spooks and nukes : litvinenko

The Specter That Haunts the Death of Litvinenko
Edward Jay Epstein, New York Sun. March 19, 2008 (extracts)

The Polonium Warning

Polonium-210 is of great interest to the UN’s nuclear proliferation watchdogs because it is a critical component in early-stage nuclear bombs. Both America and Russia used it as part of the trigger in their early bombs. So did most, if not all, countries with clandestine nuclear programs, including Israel, India, Pakistan, South Africa, and North Korea. To be sure, some of these nuclear powers shifted to more sophisticated triggers after they tested their weapons. Even so, as a declassified Los Alamos document notes, the detection of Polonium-210 remains “a key indication of a nuclear weapons program in its early stages.” So when Polonium-210 was detected in Iraq in 1991, Iran in 2004, and North Korea in October 2006, the concern was that these countries might be trying to build a nuclear weapon. When Polonium-210 was discovered in London in late November 2006 in Litvinenko’s body, however, no such proliferation alarm bells went off. Instead, the police assumed that this component of early-stage nuclear bombs had been smuggled into London solely to commit a murder. It would be as if a suitcase nuclear bomb had been found next to an irradiated corpse in London, and everyone assumed the bomb had been smuggled into the country solely to murder that person. Michael Specter, in the New Yorker, for example, called it the “first known case of nuclear terrorism perpetrated against an individual.” But why would anyone use a nuclear weapon to kill an individual, when a knife, bullet, or conventional poison would do the trick more quickly, efficiently, and certainly? Certainly Polonium-210 is lethal once it gets into the blood stream. Before Litvinenko’s death, six people died of exposure to Polonium-210 — two in a radiation lab in France, three in a nuclear facility in Israel, and one in a nuclear research lab in Russia. All resulted from accidental leakage of Polonium-210. Because it is unstable, turning into a gas at 55 degrees Celsius, it is extremely difficult to handle. It is also expensive.

The Mythic Smoking Gun

A scientist by training, Mr. Goldfarb authoritatively asserted in his book “Death of a Dissident,” written with Marina Litvinenko, that “97% of the known production of Polonium … takes place in Russia.” Since little else had been written about this rare isotope, many commentators assumed it was an established fact. An article in the New Yorker noted, “Nearly all of it [Polonium-210] is produced in Russia.” To make such a determination, it is necessary to know both how much Polonium-210 is produced in Russia and how much is produced in other countries. Yet, as Polonium-210 production is a closely guarded secret, neither quantity is known. In 2006, neither Russia nor any other country in the world admitted manufacturing any Polonium-210 at all. Russia’s nuclear authority claims that the sole reactor that had been manufacturing its Polonium-210 had been shut down in 2004, and the small quantity exported to America in 2005 and 2006—approximately 3 ounces each year—came out of its stockpile. No doubt Russia could secretly manufacture Polonium-210, a process that first requires radiating the metal Bismuth in a nuclear reactor and then extracting from it the Polonium-210. But so could America, Britain, China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Taiwan, North Korea, or any other country whose nuclear reactors have not been inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s watchdog for Polonium production. When I asked an IAEA scientist about who had produced any Polonium-210 in 2006, he said, “We simply don’t know.” He added that North Korea might have produced large quantities, “kilograms not grams,” at its Yongbyon reactor for its nuclear tests in October 2006, but the actual amount is uncertain. The Polonium-210 found in London could also have come from stockpiles in many countries, including America. According to the IAEA’s Illicit Trafficking Data Base, there had been 14 incidents of missing industrial Polonium-210 since 2004. The minute amount found in London—possibly no more than one-millionth of an ounce—could have come from many sources, ranging from the American industrial supply and stockpiles in Russia to the remnants of the A Q Khan network in Pakistan and the North Korean surplus. So news reports, such as the one in the Washington Post that “Polonium is produced and held almost exclusively in Russia,” are at best speculation.

