July 9, 2012

Litvinenko Mystery Darker Than James Bond

Originally publishes in early December 2006.

Litvinenko BEFORE his Polonium-210 poisoning.

The death of Alexander Litvinenko on November 23, 2006 has become a major issue in Britain due to the cause of death. Initial suspicions were that he was poisoned with Thallium; confirmation that it was radioactive Polonium-210 came later - did suggestions by British intelligence that it was former (or current)  Russian agents that killed him.

Litvinenko succeeded in gaining political asylum in Britain in 2000. He formerly worked on organised crime matters for the Russian Security Service (FSB) 
and before that in the KGB. He specialised in crime groups rather than the traditional Russian intelligence areas of obtaining foreign secrets and crushing domestic opposition.

The UK government has quickly discounted the possibility that the government of Vladimir Putin, President of Russia since 2000, ordered Litvinenko’s death and more diplomatically speculated that “rogue elements” in Russian intelligence may have done the deed.

It may be a coincidence but other figures dealing in information critical of Putin have since also come to grief. On November 28, 2006, Yegor Gaidar, a Russian economist and a former acting Prime Minister of Russia, collapsed in Ireland where he had been presenting a book critical of Putin’s economic policies. Two days later Gaidar's Irish doctors said he was poisoned, however Gaidar was quickly flown to Moscow thus removing the possibility of an independent assessment of his illness. Seperately on December 2, 2006 doctors reported that Mario Scaramella a colleague of Litvinenko also had received large dose of Polonium-210 (smaller than that present in Litvinenko but potentially deadly).

Polonium-210 is a highly radioactive isotope, so much so that minute amounts were used as power sources on satellites and Russian moon rovers. It is produced in deadly quantities in nuclear reactors by a small number of scientific institutes in Russia and several other countries. Safe transportation of Polonium-210 requires expert handling. This appears to point to the involvement of a well connected, well funded, supply chain for the substance, be that a state body or organised crime.

Russian intelligence apparently used Thallium poisoning to conceal radiation decades ago. On April 7, 2005, long before the Litvinenko affair emerged a former Russian intelligence officer Boris Volodarsky is on record as stating:

“I'm reminded of the 1955 attempt on Nikolay Khokhlov, a defector from the KGB. He drank a cup of coffee at a public reception in Germany in 1957 and fell ill. In his blood the doctors found traces of thallium, a metallic substance commonly used as rat poison. But the appropriate treatment had little effect and it was not until weeks later when Khokhlov was close to death that imaginative doctors at a U.S. Army hospital in Frankfurt found the hitherto undreamed-of answer. The thallium had been subjected to atomic radiation so that the metal would slowly disintegrate in the system, giving symptoms as common as gastritis as a patient slowly died of radiation poisoning. By that time, the thallium would have disintegrated and left no trace even for an autopsy.”

Its too early to speculate about Gaidar but Alexander Litvinenko appears to have been killed by Russians because he was considered a traitor and may have been about to release secrets especially damaging to Putin and the FSB.

Russian intelligence may have wanted to make an example of Litvinenko, punishing him as a traitor in the pay of the oligarchs, in the most excruciating and public way possible. In the 1990s Russian businessmen acquiring state assets, particularly oil, were popularly branded as “oligarchs” but with particular venom by a group known as the “siloviki”. The siloviki are a brotherhood of former and present members of Russian intelligence (most commonly from the KGB and the FSB) and military services. An indication of its probable power is that a former member of the KGB and onetime Director of the FSB is Putin himself. Another powerful siloviki is Nikolai Patrushev, Director of the FSB, who also served in the KGB with Putin. The siloviki support significant state intervention in economic, social and personal matters. They are often see as the force behind recent controls on democracy occurring under Putin, including some curtailing of freedom of the press.

Litvinenko’s close business and political ties with
Boris Berezovsky a leading oligarch, who fled to London, would have further angered the siloviki.

Litvinenko has variously been suspected of holding powerful dossier on:

- the FSB’s failure to protect (or even kill) recently murdered human rights campaigner and journalist Anna Politkovskaya;
- further information on FSB crimes generally; and,
- the Kremlin’s demolition of the Yukos oil company.

In response to this avalanche of bad press Russian sources appear to be doing their utmost to obfuscate the issue and discredit Litvinenko’s memory. One Russian report implied Berezovsky himself wanted to kill to Litvinenko.

More convincing information, with a nasty photo, is based on Moscow sourced information and statements from a Russian student currently in London. It originally appeared in the UK’s Observer of December 3, 2006 and makes the assessment “Litvinenko's access to such documents could have made him an enemy of both big business interests and the Kremlin. However, his claims are almost impossible to verify and some political analysts have gone as far as to dismiss him as a fantasist.”

The investigation of Litvinenko death is being pushed energetically by the British government. As of December 4, 2006 officers from Scotland Yard (and probably from British intelligence) have flown to Moscow to interview the three identified Russians (Andrei Lugovoi (former KGB), Dmitri Kovtun and Vyacheslav Sokolenko) who met Litvinenko in London on November 1, 2006 as well as two other Russians, not yet identified. It is unlikely, however, that British investigators will make much headway in Putin’s Russia. More explicit information may come from other Russian defectors, but, as such information is unofficial it carries less weight.

A report that the British Home Secretary will refer the matter to the European Commission sadly sounds like investigations may be converted into committee work to avoid maintaining pressure on Russian suspects.

Litvinenko died bravely after fighting a dangerous game against a Russia still dominated by genuinely dark institutions. He had no institution of his own to protect him. The press may turn to information packaged by the Russians concerning his foibles and occasional miscalculations, but his criticisms of Putin and overly powerful Russian intelligence services should not be drowned

Natasha and Pete