Novichok and Salisbury – a British Military failure

It should have been a strategic gift, an assassination attempt using an agent that as we have heard from Gary Aitkenhead, the chief executive of the MoD, Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), said was a military-grade novichok nerve agent, which could probably be deployed only by a nation-state. Instead, we are being led a merry dance in information terms regarding the burden of proof and apportionment of blame.

The Russians, who I more firmly than ever assess were behind this attack have a doctrine of маскировка (maskirovka), literally masking. This was defined in the International Dictionary of Intelligence from 1990 as the Russian military intelligence (GRU) term for deception and if we are ever seeing a deception operation in play today just look at all of the Russian statements around every reason why everyone else was to blame for the Salisbury attack.

Looking at what we the public know and the thinking behind it means there can be only one guilty party. That guilt is based on an intelligence assessment and intelligence is not an exact science.  In fact, to make an intelligence call, very often you are working only on a balance of probabilities rather than what a court of law would require with a ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ call.  Intelligence does not, and rarely is as certain.  That is why it is a professional business and why, when amateurs or politicians, such as happened in the ‘dodgy dossier’ case for the Iraq war, think they can amend carefully worded assessments, they get it wrong in a spectacular way.  We have not seen and won’t see the publication of a political interpretation of the intelligence, we have seen a political statement of what the agencies assess.

Intelligence looks at two things, capability and intent, and Gary Aitkenhead, a MoD employee, has clearly outlined the capability side of the argument.  Often scientific analysis can identify not just the lab was an unusual substance is made but the individual who made it; that is clearly not the case with this novichok compound. However, it is not the remit of DSTL to comment on intent.

The theories I outlined in my blogs here: http://greyharemedia.com/sergei-skripal-assassination/ and here: http://greyharemedia.com/sergei-and-yulia-skripal-assassination-attempt-further-comment/  continue to hold accuracy and I continue to believe that on the balance of probabilities, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin ordered this assassination attempt using novichok. He did it for a number of reasons including sending a powerful message to anyone who opposes him and remember this happened 14 days before the Russian Presidential election and to stick a proverbial 2 fingers up at the West, he wanted the world to know it was probably him hence the choice of a novichok agent, as he would have known it would be traced back to him. This was a political attack rather than an assassination attempt; the means required the assassination attempt.

So why do I call this a British Military failure? Earlier this year Robert Hannigan, the ex-director of GCHQ, said of the Russian threat in an interview, ‘We didn’t see Russian use of disinformation coming‘.  Combine this with the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Gordon Messenger telling The Times that the need to win the information war concerns him more than the latest model of tank, fast jet or warship.

He said, hardware still has a role but wants to see an evolution in the military mindset about the importance of using data to help defeat and destroy an enemy. “We have to wake up to the idea that our ability to turn data into information advantage, our ability to respond faster through cleverer decision-making which is enabled by the flow of information, is actually frankly as important if not even more important than whether our tanks out-range an anti-tank missile.”

These statements clearly demonstrate a naivety with the UK’s senior defence decision makers and a failure to remember what they have been expensively taught at military staff colleges. General Messenger will be staff college trained and educated as a member of the Royal College of Defence Studies, an elite course tailored for those heading to the top, both courses will have taught the importance of маскировка (maskirovka) and its use by the Russians as well as its historical underpinning by the ancient Chinese General and Philosopher Sun Tzu in the 6thCentury. The military mindset should be there already.

How can defence have forgotten what is taught and allowed Gary Aitkenhead to give a very public interview where only the most naïve wouldn’t have realised the potential implications and the information operations gift it would give Russia? Yet it happened in a vacuum of zero MoD pre and post-interview messaging to reinforce the MoD’s part in the wider government intelligence assessment process.

This is a basic tactic that the MoD should have deployed yet instead we have silence. That silence is tantamount to providing an advantage to another state to cause harm to the UK. It has and will continue to embolden the Russian маскировка (maskirovka) campaign and cause the UK political damage domestically through naïve anti-government groups and internationally to those who want to keep Russia onside for a bit at least.

In law, often doing nothing is as much a crime as committing the criminal act if it is known about. Here we have the MoD knowing a statement from a MoD official, will likely cause national harm, yet it does nothing. That is the failure and that failure needs to be held to account. We don’t need an enemy with capability anymore, intent is good enough, we give them the capability.

It is akin to the MoD making IEDs for terrorists to use, it is wrong and has to stop. So, either CDS has failed or he has been ordered by his political master not to do anything, one or other must account for damaging the nation.

Note: This blog is written by Philip Ingram MBE, a former British Army Intelligence Offficer who was based near Salisbury in the past. If you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE

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