The curious case of "Project Foliant"

PART III —  The curious story of the 'Novichoks' 

ARTICLE UPDATED on weekly basis, as new information & aspects are made known."Snippets curator" of information, articles on the Salisbury poisoning incident.  Part I — Curious Case of the Salisbury poisonings, Part II — taking measures.

The recent incident is intriguing on a number of levels,  especially on the lack of coherent details on the chemical product itself. 

  • The UK government statement that the posioning was due to a  chemical substance "developed by Russia", first said on 8th March; then 'Novichok' was mentioned in a UK statement on the 12th.  As of 31 March, the police still do not have a method of delivery but suspect a location, the front door of the Skripals' house.
  • The asssertation by the UK government & Main Stream Media (MSM) that Russia is responsible beyond all doubt, ignoring any other possibilities; 
  • The insistence of the UK MSM to push the UK government narrative, totally ignoring a range of publicly available information relating to  'Novichok', skipping over other intriguing and scandalous aspects.
  • The UK authorities' inability to define more precisely the substance, using vague language: 'Novichok'- type, does not match recent scientist research on Chemical Weapons (CW).  Anonymous UK officials have mentioned A-234 but that's it.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May hastily singled out Russia as 'highly likely' to be the culprit. “Should there be no credible response, we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the U.K.” 

The now ex-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, President Trump, French president Macron and Angela Merkel all joined in the accusations against Russia as the only suspect. Tillerson said to US reporters:

This is a substance that is known to us and does not exist widely,”... “It is only in the hands of a very, very limited number of parties. And I don’t want to say anything further than that.”

But the fact that Novichok type substances are in the hands of "limited parties' and derivatives synthesised by Iranian scientists in 2016, doesn't make the UK media look good, does it by persistently singling out Russia. That's the first of a series of oddities in this story. It also make the UK government line on 'developed by Russia' a total lie.

Actually, there is an even greater potential scandal, flagged up by the curious poisonings in Salisbury, but one that has been consistently & methodically buried by the West for decades now.

1. Background

The 4th March incident in the UK took place at a moment when the relations between the UK and Russia are already ‘poisoned’, with a level of rhetoric directed at Russia that is incredibly acrimonious.   Nearly a month later, with a round of  coordinated diplomatic expulsions, with some allies were more willing than others to do this than others.  Other states more reluctant & those taking the time to assess the situation are being pressurised to 'step in line' and kick out Russian diplomats.

The UK police as yet do have not a culprit, or have a motive or have not been able to confirmed how exactly the nerve agent was administered.  We had the suitcase, a present from Moscow, a bouquet of flowers, car vents theories and now the door handle as likely locations for the initial poisonings. There is so far no substantial evidence to prove the allegations of who carried out the attack, nor is there a manhunt or likely perpetrator. 

The UK government has put itself in a very hostile position following the 4th March incident and there are no signs of this decreasing even a little bit.  The line taken in the 2nd week of March by the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May said: “no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian state was culpable“.   

First openly recorded Successful Novichok Synthesis was in 2016 by Iranian scientists, in Cooperation with the OPCW, which totally contradicts this assertion by a UK CW expert and the UK governmental also. 

The Guardian - headline

The vague language used by UK official  rests on this phrase, “of a type developed by Russia”, contradicts totally the legal "due process" 

It’s all a little unclear,’ one expert said about Novichoks.  Indeed, it quite remarkable that if after 16 years in the making, it is still unclear even to top experts, maybe there is something  strange about all of this. 

Maybe somewhere in all this haziness, this vagueness, especially in scientific circles, there is a false trail of deception, to make out that Novichok is a feared nerve-agent, continued suppression or hiding some unpalatable information from the public eye.

 The curious story  of Project 'Foliant'

So how do we know it was ‘Novichok’? There are those say it is a ‘calling card’, that just happened to be the same substance mentioned in several episodes of the far-fetched British-American spy drama Strike Back only just recently shown both in the US  & UK.  

(I get the impression that this latest CW threat has shades of a re-run of the glass canister "brainfart idea" by a civil servant, apparently taken out from the film "The Rock", which came out during the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraqi WMD dossier).

Anyway I digress.

