Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Litvinenko Mystery Thriller: A Primer of Conspiracy Theories

On November 23, 2006 Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-KGB officer exiled in London, died of Polonium-210 poisoning. The possible crime scenes, including the offices, restaurants, hotels , cars, and airplanes tainted by the rare radioactive isotope , were badly compromised by the three week delay in examining them. The Coroner's Report still has not been released, so there is no official cause of death. The lack of evidence has given rise to a rich proliferation of conspiracy theories that deserves a taxonomy.
I. The Poisoned Sushi Theory

Proponent: Alexander Litvinenko

Thesis: Litvinenko had been poisoned by thallium, a rat poison, in the Itsu Sushi restaurant on November 1 while dining with Mario Scaramella.
Selling points:
*** Litvinenko had sharp stomach pains on November 1st after eating Sushi with Mario Scaramella
*** It was not Thallium but Polonium 210 that poisoned Litvinenko
*** Litvinenko’s Russian associates got contaminated before Litvinenko got to the Sushi restaurant.
Status: DOA

II. The Spiked Tea Theory

Proponent: Scotland Yard

Thesis: Tea served to Litvinenko at the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel on November 1st 2001 was spiked with Polonium 210 by his Russian associate Andrei Lugovoi.
Selling points:
*** Witnesses saw Litvinenko in the Pine Bar with his Russian associates
*** A hotel tea pot tested positive for Polonium 210
*** A November 1st bus ticket (found among Litvinenko’s effects) did not test positive for Polonium 210, suggesting Litvinenko had been Polonium-free shortly before going to the Pine Bar.
*** A waiter at the Pine Bar, Norberto Andrade, recalls being distracted by others at Litvinenko's table and this distraction might have provided the opportunity in the crowded bar to poison his tea.

*** Polonium 210 is not an efficient assassination weapon. Not only is it expensive, slow-acting, and difficult to obtain, but it is a tell-tale poison, traceable back to its source.
*** The tea pot was cycled through a dishwasher for weeks before the police tested it. It is therefore difficult to fit into a chain of evidence.
*** The absence of Polonium on a ticket does not really prove that Litvinenko was free of polonium contamination. It only suggests that it was not on the hand he used to handle the ticket.
*** The inability of a waiter to see what happened is only evidence that he is not a witness to what happened.
*** The autopsy showed that Litvinenko was exposed to Polonium 210 on more than one occasion, so there is no way to exclude the possibility that he contaminated the tea cup.
*** Litvinenko went to the Pine bar at 5 pm on November 1st after he had met Mario Scaramella at the Itsu Sushi for lunch. Scaramella was contaminated. So Litvinenko must have had the Polonium 210 on his person before he went to the Pine Bar.
Status: In abeyance awaiting a British extradition request that has been turned down.

III. The Serial Poisoner Theory

Proponents: autopsy doctors

Thesis: Litvinenko was poisoned twice, first in Mid-October, then again, at the Pine Bar on November 1st
Selling Point:
*** It explains why the post mortem examination shows two different times Litvinenko was exposed to Polonium 210.
*** Polonium can take many weeks, if not months, to kill someone. So how would a murderer know after only 2 weeks that the first dose was not effective ?
*** If Polonium 210 did not work the first time, why not use another poison (or a bullet) in the follow-up assassination attempt.
Status: Awaiting release of the Coroner's Report

IV. Accident Theory

Proponent: Vyacheslav Zharko
Thesis: Litvinenko had come in contact with smuggled Polonium 210 and a speck leaked onto his clothes, possessions or person, and it then fell into his food. According to Vyacheslav Zharko, a Russian official who Litvinenko allegedly helped recruit for British intelligence in 2002, Litvinenko "kept telling me that he needed money badly Possibly, that with the help of [Akhmed] Zakayev and his other Chechen 'friends' he could have got involved in smuggling of radioactive materials, and then - by accident or not - received a lethal dose."
Selling Points:
*** Historic context: All 5 previously known deaths from Polonium poisoning, including Irene Curie, were accidental. (See Follow the Polonium )
*** Litvinenko was in contact with Polonium 210 long before he entered the hospital in November. According to one of his associates in Moscow, material he received from Litvinenko in "the summer" of 2006 proved to be Polonium-tainted. (The date of the Polonium contamination can be determined by spectrographic analysis.) In any case, he was certainly in contact with Polonium 210 in Mid-October.
*** There was an accidental Polonium 210 leak in London in October. Over 100 people were accidentally contaminated by the Polonium 210 including 3 of Litvinenko’s associates. Just because Litvinenko ingested it and died does not mean he was not contaminated by the same accidental spillage that got on his associates.
*** It is not probable that spilled Polonium 210 would get into food or drink.
Retort: Isn't murder by Polonium 210 also improbable?

