Veil of secrecy may soon be lifted on Novichok nerve agent used to attack Skripal

Sergei SkripalThe chemical structure and action mechanism of a top-secret family of nerve agents known as novichoks may soon be available to a wider pool of researchers through its inclusion into the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) list of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The term novichok (meaning ‘newbie’ in Russian) was given by Western scientists to a class of rarely used nerve agents that were developed in the Soviet Union and Russia between 1971 and the early 1990s.

The first public discussion about the existence of these agents took place in the early 1990s, when Vil Mirzayanov, a chemical warfare expert working for the Soviet military, revealed their existence. However, Western intelligence agencies have discouraged public scientific research on these nerve agents, fearing that such activities could reveal their chemical structure and mechanism of action. That could in turn facilitate the proliferation of novichok nerve agents worldwide.

But this attitude shifted drastically after March 2018, when —according to British intelligence— Russian spies used novichok in an attempt to kill Sergei Skripal, a Russian defector to Britain. The British government claims that Russians spies smuggled novichok into Britain by hiding it inside an imitation perfume bottle.

The attempt on Skripal’s life failed, but it prompted the United States, Canada and the Netherlands to propose that two categories of novichoks be chemically identified and added to the CWC list of Schedule 1 chemical weapons. If that were to happen, members of the OPCW —including Russia— would be required to declare and promptly destroy any stockpiles of novichoks in their possession.

Russia’s initial reaction was to oppose the proposal by the United States, Canada and the Netherlands. The Russian OPCW delegation questioned the proposal’s scientific validity and dismissed it as politically motivated. However, according to a report published yesterday in the leading scientific journal Science, Moscow has now agreed with the proposal to list two classes of novichoks in the CWC list, and even proposed adding a third class of the obscure nerve agent to the list. Russia also proposed the inclusion into the CWC list of two families of carbamates —organic compounds with insecticide properties, which the United States is reputed to have included in its chemical weapons arsenal during the Cold War.

According to the Science report, the OPCW Executive Council has already approved Russia’s proposal, which means that the organization is now close to classifying novichoks as Schedule 1 nerve agents. If this happens, academic researchers in the West and elsewhere will be able for the first time to collaborate with defense laboratories in order to research the chemical structure, as well as the mechanism of action, of novichoks. This is likely to produce computer models that will shed unprecedented light on the symptoms of novichoks and the various methods of treating them. But they will also provide information about the chemical structure of the nerve agent, which may eventually lead to proliferation concerns.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 October 2019 | Permalink

Reports allege third man was involved in poisoning of Sergei Skripal

Sergei SkripalNew reports from Russian investigative sites claim that a third man using a fake name was involved in the attempted assassination of former double spy Sergei Skripal in England last year. Skripal, a former military intelligence officer, was resettled in the English town of Salisbury in 2010, after spending several years in a Russian prison for spying on behalf of Britain. But he and his daughter Yulia almost died in March 2018, after they were poisoned with a powerful nerve agent that nearly killed them. The attack has been widely blamed on the Russian government, though the Kremlin denies it had any role in it. Two assailants have so far been identified by British intelligence. They have been named as Dr. Alexander Yevgenyevich Mishkin —cover name ‘Alexander Petrov’— and Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga —cover name ‘Ruslan Boshirov’. Both are said to be employees of the Russian military intelligence agency known as the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, commonly referred to as the GRU. The two men spoke on Russian television last year, denying any involvement in the attack on the Skripals. Their whereabouts since their television interview remain unknown. Moscow denies that it had any role in the attack.

In October of last year, the Russian investigative news site Fontanka claimed that a third man under the name of Sergey Fedotov, may have been involved in the attack on Skripal. Last Thursday, another Russian investigative news site, Bellingcat, said that the name Sergey Fedotov appears to have been created out of thin air for operational purposes by Russia’s intelligence services. According to Bellingcat, Fedotov appears to have no past prior to 2010, when his identity was invented using the same techniques that the fake identities of ‘Petrov’ and ‘Boshirov’ were concocted by the GRU. Moreover, Fedotov’s records show that he traveled extensively in the Middle East, Asia and Europe between 2010 and 2015. The Russian news site claims that he was in Bulgaria in late April 2015, when Emilian Gebrev, a wealthy local defense industry entrepreneur, fell violently ill. Gebrev was hospitalized for signs of poisoning along with his son and one of his company’s executives for several days, eventually making a full recovery. As the Bulgarian businessman was being taken to hospital, Fedotov skipped his return flight out of Sofia and instead drove to Istanbul, Turkey, where he bought a one-way airline ticket to Moscow, says Bellingcat.