The same ‘Novichok’ type generation of nerve agents, that the Russian ex military chemist, Vil Mirzayanov, first asserted its existence back in the early 90’s in a Russian newspaper, as belonging to 'third-generation" nerve agents: 'Project Foliant'. 

Excerpt from Viewpoint: Converting former soviet chemical weapons plants (Tucker, b. 2008)

In the mid 1990s, a number of CW scientists moved to the West, ‘defectors’,  including one who apparently had intimate knowledge of these Russian CW projects.  One individual now living in the US, is Vil Mirzayanov, who published a book called ‘State Secrets’ with information on ‘Novichok”in 2008, where the 'Novichok' was detailed.

Because Mirzayanov had publicly told the whole of Moscow and journalists about the CW programme based at GOSNIIOKHT, where he worked, he was arrested, jailed and later released, due the Western publicity. He subsequently emigrated to the US in 1995.  Here is an extract from the "tell all" book on the Novichok programme by Vil Mirzayanov, (a bit more about him later), which details the types of the 'Novichok' family of nerve agents:

"A-230  A-232     binary agents  -novkhok-S ? - novichok-5 -novichok-7 -novichok-t"

What kind of 'compelling evidence" actually exists that a ‘Novichok’ type chemical agent is out there?  

Some clues are given by the GOSNIIOKHT Russian scientists  that were involved in the initial programme. According to one of them, Vladimir Uglev refers to four types, "only the last one, D-1980, can be in powder form. The other three are liquid." Interesting to note that the Russian scientist refers to a letter followed by 4 numbers, whereas Mirzayanov's version is referred by one letter followed by 3 numbers. Uglev also stated that he handled foliant nerve agents for the last time in 1990.

Given that the topic of 'Project Foliant' first came into prominence in 1991, the subject of 'Novichoks' has now been lingering within the CW expertise and academia for several decades now.  BUT, (here comes the but), curiously, even as late as 13 March, we are being told in articles that little substantial information is known about the Novichok series. According to experts they are "shadowy compounds" and that most of the information provided is an"educated guess".

Apart from being told in various articles that it is a binary CW, an AChE inhibitor, apparently extremely a lethal "military grade nerve agent".  Five to eight times more powerful than more lethal than VX, so we’re being told by UK media and government, (seemingly quoting Science Direct extracts from various books).  

For the record, VX was used to assassinate Kim Jong Nam, in the Kuala Lumpur airport last year, Kim Jong Nam who was dead within two hours. Yet the 'Skripals' are alive and as of the 21st March, the third victim has left hospital, according a police press statement.

What is in the academic papers and articles about Novichoks?   A considerable amount of data may be confidential and unavailable for publication in scientific literature worldwide, thus there are relatively few papers out in the public domain.  
Here it is one example with a CAS number, which is a unique 'tag' given by the Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) "to every chemical substance described in the open scientific literature". Here is the file information on this from NIST, under the heading of VX, (VX?? - interesting the link with Substance 33 as mentioned in the above table).

One example of a cited 'Novichok.'

There are several completely different formulas for the novichoks given in articles, so it is impossible to distinguish which is which, or whether some spoofs have been added. 

"The series of the so-called Novichok (literally, the “newcomer” in Russian) nerve agents based on a carbonimidic phosphorohalide structure." (Guidotti, M. & Trifirò, F. 2015

Here is a radio interview on 'Novichoks' with an US  university professor of organic chemistry, talking about various aspects of organic chemistry, the timeline of event in Salisbury, toxicity, and the complexity of the whole story. 

If we ignore the name of 'Novichok' as some kind of distracting barrier, and start to look at the chemistry, then it the knowledge of this kind of family of substances were known to high level chemists for many decades, (the above extract is from a WHO document in 1970)

Anonymous UK officials mentioned the use of A- 234 in Salisbury, but an UK court document show a different and more vague  interpretation. 

Extract from witness statement to UK court

Again, notice the vague language used by the Porton Down analyst, he or she is hedging their bets, not quite categorically precise enough to pin down one substance, down to its CAS number. 

The Russian Ministry of Defence pointed that this data on this version, seemingly A 234, which is on the NIST database & was published in the US back in 1998

Screenshot of extract from US database

Dennis Rohrbaugh,  a member of the U.S. Army Chemical Research, Edgewood, is mentioned as contributor.  The data was later removed from the database.  

