T144. Novichok


Project Save the World Podcast / Talk Show Episode Number: 144
Panelist: Walter Dorn
Host: Metta Spencer

Date Aired: 17 December 2020
Date Transcribed:
1 January 2021
Otter. Ai
Transcription Review and Edit: Adam Wynne

Metta Spencer 0:00

Hi, I’m Metta Spencer. And today I get to have a conversation with a very dear friend, Walter Dorn. Walter is a professor at the Canadian Forces college here in Toronto, which is kind of a graduate school for military people. But he calls himself a sheep in Wolf’s clothing, which is a wonderful term for somebody who is an expert on military matters, but really is a peace worker in every sense of the word. So it must be a real matter of cognitive dissonance to be teaching in a place where the whole purpose of the things seems a little bit incongruous. At but he matches and and he’s one of my very favorite, and one of the strongest peace workers in Canada, if not the world, works for the UN a lot. Hi, Walter. Good morning. Hi,

Walter Dorn 0:59

Metta. Good to be with you.

Metta Spencer 1:00

And I love your fireplace. So we’re going to have a fireside chat more charming, cozy. I will tell people that you are. You’re originally a chemistry graduate students when I first met you, many, many years ago. And and you did a PhD, I believe you got interested in chemical weapons. Right, and –

Walter Dorn 1:25

after about 10 years on arms control, I shifted to peacekeeping. But I kept that interest in monitoring sensing. And so the technologies are an interest for me across the range of peace and environmental issues.

Metta Spencer 1:39

There’s there’s stuff that’s been going on regarding chemical weapons in the last week or two. Some I’ve seen a lot of emails flying past me that I haven’t really unpacked. So I’d like for you to talk to me about some of the controversies about chemical weapons that have been taking place recently. And then everybody, all the peace workers in the world now are preoccupied with the challenge of trying to get our respective governments to sign on to and ratify the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons – the TPNW. And I know that you had a an opportunity to speak to a Senate committee in the last two or three days, and that you use this opportunity to make your plug for Canada to get on board with that, which they certainly should. So we’ll talk about both of those, if you will.

Walter Dorn 2:47

So the news is that the Canadian Parliament is now considering an amendment to the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act, which was first passed in 1995. And the reason that they’re considering this amendment is that the treaty itself was amended. Earlier this year, provisions came into force to add four new classes of chemical weapons to Schedule 1 of the chemicals which Schedule 1 or those chemicals which can only be used as chemical weapons. They don’t have other purposes, and they pose a higher risk. They include the traditional chemicals like mustard gas, and sarin and VX and, and ricin. But the new agents three of the new classes of agents are Novichoks, which are agents that Russia is alleged and almost certainly did use, both against a former Soviet agent when he was in refuge in Britain, and in the Salisbury attack. Both Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were poisoned by this nerve agent called Novichoks. It’s actually a class of agents. And the other use was against Alex Navalny. And when he’s when he was brought to Germany, after being poisoned, they detected nobody Chuck in his blood. So it’s quite clear that this is a contravention of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Of course Russia has denied it. But Russia did agree to put these chemicals into the annex on chemicals of the Chemical Weapons Convention. So now we have four new categories added to the Chemical Weapons Convention. And the Government of Canada didn’t need to amend the legislation. But I thought that it was prudent to do so. And so I looked at the amendments, said that it was it wasn’t necessary, but it was still a positive thing. Yesterday, the committee to which I was testifying, adopted the amendments, and is now sending it back to the full Senate or will shortly send it back to the full Senate. And then when it goes through a third reading in both the House and the Senate, then it will pass as a new amended bill for Canada.

Metta Spencer 5:27

Aha, okay. Well, that makes that’s logical to me. Because you said at the outset, was already forbidden, right? It would be covered by anybody’s definition of what a chemical weapon is, I presume I don’t even know how you would define a chemical. How do they define chemical weapons? What does the treaty basically say is possible? And what is not? Is it clear that the criteria are unmistakable – that you can tell for sure whether something would be covered or not?

