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.