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Analyst casts doubt on Skripal poisoning communications picked up in Cyprus

Yulia Skripal was discharged from hospital on Tuesday

Reports of communications allegedly intercepted by a British listening outpost in Cyprus and suggesting a Russian hand behind the Skripal poisonings do not stack up, an intelligence analyst has told the Cyprus Mail.

Alex Thomson, a former GCHQ officer, said it was unlikely local officers at RAF listening stations had the capability of piecing together, let alone deciphering, highly encrypted communications.

The Mail also contacted the Sovereign Base Areas (SBA); they declined to comment on operations.

The reports of intercepted messages surfaced just as the British government’s narrative on the Skripal affair was coming unglued, following Porton Down’s statement last week that the toxic agent in Salisbury cannot be definitively traced back to Russia.

Citing anonymous intelligence sources, British media outlets are reporting on the ‘chilling’ contents of an electronic message that was intercepted en route to Moscow on the day former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned.

The message, the Express said, included the phrase ‘the package has been delivered’.

This, as well as an earlier intercept formed a key part of Britain’s intelligence evidence against Russia over the Skripal poisonings, sources told the paper.

The two communications were intercepted by RAF analysts stationed at a listening post in southern Cyprus.

According to the Express, on the day of the poisonings (March 4) one of the messages was sent from a location near Damascus in Syria to ‘an official’ in Moscow. It contained the phrase ‘the package has been delivered’ and said that two individuals had ‘made a successful egress’.

A Flight Lieutenant at the RAF station then recalled a separate message that had been intercepted and discounted on the previous day.

“During a routine trawl through the previous 24 hours’ intercepts, an RAF Signals Intelligence (Sigint) Officer alerted a senior officer to another electronic message, which had been spotted the previous day.

“Given the events of that Sunday, that previous intercept was deemed tangentially relevant as well,” the Express said.

The intercepts were shared with the UK government communications headquarters GCHQ in Cheltenham.

Alex Younger, the head of MI6, is said to have personally sent a ‘well done’ message to the RAF signals unit.

But Thomson, who served with GCHQ from 2001 to 2009, says this account doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

In email correspondence with the Mail, Thomson picked apart the publicly available information, highlighting a number of ‘oddities’.

He had this to say about the Signals Intelligence station within the Sovereign Base Area (SBA) at Ayios Nikolaos:

“RAF signals intelligence officers do exist and include some skilled cryptologists and linguists, but – unless something radical has changed in the past few years, which I doubt – they are focused upon intercepting military radio communications. The Express source’s mention of it being an ‘electronic message’ implies what Siginters call C2C (computer-to-computer communications) – an umbrella term for e-mails and (packets of) all Internet protocols, such as instant messaging.”

“Hence,” Thomson goes on, “if it was an ‘electronic message’, it is highly likely that the decryption, translation and analysis was done at Cheltenham by a civilian or embedded-military GCHQ officer; the more so since the communication was sent ‘from a Russian’ ‘to an official in Moscow’.

“I appreciate that the host RAF officers at the Ayios Nikolaos base will be looking closely at the Russian military presence at Latakia and Hmeimim [air base], but the recipient (‘official in Moscow’) implies Russian MoD, and probably GRU [foreign military intelligence agency of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation]  and hence certainly fiercely encrypted comms that the outstation at Ayios Nikolaos can’t cope with at all.”

Thomson, a regular contributor to UK Column News, adds: “Now, are we supposed to believe that a crucial ‘the deed is done’ message regarding a GRU assassination in Britain was sent in the clear or in low-grade, locally-crackable cipher from a Russian military operative in Syria to a Russian MoD staff officer?”

Another discrepancy in the story relates to the MI6 chief congratulating the diligent RAF officer:

“What has Alex Younger to do with GCHQ and RAF Sigint? There are huge rivalries between the agencies and services, and well-defined domains which others keep out of. Sigint, either military or civilian, is in no way subordinate to Humint [human intelligence], which is MI6’s remit, but runs in parallel with it.”

Others, too, find the account of the intercepted Russian communications to be implausible.

Craig Murray, former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, has from the outset questioned the entire official narrative on the Skripal poisonings.

On his blog, Murray writes sarcastically: “Because of course, if you were sending a cryptic message back from Salisbury to Moscow, you would naturally route it back via Syria, in the certain knowledge that all such calls from Syria are picked up from Troodos.”

He also deconstructs the account from a linguistic point of view:

“As for the phrase ‘two people have made their egress’, presumably this was said in Russian and I cannot understand the translation at all. Exit, egress, go out, leave to outside – there is only one Russian word to express all of these and that is phonetically from the stem ‘vihod’, either as noun or verb. There is no egress/exit choice in Russian.

“The only possible explanation is that the person actually said ‘two people have left’ and the British government propagandists have translated this as the weird ‘made their egress’ to try to make it sound more sinister and more like a codeword.”

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