Walter Dorn 6:10

Right, so that the definition and the convention of chemical weapons is very broad. It includes both the harm that’s inflicted, and the intention to do harm. So it’s like a legal definition involving both intent and actual act. The schedules are there for verification purposes, and to help better define what is being considered. So Schedule 1, as mentioned, are just chemicals, compounds that are used as chemical weapons and don’t have other purposes. And the fact that Russia allowed those chemicals to go on to Schedule 1 means that the OPCW, that’s the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical weapons, which is based in The Hague can now do better inspections, and better testing and verification mechanisms for those agents. And I’m sure that in their subsequent inspections in Russia, and I do hope there will be a challenge inspection of Russia, that they that they will look for those agents and figure out where they’re produced in Russia.

Metta Spencer 7:21

I guess I’m not clear about what new say this schedule, the the things they added on, what are these like chemical formulas or something that would enable you to say, anything with this stuff in it is definitely forbidden?

Walter Dorn 7:38

That’s correct. So you’re allowed to have small amounts for research, they have to be consistent with the research purpose. You can have them for prophylactic purposes, protecting yourself and testing gas masks and that sort of thing. But those have to be very small quantities and they have to be reported to the OPCW. So now Russia, if they do have Novichoks will be obliged, under the Chemical Weapons Convention to report any, any not stockpile. It’s not even stockpile, but any quantities, small quantities in a fridge somewhere, where they store for research purposes. And hopefully, they’ve learned their lesson and the world is is called them out now. On the use of chemical weapons against at least two targets. And this, this, adding it to the schedule will make verification better. ,

Metta Spencer 8:36

Yeah, I have often wondered how, how you would do verification for a thing like that anyway, it’s hard enough, if you’re talking about a dump with barrels, 1000s of barrels of chemicals, that, that it’s, you know, you might be able to spot those by sniffing or I don’t know how you do it. But but the notion that something as tiny as like a half a teaspoon full of something would be, you know, you could kill a bunch of people.

Walter Dorn 9:06

Right? So

Metta Spencer 9:07

how can you possibly it really, really expect to do verification?

Walter Dorn 9:15

So you would run on clues? And we already know that Russia has used Novichok. So then it would be what laboratories might have them in their inventory. What does the intelligence say? Other intelligence agencies can use their electronic intercept and other means to be able to give clues to international organizations when they do the verification. So it’ll be a cat and mouse game, and in many cases, the mouse will win. But the more tools and the more provisions in the convention that allow for verification, the better the cat will be catching the violations of the convention. So I would I still think there’s a positive. And you might not catch all the vials, they might be in some former KGB lab, now FSB, which is, which is handling the chemical side of their activities, but at least you can begin to search for them and make it more difficult for a country to or or an organization to hide them.

Metta Spencer 10:24

How difficult is it to make? And are there, I’m asking now not only about novichok, but other chemicals that might also be extremely lethal and very tiny. Could… is there anything of that of that magnitude or that importance? Lethality – that I could make in my kitchen.

Walter Dorn 10:50


want you to tell me,

like, I’m always hesitant to talk about this. But I think it’s sufficiently in the literature, that that we can say that many of these chemicals are very easy to make some sometimes two steps away from from common products that can be ordered. There was a case that a Schedule 1 chemical was produced in near Montreal early this year and sent to the White House and to addresses in Texas. That was using castor beans. So that information is out there, what what we have to be also be aware as it’s the handling of those things, that really requires the extra expertise. Because what when when you’re making them if you tried it in your kitchen, I wouldn’t recommend eating your kitchen or, or doing any preparation your kitchen for a long time afterwards. So they’re asked that usually you do them in fume hoods and special flasks and that sort of thing. So in that sense, it’s a deterrent for people to make a chemical weapons. It’s like, I guess it happens with other things like even explosives. People kill themselves just playing around with the stuff during it, trying to build weapons sometimes.