I. Vladimir Putin

Proponent: Marina Litvinenko ("J'Accuse" in Wall Street Journal).

Thesis: Putin personally ordered an agonizing death for Litvinenko.
Selling points:
***- Litvinenko accused Putin on his death bed
***- Putin had a motive for vengeance: Litvinenko accused Putin of being a pedophile
***- Putin had access to the Sarov facility, where Polonium 210 is manufactured.
***- The leak of Polonium 210 was not necessarily authorized by President Putin. The security of Russia’s nuclear facilities has been breached many times before. Even nuclear suitcase bombs, have been stolen out of them and smuggled into the black market.
II. KGB Veterans

Proponent: Mario Scaramella

Thesis: A shadowy group of KGB veterans called Dignity and Honor had a "hit-list" of people targeted for assassination which had been emailed to Scaramella.
Selling point:
*** At the Itsu Sushi restaurant Scaramella told Litvinenko that both he and Litvinenko were on the hit list .
*** Scaramella was never able to produce the putative list.
*** Litvinenko initially suspected Scaramella of being the poisoner.
*** Scaramella is currently in prison on charges of calumny
III. Rogue FSB Agents
Proponent: MI-6 British Intelligence

Thesis: A rogue unit of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, assassinated Litvinenko without higher authorization. According to the Guardian: "British officials say the perpetrators were probably former Russian security agents, or members of a criminal gang linked to them. They insist there is no evidence of the involvement of the Russian government.
Selling points:
***- Such revenge assassinations are in the hoary tradition of SMERSH ("Death To Spies And Traitors.") killing defectors
***- Litvinenko was in contact with at least two ex-FSB agents in London and according to SMERSH logic, there is no such thing as an "ex" KGB or FSB officer .
***- The FSB had a motive: Litvinenko had accused his former colleague of blowing up 300 Russian civilians in a series of 1999 bombings.
***- Polonium 210 is traceable: So why would even a rogue unit of the FSB chance incriminating itself by using Polonium 210
IV. Andrei Lugovoi

Proponent: Sir Ken Macdonald, head of public prosecutions in Britain

Thesis: Lugovoi, a business associate of Litvinenko, slipped Polonium 210 in his tea on November 1st in the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel.
Selling points:
*** Lugovoi had an opportunity, as he met Litvinenko on November 1st, the day he first showed symptoms.
*** Lugovoi had contact with Polonium 210. He, as well as his wife and children, were contaminated .
*** Lugovoi had known Litvinenko in the KGB
*** Lugovoi had visited places, along with Litvinenko, that were contaminated by Polonium 210, which could explain why he tested positive. See Follow The Polonium
*** The Pine Bar was crowded with people when Lugovoi briefly met Litvinenko. As Lugovoi asks, "What kind of idiot poisoner would it take to act in such a primitive way?"
Status: The British extradition request was denied by the Russian government.
V. Putin's Enemies

Proponent: Kirill Pankratov in Live Journal

Thesis: Enemies of Putin used Polonium 210 to kill Litvinenko and ghost a trail that led to Putin.
Selling points:
*** Polonium 210 traces back to Russian nuclear reactors. It is therefore the perfect poison to discredit Putin.
*** Polonium 210 is slow-acting, giving Litvinenko time to denounce Putin.
***- Polonium 210 is almost impossible to obtain.
VI. The Oil Barons in or out of Russia