(Sidenote: N-(O--Ethyl fluorophosphoryl)-N',N'-diethyl-acetamidine, (C8H18FN2O2P) — there is only one journal article that mentions this and it is in connection with fungicides).

So when is a 'Novichok' not a 'novichok'? When the West researches the same family, it transforms in to a generic category of either "Fourth Generation Agents" (FGA) or "Non-Traditional Agents" (NTA). It gets a little confusing, when 

 a. the name 'Novichok' tended to be obscured under these other headings or vice versa

 and b. "Project Foliant" was initially cited as third generation of nerve agents.

Essentially there are  2 generic names for a range of new generation nerve agents, in hands of several states, including the US, so for UK officials to suggest that only Russia can develop Novichok is a lie. It is safe to assume that the word 'Novichok' is being used to single out & place Russia into a separate sub-category, for political purposes.

The curious role of Vil Mirzayanov 

Now we are finding more information on Vil Mirzayanov, that paints an interesting outlook on what he has said to the press regarding the Skripal case.  According to a Russian press article dating from 2009, he was mentioned as being the head of the Tartarstan government in exile, which wanted UN-recognition, in other words,  a Tartar separatist,  living in exile in the US.  

Does this not have a bearing on how the 'novichok' incident is being presented in the media? 

Vil Mirzayanov said  recently in a newspaper that the chemical was too dangerous for anyone but a “high-level senior scientist”.  Surprising information, when Iranians unversity scientists were able to synthesise some of the Novichoks derivatives and gave their findings to the OPCW in 2016.

The same could said about sarin, yet criminal elements  were able to carry out attacks on the Tokyo metro by using sarin in 1995. The Aum Shinrikyo cult attacks left 12 dead and just under 5000 hospitalised, in fact showed that non-state actors could make highly lethal nerve agents. 

When referring to the use of CW by ISIS in the Middle East, US General Richard Zahner told AP: “Even a few competent scientists and engineers, given the right motivation and a few material resources, can produce hazardous industrial and weapons-specific chemicals in limited quantities." Oddly, we can see that competent university chemists have been able to work on 'Novichok-types' too, precisely for these fears about the limited tiny doses of CW.

OPCW lack of interest 

Russia officially stopped all its CW programmes back in 1992, with the UK & the US heavily involved in the subsequent verification process. US report on Russian CW destruction - p14 gives a flavour of how the situation was viewed at the highest levels in the US in 2003. The OPCW has verified the destruction of the Russian CW stockpile in 2017 and it stated that "The completion of the verified destruction of Russia's chemical weapons programme is a major milestone in the achievement of the goals of the Chemical Weapons Convention. "

Considering the lethality of the Novichok’ family of binary CW, first announced to public in 1991-1992, at a time when Russia was closing down its CW, I would have thought that itself would trigger alarms at the OPCW, which would have taken an interest in this immediately. But no, the work related to the Chemical Weapons Convention, continued as if 'novichoks' were not a worry.

The current situation with respect to ‘Novichok’ is far from being well-understood, as it has not been added to the list of banned chemicals, which is baffling when you consider that tear gas is also covered under the OPCW’s remit.

OPCW inspectors also visited the once closed Soviet military complex in Nukus, Uzbekistan, where Mirzayanov said that batches of ‘Novichok’ was produced. Yet, the OPCW have just stated "There is no record of the Novichok group of nerve agents having been declared by a State Party to the Chemical Weapons Convention.” 

An article written in 2007 by  Jonathan Tucker highlights the concerns about the missing elements from the CWC, as well as the verification regime & process carried out by the OPCW.  He highlights the facts that certain types of chemical agents & processes are outside the scope of the OPCW, for principally dogmatic reasons. 

The OPCW or other related international bodies would have taken a very serious interest in this decades ago. Especially the OPCW as it is the UN body that covers “all potential candidate chemicals that might be utilised as chemical weapons”. But apparently that was not the case back then in 1991, 1992, or 1995, nor in 2008 with the openly published information by Mirzayanov.  

