Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Case Of The Radioactive Corpse

November 23rd is the third anniversary of the radiation death in London of the former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko. By now, most, if not all, the crucial evidence in the case has either vanished or been suppressed. The radioactive isotope to which he was exposed was an extremely exotic isotope that has only a brief half- life of 138.4 days. After nine half-lives, over 99 percent of it is gone. Traces of other isotopes made with the Polonium 210, and which could have possibly identified the nuclear reactor that produce it, and which have even briefer half-lives, no longer exist in identifiable quantities. So there is no longer a radioactive trail, if indeed there ever was one.
Even before the disappearance of the Polonium 210, the crime scenes in London had been too badly compromised to determine any clear chronology of the contamination. Police did not initially seal off the places where Litvinenko and his associates visited because they did not know that they were dealing with a radioactive poison. It took the hospital over two weeks to correctly identify the Polonium 210 and, during this time, the sites were scrubbed clean and walked through. So, several weeks later, different radiation levels at these sites could be due to nothing more than cleaning or traffic. Nor was the container ever found in which the Polonium 210 was transported or were there any witnesses to its existence. Consequently, the only evidence as to where, when and how Litvinenko was exposed to Polonium 210 comes from the autopsy performed on his radioactive body which was done on December 1, 2006 at the Royal London Hospital. But the pathologists’ findings– as well as the autopsy slides, autoradiography films, and toxicology report– have been kept secret from not only the public and Litvinenko’s family members, but from Britain’s partner in the joint-investigation, Russia.
When I asked a former top official of Scotland Yard about the autopsy, he told me authoritatively that "there is good reason for its secrecy." He then added that there was one leak that "caused a near panic at the Crown Prosecutors office" because it was "accurate."
The leak he referred came from Scotland Yard and was published on January 7, 2007 in the London Telegraph. It revealed that Litvinenko’s "post-mortem examination revealed two ’spikes’ of radiation poisoning," meaning that Litvinenko was exposed to Polonium 210 on at least two different occasions. This finding alone, if accurate, undermines the initial hypothesis of investigators that Litvinenko had been poisoned only once: in the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel on November 1st, 2006. If Litvinenko had multiple encounters with the same Polonium 210, it would require a different explanation. Had Litvinenko wittingly or unwittingly been in possession of a vial of the Polonium 210 that leaked on him twice? Did a poisoner administered Polonium 210 to him on two different occasions? Or was there some other way to account for his multiple exposures? But even though this finding made the case much murkier, Scotland Yard already had a prime suspect, Andrei Lugovoi, a former Russian intelligence officer, who had been with Litvinenko in the Pine Bar just hours before he fell ill.
The Suspect
Lugovoi, a 42 year old Russian businessman, had tested positive for Polonium 210, as did his hotel rooms. He also admitted that he had met with Litvinenko both on November 1st and in mid October. So he had opportunity. Even though he denied any part in Litvinenko’s death, or any knowledge about the Polonium 210, to British detectives in Moscow, Britain’s crown prosecutors decided he should stand trial in London and they requested his extradition. Since Britain had no extradition treaty with Russia, and the Russian Constitution prohibits the extradition of its citizens, Russia rejected the request. Britain then retaliated by expelling Russian diplomats and effectively ending the Russian involvement in the joint investigation.
When I went to Moscow that December to interview the Russian investigators, and examine the evidence the British had furnished for its extradition request, the Russian inquiry was at a complete standstill. The special prosecutor said that without access to the pathology reports, or being allowed to talk to Litvinenko’s doctors, it was not possible even to establish "the cause of death of Litvinenko" or that culpability of anyone, including Lugovoi.
I next went to see Lugovoi, who just had been elected to the Russian Dumas. Since as a member of the Dumas he was invulnerable to prosecution, I found him eager to discuss his relationship with Litvinenko. They both had been intelligence officers in the 1990s, but then Lugovoi had become a supporter of Putin while Litvinenko had done everything he could to discredit him, So how did they come together? Lugovoi answered in a single word: "Berezovsky."
Boris Abramovich Berezovsky, a billionaire now living in London, had been the single most powerful oligarch in Russia in the 1990s. He not only controlled whole sectors of the Russian economy, and the country's largest television channel, but he was part of the Kremlin apparatus, serving as the deputy secretary of its National Security Council. Both Litvinenko and Lugovoi acted a his protectors in the FSB, which was the successor agency to the KGB. Litvinenko was deputy head of its organized crime unit, while Lugovoi was in the 9th Directorate, which was responsible for guarding top Kremlin officials, including Berezovsky, before becoming head of security at Berezovsky’s television channel. They both also performed extraordinary services for Berezovsky. Litvinenko saved Berezovsky when, with a gun in one hand and his FSB credentials in the other, he prevented Moscow police from arresting him on a murder charge. He then ended his own career in the FSB by exposing a FSB faction’s alleged plan to assassinate Berezovsky. As a consequence, Litvinenko was imprisoned. Lugovoi meanwhile helped Berezovsky’s partner break out of a Moscow prison–an act for which he served prison time. During this tumult, Berezovsky moved to London and became Putin’s arch foe. He repaid Litvinenko by helping him to escape to England in November 2000, where he financially supported him and his investigations for the next six years. How did he repay Lugovoi?, I asked. Lugovoi answered with a wry smile, by "bringing me to Litvinenko."