Proponent: ex-KGB agent Yuri Shvets

Thesis: Litvinenko had to be silenced because he had a dossier on key members of the new Russian nomenclature that stole the oil giant Yukos.
Selling Points:
*** Litvinenko traveled to Israel in October 2006 where it is alleged that he gave information regarding Yukos to Leonid Nevzlin, the former deputy head of Yukos relating to the deaths of former Yukos workers and the imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
*** Tens of billions of dollars are at stake
***- The Polonium 210 did not silence Litvinenko. He lived at least 3 weeks after he was poisoned and no dossier emerged.
VII. British 007 Types

Proponent: Andrei Lugovoi

Thesis: Litvinenko was working for MI-6 involved in an espionage operation, along with Berezovsky. He was killed by the British agents when the game got out of control.
Selling Point:
***- Lugovoi claims Litvinenko was offering him money and spy equipment to cooperate in the game.
***- Vyacheslav Zharko, the Russian FSB officer who admitted working for British intelligence between 2003 and 2007, said that Litvinenko and Berezovsky set up his meetings with four British MI6 officers, "This is a long story [of recruitment] and Berezovsky along with the late Litvinenko played the lead roles in it," Zharko. said in an interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda. "Alexander [Litvinenko] introduced me in turn to a certain Martin Flint, and two more people, who offered me to render them consulting services." If so, Litvinko had been acting as an access agent for MI6 who used consulting service contracts as bait to snare Russian intelligence officers into intelligence traps .
*** British intelligence had no motive to kill Litvinenko.
VIII The Third Man

Proponents: Dissident Alexander Goldfarb, ex-KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky
Thesis: After an earlier attempt to poison Litvinenko in mid-October failed, Moscow sent a professional hitman. Goldfarb explains in Slate: For the November meeting, the handlers sent a professional killer, "the third man." The intermediaries served only to bring the hit man into contact with the target."
Selling point:
Oleg Gordievsky claims that there was a "tall man with Asian features" on a flight from Hamburg on October 31. He was captured by airport surveillance cameras and then vanished without a trace. The passport he used to enter Britain was from a European country, but the investigators were unable to trace him to any hotel or to any flight leaving the country.
The third man vanished without ever leaving a trace he existed.

IX. Litvinenko Killed Himself

Proponents: Lawyer Seth Redniss, Spy Vyacheslav Zharko

Thesis: Litvinenko killed himself by ingesting Polonium 210 in order to become a martyr. He blamed Putin on his deathbed because he knew that the Polonium would trace back to Russia and cause an international incident.
Selling points:
*** Litvinenko was in dire financial straights since Berezovsky had cut him off, according to Vyacheslav Zharko, the Russian whom Litvinenko helped recruit as a British spy.
*** The Chechen separationist declared him a martyr.
*** Polonium 210 would be a very painful (and unsure) way to commit suicide.
***- He initially blamed Scaramella not Putin
*** If he was broke, how did he get the Polonium 210, which was worth millions of euros.
IX. No-One-Did It
See Accident theory (Above)

I. Murder Weapon Theory

Proponent: Boris Berezovsky

Thesis: Polonium 210 was smuggled to London from Russia to kill Litvinenko.
Selling point:
***- Litvineko was fatally contaminated by Polonium 210
***– Polonium 210 is, if not priceless, extremely expensive. Why not use a cheaper poison?
*** Polonium 210 is an inefficient, way to kill someone. It takes weeks, if not months, to kill. Litvinenko lived-- and talked-- for nearly a month.
***- Polonium 210 leaves a trail. Why not use an untraceable poison (or a bullet)?
Retort: His killers wanted him to suffer a painful, lingering death.
Counter-retort: There are cheaper radioactive poisons available in London, such as radium and stronium 90.
II. The Nuclear Black Market Theory
Proponent: TK

Thesis: Polonium 210 was smuggled into London to facilitate a lucrative black market deal with a rogue country, such as Iran, Syria, or North Korea. Polonium 210 is one of the three ingredients needed to build a clandestine nuclear bomb. The other two are a fissile fuel, such as U-235 and Beryllium (which is used in stereo speakers). The Polonium 210 initiates the neutron generators (see diagram above) which sets off the chain reaction.
Selling point:
*** Iran’s putative interest in Polonium 210 in the early 1990s raised US suspicions Iran had a nuclear weapons program underway. Despite reports that Iran was experimenting with it in its Center for New Technology, IAEA inspectors found no evidence that Iran was producing it in its own nuclear reactor. If so, it could have been using smuggled Polonium 210 from Russia that could not be traced back to its equipment.
*** Polonium 210 has a short half-life of 138.3 days, so a rogue nation would need a renewable supply.
Retort: That would be a great business for smugglers.
III. The Dirty Bomb Theory

