Evaluating Salisbury

Posted by ap507 at Mar 12, 2018 02:37 PM |
Dr Rob Dover discusses the poisoning of the former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in the Salisbury case
Evaluating Salisbury

Dr Rob Dover

Think: Leicester does not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Leicester - it expresses the independent views and opinions of the academic who has authored the piece. If you do not agree with the opinions expressed, and you are a doctoral student/academic at the University of Leicester, you may write a counter opinion for Think: Leicester and send to ap507@le.ac.uk 

The poisoning of a former Russian military intelligence officer, turned SIS intelligence asset, on UK soil has the makings of a strong narrative in written and cinematic fiction, but is one that it is also likely to spur emotionally driven responses, bad policy, and – of course – the usual litany of conspiracists who want to claim that this is false flag operation to discredit ‘pick a side, any side’, or cast iron proof of ‘whatever it is, I believe in’.

From what we know of the Salisbury case, and from what we are likely to discover, it provides some interesting lessons for crisis communicators and for the management of CBRN incidents both in the UK and in the wider European realm. For those who study intelligence it also appears to unseat some stable truths and understandings we thought we had about how double agents were treated by the nations they betrayed.

In researching crisis communications in CBRN settings for nearly three years now, one of the barriers to improvement in this area is the perception that these are ‘blue moon’ events. And – mercifully – serious incidents (be they deliberate or via accident) involving these toxins have been rare, certainly in the western world. But we have now seen a radiological assassination of the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko – which resulted in contamination being spread around a limited number of locations in London, we have seen a VX assassination in Kuala Lumpur, we have seen distressingly widespread use of chemical agents in the Syrian conflict, a limited chemical release in Sussex in August 2017, and now a suspected assassination attempt on British soil using what is widely assumed to be a modified version of sarin. These incidents are limited when mapped against other societal threats, but they’re not so rare as to be written off as unworthy of attention or preparation.

The core of crisis communications in a chemical incident is speed and clarity. Speed because the range of possible toxins are fast acting and therefore the quickest and simplest way to prevent the accumulation of victims is to keep people away from the ‘hot zone(s)’ and to decontaminate those in the hot and warm zones, if they have been exposed to agents. The various open source academic and practitioner documents available talk of a ‘golden window’ for communication that runs from between 15minutes to 60minutes after the first blue light responder has arrived at an incident. This is a very tight window of time for responders, particularly – as happened in this case – that the first responder also becomes a victim to the toxins present. Clarity is important because it helps to mitigate misunderstandings, allows people to assess risk and make fewer choices from a more limited palate of options. Speed and clarity sit in unhappy tension, however, because clarity is often a barrier to speed in mission-critical settings. The best example I can provide of this comes from Salisbury – the political choice to not name the toxin used looks likely to have hindered the speedy delivery of advice for those who have been present in what look to be multiple contaminated areas to wash their clothes, and to disinfect mobile telephones, spectacles and so on. This advice arrives one week late, at a time when one can reasonably assume the toxin to be well past a point where it might do serious damage, but we cannot know because it is still not named. And almost the only plausible reason not to name it, is because to do so would lead to analysts suggesting which global labs can produce it, which in turn produces a pressure on the UK government to respond. In other types of critical incident the blue light responders want to verify their information before they communicate publicly, because they want to only broadcast entirely accurate information. My collaborators and I found this opened up a void in which the public were hungry for information, and other communicators were able to fill this void with unverified information, something that had detrimental impacts upon the incidents we examined and for the longer-term.

There is a weakness in the communicative approach adopted in Salisbury that the tensions listed above exacerbate, which is that crisis communications in CBRN incidents demand a variegated approach – one in which there is analogue and often one-to-one communication with those in a hotzone, targeted communications with those in the periphery of the hot zone and into the warm zone and then the untargeted, mass and often digital communication with those outside of those zones. In Salisbury, and presumably because this was an incident targeted upon two individuals, there seems to have only been the wider communication. There also seems to have been little in the way of ‘tag and trace’ infrastructure, where those in the hot and warm zones (as they were understood on day one and as it has emerged during the intervening time) were located or reported in and individualised communications and health and information services were had and offered with and to these people. This seems to have contributed to the sense of community wide anxiety and unease that has unfolded as multiple hotzones and changing public health information have been declared during the week.

Speed and clarity are important in shaping the ‘sense-making’ and recovery phase of the incident. The less ambiguity there is in crisis communications the fewer options there are for those who wish to speculate on ‘who did it’, ‘why they did it’ and ‘what should we do’. In the Salisbury case, the absence of public information has seen the incident initially reported as a fentanyl incident largely because fentanyl is beginning to emerge into public consciousness: it became its own likely suspect. It should be noted that fentanyl white powder incidents have very similar operational connotations to CBRN incidents and in some parts of the world blue light responders are said to attend in PPE / PPS equipment. We have also seen the Russian state tried and convicted of this attempt (and they remain the lead suspects), whilst the ‘what we should do’ piece has seen trade drop off in Salisbury and now Public Health England issue new guidance on decontamination. To still be cordoning off new ‘warm zones’ on days three and four of an incident seems extraordinary, when matched against the publicly available doctrine, but it might also lead to an interesting research conclusion that this kind of limited attack – limited to one or two people – might fall outside of our existing doctrinal platforms.

On the intelligence angle, there are some troubling lessons that we think are possible to learn from this case, but only if the commonly accepted portrayals are correct. Sergei Skripal – one of the victims of this incident – was an SIS asset, but principally a mid-ranking Russian Military Intelligence Officer. He was part of a now famous spy exchange with Russia that involved him being pardoned. According to reports, he lived in Salisbury under his real name, and his house is registered at the Land Registry under that real name. So, this indicates that there was a very high level of confidence that the pardon and swap was the end to the Russian state’s interest in Skripal, were it to be the case that they sanctioned this attack. We might reasonably expect several results from this incident: 1) that the personal security of informants and dissidents will be significantly improved; 2) that this pattern of behaviour will make it significantly more difficult to turn foreign agents, treachery will be seen to have a global death penalty in perpetuity regardless of judicial process. This would be a tightening of the model operated on all sides, even during the very height (or depth) of the Cold War. And these observations are only provisionally or sketchily sound if Skripal had effectively retired at the point of the swap. If it transpires he had not retired (either from public or private duties) then he may have created an exception to the general rule that intelligence scholars believe to operate, albeit an exception that has had very grave medical and legal connotations.

Whatever might transpire in the weeks or months to come in this case, we can see how a very limited chemical incident can have a wide impact on an urban environment, both in terms of the public health concerns, and the disruption to everyday economic and social health. The usually tranquil setting of Salisbury will be hoping to get back to business as usual, whilst public health and blue light authorities should use this incident to refine their operational and communications strategies, in particular to have a variegated communications strategy and a tag and trace process that can be immediately put in place.

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Think: Leicester does not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Leicester - it expresses the independent views and opinions of the academic who has authored the piece. If you do not agree with the opinions expressed, and you are a doctoral student/academic at the University of Leicester, you may write a counter opinion for Think: Leicester and send to ap507@le.ac.uk