In fact, judging by this Wikileaks Cable, the opposite happened, here is  US guidance for an "Australian Group" meeting in 2009. 2009

One interesting diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks is headed "AUSTRALIA GROUP: GUIDANCE FOR INFORMAL INTERSESSIONAL MEETING IN LONDON, APRIL 6-7, 2009" .  The "issue is best left to experts in capitals" is a strange one, considering that those who attended the London would have probably CW experts in the delegations, as the "Australia Group" is about CW controls

It also shows that the US officials were deeply uncomfortable about the fact that Vil Mirzayanov published his book in 2008. 

The talking points mentioned in the previous diplomatic cable resurfaced at the end of March 2009, word for word.

So, the US effectively closed down any conversations relating to Mirzayanov's "State Secrets" book, by pretending to be ignorant about the whole thing, (which is farcical really, considering the number of articles published  the mid 90's on the Russian CW and "Project Foliant").  Remember this was taking place at a meeting of the OPCW, involving CW experts.     

The OPCW Validation Group is an international group of scientific experts that meet twice a year to validate the contents of the organisation’s analytical database known as the OPCW Central Analytical Database (OCAD). 

The OCAD is the principle database which OPCW inspectors use for comparing samples and carrying out analysis of chemicals. It therefore includes data relevant to the CWC:

  •  gas chromatography retention index (GC(RI));
  •  infrared (IR), mass spectrometry (MS);
  • nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR);
"4. (S) Del Note: U.S. Del understands from OSD that the UK Ministry of Defense has spoken to its counterparts in the Netherlands and Finland, apprised them of the conversation, and asked each country to provide guidance to its del members not/not to raise this issue in the future. End Note."

The US delegate nudged the UK counterpart (for UK MoD — read Porton Down) to not only politely tell the Dutch & Finnish delegates to desist from talking about 'Novichok" but not to raise the topic in the future. 

 Jump forward another fours years and here is an extract from a 2013 OPCW report:

Regarding new toxic chemicals not listed in the Annex on Chemicals but which may nevertheless pose a risk to the Convention, the SAB makes reference to “Novichoks”. The name “Novichok” is used in a publication of a former Soviet scientist who reported investigating a new class of nerve agents suitable for use as binary chemical weapons. The SAB states that it has insufficient information to comment on the existence or properties of “Novichoks”. 

Note the section on " it has insufficient information to comment on the existence or properties of “Novichoks”. The OPCW report was part of the review process, done every 5 years on the operation of the Chemical Weapons Convention , and 2013 was the third that this review had taken place. 

The timing of the Salisbury does raise an interesting question, as the 4th review of the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) of the OPCW had been taking place this March.  The SAB adopted a report produced in late 2017 this week. 

It is not known how or if the Salisbury event will have an impact on the review of the CWC.

A long road 

" Like a chiaroscuro painting by Rembrandt, the current status of CW proliferation is a mixture of light and shadow. " J Tucker, 2009

Judging by the lack of interest and public-known long-term in depth research, the Novichok-type chemicals weren't considered important enough to warrant being put on Schedule 1 of the Chemical Weapons Convention for decades. This is especially a more intriguing  case when the precursor chemicals are  said to be two non-banned substances, which are then mixed to produce a binary agent, which are included in the OPCW's secondary -tier of toxic chemicals, under Schedule 2). Novichok -type include binary nerve agents listed on the OPCW schedules of toxic chemicals, (Schedule 2). 

This gets even more curiouser when searching for peer-review scientific articles on ‘Novichok’. In other words what do the West CW experts actually know about ‘Novichok’ since it was initially developed in the 1970’s. That’s a long timescale for relevant data & information to filter out and for experts to scrutinise. It appears that Iranian researchers managed to crack the 'Novichok' problem in 2016.

It strikes me as being odd that a top UK Porton Down CW scientist, Dr Robin Black, would claim to have little “open-source” knowledge even as late as last 2016, and that despite the 90’s information & data transfer of knowledge & know-how, (brain-drain) from Russia to the West.

More on this later on in this article.

The Yeltsin era

“Either this was a direct act by the Russian State against our country. Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.” Theresa May

Theresa May said that Russia could have been “losing control of CW’.  Well, yes it did & catastrophically so under Yelstin Western-backed economic pillage of Russia.