Proponent: A.J. Strata author of the Strata-Sphere blog

Thesis: Polonium 210 was smuggled into London to provide the radioactive fuel for a so-called dirty bomb. Since it aerosolizes at 55 degrees Centigrade it would contaminate a wide area. In addition to Polonium 210, all that would be needed by the terrorists would be a conventional explosive, such as TNT.
Selling Points:
***- The alpha particles it emits are far less detectable than the gamma particles of other radioactive isotopes, which means the bomb would be far more difficult to detect.
***- British communication intelligence GCHQ intercepted a phone call from Peshawar GCHQ indicating that Al Qaida was actively seeking polonium and Al Qaeda had offered millions of dollars to anyone that could supply them with it.
***- The US imprisoned Jose Padilla on suspicion that he was attempting to build a dirty bomb for Al Qaeda.
***- In 1995, Chechen terrorists experimented with a dirty bomb with the radioactive isotope Cesium-137 , burying it under some leaves in Izmailovsky Park in Moscow and tipping off television reporters. It was quickly found since its gamma rays were easily detected. Polonium 210 would solve that detection problem.
*** Litvinenko and his associates had no known monetary dealings with terrorist groups.
Retort: Litvinenko, who had converted to Islam, was, according to the Chechen website, declared a martyr by the rebel government of Chechnya after his death.
IV. The Bona Fides Theory

Thesis: A sample of Polonium 210 was brought to London by a Russian agent offering his services to British intelligence as proof of his bona fides.
Selling points:
*** A Polonium 210 sample would demonstrate that an agent had access to a Russian nuclear reactor since only four facilities are licensed to handle Polonium 210 in Russia. ( Moscow State University; Techsnabexport, the state-controlled uranium export agency; the Federal Nuclear Center in Samara; and Nuclon, a private company.) As all these licensees are controlled by the Russian government, obtaining Polonium 210 would show that the agent had successfully bribed, blackmailed or otherwise compromised a person in the Russian nuclear industry.
*** Both Lugovoi and Zharko claim that Litvinenko acted as an access agent for the British intelligence service MI-6
*** Litvinenko contacted other Russians with connections to the FSB including Dimitry Kovton and Vyacheslav Sokolenko,
*** If British intelligence knew about such an intelligence game, why would it risk exposing by extraditing of Lugovoi.
Retort: MI-6 knew extradition request would be rejected.

V. The Disinformation Theory

Proponent: Vladimir Putin

Thesis: The Polonium 210 was smuggled to London by an anti Putin cabal to ghost a radioactive trail that would make it appear that Russia was supplying nuclear bomb components to rogue states.
Selling point:
*** Many of the exiles in touch with Litvinenko in London, including Berezovsky, were dedicated to discrediting the Putin regime in Russia. Berezovsky, who is currently being tried in absentia in Moscow for fraud, has openly declared war on Putin, saying in an interview with the Guardian: "it isn't possible to change this [Putin] regime through democratic means." Disinformation could be an a weapon in this war.
*** The Cabal had no access to Polonium-210.
Retort: You can buy anything in Russia.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Follow The Polonium

Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-KGB officer, died of radiation poisoning in London on November 23, 2006. The autopsy found that the radiation that killed him came from a rare and short-lived isotope of Polonium, Polonium 210.
The reason for its rarity-- the entire known production is no more than 4 ounces per year-- is that is produced in a nuclear reactor using uranium-235, the fuel of nukes. Only a handful of nuclear reactors, all in Russia, are permitted to produce it. Once produced, it cannot be stockpiled for long since it has a half-life of only 138.3 days, which means it loses over half of its radioactivity every 4 months. The supply of Polonium-210 is also tightly-controlled by an international regime. Virtually all the Russian production is now exported to the US, where it is reduced into harmless trace amounts that are then chemically-bonded into plastic and ceramic for industrial use. The reason the US negotiated this extraordinary arrangement with Russia was to prevent any pure Polonium 210 from getting into the hands of a rogue nation. If such a rogue nation could also acquire a fissile fuel such as U-235, it could use the Polonium 210 to help trigger a chain reaction in a primitive nuclear bomb. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) thus monitors all nuclear reactors under its regime to make sure they are not illegally manufacturing Polonium 210. If any traces of it are found on the equipment, as happened in an inspection of Iran in the early 1990s, it sets off alarm bells.

