By 7 March, it'd been established the pair had been contaminated by a nerve agent, confirmation merely triggering yet further frenzied theorizing — much of it unscientific — on what precise variety had struck the pair. Could it have been VX for instance, first synthesized in the 1950s at Porton Down, the UK's secretive and controversial chemical and biological weapons testing centre situated a mere eight kilometres from Salisbury?
A day later, security consultant Dan Kaszeta offered an alternative explanation — writing for controversial website Bellingcat, he suggested the agent may have been 'novichok'.
"The Soviet Union developed a new series of nerve agents in the 1970s and 1980s. The exact nature of these so-called novichok agents is still debated and the information on them varies a bit depending on what source you are looking at…some novichok agents of interest include A230 and A232," Kaszeta said.
It was seemingly the first time anyone anywhere had connected the substance with the Salisbury incident — but it would soon become a crucial feature in the UK government's official narrative, helping lay blame for the attack squarely on the Russian state, before a motive had been established, any perpetrators identified, or other basic facts ascertained.
Due to Kaszeta's amazingly fortuitous insight, he would become a central figure in media reporting on the Skripals, a go-to 'independent chemical weapons expert' quoted in a great many articles and reports.
At no point however did Kaszeta disclose his intimate relationship with the Integrity Initiative, a shadowy military intelligence outfit funded by the British state and NATO — and moreover, an organization that specifically sought to systematically shape media reporting on, and Whitehall's response to, the Salisbury incident from day one.
In fact, were it not for hacking syndicate Anonymous, his role within the organization's 'Specialist Team' would be entirely unknown, the only documentation linking him to the organization in any way a series of articles he wrote on novichok for the Initiative's official website over the course of 2018 — which have since been removed from the web, along with all other site content.
Among them was a puff piece ardently defending Porton Down, stating the UK urgently needed the facility "to do valuable work to protect not just the nation's armed forces but also to protect all of us who live here", and dismissing as ludicrous the notion any poison could somehow be smuggled out of the "secure compound".
In addition to offering technical information on novichok to journalists — including then-Times Defence Editor Deborah Haynes, part of the Initiative's UK Cluster — Kaszeta sought to rebut alternative explanations for the attack, and answer key questions such as why the Skripals didn't die on the spot, and how novichok could poison two further people four months after the incident, writing a dedicated article on the former for politics.co.uk on 6 April. Conspicuously, much of this analysis relied on conjecture rather than science — for instance, when asked by NPR on 12 March 2018 why anyone would use "such an unusual agent", Kaszeta responded "it was possible, given the historic secrecy around the programme, the culprit may have thought it would go undetected".
"Maybe somebody somewhere felt they could get away with it," he says. Then again, he says, it could have just as well been used to send a clear message to would-be spies and defectors. "It's much more than waking up with a horse head in your bed," he postulated.
He also frequently tweeted on the subject, the postings apparently becoming newsworthy in themselves — it's difficult to quantify the exact number of articles featuring his Twitter output, although a 5 July 2018 Yahoo article — Weapons expert busts conspiracy theories about the Wiltshire Novichok attack — is certainly representative in terms of tone and content.
Every step of the way, Kaszeta's activities were closely tracked by the Initiative, with 'expert team' member Chris Hernon (ex-BBC) noting them in regular roundups. Elsewhere, in an internal email titled 'FCO Disinformation Update', FCO Head of Counter Disinformation Andy Pryce hailed his "strong rebuttal of conspiracy theories".
'Deep in the Pentagon'
Quite where, and indeed when, Kaszeta gleaned his specialist knowledge of novichok is unclear — particularly as he's repeatedly (and wrongly) claimed the operation that produced the nerve agent was extremely secretive, and little is known about the substance outside the former Soviet Union.
Moreover, he doesn't appear to have written a single word about novichok prior to his 8 March 2018 Bellingcat article — and his oft-touted chemical weapons and/or warfare prowess doesn't appear justified by his professional or academic history either. Kaszeta's work experience in that regard seems strictly limited to crisis response planning, and he holds a BA in political science and an MA in international affairs — but his LinkedIn profile nonetheless makes for fascinating reading.