The BBC’s Gordon Corera said he contacted the Russian embassy in London and the Kremlin in Moscow. Both sources strongly refuted the Bellingcat report. A Kremlin spokesman cautioned the BBC to be skeptical about Bellingcat’s report, since “we don’t know what [its] authors based their work on [or] how competent they are”. British Police told Corera that they were “still investigating whether further suspects were involved” in the attack on Skripal and were “not prepared to discuss” details pertaining to “an ongoing investigation”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 February 2019 | Permalink

Nerve agent used in Skripal attack ‘could have killed thousands’ say experts

GRUThe amount of poison smuggled into Britain for a near-fatal attack on Russian former spy Sergei Skripal was powerful enough to kill “thousands of people”, according those leading the investigation into the incident. Skripal, a former military intelligence officer, was resettled in the English town of Salisbury in 2010, after spending several years in a Russian prison for spying for Britain. But he and his daughter Yulia almost died in March of this year, after being poisoned by a powerful nerve agent that nearly killed them. The attack has been widely blamed on the Russian government, though the Kremlin denies that it had a role in it.

Investigators from Britain and other Western countries have identified the poison used in the attack on the Skripals as novichok. The term (meaning ‘newbie’ in Russian) was given by Western scientists to a series of rarely used nerve agents that were developed the Soviet Union and Russia between 1971 and the early 1990s. It is believed that the poison was smuggled into the United Kingdom hidden inside an imitation perfume bottle, which had been fitted with a custom-made pump used to apply the poison. British authorities have determined that the assailants sprayed the poison on the doorway —including the handle— of the Skripals’ house in Salisbury. They then discarded the perfume bottle, containing the leftover novichok, in a garbage can before leaving the country in a hurry. The bottle was eventually recovered by Salisbury resident Charlie Rowley. His partner, Dawn Sturgess, died of poisoning after she applied some of the contents of the bottle on her wrists. British government scientists have since been examining the contents of the perfume bottle found inside Sturgess’ home.

On Thursday, BBC Television’s Panorama investigative program aired an episode entitled “Salisbury Nerve Agent Attack: The Inside Story”. Among those interviewed was Dean Haydon, a British Deputy Assistant Commissioner who is leading the ongoing investigation into the Salisbury attack. He told Panorama that “a significant amount” of novichok was left behind by the assailants inside the discarded perfume bottle. The amount of poison in the discarded bottle could have been used to kill “thousands”, he said, adding that the way it was applied to the Skripals’ home was “completely reckless”. The BBC program’s producers also spoke to a British government chemical weapons scientist, identified only as “Tim”, who is credited with having identified the substance used on the Skripals. He told the program that less than 100g of novichok was used against the Skripals, leaving the vast majority of the nerve agent inside the bottle. Given that novichok is “one of the deadliest substances known”, which has a “unique ability to poison individuals at very low concentrations”, the scientist said he was shocked by the amount of poison that was smuggled into Britain by the assailants.

The assailants have been identified by British intelligence as Dr. Alexander Yevgenyevich Mishkin (cover name “Alexander Petrov”) and Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga (cover name “Ruslan Boshirov”). Both men are said to be employees of the Russian military intelligence agency known as the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, commonly referred to as the GRU. Moscow denies that it had any role in the attack on the Skripals.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 November 2018 | Permalink

Prominent Putin critic poisoned with unknown substance, say doctors

Vladimir Kara-MurzaA prominent member of the Russian opposition and vocal critic of the Kremlin, is fighting for his life in a Moscow hospital as a result of “acute poisoning from an undefined substance”, according to his doctors. Vladimir Kara-Murza, 35, is a senior figure in the Open Russia Foundation, a political pressure group founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Khodorkovsky, an ultra-wealthy Russian businessman who was once estimated to be worth over $15 billion, has been living in Switzerland since 2013. Immediately prior to that, he served a 10-year prison sentence in Russia for tax evasion. In 2013, Kara-Murza was a member of a network of Putin critics who helped organize opposition protests in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. He also co-authored a number of reports accusing the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin of corruption.