The reunion came in January 2006 in London. Berezovsky had rented Blenheim Palace– the birthplace of Winston Churchill– to give himself a lavish 60th birthday party. There were some 300 guests in formal attire and, in the center of the room, a giant ice sculpture representing St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square covered with Caspian caviar. Berezovsky’s seating plan placed Lugovoi at a small table with three men: On his right was Litvinenko, who now engaged in conducting investigations into Russian atrocities in Chechnya. Across from him was Akhmed Zakayev, the exiled leader of the Chechen resistence who headed the Committee on Russian War Crimes in Chechnya. On his left was Alexander Goldfarb, who ran Berezovsky’s foundation which help support both Litvinenko’s and Zakayev’s activities. These men at the table would be among the last to see Litvineko before his death ten months later. Lugovoi would meet with him in the Pine Bar at 5 pm on November 1st. Zakayev then would drive Litvinenko from the Pine Bar to Berezovsky’s office (and the next day to the hospital). At the hospital, Goldfarb would write Litvinenko’s dramatic death bed statement accusing Putin of assassinating him.
But that evening, as Lugovoi recalls it, there was nothing but good cheer and celebration toasts. There also emerged a joint venture between him and Litvinenko. The idea, according to Lugovoi, was to use his connections in Moscow to gather "business data" that Litvinenko could sell to London clients, including Berezovsky.
As this project developed, much of the "business data" concerned individuals connected in one way or another with the Russian energy giant Yukos Oil. Yukos was no ordinary oil company: With tens of billions of dollars stashed away in accounts in Cyprus, Gibraltar and other offshore havens, it had become by the early 2000s a virtual counter-state to the government. In the battle that ensued between it and the government, it was charged with tax fraud and, through enormous fines, its assets in Russia were effectively expropriated. The two principal owners of its holding company were Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was imprisoned in Siberia. And Leonid Nevzlin, who fled to Israel. In Tel Aviv, Nevzlin set up a private intelligence company, ISC Global, with divisions in London and Tel Aviv, to gather information that would help him fight Russian efforts to get Yukos’ offshore accounts. After a re-organization in 2005, the London branch, changed its name to RISC Management, Ltd. Shortly thereafter it called in Lugovoi and Litvinenko, and according to Lugovoi, retained them on behalf of its anonymous client to gather information in Moscow. Initially, it asked for relatively innocuous reports, such as one entitled, "Main characteristics of Russian Organized Crime in 2003-2005." But soon it was asking for more sensitive data, including government files on corrupt Russian tax officials. When Lugovoi resisted these requests, Litvinenko suggested that he might have a "problem" renewing his British visa, and then his visa was indeed held up. When he agreed to cooperate, his visa was instantly renewed. Lugovoi also got $8,000 wired into his bank account.
Then, in September 2006, Litvineko made a trip to Tel Aviv to meet personally with Nevzlin and to personally hand=deliver "The Yukos file." Nevzlin admits receiving the dossier from Litvinenko, but said it was unsolicited. After Litvinenko returned from Israel. Lugovoi says he found him increasingly on edge. On October 27th, after Lugovoi was summoned to London by Berezovsky, Litvinenko retrieved the cell phone he had been using for RISC business, and removed the SIM card, which contained a digital trail of his contacts. When he next saw Litvinenko on November 1st at the Pine Bar to discuss their planned meeting the next day at RISC, he seemed even edgier. Then the next day Litvinenko called to say he was sick and cancelled the meeting. Lugovoi returned to Moscow, and 2 weeks later, learned that Litvinenko was dying and that he was contaminated with the radioactive isotope.
When I asked Lugovoi who was providing the expenses for his trips to London, he said Litvinenko gave it to him in cash but it obvious to him that Litvinenko himself did not have the resources to finance him, Clearly there was a missing element. Was the elephant in the room Berezovsky?
After all, Berezovsky not only had been financing Litvinenko even since he had defected to London, he owned the house in which he lived and the office which he used (both of which had been contaminated by Polonium 210). Lugovoi had also seen him at the RISC office on one occasion. Berezovsky also shared a common interest with the former owners of Yukos in opposing Putin’s efforts to seize offshore accounts and in blocking Russian extradition requests for both him and Nevzlin. Berezovsky was the only person, other than Litvinenko, to call Lugovoi on the cell phone reserved for RISC activities . So he could hardly have been unaware of Litvinenko’s and Lugovoi’s information-gathering business.