You don’t have to go far to see how this this actually unfolded in the first place, under the direct watch of the West,  with ‘defectors’ going over to the West in the 1990’s. Officially "the only known "brain drain" of top scientists from the Soviet program has been to the United States, Britain, and Israel. " 

Physical security of Soviet CW was seriously degraded, & morale of unpaid personnel plummeted & little or no strict governmental oversight of such facilities. Add in the huge problem of illegal dumping of  all kinds of toxic wastes, including CW during the dying days of the Soviet Union and in the 90’s, you can see the colossal mess left behind.  

The wanton reckless neglect of people, infrastructure  & equipment on all levels during the Yeltsin era all conspired to leave an unsettling legacy.  An article in the 2000 edition of the The Nonproliferation Review  also asserted the concerns:

"The legacy of the Soviet CBW programs poses serious proliferation threats.   All the ingredients for a black market are present: under or unemployed CBW scientists, and sensitive weapons and materials stored at far- flung locations with inadequate physical security.

At that time, Yelstin appointed General Anatoly Kuntsevich, as his chemical weapons advisor, as part of the effort to eliminate CW stocks, until he was fired in 1995. By which time, General Kuntsevich was under the the West’s intelligence services' spotlight for his apparent connections to both the Syrian & Iraqi CW programmes back them.  So much so, that ‘novichoks’ also appeared in an US document on Iraqi  WMD back in 2001 (p-4) 

Of course, Yeltsin just happened to be the West’s darling, because it suited them very well, because under that cover of ‘westernisation’, many oligarchs, entities & criminal organisations took advantage of the dysfunctional situation for their own ends, some becoming specularly rich from the asset stripping of Soviet industries. Other profited from smuggling which was rife and that included CW and nuclear materials. 

Lethal or not Lethal?

RIA Novostni  interviewed Professor Leonid Rink, another scientist who had worked in the Soviet & Russian CW, who got involved in mob killings. A small dose of one of these NGA substances was sold, which was then used to poison the banker, Ivan Kivelidi and his secretary in 1995, by swabbing with cotton the mouthpiece of a telephone. They both died shortly afterwards. Rink did not escape prosecution for synthesising  this NGA, said to be Novichok.  Another Russian scientist, Vladimir Uglev also gave a detailed interview on 'Project Foliant'. He too was questioned about the use of a nerve agent in the killing of Kivelidi, since the substance was synthesised in the group that he had worked in.

Small doses of highly lethal CW were produced and passed into the hands of the mobsters in 1995, at the height of mafia killings in Russia, with corrupt law enforcement also helped out, raises a number of questions regarding the "loss of CW control" during the Yeltsin era. 

Once you have taken the genie out of the bottle, it is difficult then to put it back.  

 OPCW  Article 9 of  the CWC

The UK issued an ultimatum to the alleged perpetrator and demanded Russia that it provides an explanation, within 36 hours and not 10 days to reply as stipulated in international protocol that deals with Chemical Weapons, (CW). A court of law would not ask someone in the dock to do that, so why did the UK government take that line?  (Where the hell is the government legal advisor and did they outline the implications of making such a statement?). Anyway, the Russian representative at the OPCW gave a reply to this ultimatum  and a copy of his speech.

Up to the 18th March, the UK has refused to provide a sample to the OPCW, or take up the issue under para 2, Article 9 of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Yet the accusations against Russia were first made on the 8th March. Now the Foreign Office has the cheek to say that: "as Article 9 of the convention is clear we have the right to do. We received no meaningful response. It is therefore Russia which is failing to comply with the provisions of the convention."  

The UK government reported that it made such request to the OPCW on the 12th March,but the Foreign Office still accused Russia of providing a clarification, within 6 days (including the 24hour period for notification).  Article 9 gives 10 days for " requested State Party shall provide the clarification to the Executive Council [of the OPCW]

The wording of the Foreign Office statement has been meticulously picked apart by one of its former senior Ambassadors, Craig Murray. Another case of UK government subterfuge through very careful twisting of words. 

UK allegations of CW stockpiling — contrary to CWC spirit

Recently, the UK foreign minister, Boris Johnston stated to the media that the "UK has evidence that over last ten years that Russia has been developing and stockpiling Novichok.” By making this statement, Boris managed to show the UK's disdain for international rules & norms, by holding back intelligence from the OPCW. There is nothing to suggest how the UK handled this at the OPCW meetings.  The timing of this statement is suspect, why did the UK government wait after the poisonings, and why not just after the September 2017 OPCW announcement on the end of the Russian CW stockpile destruction programme. 