His first listed role, from August — December 1990, was 'policy intern' at the Office of the Secretary of Defence, which he describes as "hard work at a desk deep in the D ring of the Pentagon during the final days of the Cold War" — and between 1994 — 1996 he engaged in "hard thankless toil in the depths of the beltway bandit universe, relieved only by boondoggles to the [Pentagon think tank] RAND Corporation" at Defence Group Inc. Thereafter, he worked in a number of positions within the US military-industrial complex, including the White House Military Office and Secret Service, before entering the private sector.
In 2011, Kaszeta founded Strongpoint Security, which "provides consultancy and advice across a wide variety of defence and security disciplines, with a focus on unconventional threats, CBRN defence, crisis management, and physical security assessment". The company's website is rudimentary in the extreme, with many sections appearing to have not been updated for many years — for instance, references are made to Kaszeta's "new" and "recently published" book, CBRN and Hazmat Incidents at Major Public Events, which was released in November 2012. He claims the work is "the first serious attempt to address the diverse and challenging issues of safeguarding the major event environment against the full spectrum of CBRN and Hazmat incidents and accidents".
Self-aggrandizement is a recurring theme on the site, with Kaszeta boasting that his "degree and depth of expertise is relatively unique [sic] in Europe" — but while he's bragged about the size of his "expert daily rate", Companies House records indicate the firm has very little in the way of capital, cash reserves or assets, with annual post-tax profits typically in the low thousands, falling to just US$448 (£394) in the 2016/2017 tax year.Twitter account offer any sign of the company or its founder actually working, the latter consisting almost exclusively of retweets, often of Integrity Initiative posts.
Obvious questions must be asked — namely, how is Kaszeta actually making his living, and is Strongpoint merely a legitimizing professional 'front' for other activities, lending superficial credence to his status as 'independent' specialist?
Kaszeta's rise to media prominence is also somewhat curious. Prior to 2013, he was entirely unheard of in the mainstream — that would change when he began writing articles for Elliot Higgins' 'Brown Moses' blog (the forerunner of Bellingcat) on 20 August that year, a day prior to the notorious chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, Syria. With Western leaders claiming Syrian government forces were behind the strike, but unable to provide supporting evidence, Kaszeta eagerly filled the void, being a frequent fixture of media reporting on the incident for months afterward.
He was nonetheless questioned on his various assertions and credentials via email by Theodore Postol, professor emeritus of Science, Technology, and International Security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, correspondence the academic later published in a wider July 2014 review.
Over the course of their discussion, Postol writes that Kaszeta made "numerous false science-based claims" which he'd "not researched before [he] made the statements", referenced quotes "not made by the individuals [he] cited" and claimed scientific expertise he "amply demonstrated" he didn't have.
Concluding Kaszeta to be a "counterfeit expert", the professor notes the self-avowed CBRN aficionado's aforementioned book contains "no technical or scientific information" that couldn't be obtained by a "superficial" internet search, and suggests Kaszeta's prominence in news reports on Ghouta stemmed from a "complete failure" by the media "to exercise the most rudimentary levels of editorial due diligence" and challenge his "ill-informed and inflammatory use of false technical facts".
Moreover, this bogus "empowerment" of Kaszeta, Postol writes, resulted in "controversy [with] no basis in sound science", which could've played a role in justifying US military involvement in Syria.
Notably, not once in this period has Kaszeta ever provided 'expertise' even vaguely inconvenient for Western governments — in fact, he has unfailingly supported and perhaps even legitimized their aggressive policies, in the manner his Ghouta analysis potentially offered a pretext for US action in Syria.
One of the most renowned journalists to promote Kaszeta's views on novichok was BBC Diplomatic Editor Mark Urban, who championed his politics.co.uk article as a "common sense answer" to the question of why the Skripals weren't killed by the poison they seemingly came into contact with, written by a "real expert".