Metta Spencer 12:08

Okay, well, so this is a good step, then. Well, of course, actually, one one wonders what, what goes on in the minds of the people who have been using those things, I think, um, I don’t know, anybody who would dispute the, the assumption that Putin has to know about this and have approved of it, or it wouldn’t have happened period. And so this is Putin’s own doing. And why? He doesn’t like the guy, but do the, you know, I think the fact that they get caught, and that for example, this this polonium stuff, they found the traces of where it had been on airplanes and hotels and, and they they could even tell where it had been transported. Right.

Walter Dorn 13:05

And it’s so the coffee cup was it was laden with the residue of the polonium and the radiation.

Metta Spencer 13:12

if he’s having them use a poison that is so easy to identify, and so uniquely Russian, and something that nobody could have done in their own kitchen. I couldn’t make a plate. Maybe you could get polonium, or Novichok, but I don’t think very many people could. Is he trying to send a message? Is he doing this to say, you see what I can do so watch out? Or is he dumb enough to think that he could get away with it and not get caught?

Walter Dorn 13:53

Well, I think both are plausible. And one is probably the first the second idea that you propose is that you get away with it is what he would want. But if if he doesn’t get away with it, and it is identified, it still sends a message. So there’s a kind of, he can benefit from in both categories, the first category of eliminating an enemy through saying there was some sort of poisonous substance that he must have eaten somewhere. And then if not then making other people scared. But I don’t think that the Russians thought that Navalny would get to a German hospital where they had the technologies and the OPCW was involved in as well in getting those samples to labs in France and Sweden, which both confirm the Novichok was in them. So the net is negative for Putin. But if he likes notoriety, then he’s got it. But he also also seeks plausible deniability. And he continues to say that, that this was not instigated by the Russian government.

Metta Spencer 15:10

Well, you know, I don’t think anybody in the world would believe him. It is the most absurd, right? I mean, if there’s nobody else could do it, and everything that goes on in Russia that if, if it’s going to be of that magnitude, I don’t think there’s any Russian who believes that, that something like the FSB will go off on their own and freelance on a thing like that. So I think it’s absurd. Now, then, if, in any case, why would he sign on to having an additional protocol or whatever? Saying that Novichok ins specifically is forbidden? Does he intend to straight now? not use it anymore? Or are the terms of this new protocol or whatever it’s called? Such that it’ll, it’ll be easier to have an inspection. an impromptu very quick inspection?

Walter Dorn 16:17

Mm hmm. I hope, I hope that governments do that. I mean, that when, when we were working on the Chemical Weapons Convention, I was both involved with Parliamentarians for Global Action and Science for Peace. And, and you may recall, we even did a a conference, where we had a Soviet representative come in 1988, to look at chemical weapons, we held it in Croft Chapter House – Canada’s oldest chemistry laboratory – at the University of Toronto, we, we were really hoping that this mechanism of anywhere, anytime inspections, could be come part of international practice, as well, in addition to being law, and the nations have been really hesitant to, to carry out challenge inspections. So now is an opportunity. And I really hope that nations summon the courage to do it.

Metta Spencer 17:08

What does the text of the treaty say?

Walter Dorn 17:12

it’s going to be done at any time since the entry into force the treaty in 1997. And some nations have even said, Look, do a trial challenge inspection and come and visit any lab you want. And and then the OPCW has to designate it and then there’s a process called managed access. But it still is based on the principle of anywhere, anytime. I mean, it’s short notice, it’s like 24, or 48 hour notices and that sort of thing. But the world needs to get in the habit. And I would hope that countries like Canada can say, Please try it out on us, so that we can get in the habit of creating that kind of transparency in the world. So becomes even harder for violators like Russia, to turn down the such requests.

Metta Spencer 18:00

The Russians say that they had already destroyed their arsenal of chemical weapons?

Walter Dorn 18:06

They had, they not only said it, but it was verified by the OPCW. So we know that some 30,000 tons of chemical weapons were destroyed in Russia. They asked for this 10 year extension after the first 10 years they hadn’t completed. And the Americans also asked for that extension, and the Americans haven’t even completed all that work. But they destroyed within 20,000 tons. So we’re well on the way we have 98% of declared stocks are now destroyed.

Metta Spencer 18:39

You think they’re really destroyed, but you’re talking about big gallon drums. Right? Right. Not you’re not talking about a teaspoon full.

