(NY TImes) Poisoned Door Handle Hints at High-Level Plot to Kill Spy, U.K. Officials Say. The article is behind a paywall; for a substitute, try this Google search.
One purpose of this blog is to promote open source analysis as a teachable skill. The article presents opinions that are open to challenge. The authors make no attempt to disentangle the assumptions of the opinions. They may be presented as opinions to cloak clandestine methods and sources. But let’s consider the opinions of the article as if they are what they are claimed to be, opinions, and tear them apart. Quoting:
- Because the nerve agent is so potent, the officials said, the task could have been carried out only by trained professionals familiar with chemical weapons.
Rebuttal. Application of Novichok to the doorknob could be accomplished with a gadget. Gadgets of similar purpose are described in (CIA Reading Room) Soviet Use of Assassination and Kidnapping, and in other declassified documents. Here’s a design for a handy-dandy poison applicator:
- The gadget is a container shaped conveniently for the hand. Within, there is a motorized apparatus.
- The Novichok variant has negligible volatility; it cannot become airborne easily. So it is only necessary to protect the operator from accidental contact via “splash” on the exterior of the gadget.
- On pressing a trigger button, a port, protected by a door, opens. A probe extends.
- The tip of the probe contains a second door to a second port. This door also opens.
- A felt pad saturated in Novichok, extends from the tip of the probe.
- With a wiping motion, the operator applies the applicator to door knob.
- On releasing the button, the above operations reverse; the probe retracts and the port doors close.
- The operator drops the entire gadget into a container of neutralizing solution, and discards it.
So the task is reduced from requiring skill to merely requiring nerve.
- This operation is seen as so risky and sensitive that it is unlikely to have been undertaken without approval from the Kremlin, according to officials who have been briefed on the early findings of the inquiry.
Rebuttal. The implied assumptions are:
- Freelancers, rogue groups, and clans, all from within the Russian government, do not engage in risky behavior, but authorized Kremlin operatives do. This is absurd.
- The Novichok dose was unlikely to have been stolen. Yet (Reuters) Ivan Kivelidi was killed in 1995 by a stolen nerve agent.
- But the assassins knew the nerve agent would be identified, and knew it would be linked to Russia, the officials said. That was meant to send a chilling message to others who would think of defecting to, or informing, the West.
Rebuttal. Withe the sole exception of Novichok, relatively simple tests for all the weaponized nerve agents exist. In the case of VX, it’s as simple as a sensitized strip of paper. The identification of Novichok in the Skripal poisoning was a complex problem of analytic chemistry. With 14 unsolved murders of Russian expats in Britain, which may be 14 undetected assassinations, there is no reason for the Russians to assume this attack would be solved.
- The boldness of the attack on Mr. Skripal, which took British authorities by surprise, has caused them to reassess Mr. Putin’s use of what has come to be called “hybrid warfare.”
Rebuttal. This conflates the hypothesis that Putin approved the action with his established use of hybrid warfare. This may be true, actually established by clandestine means, but there is no way to tell. The distinction is important to readers of open source.
In articles such as the NY Times piece, the reader is challenged to distinguish between
- Opinions that are uninformed by facts.
- Informed opinions.
- Facts established by clandestine means that masquerade as opinions to protect sources and methods.
Nothing in the article suggests a way to distinguish between these possibilities. Had the article never been published, the body of open-source evidence is adequate for these conclusions:
- The poison was made in Russia, now established as fact by Porton Downs (Google search.) By some reports the plant is located at Shikhani.
- The motive, revenge for treason, strongly implicates the Russian government, or rogues or clans from within the government, with or without approval at the highest level.
So what does the article add? The NY Times, a “newspaper of record”, reports that some sources think some things. It may be fit to print, but is it worth printing? Most readers can also think some things. Times, your grade is a solid C. Dig deeper next time.