We actually had evidence within the last ten years that Russia has not only been investigating the delivery of nerve agents for the purposes of assassination, but it has also been creating and stockpiling Novichok. Boris Johnson March 18

Curious to know how the UK government handled this, did they notify the OPCW with the evidence? The same OPCW that has a mandate to verify not only the destruction chemical weapons and production facilities, but also certain part of chemical industry plants.  This has been the case with the Russian CW programme & stockpiles up to 2017. 

Anyhow, the UK as a signatory member of the OPCW can request for a challenge inspection to be carried out by the OPCW inspectors.   This applies to when a facility (declared or undeclared) located in another member-state, is suspected of violating the basic prohibitions of the Convention.  Not a single challenge inspection had been requested by late 2017 since the beginning of the CWC, as one report cities that it would mean potentially having to disclose sensitive intelligence sources or be potentially embarrassing if it turned out to be a false suspicion.

This it itself is damming, given that the US State Department is routinely prone to making allegations of noncompliance with CWC, yet not one member state has initiated a challenge inspection since the entry-into-force of the CWC.  It seems that no of the countries want to provoke a retaliatory challenge either.  

The Russian CW programme 

The suggestion is now being that Russia has somewhat violated the Chemical Weapons Convention by not declaring the development of Novichoks, by evading monitoring mechanisms, because it said to be manufactured from common ingredients found in the agro-chemical sector.  

Firstly, this is a weak argument, given that the existence of ‘Novichoks’ dates back from 1992.  It gets more risible, given that back in the 1990’s, the US extensively  helped the Uzbek authorities in dismantling and to decontaminate  one of the Soviet Union’s CW research facility, which was a research & test centre for the apparently elusive ‘Novichok’.  These decontamination programmes were carried out under the headings of "Fourth Generation Agents" (FGA) or "Non-Traditional Agents" (NTA).

But the real scandal was the manner in which all attempts to include these new kinds of technology & substances into the CWC framework was consistency stifled, (by the US & UK  no less).  This is a long-running scandal.  Was there not sufficient information back then for the OPCW to investigate ‘Novichoks’? Or did it get buried politically because of Russia's commitment to signing the Chemical Weapons Convention? 

After all, the 90's were an opportune time for the West to take full advantage of everything that Russia was selling off, or could be brought off cheaply, and to provide support to Yeltsin, even if this meant suppressing the existence of some Soviet military programmes for their own benefit. After all, even Mirzayanov was said to have been offered work at the Edgewood facility when he migrated to the US.

On a sidenote, when journalists mention that Russia is to blame because it didn’t included ‘Novichoks’ in the final destruction of its known Russian CW arsenal in September last year, because the timing of all of this is intriguing, and not because it happened  before the Russian Presidential elections, or the fact that Russia is hosting the World Cup in the summer.  It would be certainly seen as scoring own goal.

Scientific vagueness on NTAs and  Novichok — done deliberately?

Concerns over a 'Novichok' type programme have appeared in a couple of articles, for well over two decades.  Limited concern was raised by CW experts in 2006, (Bajgar 2006), over the possibility that Russia could have submitted a false CWC declaration due to suspicion that Russia had developed, or may have had developed a new generation of CW agents, the Novichok' type.  But the scientific CW finger pointing has been relatively mute, even at the OPCW level, due persistent down playing of this generation of nerve agents.

The US and UK, among others were too involved in the development of NGA/NTA variants similar and in conjunction with the 'Novichok' developments during the 70's and 80's. 

We know that Iranian chemists have "succeeded in synthesising and obtaining detailed mass spectral data on a series of unusual nerve agents." So much for the ‘elusiveness’ of Novichok  as vaunted by the UK media as being exclusively Russian.

Were the Novichok-type chemicals already in the OPCW database at this stage, (since it was in an US one dating back to 1998), or were they added following the Iranian university scientists' research? 