The international concern about smuggled Polonium 210 is well-founded. Unlike many of the more common radioactive isotopes, which emit gamma particles that can be easily detected with a geiger counter, Polonium 210 emits alpha particles which are much more difficult to detect (unless there is leakage from its container). So it can be smuggled across borders in a plastic capsule. Even if a rogue nation or terrorist group did not possess fissile fuel, it could use Polonium-210 as the radioactive fuel for a so-called "dirty" bomb in conjunction with conventional explosives.

The Polonium Message

Polonium 210 could also be used to send a message. A sample-size capsule of smuggled Polonium 210 demonstrates that a person, or his agents, have access to Russia’s secret nuclear establishment. And showing such bona fide access could be a precondition to arranging a lucrative espionage or black market deal. It could also be to send a different kind of message. Since Russia is the sole source of pure Polonium 210, its use in a crime suggests the involvement of the Russian government, whether true or disinformation. So the issue becomes why was smuggled Polonium in London in 2006.

The Polonium Trail

There can be little doubt that pure Polonium 210 was smuggled into London. Not only did it fatally poison Litvinenko but it hospitalized three of his associates, contaminated a number of their children, and tainted their offices, meeting places, vehicles, and residencies. Part of the spillage occurred on or before October 16, 2006, which was weeks before Litvinenko was admitted to Barnett General Hospital on November 3rd. But the police only began investigating the Polonium trail on November 24th because it was not known until the day that Litvinenko died that Polonium 210 was the poison. (It was initially believed he had swallowed non-radioactive thallium, which is used in rat poison.) In the more than six weeks since Polonium 210 began leaking, all the possible crime scenes were compromised. For example, a tea pot that showed traces of Polonium had been repeatedly washed in a hotel dish washer. The police found many sites, including the Pine Bar at the Millennium Hotel, the Itsu Sushi Restaurant, the offices used by Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky, but they did not find a single witnesses to how the smuggled Polonium 210 tainted these people and places. (Litvinenko himself did not even know he had been poisoned with Polonium 210.) So despite a plethora of polonium traces people and places, there is no evidence as to who contaminated whom, or how anyone, including Litvinenko, came into contact with the smuggled Polonium 210.

The Sixth Victim

History provides some much needed perspective. There have been only six known cases of fatal Polonium poisoning since Polonium was first discovered in 1898 by Marie Curie (who later named it after her native Poland), . The short-list includes Irene Joliot-Curie and Nobus Yamada, who both worked in the lab of Marie Curie, and were contaminated by a leak from a damaged container. Later, in the 1950s, three Israeli scientists, who worked on Israel’s nuclear bomb, which initially used Polonium 210 as part of the trigger mechanism, were fatally exposed. The Israeli investigation found that a large part of the secret facilities where the three victims worked had been contaminated by minute bits of leaked Polonium 210. The leaked Polonium 210 had spread widely by attaching itself to dust that was blown or tracked through the labs. The sixth victim was Litvinenko. Since all the prior Polonium deaths had been work related, Litvinenko's work might also be relevant.