Walter Dorn 18:47

That’s right. That’s why the 98% is in regard to the weight of the substances and not the existence of it. So you know, there might be undeclared substances, they could be in small quantities. And just shifting to Syria for a second. Syria did destroy over 1000 metric tons of chemical weapons. That is they transferred it for destruction and most of it was destroyed on on a ship, an American ship, in the Mediterranean. But the Syrian government gave up its strategic arsenal. Now it still has tactical that is small amounts that it has been using against the population. But the threat against other countries such as Israel was very much diminished by serious signing under under Russian pressure and American pressure, signing the Chemical Weapons Convention. And even though it hasn’t fulfilled all the obligations of the convention, and they’ll be OPCW still has matters that issues with serious declarations, it still was a major step forward. And now we have a basis on which you can send in inspectors and you can challenge them their veracity rather than a nation saying, well, we have a right to have those many chemical weapons, and you have no right to even question it because there’s no legal basis for the US to question it because we never signed the Chemical Weapons Convention. Syria did sign it. And now we can hold, try and hold them accountable.

Metta Spencer 20:17

Well, now there was one case where I think the OPCW inspectors went into a place where there was a I think in a road wasn’t there, there was some sort of chemical, like a pit or something on the road, a pothole on the road where a chemical weapon had landed, and, and they were able to detect that it was a chemical weapon. But I believe the OPCW doesn’t say who they think did it. I mean, you know, you could guess. But isn’t that true that they tell you whether it is a chemical weapon or not, but they don’t actually charge anybody with a violation.

Walter Dorn 21:03

So at the time of those joint investigative mechanisms, with the UN and the OPCW in Syria, that was true, that the mandate of the OPCW, was limited to declaring that a chemical weapon had been used, and not by whom. But fortunately, the OB CW has refined its methods and the conference of state parties is agreed that the opposite of you can now name the perpetrators. So they’re now going back. And looking at the evidence, which, which was pretty clear at the time that it was a Syrian government. And they did detect nerve agents in some of the artillery shells that landed. And you can tell from the angle of the artillery from where it was launched. Because you know, if it lands this way, it’s very different from if it lands that way. And so there’s there’s good evidence from whether launching was in government or non governmental controlled areas, in this case, governmental control, there is in the case of what I think you’re referring to is the Ghouta attack and the basis for the OPCW, is it being strengthened. So it’s one of the few areas of arms control, where we actually have seen the international mechanisms strengthened in recent years, as opposed to other areas where, you know, we saw so many treaties, which were repudiated by the United States under the Trump administration. And the only other positive development is that we now have a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that will enter into force next month.

Metta Spencer 22:38

Well, now here. Let’s we have just about 10 minutes or less to talk about that. Because I think I want to know what you said yesterday, you were before what committee?

Walter Dorn 22:52

The Standing Committee of the Senate on Foreign Affairs and International Trade?

Metta Spencer 22:59

Mm hmm. And they invited you to come and tell them things, or you asked to or what?

Walter Dorn 23:03

No, I actually don’t know how I got the invitation. But I was invited to provide testimony. And before me, somebody from the OPCW testified, and before that there were governmental representatives, and the Chair of the Biological and Chemical Defense Review Committee.

Metta Spencer 23:20

I thought you were talking about the TPNW yesterday, or did you sneak that in? On top of the things that you were asked to talk about?

