The Unfortunate Poisoning of Sergei Skripal

It’s now being called a “suspected poisoning.” (Reuters) Russian ex-spy, daughter still critical after suspected poisoning in UK.

Sergei Skripal’s  wife and son predeceased him.  (Daily Mail) Cancer, car crash and liver failure: Mysterious deaths of wife and son of Russian ‘Spy with the Louis Vuitton Handbag’ This reminds of the ancient punishment of defeated kings, where the monarch is forced to witness the death of his dependents, before going to his fate.

But what motive could the Russians have had for this streak of primitive, cruel revenge? Though the U.S. has been victimized by quite a number of our own spies,  none have been executed. But I’ve always wondered whether the fatal fall of Edward Lee Howard was an extracurricular job. Or the KGB could have done it  as a matter of convenience. That his fall was an accident is remote.

One purpose of this blog is to develop reasoning skills. One of them is to recognize when a valid statistical sample with expected outcomes exists. To distinguish this from conspiracy synthesis is a skill of the first order. We look for:

  • Individuals with known involvement in espionage who have switched sides, or tried to.
  • Expected outcomes, provided by actuarial tables, with normal modifications for profession.
  • Outcomes markedly different from the tables.
  • Indeterminate cause of death in spite of thorough investigation.
  • Motive  of revenge, deterrence, or interdiction.

In the language of epidemiology, we would try to identify a cluster of events. A cluster is a set of coincidences, which can be used for statistical inference. But statistical inference goes out the window in the face of facts.

The deaths of  Kennedy assassination witnesses is such a cluster. But in this case, there is enough factual evidence to prohibit the conclusion  of widespread conspiracy.  But we don’t have to be conclusive. It is frustrating, but intellectually honest, not to force a solution. More topically, if Harvey Weinstein had alibis, such as, “I was somewhere else at the time”, for  each of the dozens of his sexual abuses. the cluster of accusations would imply no inference. But he does not.

In the case of Skripal, denials by the Russian state have no credibility, so the statistical inference remains valid. But when did statistical inference escape the legal protection of the accused? A suspect is innocent until proven guilty, right?

It actually escaped a long time ago, in the form of standards for civil code that are different from criminal code. Just as a reminder,

  • In a criminal case, the plaintiff is “the people”, argued by the state.
  • In a civil case, the plaintiff is a private party.
  • In a criminal case, the standard of guilt is “beyond all reasonable doubt.”
  • In a civil case, the standard is the weight of evidence.

O.J. Simpson beat a murder rap, but in a civil suit, was held liable for wrongful death. It was the same issue, killing somebody, with contradictory outcomes: innocent, but liable.

But now, in American society (and we’ll see how this relates to assassinations shortly) the standard of guilt has not just escaped  its cell, but vaulted clear over the prison walls. It is occasioned by the sudden acknowledgement of sexual abuses that are poorly addressed by the criminal justice system.  Society’s new remedy is to turn our backs to the alleged perpetrators, with consequences of social sanction that are much harsher than could be rendered by civil judgment.

This is a hot potato. The purpose of the above is not to value the change, but to outline that American society is continuing to evolve, with changing standards of behavior, guilt, and sanction. Our Russian “partners”, as Sergei Lavrov, would say, see the West through their own distorting prisms. They should read this carefully, because it pertains precisely to the issue of extrajudicial assassination on foreign soil.

We do not require proof of legal quality that Sergei Skripal has been the target of assassination. American society has moved beyond it. Statistical inference, as  with Harvey Weinstein, does just fine. The Russian defense, along the lines of  “you don’t have anything on us”, doesn’t play here. So when Russians decide to liquidate someone on foreign soil, every Russian foreign policy goal is at least slightly compromised. You can see it in the slightly yellow tinge of our eyes, what we call a “jaundiced” view, a slightly poisoned outlook towards Russians.

And there is the fact of pre-announcement. With respect to the betrayal of Anna Chapman et al., another name was mentioned, Shcherbakov. Quoting from  Did Putin approve of Litvinenko Assassination? ,

Whether there is still a black market in polonium, or whether there is a laxity of controls that would exculpate Putin,  is one of those questions that bedevils the fixation of blame. Russia is one of several  countries that run assassination squads on foreign soils. Currently, they are looking for Colonel Shcherbakov ,  the betrayer of Anna Chapman. Referring to Leon Trotksy, a Kremlin spokesman was quoted as saying “We have already sent a Mercader.”

Whether there is a factual contradiction in naming both Shcherbakov and Skripal is unclear. But what’s  good for the goose is good for the gander.

Maybe it is really important that Sergei Skripal, and his entire completely innocent family, die. Perhaps the Kremlin worries about disloyalty in the ranks. Perhaps the spaced killings are intended to keep up the whisper.

Some readers may be wondering if Vladimir Putin approved this. If anyone knows, it will remain the secret of those who possess it. But it’s a mistake to personify a country in a person. Russia has had a poison lab since1921, devoted to the development of novel and undetectable poisons. The autobiography of one of the directors, Special Tasks, by Pavel Sudoplatov, is actually available in the West. I cherish my autographed copy. When the lab was reactivated in the 90’s, it had a new asset, the Novichok agents.

The formulas of the Novichok family were made public by Vil Mirzayanov, so the detection problem is being studied. Unlike VX, chemically treated test strips are not available. But last year, research by Iranian chemists, undertaken with microscopic quantities, suggested that detection of the unbound substance is possible in a well equipped  laboratory.

But this is not the same as detection in the organism, where the agent is bound to tissue. VX exposure is usually detected by indirect enzymatic changes. Hence Novichok may remain an unsolved challenge, unless  the chemistry of the neuromuscular junction can be directly observed.