Litvinenko’s Game

Unlike the five dead scientists, Litvinenko’s occupation at the time of his encounter with Polonium-210 was elusive . Before he defected to Britain in November 2000, he had worked in the Department for the Analysis of Criminal Organizations for its successor agency, the FSB, the successor to the KGB. He was also involved in the unit that provided protection for the oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, who had made hundreds of millions of dollars in privatizing Russian industries, and served as Deputy Chairman of the Russian National Security Council. In 1999, Litvinenko was fired from the FSB, charged with corruption and stealing explosives, imprisoned briefly, and released. He proceeded to Turkey using a false passport and the alias "Chris Reid." According to Russian Deputy Interior Minister Arkady Yedelyov, he then went to Chechnya ( via Georgia) in order "to eliminate evidence of Boris Berezovsky's involvement in funding illegal armed groups there," a mission he failed to accomplish. When he arrived in Britain on November 1, 2000, he went to work for Berezovsky, who had also now moved to London. His duties were not specified. But Berezovsky’s projects included an ambitious enterprise to undermine the administration of former FSB-head Vladimir Putin. In April 2007, he further elaborated in an interview with the Guardian, saying that "We need to use force to change this regime, it isn't possible to change this regime through democratic means." Whatever Litvinenko’s role was in Berezovsky’s extraordinary enterprise, he worked to blacken Putin’s name by providing the media with putative evidence that Putin’s FSB had been involved in state-sponsored terrorism activities, including political assassinations, the training in Russia of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin Ladin’s partner in al-Qaeda, and the blowing up of six Russian apartment houses in 1999, which killed over 300 people. Litvinenko claimed the FSB had blown up these buildings, and planted evidence that Chechens were responsible for these atrocities, to justify Putin's invasion of Chechnya.
Enter Andrei Lugovoi, a Russian businessman, who owned Pershin, which, among other things, did "private security" work. Like Litvineko, he had previously worked for the FSB providing protection for Berezovsky, and, even after leaving the FSB, headed one of Berezovsky’s security teams in Moscow. He had known Litvineko since 1996, and met with him in London many times. Litvinenko's business with Lugovoi in 2006 involved introducing him to people in London who needed his security services in Moscow. Some of their meetings took place in Berezovsky’s offices (which were tainted with Polonium traces). The real purpose of their liaison, according to Lugovoi, was an intelligence game. Lugovoi stated at a press conference in Moscow in May 2007 that "the British [at the meetings] started to show interest in everything: my connections, financial opportunities, if I had direct access to the Russian president's administration, as well as contacts with officers of the Federal Security Service, the Federal Bodyguard Service and the Foreign Intelligence Service. They were especially interested in an opportunity to get information about the FSB activities in the so-called English direction." Since the money offered to him seemed excessive for security work, he assumed that Litvinenko was working as an access agent for an espionage service. Playing along, Lugovoi brought in a Moscow business associate, Dmitry Kovtun. On October 16, 2006, Lugovoi recounts, "We met with Litvinenko in the afternoon in Bond Street and went to a meeting at Erinys, the security firm which recently developed an interest in Russia." (The Erinys offices were tainted with Polonium). Kovtun was also so contaminated with Polonium 210 after that meeting that he left a trail of Polonium on his trip to Hamburg in late October.

Completing the cast of Polonium-tainted associates, which could have been drawn from Claude Cockburn’s screenplay Beat The Devil, is Mario Scaramella, a Neapolitan "security consultant," who had been working as an investigator for the controversial Mitrokhin Commission set up by Silvio Berlusconi to investigate putative links between Berlusconi's political rivals and the KGB. Scaramella had already paid Litvinenko a small amount for a video interview describing links between the FSB and Italian politicians, when he met him again at the Itsu Sushi restaurant on November 1st 2006. Scaramella said that he met Litvinenko to develop more evidence about Russian crimes. Afterwards, in December, he found that he had also been contaminated with Polonium 210 and was hospitalized in London. When he got out of the hospital, he was jailed promptly jailed by Italian authorities on an unrelated charge of "calumny" against an Ukrainian former KGB agent and gun-running, and is still in prison.
At the heart of these murky associations was Litvinenko's role as an information-supplier. He supplied information– or disinformation– specializing in "intelligence" that was potentially embarrassing to the Putin government. Such sensitive work might have brought him, in one way or another, in contact with Polonium 210 , which, because it traces directly back to Russia, sends a message of Russian involvement.