Urban's advocacy of Kaszeta is perhaps unsurprising given his own peculiar connections to the Skripal affair — for in a shock disclosure, in July he revealed he'd repeatedly met with and interviewed the former Russian intelligence officer in the year prior to the Salisbury incident, while researching a book on the history of East-West Espionage.
That Urban neglected to mention securing such a seismic, serendipitous scoop until four months after that fateful March day — a period in which discussion of the attack, and Skripal, utterly dominated media reporting the world over — is somewhat staggering, but not quite as astounding as him having once served in the same tank regiment as Pablo Miller, Skripal's MI6 recruiter and handler, and neighbour in Salisbury.
Serious questions hang over Miller's involvement in the incident, not least because immediately afterward he deleted his LinkedIn, which revealed him to be a Senior Analyst at Orbis Intelligence, the private "investigative consultancy" run by former MI6 operative Christopher Steele, author of the highly controversial 'Trump-Russia' dossier — which Integrity Initiative operatives worked to circulate among US politicians.
"The issue surrounding the identity of former MI6 informer Sergei Skripal is already widely available in the public domain. However, the identities of intelligence agency personnel associated with Sergei Skripal are not yet widely available in the public domain. The provisions of DSMA Notice 05 therefore apply to these identities. If any editor is currently considering publication of such material, may I ask you to seek [the] advice [of the Defence and Security Media Advisory Committee] before doing so?" the notice reads.
Adding to the intrigue, Miller also has an unclear relationship with Integrity Initiative, a leaked file naming him in a list compiled by Initiative chief Chris Donnelly, alongside representatives of the BBC, Porton Down, the FCO, the MOD and the US Embassy. The nature of the register is neither clear from the file itself, nor referenced in any other internal Initiative documents, although Anonymous claim the individuals were invitees to a private meeting with Syria's notorious White Helmets group. Conversely, former Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray has speculated the event was in fact related to the Skripal incident, a hypothesis partially supported by the presence of Howard Body, Assistant Head of Science Support at Porton Down (and Assistant Head of Strategic Analysis at the Ministry of Defence) among the names.
Whatever the truth of the matter, Urban's aforementioned book, The Skripal Files — widely marketed as the "definitive account" of the incident — was published 4 October 2018. On 21 December, a glowing review of the work authored by none other than Dan Kaszeta was published on the Integrity Initiative website — strikingly, in its introductory paragraph the "counterfeit expert" revealed he'd met with Urban "several times over the past few years". On 20 January, I emailed Kaszeta seeking clarity on how, why and when it was he crossed paths Urban — predictably he didn't respond, a recurring theme with Initiative-connected individuals.
A mere two days later the organization would remove all content from its website, pending an "investigation" into the hack which acquired so much incriminating information from the organization's servers. While there's no necessary connection between my contacting Kaszeta and the purge, the timing is at least potentially significant given the review is one of very few Initiative site pages not still accessible via internet archiving services — it's also not included among the now-dead links to the various articles he wrote for the Initiative on the Strongpoint website.
Shockingly, Kaszeta was but one cog within a much wider connivance — Operation Iris — constructed by Integrity Initiative. Under its auspices, many Institute for Statecraft and Initiative operatives — and journalists within the organization's assorted international clusters — played a leading and early role in perpetuating various narratives, myths and recommended "responses" to the incident that would utterly dominate mainstream media reporting of the affair the world over for months afterwards.
In addition to cementing an extremely negative public perception of Russia, the Initiative also sought to influence government policy in the UK — and ensure isolation of Russia internationally.
Disturbingly, many of these narratives, and recommended strategies, were originally mooted in a document produced in 2015 by Initiative staffer Victor Madeira, who likewise played a leading role in pushing particular angles in the wake of the Salisbury incident. Over the coming weeks, Sputnik will document the activities of each and every Operation IRIS operative, in an attempt to ascertain just what role the Initiative played in the Skripal affair, and why.