Not much is said or known about research on Novichoks publicly, except for a glimpse of this with the 2016  Iranian research  done in order to improve "detecting and identifying CWC related chemicals during on‐site inspection and/or off‐site analysis and toxic chemical destruction monitoring".

It would interesting to see what motivated the Iranians to have done this research & published in a peer-reviewed journal, perhaps in light of of the concern that it poses, and especially in light of assassinations of Iranian scientists in the last decade or so. 

Yet, generally there is still a paucity of open source comprehensive articles & peer-reviewed academic research on ‘Novichok", if consider the comments of Porton Down CW scientist, Dr Robin Black's comments in 2016.

The wider context — "Fourth Generation Agents"

Wikileak cables from 2006 — 2009  show that the topic relating to the topic of NTAs.


 'Novichok' in itself was especially of concern particularly for the US & the UK, with a strongly worded emphasis on the need to keep it suppressed and shut down discussions on it.  


Jiri Matousek  is specifically mentioned in this cable, "ill-considered comments".  Did he let the "cat out of the bag" on the Novichok, NGA, NTA controversial existence? He certainly got muzzled a month later for speaking about the NGA/NTA. 

What did the Czech scientist Jiri Matousek, the then chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) of the OPCW, say that got him muzzled & subsequently   prevented from speaking about new generation nerve agents family back in February 2006?  Apparently he said that 'novichok' types of CW were being developed in Edgewood, US. Jiri Matousek evidently spoke out of turn regarding the development of new generation agents, causing an somewhat sharp reaction by other countries, (including the US  & UK delegates).

The 2 diplomatic cables given a strong indication of turmoil in the scientific community caused by discussion of NTAs & NGAs.  

2008 — 2009

Here is a diplomatic cable dating from 2008, part of the brief and talking points for the US delegation for the 2009 February meeting of the OPCW's Scientific Advisory Board (SAB): Del (legation) should avoid:

The recent disclosure is an oblique reference to the publication of Vil Mirzayanov's book. So once more, the discussion of NTA information is a "no-no" for the US, 2 years on from the 2006 comments by Jiri  Matousek.  


It gets more interesting: (another extract from the same US brief):

TO summarise the US policy:

don't discuss Novichoks, 

don't let others discuss it, 

in fact don't even raise the subject of "Non-Traditional Agents" in the first place;

It suggests that by even raising the topic could potentially"open a can of worms".  

It shows that there has been a steadfast refusal principally led by the US, backed  up by the UK,  to not only include but discuss the whole topic of NTAs.   A refusal to consider the 'new' types of nerve agents, or consider the issues with new technologies, such as miniaturisation of lab equipment, ("pocket” chemical plant), within later revisions of the CWC.  

Discussion on these problems & missing elements within the non-proliferation community of experts have been ongoing for well over a decade, but the situation remains the same, with 3 revisions of the CWC already done.  

What are the reasons for this, apart from presuming hiding a few skeletons in cupboards?  Here one widely stated reason:

" One reason for their reluctance is that adding new CW agents and their precursors to the Schedules would disclose sensitive information, such as the molecular structures of these compounds, that proliferators and terrorists could exploit."     

Jonathan B. Tucker, The New Atlantis, 2009

Now out of this murky, well crafted situation, pops up an attack in the UK, apparently using a type of chemical that is conspicious by its absence from the CWC. 

It seems that Porton Down, the UK centre for CW expertise, (not far from Salisbury itself), was apparently able somewhat to prove it was a ‘Novichok’ type, according to Boris Johnson. It even was apparently  able to obtain samples of precursor chemicals, by ‘clandestine means.”

The mystique of it all. Let's assume that it is the same range of precursor chemicals, that were needed and used in the 2016 Iranian research, chemicals which were  commercially purchased from the US and Germany.

Sampling would require comparison with a reference sample held at Accredited Laboratories, within the OPCW mechanisms. Very little publicly known information is forthcoming on the necessary pharmacological studies, that would have established the required standard reference so as to analyse, with certainty the field samples obtained in Salisbury.  Much more is in fact hidden away

CW for defensive research

Of course the West knows about a whole range of Soviet made CW,  so they would probably have a ‘Novichok’ type formula to hand, maybe even received supplies of something of a similar type decades ago, so they are more than capable of synthesising in the West some of the ‘Novichok’ type compounds.

