are only guessing at. If the British government are at this stage still unable to even identify how the nerve agent was administered, then that tells us all we need to know about it’s non existence.

    • Shocking. There has never been a Russian crime you weren’t ready to defend with your typical BS. You probably don’t think they murdered Litvinenko either. lol. You make Goebbels look honest and clever by comparison.

      • Shocking. There has never been a anti Russian story you were not willing to swallow. I bet you were first in line to take the blue pill and remain in a perpetual state of ignorance.

        You probably don’t think they murdered Litvinenko either. lol.

        Who’s they?

        • Litvinenko is the former Russian spy that Putin had murdered before Skripal by slipping Polonium into his tea. In this case the British know precisely who did it. It was a Russian agent who scurried off to Russia and is now a MP. Of course you don’t know that though. lol. After that experience the Russians tried to be more sneaky with Skripal, but any rational person can see they were the only ones with motive and the means.

          • Actually there is zero evidence Putin had Litvinenko murdered. In fact, anyone who had slipped anything into his tea would themselves have fallen gravely ill, which is not the case.

  2. So disgusting of The Guardian. Similar to the “soundbite” journalism where Mattis says “we don’t have evidence of Assad WMD use [in the past 30 days]” being re-written by left-leaning journalists as “US Secretary of Defense says no evidence that Assad ever used WMDs”. Why do the Left always side with those who hate western democracy? What happened to classical journalism where truth is to be established irrespective of personal bias? I guess the disease of post-modernism and post-colonialism has made the establishment of factuality irrelevant. After all, they say, the victor writes history, and therefore the truth lies with the victim. That there is no good or bad, right or wrong, and any truth can be constructed and all are equivalent. That the truth can be reconstructed willy nilly by the victor (usually the West) and therefore we should not trust democratic authority.

    It is said that – fake, conspiratorial, or distorted news now dominate facts 3-to-1 on social media. Obviously social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook are not in a position to filter or censor the news on social media. So it is up to users like us to differentiate between fake news/ propaganda, and news that have a solid basis in evidence. That is why we depend on people like Scott to set the record straight.

    • Why do the Left always side with those who hate western democracy?

      What has any of this got to do with western democracy? I was under the impression that western democracy was based on government transparency, the rule of law and the assumption of innocence until proven guilty?

      The absurdity of your comment is that it is defending a conspiracy theory. And need I remind you that those who challenged the lies about Iraq WMD in the lead up to the Iraq war were also attacked for being enemies of western democracy?

      • You said, we should take our conversation offline and you will supply a pointer so we can communicate offline. I asked you to send me this pointer.

        Please don’t get too upset when the real news is not favorable to your country Russia. After all, you can see all the atrocities including rigging elections (assassinating candidates, disqualifying candidates, and blocking their campaigning) that is being committed by Putin. Russian nationalism is bad for your people. Russia’s GDP is lower than Mexico, and Russia is now becoming a 3rd world nation. The only thing that it has, which makes others take Russia seriously, are nuclear tipped ICBMs which it can blackmail the rest of the world. International Mafiaism. And no – liberal and civil opposition to Putin is not going away. As he fails to improve people’s lives, he will be relegated to the trash heap of history.

        • I’m not getting upset by any means Kazemi

          Real news is not favourable to your country US either. That is why the US is regarded as the greatest threat to world peace, even by it’s allies.

          One need only look at the hundreds of thousands murdered by the US throughout the ME. If you want to talk about rigging elections – see Florida in 2000, (assassinating reporters, rampant voter suppression, and rigging primaries) that is being committed by the US. US nationalism is bad for your people. Russia’s economy is growing and becoming increasingly self sufficient thanks to the sanctions. The US is about to face another economic crash. While the US signs 60 billion dollar deals to sell weapons to the most despotic reqimes in the in the world, Russia and China sign 600 billion dollar energy and infrastructure deals. It didn’t secure those deals because of nuclear tipped ICBMs. Russia has Putin, you have a corrupt show host who is the laughing stock of the world. Under Putin, Israel’s GDP per capita increased by an order of magnitude. Under Trump, your country is an oligarchy.

          The reality is that Putin is running rings around your failing empire and it’s driving you crazy.

