Alex McNaughton

Kit Klarenberg

Sputnik News, Moscow: In the days following the apparent poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal on 4 March 2018, speculation abounded. What substance had rendered the double agent and his daughter comatose? How? Who was responsible? Why?

By 7 March, it’d been established the pair were struck by¬†a nerve agent, confirmation merely triggering yet further frenzied theorizing¬†‚ÄĒ much of¬†it unscientific¬†‚ÄĒ 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¬†‚ÄĒ¬†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‚Ķsome 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¬†‚ÄĒ 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.

Own Initiative?

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¬†‚ÄĒ and moreover, an organization that¬†specifically sought¬†to systematically shape media reporting on, and Whitehall’s response to, the Salisbury incident from¬†day one.

Dan Kaszeta's Integrity Initiative Biography

Dan Kaszeta’s Integrity Initiative Biography

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¬†‚ÄĒ 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”.

Sample of billions of Anthrax bacteria

Live Anthrax Samples Were Likely Sent to Over 50 Laboratories

Given US Fort Derrick is also highly secure, and anthrax was apparently smuggled out¬†of the grounds successfully in¬†2001, leading to¬†a notorious wave of¬†anthrax attacks in¬†the week after¬†9/11, this argument is surely dubious. What’s more, Kaszeta would surely have been aware of¬†this,¬†given he claims¬†to have been “heavily involved in¬†the immediate aftermath of¬†the 9/11 attacks and the 2001 Anthrax incidents”¬†‚ÄĒ in¬†what capacity though, he doesn’t clarify.¬†Moreover, what¬†published literature exists¬†on¬†novichok (or A-234) indicates the substance can be produced at¬†bench scale by¬†any laboratory.In addition to¬†offering technical information on¬†novichok to¬†journalists¬†‚ÄĒ¬†including then-Times¬†Defence Editor Deborah Haynes,¬†part of¬†the Initiative’s UK Cluster¬†‚ÄĒ 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¬† on¬†6 April. Conspicuously, much of¬†this analysis relied on¬†conjecture rather than¬†science¬†‚ÄĒ 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¬†‚ÄĒ it’s difficult to¬†quantify the exact number of¬†articles featuring his Twitter output, although a¬†5 July 2018 Yahoo article¬†‚ÄĒ¬†Weapons expert busts conspiracy theories about¬†the Wiltshire Novichok attack¬†‚ÄĒ is certainly representative in¬†terms of¬†tone and content.

Integrity Initiative Monitors Social Media Activity Related to Salisbury Incident

Integrity Initiative Monitors Social Media Activity Related to Salisbury Incident

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¬†‚ÄĒ 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¬†‚ÄĒ 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¬†‚ÄĒ but¬†his LinkedIn profile nonetheless makes for¬†fascinating reading.

His first listed role, from¬†August¬†‚ÄĒ 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”¬†‚ÄĒ and between¬†1994¬†‚ÄĒ 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.

Dan Kaszeta's LinkedIn Profile

Dan Kaszeta’s LinkedIn Profile

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¬†‚ÄĒ 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”¬†‚ÄĒ 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.

Mystery, secrecy

Journo on Integrity Initiative: We Run Risk of Living in Dystopian Future

Strongpoint’s yearly takings certainly don’t appear to¬†have ever reached levels by¬†which Kaszeta could support himself, and references to¬†the company online are sparse¬†‚ÄĒ any firms that have ever employed his services have certainly not advertised the fact in¬†any way, and neither Strongpoint’s outdated website nor barely active¬†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.Strongpoint’s lack of¬†assets is even more puzzling given it operates out¬†of Kaszeta’s flat in¬†Pimlico, one of¬†Central London’s most expensive areas, where housing costs an average of¬†US$1.9 million (¬£1.4 million)¬†in¬†2019, 135 percent above¬†the city average.

It’s unclear whether Britain’s spying agencies MI5 and MI6, both situated a few minutes’ walk from¬†Strongpoint, have played any role in¬†boosting property prices there¬†‚ÄĒ the organizations maintain a large portfolio of¬†lodgings in¬†the district, including 36 Alderney Street (located half a mile from¬†Kaszeta’s home-cum-office), where GCHQ secondee to¬†MI6 Gareth Williams died in¬†extremely mysterious circumstances in¬†August 2010.

Proximity of Strongpoint Security to MI6 HQ

Proximity of Strongpoint Security to MI6 HQ

Nonetheless, Kaszeta owns the residence, so obvious questions must be asked¬†‚ÄĒ namely, how is he actually making his living, and is Strongpoint merely a legitimizing professional ‘front’ for¬†other activities, lending superficial credence to¬†his status as ‘independent’ specialist?