"It is very difficult to distinguish between research on epidemiology and defensive measures, which are permitted under the treaties, and research on actual chemical and biological weapons, which is banned."

Flynn, M., Garthoff R. L. Flynn, M. (2000) Playing with Fire. p 40

It would be farcical to think that the US, UK and other countries to this date, have not renounced their CW research for defensive purposes, nor Russia. We get a hint of this from Mr Tillerson's comments and also from the OPCW protocols that allows a limited amount of CW, under the CWC, for legitimate activities such as tests & developing antidotes. 

Russian research on CW for defence purposes is still permitted, as it was back in the 1990'S “We played the game under the agreed-upon rules,” General Anatoly Kuntsevich, Yelstin's advisor told an US journalist, when asked about Russian CW program, back in 1993.  Thus, it is feasible that various types of nerve agents do exist in very limited quantities, may be even also a type of the 'Novichok' family, although over 20 years later, details are somewhat lacking still.  

 Alastair Hay, an UK university professor of environmental toxicology was quoted:

What they (Porton Down) will have done is made these chemicals, suspecting they were part of the Soviet or Russian arsenal,’ & then he added that Porton Down experts would have ’assessed their structure and put them into a library of reference material”.

So the story that only Russia is capable of making 'Novichok' type nerve agent falls to pieces, because the UK & others would have replicated what they thought was a really lethal nerve agent in order to develop the necessary defensive measures.  

Another oddity is that given the claimed deadliness of ‘Novichok’ in the Salisbury incident by all and sundry in MSM and UK government officials, only 3 people ended up in hospital.  Yet, May insisted on  8 March that  it was “weapons-grade nerve agent”. So what does that tell you? 

Apart from being a generic name to some type of nerve agent, was it the source for the Salisbury poisonings? Until a credible independently verified sampling is done in a neutral accredited laboratory, done with the participation of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), no one will be the wiser.  

Scenario  — 'Deza'

Maybe there is a possible connection between the development of Novichok as part of a Soviet CW programme, codenamed 'Foliant' and an long-defunct US FBI counter-intelligence project, codenamed “Operation Shocker”. This was a long-running US operation aimed at wasting  Soviet resources & money in trying to develop a new super nerve gas the US believed unweaponizable, known as GJ, deemed to be an hopeless unachievable programme. The aim of the US operation was to misinform the Soviets about the US CW and BW programmes, through a fake 'defector'.

"  The Soviet military did, indeed, expand and intensify its efforts to develop a super nerve gas like GJ. However, as time went on, there was increasing evidence that Soviet scientists had succeeded where their American counterparts had given up, and that the Soviets had successfully developed a usable, much more toxic, and highly effective nerve gas called Novichok. Whether Novichok is directly descended from GJ is not entirely clear, but the unexpected outcome raises an intriguing and important question. "  Flynn, M., Garthoff R. L. (2000) Playing with Fire

The Soviets, it seems also played the same game as the US, if this account holds up to scrutiny, a game of double bluff. A Russian writer Andrei Lazarchuk claims that  'Novichok", never actually existed as an extremely deadly nerve agent, was in fact referred as a "deza" where the KGB intended to mislead its opponents. 

It is said that"the KGB conducted a large-scale operation in the late 80s to  misinform the enemy, through selected channels by 'leaking' the information.  Twenty "fake" but very detailed projects were developed for "a new chemical superweapon that is not defined by existing  NATO detectors and from which there is no protection", (NOVA with indices, "Novice" with indices, ASD and others).One such convenient person through which to channel the information was said to be a scientist,Vil Mirzoyanov, who revealed the existence of "Project Foliant" in 1991 on a "third generation" nerve agent programme developed in the 1970s & 1980s.  He put on trial for releasing state secrets and briefly jailed, before being freed, subsequently left for the US in 1995. 

Who really knows what happened in the 80s and in the early 90s, but the story does have some amazing twists and turns, and the vague scientific understanding  shown in the West of the nature of 'Novichok' certainly gives it an air of mystery, maybe to deflect attention from the West's own programmes of a similar NTA-NGA.

 A determined reluctance to include new NTAs & NGAs into the scope of the OPCW framework can only add more fuel to intrigue.


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