  3. The similarities between this story and the fake Russia/Trump collusion story are striking.

    In both cases we have seen the government and/or leaks make unsubstantiated claims which are held up by the usual suspects as a smoking gun. When the story inevitably collapses, those same interests scurry back to their bunkers insisting the investigation is on going and that the evidence is on it’s way.

    • So did you lie when you said you will provide me a “pointer” so we may take our discussion offline? Or were you just blowing smoke?

      So what do you know of Hunter Douglas? Nothing at all. You can’t even spell it right. And believe me, people here are interested in that question.

      I think, and I believe Scott agrees, that the original question about the Olgina troll factory — you have answered that in the affirmative.

      Problem is that as Facebook and Twitter and Disqus close down the bot accounts, then more of them are going to come here, as they have nowhere else to go. I bet 75% of all discussion board accounts in Russia are bot accounts controlled by Putin and the oligarchs (such as Putin’s billionaire cook who owns Olgina). That is going to backfire badly for Putin and the oligarchs. Russians can’t be that stupid to let the bot factories govern the internet for too long.

  4. This is getting worse by the hour. The US government is having to delete Tweets that weer blatantly false while hoping no one notices.

    Here’s one such gem from the foreign office.The original tweet said “Analysis by world-leading experts at the Defense Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down made clear that this was a military-grade Novichok nerve agent produced in Russia. ..”
    http://www.moonofalabama.org/images6/fotweet.jpg

    When questioned, the Foreign Office said the post was removed because it “did not accurately report” the words of Laurie Bristow, the UK’s ambassador to Russia, which the tweet was supposed to be quoting.

    The Ambassador to Russia, Dr Laurie Bristow, stated that “There is also no doubt that the Novichok was produced in Russia”.

    This is a blatant lie and Scott cannot dismiss this as a “headline-seeking politician who has made a series of erroneous statements in the pursuit of publicity”

    And yet this blog accuses Russia of misinformation and misreporting.

    The British government has not sunk this low since the Blair lies to war. They are not accusing Russia of not cooperating with the investigation while simultaneously refusing to share any any evidence of samples. In fact, it was the British government that rejected the involvement of the OPCW in the investigation. It only agreed to do so after Russia insisted on it

    • *shrugs*

      The tweet may have been based on Johnson’s grandstanding or a misreport of Bristow’s statement.

      Your last paragraph is a blatant mistake or lie. The UK Government never rejected the OPCW’s involvement; in fact they invited it.

      Keep on spinning.

        • Bristow said, based on UK intelligence (not Porton Down’s scientists), that the Novichok was produced in Russia. That is likely to be correct. (Not sure how a screenshot dramatically changes this, but suit yourself)

          You clearly don’t understand the process of referral to the OPCW in a chemical weapons incident, thus explaining your repetition of the false claim.

          P.S. — You clearly don’t understand the Steele Dossier either, given that much of it has now been corroborated by other sources.

          • Bristow said, based on UK intelligence (not Porton Down’s scientists), that the Novichok was produced in Russia.

            But that is not what he claims in the intel said. The intel claims Russia has produced stocks of it, not that the sample collected from the crime scene was made in Russia.

            P.S. — You clearly don’t understand the Steele Dossier either, given that much of it has now been corroborated by other sources.

            Much? The only parts that have been corroborated were reported prior to the Steele Dossier being produced.

            • Yes, Russia likely has stocks of Novichok.

              And no, you don’t understand what was claimed in the Steele Dossier and the subsequent corroboration of much of it.

    • You’re right. This is getting embarrassing. For you as you deny/spin/justify yet another Russian crime with your usual BS.

    • Stop lying Andre. UK government never denied an OPCW investigation. Not like Russia denying OPCW investigation is Syria.

      So are you going to contact me offline, or do you admit that you are a Russian bot?

      • I am not lying Syria309. The UK government waited a full 10 days before involving the OPCW, which is an extraordinary delay. And Syria did not deny OPCW investigation is Syria. The OPCW refused to send any personnel there citing the dangerous situation on the ground.

        So are you going to contact me offline, or do you admit that you are a Russian bot?

        So are you going to contact me offline, or do you admit that you are a Al Nusra bot?

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