The Moscow Inquiry

I was told, “The media often reproach the Russian side for its unwillingness to cooperate with the British side, when in reality the situation is reverse.” As if to demonstrate this point, the Russian investigators provided me with access to the British files. What immediately caught my attention was that it did not include the basic documents in any murder case, such as the postmortem autopsy report, which would help establish how—and why—Litvinenko died. In lieu of it, Detective Inspector Robert Lock of the Metropolitan Police Service at the New Scotland Yard wrote that he was “familiar with the autopsy results” and that Litvinenko had died of “Acute Radiation Syndrome.” Like Sherlock Holmes’s clue of the dog that didn’t bark, this omission was illuminating in itself. After all, Britain and Russia had embarked on a joint investigation of the Litvinenko case, which, as far the Russians were concerned, involved the Polonium-210 contamination of the Russian citizens who had contact with Litvinenko. They needed to determine when, how, and under what circumstances Litvinenko had been exposed to the radioactive nuclear component. The “when” question required access to the toxicology analysis, which usually is part of the autopsy report. There had already been a leak to a British newspaper that toxicologists had found two separate “spikes” of Polonium-210 in Litvinenko’s body, which would indicate that he had been exposed at two different times to Polonium-210. Such a multiple exposure could mean that Litvinenko was in contact with the Polonium-210 days, or even weeks, before he fatally ingested it. To answer the “how” question, they wanted to see the postmortem slides of Litvinenko’s lungs, digestive track, and body, which also are part of the autopsy report. These photos could show if Litvinenko had inhaled, swallowed, or gotten the Polonium-210 into the blood stream through an open cut. The Russian investigators also wanted to know why Litvinenko was not given the correct antidote in the hospital and why the radiation had not been correctly diagnosed for more than three weeks. They said that their repeated requests to speak to the doctors and see their notes were “denied” and that none of the material they received in the “joint investigation” even “touched upon the issue of the change in Litvinenko’s diagnosis from Thallium poisoning to Polonium poisoning.” They added, “We have no trustworthy data on the cause of death of Litvinenko since the British authorities have refused to provide the necessary documents.” The only document provided in the British file indicating that a crime had been committed is an affidavit by Rosemary Fernandez, a Crown Prosecutor, stating that the extradition request is “in accordance with the criminal law of England and Wales, as well as with the European Convention on Extradition 1957.”

The Radiation Trail

The British police summarized their case against Mr. Lugovoi in a report that accompanied the extradition papers. But instead of citing any conventional evidence, such as eyewitness accounts, surveillance videos of the Pine Bar, fingerprints on a poison container (or even the existence of a container), or Mr. Lugovoi’s possible motive, the report was almost entirely based on a “trail” of Polonium-210 radiation that had been detected many weeks after they had been in contact with the Polonium-210. From the list of the sites supplied to the Russian investigators, it is clear that a number of them coincide with Mr. Lugovoi’s movements in October and November 2006, but the direction is less certain. When Mr. Lugovoi flew from Moscow to London on October 15 on Transaero Airlines, no radiation traces were found on his plane. It was only after he had met with Litvinenko at Erinys International on October 16 that traces were found on the British Airways planes on which he later flew, suggesting to the Russian investigators that the trail began in London and then went to Moscow. They also found that in London the trail was inexplicably erratic, with traces that were found, as they noted, “in a place where a person stayed for a few minutes, but were absent in the place where he was staying for several hours, although these events follow one after another.” When the Russian investigators asked the British for a comprehensive list of all the sites tested, the British refused, saying it was not “in the interest of their investigation.” This refusal led the Russian investigators to suspect that the British might be truncating the trail to “fit their case.” The Russian investigators concluded that the all the radiation traces provided in the British report, including the “high level” cited by “Scientist A,” could have emanated from a single event, such as a leak—by design or accident—at the October 16 meeting at the security company in Berezovsky’s building. But they could not find “a single piece of evidence which would confirm the charge brought against A.K. Lugovoi.” Britain may have had more incriminating evidence against Mr. Lugovoi than it chose to provide to Russia. It may not have wanted to share data that would reveal intelligence sources. But why would it refuse to share such basic evidence as the autopsy report, the medical findings, and radiation data?