The SMERSH Narrative

A mystery story needs to a narrative line to capture an audience. Even before Litvinenko died on November 23, 2006, Berezovsky, together with Russian exiles he funded, provided the British press with a powerful one: Litvinenko was poisoned by Russian agents to stop him from revealing Russian state-sponsored crimes. Litvinenko himself helped with a death bed statement saying that he was poisoned on Putin’s orders. When this narrative began, the poison was said to be commonly-available thallium. Then, when polonium traceable to Russia was discovered in Litvinenko's body, the silencing narrative neatly fit in with the endless string of assassinations attributed to the Russian counterintelligence service SMERSH ("Death To Spies and Traitors" loosely translated from Russian). The SMERSH specialty was killing defectors abroad, such as Trotsky in Mexico and General Walter Krivitsky in Washington D.C. The SMERSH legend became so ingrained in the popular imagination by the 1950s that, crossing over to the realn of fiction, Ian Fleming made SMERSH the main nemesis of his fictional character James Bond. (In later James Bond movie adaptations, SMERSH was changed SPECTRE, a non-Russian criminal syndicate.)

In the Litvinenko case, the SMERSH narrative gained such great traction that not only did the newspapers and editorialists report it as established fact but Hollywood producers commissioned competing screenplays based on it. For their part, British prosecutors quixotically sought to extradite Litvinenko’s Russian associate, Lugovoi, in May 2007 after Russian officials had made it clear that such a request would be denied. It was foreseeably unsuccessful. (Meanwhile, Russian prosecutors, pushing a very different Corrupt Oligarch narrative, moved to try Berezovsky in absentia in Moscow since British authorities predictably had refused to extradite him to Russia.)

While the SMERSH narrative may provide an exciting and easy -to-follow plot for movies and tabloid newspapers, it also can fuel a flight from reality for the public. Conspicuously missing-in-action in the SMERSH narrative is the smuggled Polonium 210.

The Missing Link

The media's relentless focus on the exciting SMERSH narrative has led to the neglect of the more prosaic chronology of Polonium contacts. The key might be in the timing. When was this valuable isotope smuggled into London and when did in did it come in contact with Litvinenko and his associates?
Here is what we know: The smuggled Polonium 210 was in London weeks, if not months, before Litvinenko showed any signs of being poisoned. According to Lugovoi. Litvinenko gave him "gifts" and documents to take back to Moscow in the summer of 2006 that tested positive for Polonium-210. (The dating can be forensically verified by comparing the ratio of Polonium 210, which decays rapidly, with its daughter isotope Polonium 208, which is more stable.) If so, smuggled Polonium 210 was leaking in trace amounts from its container in London in the summer of 2006. By mid-October, the leak contaminated a great many more places -- and people. On October 16th, Litvinenko, Lugovoi, and Kovtun met with British businessmen (or intelligence officers, according to Lugovoi's assessment) in the offices of Erinys UK, which specialized in providing mercenaries to countries with a security problem. Afterwards, the offices were tainted with Polonium 210. So was the Parks Hotel in Knightsbridge, where Lugovoi and Kovtun spent the night of October 16th and 17th. And so were Litvinenko, Lugovoi, and Kovtun (all of whom were subsequently hospitalized.) When Kovtun visited Hamburg the next week, he left traces of Polonium 210 on German travel documents, vehicles and a couch in the place he stayed. The October trail could have all resulted from leaked Polonium 210 at the meeting on October 16th.

The more vexing mystery is how a speck of the smuggled Polonium 210-- one millionth of a gram is fatal-- got into Litvinenko's body. Although the coroner’s report has still not been released (after six months), the London Daily Telegraph reported that the autopsy examination conducted in late November revealed that Litvinenko had ingested Polonium 210 on at least two different occasions. The first amount was non-fatal. The second fatal amount caused him to seek admission to the hospital on November 3rd. Unless Litvinenko was the victim of a serial poisoner who administered Polonium 210 to him on two different occasions, Litvinenko himself must had been in possession of an object that contained Polonium 210. If Litvinenko was exposed to spilled Polonium 210 on October 16th, either accidentally or intentionally, specks of it could attach themselves to dust or lint, as had happened in the fatal Israeli leak, and the dust could have spread to anything in his possession, including articles of clothing, pieces of candy, or papers. (Litvinenko’s house was so widely contaminated by Polonium 210 that it still cannot be sold by his family.) A speck could then have fallen into his food or on an open cut.

The object that delivered the Polonium 210 has never been found. Possibly, it was destroyed or discarded during the three weeks that Litvinenko was in the hospital. But without it, or any witnesses as to how the radioactive isotope got to London and the place where it spilled, the Polonium trail hits a dead end and leaving little more to titillate the media thab a profusion of theories.