The Compramat game
For a further insight into this business, I went to the person who accompanied Lugovoi to London for two meeting, Dmitry Kovtun, a compact man in his mid forties who had served in a Soviet Army intelligence unit in Germany. After leaving the military, he became a consultant first in Germany and then in Russia attempting to broker energy deals. I him at the Porto Atrium, a restaurant on the Leninsky Prospect know for its extensive wine cellar. He explained that Lugovoi, who had been his close friend since childhood, had proposed he go to London with him on October 16th 2006 to find new consulting work. Lugovoi’s contact there turned out to be Litvinenko, who spent most of his next two days with them. He recalled that Litvinenko first took them to a building owned by Berezovsky in Mayfair for a meeting with a security company before going to another one at RISC. That evening Litvineko invited them to a trendy Moroccan restaurant for dinner and then escorted them to various night spots, including a lap dancing club called Hey Jo His next encounter with Litvinenko came 2 weeks later. He had gone to Hamburg to renew his German residency permit when Lugovoi invited him to come to London for a major soccer match (for which Berezovsky was providing tickets.) When he arrived on November 1st, he went to the Millennium hotel, where Lugovoi was staying with his family, and met him at hotel’s Pine Bar. Then they were joined by Litvinenko for a pre-game drink. That was his last contact with Litvinenko.
After he returned to Moscow, he tested positive for Polonium 210. So did the visa form he had signed in Hamburg on October 29th, the London nightclubs they visited on October 16th and 17th, and his room at the Great Western Hotel where he stayed on October 16th. But the Transaero plane on which he arrived in London on the morning of October 16th had no traces of Polonium 210. So he deduced he must have been exposed on the 16th and then left a radioactive trail in London and Hamburg. (German prosecutors concluded in November 2009 that the Polonium 210 traces in Hamburg did not constitute enough evidence to continue their investigation of Kovtun.)
When I pressed him about what had happened at the meetings, he said they seemed like just "courtesy meetings" through which Litvinenko could show that he had contacts in Moscow. After leaving RISC, however, Litvinenko made an extraordinary proposal to Kovtun. He said that a number of Russian billionaires had established residence in Spain. He suggested that he and Lugovoi should work with him in Spain to "solve problems" for these Russian expatriates. When Kovtun asked,"What kind of problems?", Litvinenko laughed "Don’t worry. We’ll provide their problems and then fix them." It became clear to him that the "game" that Litvinenko was proposing was dealing in "compramat," or compromising information.
The Italian Job
Litvinenko’s game may have involved more than merely unearthing existing Compramat. Consider, for example, his collaboration with Mario Scaramella, who was the third of Litvinenko’s associates contaminated with Polonium 210, Scaramella, a lawyer and self-styled nuclear waste investigator, had met Litvinenko while working for a highly-controversial Italian Parliamentary Committee attempting (without success) to uncover putative KGB penetrations in Italy. Scaramella also believed that their was a "Red Mafia" of ex-KGB men who smuggled arms, including nuclear components, from eastern Europe. So Litvinenko, who had himself monitored organized crime in the KGB, helped Scaramella organize operation to entrap them. One of their targets was an ex-KGB agent living in Naples. To compromise him, they arranged for a box of contraband Russian rocket grenades to be delivered to him, and then tipped-off the Naples police that he was planning to use them to assassinate someone. He was duly arrested but then the scheme backfired because Scaramella and Litvinenko’s plotting was overhead by SISMI, the Italian intelligence agency, which was tapping Scaramella’s phone. So the ex-KGB man was released from custody and other information Scaramella had provided police came under scrutiny, including his tip that led police to a suitcase containing enriched uranium rods that supposedly belonged to other "Red Mafia"agents trafficking. in nuclear component. By the time, Scaramella flew to London on November 1st 2006 to meet Litvinenko at the Itsu Sushi restaurant, Italian authorities were preparing to criminally charge Scaramella with planting false evidence as part of a compramat plot. And when Scaramella was released from the London hospital where he tested positive for Polonium 210, he was imprisoned in Naples on charges of calumny and arms smuggling. (He is currently under house arrest awaiting trial scheduled for May 2010.)
Whatever their merit or legality, Litvinenko was involved in covert activities that went beyond those ordinarily engaged in by a political dissident. But were they related to the Polonium 210 that caused his death?
The Importance Of Polonium
Polonium 210 is tightly controlled by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for a singular reason: it can be used trigger an early-stage nuclear bomb. The United States and Russia both used Polonium 210 in their early weapons before moving on to more sophisticated (and stable) triggers. Almost every country secretly attempting to build nuclear weapons, including Israel, South Africa, Iraq and North Korea, have also experimented with Polonium 210. Consequently, its detection anywhere outside a known nuclear facility is considered, as noted in a US intelligence report, "a key indication of a nuclear weapons program in its early stages."
The small quantity of Polonium 210 found in London could have been made in any country that has an uninspected nuclear reactor– a list in 2006 that included Russia. Britain, China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea (which manufactured a substantial quantity for its October 2006 nuclear tests. It also could have been stolen from stockpiles in the former Soviet Union or America, where, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Illicit Trafficking Data Base, there had been 14 incidents of missing industrial Polonium-210 since 2004.
Wherever it originated, we know that it was smuggled into London and that it contaminated at least four men– Litvineko, Lugovoi, Kovtun and Scaramella– as well as offices, restaurants, and automobiles. The possible time it arrived could be narrowed down by the autopsy report, which remains, even 3 years after Litvinenko’s death, a state secret. Beyond that evidence, there is only conjecture. What remains unanswered is the crucial question: why was a component for an early stage nuclear bomb was brought to London in 2006.