Just over a month ago, the discovery of a father and daughter slumped on a bench in a small city in rural Wiltshire quickly spiraled into an international incident. In the days following, it became apparent that a nerve agent had been used, which had left the two initial victims fighting for their lives, injured a police officer and led to dozens of people receiving precautionary medical attention. The two initial victims were identified publicly as Sergei and Ulia Skripal. Sergie’s identity as a former Russian intelligence agent, quickly led to the suspicion that the Russian intelligence establishment had been involved in the attack. In the following days, it became clear that the UK government strongly suspected the involvement of the Russian state. And the UK would out put it to Russia that they believed the state had ordered the attack; or that Russia had lost control of their stocks.
A key aspect of the challenge facing the UK leaders has been the need to reassure the UK public the government is acting with appropriate levels of confidence. At the same time, the UK government has also needed to build and present a case which respected national security needs and a dynamic diplomatic timeline; while still showing due respect to domestic criminal investigatory processes. In such situations public trust is especially important. WMD accusations after all, are associated with a long history of exploitation by well-intentioned as well as unscrupulous people to vilify enemies. In the UK, it is clear that memories of the Iraq war in particular have given good reasons for both the public and officials to adopt a healthy skepticism on these issues. It is also clear, that there is political capital that can be squeezed out of such events- with point scoring appearing at times to take precedent over the issue at hand.
All this has occurred in the context of an emergent narrative war between Russia and the UK- with the UK seeking to defend its decisions in response to a chemical weapon attack, and Russia trying to undermine the UK’s international case for punitive action against the regime- and embarrass a government it accuses of capitalising on an incident for political ends. All this of course is reminiscent of the diplomatic saga which has surrounded international attempts to seek justice in relation to on-going chemical weapon use in Syria.
In this environment incontrovertible facts are a rare asset. And findings of DSTL scientists, as well as the work the independent labs of the international chemical weapon watchdog the OPCW ( expected to report this week) will remain key focus of debate.Forensic chemical analysis alone cannot be judge, jury and executioner of a case- but the identification of the presence of a sophisticated nerve agent points strongly to idea that there is a case to answer at the international level. Under international law states have a responsibility to not to develop, stockpile of employ these agents as weapons- as well as to ensure that no one else within their jurisdiction can either.
Last week Gary Aitkenhead chief executive of DSTL (the UK’s defence science laboratory) discussed the work of it’s labs in relation to the Salisbury nerve agent attack at a press conference. The statements did not reveal anything that had not already been made public in official press releases and prepared statements by the Foreign and Common Wealth Office and Prime minister in relation to the agent employed. Specifically that the chemical identity of the agent had been confirmed as a Novichok nerve agent and that this agent was produced through sophisticated techniques- suggesting military lab involvement. He confirmed that it was not within DSTL’s remit to ascertain the specific source of the agent. Porton’s findings would have been based on both blood samples, which can confirm exposure but are less specific, and environmental samples which can provide more specific details on the chemical composition. Environmental samples can also provide broader details on the preparation of the agent. Further confirmation of all of this is expected from OPCW labs later this week.
Chemical forensics only forms part of the diplomatic, criminal and intelligence case against Russia- and indeed has only so far been one part of the publicly expressed rational for blaming Russia- which has focused on motive, means, previous acts by the Russian state, as well as Russia’s responses to UK’s robust diplomatic approach. This is a distinction which it is important to remember. It is also a distinction which has been lost in much of the tabloid press coverage, in a couple of isolated remarks from UK officials- and indeed in a tweet from the Foreign Office.
It is of course right that UK politicians are chastised for statements which could mislead the public, and commit the UK government to lines of action which could damage faith in both domestic and international institutions. A key evaluative criteria employed by the UK public, and within democratic states supporting UK action, will be the transparency and accessibility of the public case. So far, the UK government’s general strategy of seeking independent OPCW lab confirmation, which is insulated from both the domestic criminal and intelligence case building appears sensible – as it should provide a better grounding for broad base support. However, it is also creating problems- as currently UK allies have seen more details on the evidence underling the government’s decision than the UK public- and aspects of this or the governments own intelligence case are apparently starting to leak.
A multifaceted approach can help immunize more solid findings from the compound problem of media hype apparent the dynamics of an apparent propaganda war with Russia. However, it is clear their remains a need for more detailed public case to be put forward for scrutiny. Will we see a Parliamentary debate following the publication of findings by the OPCW labs- perhaps accompanied by a more detailed case? It appears this would be a responsible step- and would potentially mean that more parliamentarians were better briefed on the details of the government’s evidence.
In addition there is of course a need for a broader conversation about how to foster democratic principles which can cope with the disorientating information environment we have found ourselves within.