Salisbury nerve agent attack: Britain divulged 'unprecedented levels of intelligence' to convince other countries that Russia carried out attack

Information key to 23 states and Nato expelling Russian diplomats 

Kim Sengupta
Defence Editor
Wednesday 28 March 2018 06:46 BST
Russian diplomats move out of UK embassy following expulsion over Salisbury spy poisoning

Britain divulged “unprecedented levels of intelligence” to other countries in order to convince them that Vladimir Putin’s Russia had carried out the first nerve agent attack in Europe since the Second World War.

The material provided to the allies included sensitive reports and the conclusions of the military research base at Porton Down, as well as an explanation of how these were obtained. The information senior government officials hold was key to 23 states and Nato carrying out a mass expulsion this week of over a hundred Russians working under diplomatic credentials.

Highly classified information which is normally shared only between the “Five Eyes” countries – UK, US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada - was supplied to close allies with national security adviser, Sir Mark Sedwill, taking it to the European Union and the North Atlantic Council. Other countries were given differing levels of intelligence to show alleged Russian culpability.

Jeremy Corbyn, who attracted controversy by asking for more proof of Russia’s responsibility for the attempted assassinations, was, as a privy councillor, shown the same intelligence as supplied to the allied states and also the UK’s National Security council.

“We have”, acknowledged a senior Whitehall official, “shared unprecedented levels of intelligence with partners.” The information from the UK was deliberately shared with policy makers rather than just security chiefs abroad to “show there was no other plausible explanation for responsibility other than the Russian state”. At the same time there was a concerted diplomatic offensive by embassies abroad.

Not all countries provided with the intelligence have kicked out Russian diplomats. Unlike the others in the Five Eyes” network, New Zealand refused to take similar action with Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister, saying: “We have done a check in New Zealand. We don’t have Russian undeclared intelligence officers. If we did, we would expel them.”

The details of the mission to form an international coalition, following the Salisbury poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, came on the eve of the launch of the National Security Capability Review (NSCR). No “fundamental changes” have taken part to the report of the Review following the Salisbury attack. But what happened, insisted a Whitehall official, “proved we were right” about the threat posed by the Kremlin.

The Review will say that as well as state sponsored terrorism, “we expect the threat from Islamist terrorism to remain at its current heightened level for at least two years and it might increase further”. Isis may be losing on the battlefield, it will point out, but remains capable of launching attacks in Europe while other Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra (also known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) in the Middle East and al Shabaab in East Africa remain active.

The Capability Review, a follow up from the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), is designed, it is claimed, to provide a comprehensive new approach – “Fusion Doctrine” - which will bring together all aspects of security from “soft power”, such as the use of aid and promotion of culture, to propaganda, cyber warfare and the armed forces.

However Gavin Williamson, the new defence secretary, has succeeded in extracting defence from the NSCR, creating yet another review, the “Modernising Defence Programme” which will take place in the future. Critics claimed the separation was damaging to a comprehensive security strategy and had taken place purely because of the political ambitions of Mr Williamson who is said to want to succeed Theresa May.

Former National Security Adviser Lord Ricketts commented recently: “I can imagine the politics behind it but I think it’s a backward step to separate defence from other national security issues.” Robert Hannigan, the former GCHQ chief, agreed. “Pulling it apart now doesn’t seem very coherent,” he said. ”Cyber is a perfect example of why it doesn’t work to do it separately; it cuts right across public safety, security, intelligence through to defence and it is quite hard to see how you break it up.”

Nevertheless, launching the Review, the prime minister is due to say: “We have agreed a new approach to the orchestration of our national security doctrine. Based on the new ‘Fusion Doctrine’, this approach will ensure that in defending our national security we make better use of all our capabilities from economic levers, through cutting edge military resources to our wider diplomatic and cultural influence on the world stage.”

Ms May, in the foreword to the Review will point out the threats faced by the UK. “Over the past year we have witnessed appalling terrorist attacks in London and Manchester. But also a brazen and reckless act of aggression on the streets of Salisbury: attempted murder using an illegal chemical weapon, amounting to an unlawful use of force against the UK.”

The “danger” posed by Russia was also the theme of a speech by the head of the RAF, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier. He said: “What we did not expect then is the return of potential state-based conflict and threats from Russia – military-grade nerve agent being used for attempted murder on the streets of our country; the reckless and indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Syria; the illegal annexation of Crimea, the first time since the Second World War that one sovereign nation has forcibly annexed territory from another in Europe; the criminal activities of the Russian state in cyberspace.

“The post-War consensus that has provided the basis for the rules-based international order is being challenged and undermined. We must respond, collectively with our NATO and other partners, to counter hostile acts by Russia against our countries, our interests and our values.”

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