For several years now, Kara-Murza, his wife and three young children have been living in the United States. But he frequently travels back to Russia to meet with opposition activists and other organizers. For the past few weeks, Kara-Murza had been traveling in his homeland to help launch a new documentary film about the life and death of scientist and opposition figure Boris Nemtsov. Nemtsov served as Russia’s deputy prime minister for a few months in 1998, under Russian President Boris Yeltsin. After 2000, he became a vocal critic of the Putin administration. In late February 2015, Nemtsov was shot four times in the back and killed while walking with his girlfriend near Moscow’s Red Square. Opposition groups, including members of the Open Russia Foundation, claim that his murder was organized by the Kremlin.

Kara-Murza’s wife, Yevgeniya, said yesterday that her husband woke up suddenly in the early hours of last Thursday, finding it difficult to breathe. He was rushed to a Moscow hospital where he has been under a medically induced coma since Tuesday. His family said that, while visiting Russia in 2015, Kara-Murza was hospitalized with similar symptoms, and was diagnosed with “kidney failure in connection with poisoning”. He later claimed that he survived an attempt on his life by people in power who wanted to silence him. This time, said Kara-Murza’s wife, the family has sent blood samples to specialists in Israel and France, hoping that the poison that is allegedly inside his body can be identified.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 February 2017 | Permalink

Did Pakistan poison the CIA station chief in Islamabad?

US embassy Islamabad PakistanA leading article in The Washington Post suggests that the United States Central Intelligence Agency suspected that its most senior officer in Pakistan was poisoned by the host country’s intelligence services, in an attempt to kill him. The CIA pulled its station chief from Islamabad in the summer of 2011, two months after Operation NEPTUNE SPEAR, which saw the killing in Abbottabad of al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. The CIA official, who has since been identified as Mark Kelton, acted as the senior US intelligence representative in the Asian country. He had assumed the post, which was supposed to last at least two years, only seven months earlier. His abrupt removal raised questions, which were informally answered by Langley. There were rumors that Kelton’s return to the US was health-related, but that the decision to replace him was also affected by his extremely poor relations with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, Pakistan’s powerful spy service.

On Thursday, however, The Washington Post’s Greg Miller said in a leading article that Kelton’s illness, which led to his replacement, had been so violent that it led him and others in the CIA to suspect that he had been poisoned. Prior to replacing him, the Agency had repeatedly flown the official back to the US for medical treatment, which proved fruitless. Eventually, some at Langley began to examine the possibility that the Pakistanis had poisoned Kelton, at a time when relations between the CIA and the ISI had sunk to unprecedented lows. Miller cites unnamed US intelligence officials who confirmed that the CIA had strong suspicions that Kelton had been deliberately poisoned. Even if the suspicions were groundless, said Miller, “the idea that the CIA and its station chief considered the ISI capable of such an act suggests that the breakdown in trust [between the two agencies] was even worse than widely assumed”.

Kelton has since recovered and assumed the post of deputy director for counterintelligence at the CIA before retiring from the Agency. The 59-year-old has since revealed his CIA background and even spoke with Miller on the phone as the Post correspondent was preparing his story. Although he declined Miller’s request for a detailed interview, the former CIA Islamabad station chief said that the initial suspicions about his poisoning “did not originate with” him. He added, however, that he would “rather let that whole episode lie”. The CIA told Miller that it had not uncovered any concrete evidence that the elements in the Pakistani government had poisoned Kelton. The embassy of Pakistan in Washington told The Washington Post that Miller’s story was “fictional and not worthy of comment”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 May 2016 | Permalink

Forensic experts to probe alleged poisoning of Nobel Laureate poet Neruda

Pablo NerudaTwo teams of international experts will examine the exhumed remains of Chilean Nobel Laureate poet Pablo Neruda, who some say was deliberately injected with poison by the Chilean intelligence services. The literary icon died on September 23, 1973, less than two weeks after a coup d’état, led by General Augusto Pinochet, toppled the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, a Marxist who was a close friend of Neruda. The death of the internationally acclaimed poet, who was 69 at the time, was officially attributed to prostate cancer and the effects of acute mental stress caused by the military coup. In 2013, however, an official investigation was launched into Neruda’s death following allegations that he had been murdered.