Walter Dorn 23:28

Right. So some of the senators had raised the TPNW during their, during their addresses in the Senate. And I was asked a question about the TPNW. But also in my opening remarks, I made a point of drawing the larger lessons from the Chemical Weapons Convention, I said, we need to strengthen arms control, we need to strengthen the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention to provide similar sorts of mechanisms that the Chemical Weapons Convention has: anywhere, anytime inspections, I said, we need to create a Nuclear Weapons Convention, which can do for nuclear weapons, what the Chemical Weapons Convention has done for chemical weapons. And that a step in the direction towards a nuclear free world was the ban treaty, but it has no verification and compliance mechanisms. So we needed to strengthen that and that Canada should support that initiative towards arms control. And then I’ll I’ll throw it here the third proposal, which is that we should give the World Health Organization, the same sort of inspection capabilities that we give to the OPCW, that is the WHO should be able to do anywhere, anytime inspections, without right or refusal, through managed access to facilities where there may have been early outbreaks. And the world would be much better informed about the types of infectious diseases that maybe man caused or maybe natural, and that we can have a better information very early on. So those were all lessons from the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention. And the tpnw w Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons was one of the points that I made. And if you want to talk about that, or any other broader issues that come out of the Chemical Weapons Convention implementation, I’m quite happy to talk about those. You know,

Metta Spencer 25:16

I talked to somebody once, who said that he had, in a conversation with Gorbachev received some information that there was a Russian plan or Soviet plan, back in the day to actually use I think, smallpox or something, in some sort of weaponry that this was not. I mean, you’re referring to something – the use of biological weapons – that are designed to make people sick and die from, like viruses or, you know, I don’t, I don’t imagine many of us even lose any sleep thinking about that possibility that people would actually do something like try to cause a pandemic in another country? Because it seems so implausible that that anybody would, would do that. I mean, it just wouldn’t have wouldn’t have even occurred to me. But apparently, this was really a game plan.

Walter Dorn 26:26

At some Well, yeah, it’s not rational, and no one should do it or think that there’s any benefit from it. But there are crazy people and crazy groups that have planned it. Aum Shinrikyo was planning it for Japan, they had sheep in Australia that they were using to get for testing on with anthrax. The ricin that was created by Montreal, a woman or dual citizen of France and Canada, she developed the ricin, which is a toxin produced by a biological system, but it is a chemical weapon. It’s a chemical. And it’s in Schedule 1 of the Chemical Weapons Convention and mailed that and there being about half a dozen cases where there have been mailings of chemical and biological weapons in the United States. One of them done almost certainly by a US Defense scientist who sent anthrax, which the FBI can be certain that came from the flask in his laboratory, or was derived from that flask. And that anthrax was sent to Patrick Leahy, who was a Democratic Senator, and various other people and mailed from different locations by Bruce Ivins who committed suicide just as he found out that he was the number one suspect by the FBI.

Metta Spencer 28:02

Was this the thing that happened? Right after 9/11?

Walter Dorn 28:05

Correct, October.

Metta Spencer 28:10

I think in our own minds, we probably figured that these two tragedies were connected.

Walter Dorn 28:17

Well, he labeled the envelope saying Death to America, Allah is Great, but it was it was one of those great framings of using biological weapons and trying to frame it on Islamic extremists. So there are definite lessons and we have to keep that one alive. It’s not just a conspiracy theory. It has all the elements of a conspiracy theory. But it’s very definitively proven in my mind beyond reasonable doubt. But you can certainly say beyond the balance of probabilities, that this defense scientist who was seeking to increase the funding and got increased funding for anthrax research. After that attack, which killed five people.

Metta Spencer 29:00

He wasn’t just a crazy guy. He had a special motive. I mean, it’s crazy. Yes, I mean, no normal human being would think that way. But, but it was a motivated craziness. That

Walter Dorn 29:15

is the allegation that the FBI has for his attack. And there’s lots of good evidence provided in the FBI report, which is now available online. And the scientist also loved puzzles. And he put into some of the framing material that he did some of the puzzles that he got out of a book, Gödel, Escher, and Bach, which was a very popular decades ago for looking at how to do encryption and looking at the patterns in life. So he had a deviously deranged mind. Yeah,

Metta Spencer 29:26

this has been extremely interesting. Take care of Walter. Bye bye.

Walter Dorn 29:57


Adam Wynne (Intro/Outro) 30:00

This conversation is one of the weekly series Talk About Saving the World produced by Peace Magazine and Project Save the World. Please visit our website at to save the world.ca where you can sign the platform for survival. A list of 25 public policy proposals that if enacted, would greatly reduce the risk of six global threats to humankind. Come back next week for another discussion of a serious global issue.

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