‘Counterfeit Expert’

Kaszeta’s rise to¬†media prominence is also somewhat curious. Prior to¬†2013, he was entirely unheard of¬†in the mainstream¬†‚ÄĒ 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.

Twitter app on a mobile phone

Bellingcat Reporter on Integrity Initiative Payroll Uses Twitter to Silence Critic Who Exposed Him

Among a variety of¬†allegations, his core contention was hexamine had been found by¬†UN inspectors investigating local soil samples and metal fragments, a discovery apparently amounting to “smoking gun” evidence proving Syrian government forces¬†were¬†behind¬†the contested strike, as¬†‚ÄĒ he alleged¬†‚ÄĒ the fuel can be used in¬†the production of¬†sarin gas, the chemical weapon purportedly used in¬†the Ghouta attack. While Kaszeta has never cited a single scientific paper supporting this thesis, journalists invariably presented his analysis without¬†critique.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.

Dan Kaszeta Defends Integrity Initiative Employment

Dan Kaszeta Defends Integrity Initiative Employment

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.

France's President Emmanuel Macron addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018.

Daesh Used Chemical Weapons in Syria and Iraq – Macron

Despite this extremely damning indictment of¬†his probity and professional competency, mainstream journalists and news outlets were evidently indifferent, as¬†Kaszeta’s media profile would grow exponentially in¬†the years afterward, leading to¬†his central role in¬†perpetuating the novichok narrative.Notably, not once in¬†this period has Kaszeta ever provided ‘expertise’ even vaguely inconvenient for¬†Western governments¬†‚ÄĒ 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.

Urban Planning

One of¬†the most renowned journalists to¬†promote Kaszeta’s views on¬†novichok was BBC Diplomatic Editor Mark Urban,¬†who championed¬†his 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”.

Mark Urban Promotes Dan Kaszeta's 'Expertise' on Twitter

Mark Urban Promotes Dan Kaszeta’s ‘Expertise’ on Twitter

Urban’s advocacy of¬†Kaszeta is perhaps unsurprising given his own peculiar connections to¬†the Skripal affair¬†‚ÄĒ 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¬†‚ÄĒ a period in¬†which discussion of¬†the attack, and Skripal, utterly dominated media reporting the world over¬†‚ÄĒ 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¬†‚ÄĒ which Integrity Initiative operatives worked to¬†circulate among¬†US politicians.

Yulia Skripal during an interview in London, Wednesday May 23, 2018

D-Notice, Parallels to Syrian War Raise Questions in Skripal Case

Furthermore, on¬†7 March the UK government¬†issued a D-notice¬†related to¬†the Salisbury incident, effectively blocking mention of¬†Miller in¬†the mainstream media since.”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.

Integrity Initiative Promotes Dan Kaszeta's 'Skripal Files' Review on Twitter

Integrity Initiative Promotes Dan Kaszeta’s ‘Skripal Files’ Review on Twitter

Whatever the truth of¬†the matter, Urban’s aforementioned book,¬†The Skripal Files¬†‚ÄĒ¬†widely marketed as¬†the “definitive account” of¬†the incident¬†‚ÄĒ 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¬†‚ÄĒ 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¬†‚ÄĒ predictably he didn’t respond, a recurring theme with¬†Initiative-connected individuals.

Dan Kaszeta Reviews Mark Urban's Book, 'The Skripal Files'

Dan Kaszeta Reviews Mark Urban’s Book, ‘The Skripal Files’

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¬†‚ÄĒ it’s also not included among¬†the now-dead links to¬†the various articles he wrote for¬†the Initiative on¬†the¬†Strongpoint website.

Wider Conspiracy

Shockingly, Kaszeta was but¬†one cog within¬†a much wider connivance¬†‚ÄĒ¬†Operation Iris¬†‚ÄĒ constructed by¬†Integrity Initiative. Under its auspices, many Institute for¬†Statecraft and Initiative operatives¬†‚ÄĒ and journalists within¬†the organization’s assorted international clusters¬†‚ÄĒ 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.

2015 File Written By Victor Madeira on Possible Anti-Russian Actions

2015 File Written By Victor Madeira on Possible Anti-Russian Actions

In addition to¬†cementing an extremely negative public perception of¬†Russia, the Initiative also sought to¬†influence government policy in¬†the UK¬†‚ÄĒ 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.


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