The investigation was sparked by comments made by Neruda’s personal driver, Manuel Araya, who said that the poet had been deliberately injected with poison while receiving treatment for cancer at the Clinica Santa Maria in Chilean capital Santiago. According to Araya, General Pinochet ordered Neruda’s assassination after he was told that the poet was preparing to seek political asylum in Mexico. The Chilean dictatorship allegedly feared that Neruda would seek to form a government-in-exile and oppose the regime of General Pinochet. Last year, Spanish newspaper El País said it had been given access to a report prepared by Chile’s Ministry of the Interior, which allegedly argues that it was unlikely that Neruda’s death was the “consequence of his prostate cancer”. According to the paper, the document states that it was “manifestly possible and highly probable” that the poet’s death was the outcome of “direct intervention by third parties”. The report also explains that Neruda’s alleged murder resulted from a fast-acting substance that was injected into his body or entered it orally.

On Wednesday, it was announced that two teams of genomics and forensic experts, one in Canada and one in Denmark, will examine Neruda’s bones and teeth in an effort to extract fragments of bacterial DNA. According to reports, the experts hope that the extracted DNA will provide them with genomic data that can help identify pathogenic bacteria. That, in turn, could help establish a possible cause of death. The two teams are based at the Ancient DNA Center at McMaster University in Canada and the Department of Forensic Medicine at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 February 2016 | Permalink | News tip: R.W.

Ex-KGB spy accused of Litvinenko murder says MI6 tried to recruit him

Andrei Lugovoi A Russian former intelligence officer, who is accused by the British government of having killed another Russian former spy in London, said the British intelligence services tried to recruit him in 2006. British government prosecutors have charged Andrei Lugovoi with the killing of Alexander Litvinenko, a former employee of the Soviet KGB and one of its successor agencies, the FSB. In 2006, Litvinenko died in London, where he had defected with his family in 2000, following exposure to the highly radioactive substance Polonium-210. In July of 2007, the British government charged Lugovoi and another Russian, Dmitri Kovtun, with the murder of Litvinenko, and expelled four Russian diplomats from London. Last week, following the conclusion of an official inquest into the former KGB spy’s death, the British government took the unusual step of summoning the Russian ambassador to London, to file an official complaint about Moscow’s refusal to extradite Lugovoi and Kovtun to the United Kingdom.

But Lugovoi, who is now a member of the Russian Duma, denies any involvement in Litvinenko’s murder and has dismissed as “completely absurd” the inquest’s conclusion that he was behind the killing. Speaking last week on Russian television, Lugovoi reiterated his criticism of the report and claimed British intelligence had tried to recruit him shortly before Litvinenko’s murder. The Duma member was a guest on This Evening, a high-profile talk show on Russia’s Channel 1 television, hosted by Vladimir Sovolyev, a popular television personality and talk show host. Lugovoi told Sovolyev that he found it interesting that the British government “was always happy to grant me visas” to travel to the UK, even though London knew he was a former KGB spy. “Then, in May of 2006”, approximately six months before Litvinenko was killed, “MI6 tried to recruit me”, he added. He was referring to the Secret Intelligence Service, Britain’s primary external intelligence organization.

The former KGB officer then reiterated his longstanding argument that he and Kovtun were also poisoned by the same Polonium given to Litvinenko by the person or persons who killed him. He told Sovolyev that, after meeting Litvinenko in London a few days before his death, he fell violently ill and had to spend several months in a Russian hospital recovering from radiation poisoning. Lugovoi also hinted that the British government may have killed Litvinenko for reasons of its own. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not comment on Lugovoi’s statement, but said in a press release that London’s accusations against the two former spies were “politically motivated” and “non-transparent”. The UK maintains that Lugovoi and Kovtun fell ill because they did not handle the Polonium given to them by their handlers with the appropriate amount of care.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 January 2016 | Permalink