Defence scientists’ caution over the source of the Salisbury nerve agent attack proves that Jeremy Corbyn was right to take a ‘thoughtful’ approach to the issue, Diane Abbott has said.
The Shadow Home Secretary suggested that an interview by the head of the Porton Down defence laboratory also cast doubt on Boris Johnson’s claim that Vladimir Putin was ‘unequivocally’ to blame for the attempted murder of a former Russian spy and his daughter.
Gary Aitkenhead, the chief executive of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at the facility, told Sky News on Tuesday that the lab had “not identified the precise source” of the poison, adding it was “not our job to say where it was manufactured”.
A former British army weapons expert added on Wednesday that the Government now had to ‘lay out exactly’ what supporting evidence it had to say Russia was directly responsible for the poisoning.
Critics seized on the contrast between the scientists’ caution and the Foreign Secretary’s interview with a German news channel in which he declared British defence experts had told him that the Kremlin was behind the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal.
Johnson had told DW.com: “People from Porton Down, they were absolutely categorical. I asked the guy myself I said ‘are you sure?’ and he said there’s no doubt.”
Jeremy Corbyn faced criticism from Tories and some of his own MPs last month when he asked for more evidence to show Putin had ordered the attack, and refused to rule out the possibility that Moscow had lost control of the material.
Abbott told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Corbyn had been vindicated for his stance, while Johnson’s own approach begged new questions.
Abbott said that she had received a security briefing on the issue and Aitkenhead’s interview “doesn’t surprise me”.
“I can’t speak in detail about the briefing. It doesn’t surprise me that Porton Down are saying this because the security services were always very cautious in what they said,” she said.
“What surprised me was that so many people were willing to rush onto the media and say it was unequivocally Putin. That’s not necessarily what we were told.”
Abbott pointed out that Theresa May had been “quite careful in her initial statement” about the Salisbury attack, but her Foreign Secretary went further in pinning it directly on the Russian President.
“Boris Johnson going on international media and saying he was 101% certain it was Putin. I don’t understand where he got that information from.
“We will I hope get some credit for taking a more thoughtful approach and asking the right questions.”
Although Aitkenhead stressed that the nerve agent’s production was “something only in the capabilities of a state actor [ie a Government]”, Downing Street was forced to point out on Tuesday that Porton Down provided “only one part of the intelligence picture” that pointed to Moscow’s responsibility.
The defence lab was forced to tweet a clarification too.
But Russia pounced on Aitkenhead’s remarks. Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Britain would have to apologise to Russia for its “mad accusations”.
The Russian embassy in London said the UK’s claims that Moscow was behind the attack was a “bluff”.
Russia has requested an emergency meeting on Wednesday of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in the Hague.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a chemical weapons expert and former commander of the British Army’s Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Regiment, urged the Government to counter Russian ‘disinformation’ by producing its own evidence as to why Moscow was to blame.
“Security organisations are always very circumspect about giving the evidence because it can betray a source,” he told the Today programme.
“What is clear now is that somebody in the government, whether it is the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister, needs to lay out exactly what the supporting evidence is, that is compelling, that doesn’t betray sources.
“We need to get on the front foot...The last thing we want is any fracture in the strategic coalition we’ve put together.”
Bretton-Gordon said that it was not Porton Down’s job to ‘apportion blame’.
“I think what he [Johnson] probably meant to say is ‘with all the other evidence we have’. And I’ve seen some of it. And of course the Prime Minister has stood up and said they have irrefutable evidence.”
A Foreign Office spokesman told HuffPost: “The Foreign Secretary was making clear that Porton Down were sure it was a Novichok – a point they have reinforced.
“He goes on in the same interview to make clear why based on that information, additional intelligence and the lack of alternative explanation from the Russians, we have reached the conclusion we have.
“What the Foreign Secretary said then, and what Porton Down have said recently, is fully consistent with what we have said throughout. It is Russia that is putting forward multiple versions of events and obfuscating the truth.”