The End Game

Before the extradition dispute, Russian investigators, in theory, could have questioned relevant witnesses in London. Their proposed roster of witnesses suggested that Russian interest extended to the Russian expatriate community in Britain, or “Londongrad,” as it is now called. The Litvinenko case provided the Russians with the opportunity for a fishing expedition, since Litvinenko had at the time of his death worked with many of Russia’s enemies, including Mr. Berezovsky; his foundation head, Mr. Goldfarb, who dispensed money to a web of anti-Putin websites; his Chechen ally Akhmed Zakayev, who headed a commission investigating Russian war crimes in Chechnya (for which Litvinenko acted as an investigator), and former owners of the expropriated oil giant Yukos, who were battling in the courts to regain control of billions of dollars in its off-shore bank accounts. The Russian investigation could also have veered into Litvinenko’s activities in the shadowy world of security consultants, including his dealings with the two security companies in Mr. Berezovsky’s building, Erinys International and Titon International, and his involvement with Mr. Scaramella in an attempt to plant incriminating evidence on a suspected nuclear-component smuggler—a plot for which Mr. Scaramella was jailed after his phone conversations with Litvinenko were intercepted by the Italian national police. The Russians had asked for more information about radiation traces at the offices of these companies, and Mr. Lugovoi had said that at one of these companies, Erinys, he had been offered large sums of money to provide compromising information about Russian officials. Mr. Kovtun, who also attended that meeting, backs up Mr. Lugovoi’s story. Such charges had the potential for embarrassing not only the security companies that had employed Litvinenko and employed former Scotland Yard and British intelligence officers, but the British government, since it had provided Litvinenko with a passport under the alias “Edwin Redwald Carter” to travel to parts of the former Soviet Union. The British extradition gambit ended the Russian investigation in Londongrad. It also discredited Mr. Lugovoi’s account by naming him as a murder suspect. In terms of a public relations tactic, it resulted in a brilliant success by putting the blame on Russian stonewalling for the failure to solve the mystery. What it obscured is the elephant-in-the-room that haunts the case: the fact that a crucial component for building an early-stage nuke was smuggled into London in 2006. Was it brought in merely as a murder weapon or as part of a transaction on the international arms market? There is little, if any, possibility, that this question will be answered in the present stalemate. The Russian prosecutor-general has declared that the British case is baseless; Mr. Lugovoi, elected to the Russian Parliament in December 2007, now has immunity from prosecution, and Mr. Scaramella, under house arrest in Naples, has been silenced. The press, for its part, remains largely fixated on a revenge murder theory that corresponds more closely to the SMERSH villain in James Bond movies than to the reality of the case of the smuggled Polonium-210. After considering all the evidence, my hypothesis is that Litvinenko came in contact with a Polonium-210 smuggling operation and was, either wittingly or unwittingly, exposed to it. Litvinenko had been a person of interest to the intelligence services of many countries, including Britain’s MI-6, Russia’s FSB, America’s CIA (which rejected his offer to defect in 2000), and Italy’s SISMI, which was monitoring his phone conversations. His murky operations, whatever their purpose, involved his seeking contacts in one of the most lawless areas in the former Soviet Union, the Pankisi Gorge, which had become a center for arms smuggling. He had also dealt with people accused of everything from money laundering to trafficking in nuclear components. These activities may have brought him, or his associates, in contact with a sample of Polonium-210, which then, either by accident or by design, contaminated and killed him. To unlock the mystery, Britain must make available its secret evidence, including the autopsy report, the comprehensive list of places in which radiation was detected, and the surveillance reports of Litvinenko and his associates. If Britain considers it too sensitive for public release, it should be turned over to an international commission of inquiry. The stakes are too high here to leave unresolved the mystery of the smuggled Polonium-210.

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