UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is facing claims that he lied after claiming Porton Down told him the facility had traced the source of the Salisbury nerve agent to Russia.
Speaking on German TV two weeks ago the outspoken Conservative MP told an interviewer that officials at the chemical facility had confirmed to him that they had traced the source of the novichok nerve agent, used to attack Sergei and Yulia Skripal, to Russia.
When asked in the interview: “you argue that the source of this nerve agent, Novichok, is Russia. How did you manage to find it out so quickly? Does Britain possess samples of it?
Johnson replied: “Let me be clear with you … When I look at the evidence, I mean the people from Porton Down, the laboratory,” he replies, before the presenter interjects “So they have the samples?”
Johnson adds: “They do. And they were absolutely categorical and I asked the guy myself, I said, “Are you sure?” And he said there’s no doubt,”
However in a statement on Tuesday, the Chief Executive of Porton Down contradicted Johnson’s claim. Gary Aitkenhead told Sky News: “We were able to identify it as novichok, to identify it was a military-grade nerve agent. We have not verified the precise source, but we have provided the scientific information to the government, who have then used a number of other sources to piece together the conclusions that they have come to.”
The comments from the Porton Down official, although not exonerating Russia, are nevertheless uncomfortable for Foreign Secretary Johnson. Some media commentators have suggested there may be a political price to pay.
BBC Newsnight Diplomatic Editor, Mark Urban tweeted: “Important this – even though much of HMG maintained the ‘highly likely’ line + did not suggest that origin of Salisbury Novichok had been traced to Russia, some overstated their case so there could now be a political price to pay.”
Labour MP Chris Williamson wrote on Twitter: “Dear Britain, Boris Johnson is your Foreign Secretary and he just lied to justify our country’s foreign policy. How does that make you feel?”
Playing down the signficance of Aitkenhead’s remarks, a UK government spokesman said: “We have been clear from the very beginning that our world-leading experts at Porton Down identified the substance used in Salisbury as a novichok.
“This is only one part of the intelligence picture. As the prime minister has set out in a number of statements to the Commons since 12 March, this includes our knowledge that within the last decade Russia has investigated ways of delivering nerve agents probably for assassination – and as part of this programme has produced and stockpiled small quantities of novichoks; Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations; and our assessment that Russia views former intelligence officers as targets.
“It is our assessment that Russia was responsible for this brazen and reckless act and, as the international community agrees, there is no other plausible explanation.”
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