Friday, November 27, 2009

Annals of Unsolved Crimes: Who Killed Zia?

On August 17, 1988, at 3:58 PM, Pak One, an American built Hercules C-130b transport plane,
carrying its VIP capsule the President of Pakistan, General Zia-ul-Haq, most of his top generals,as well as two American guests– US Ambassador, Arnold L. Raphel and US military missionhead General Herbert Wassom– crashed to earth only 18 miles from the airport in centralPakistan from where it took off. It had been a. bright clear day, and dozens of eye witnesses could see the giant aircraft lurch up and down three times in the sky, as if were on an invisible roller coaster, and then plunge straight into the desert and explode in a fire ball. All 30 persons on board, including four crew members, were dead. Within hours, army tanks sealed off public building and television stations, signifying the change in power. Zia’s reign, which had begun with his own military coup on July 5, 1977, now had ended with his death. But even though the crash altered the face of politics in Pakistan in a way in which no simple Presidential assassination or coup d'etat could have done, its cause remains a mystery.
Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, whose father he had allowed to be executed (and who
herself was assassinated in 2007,) said in the epilogue to her book, Daughter of Destiny "Zia's
death must have been an act of god". But divine intervention is not what brought the plane
down. According to the 365-page report of the forensic investigation done by six American Air
Force experts, headed by Colonel Daniel E. Sowada, no evidence of a accidental mechanical
failure or pilot error had been found. A conclusion of assassination was all but inescapable.

The aviation investigators, following the precepts of Sherlock Holmes, used on a process of
elimination. First, they ruled out the possibility that the plane had blown up in mid air. If it had exploded in this manner the pieces of the plane, which had different shapes and therefore
resistance to the wind, would have been strewn over a wide area-- but that had not happened. By re-assembling the plane in a giant jigsaw puzzle, and scrutinizing with magnifying glasses the edges of each broken piece, they could established that the plane was in one piece when it had hit the ground. They thus concluded structural failure--ie. The breaking up of the plane-- was not the cause. Next, they eliminated the possibility of a missile attack. If the plane had been hit by a missile, it would have generated intense heat which in turn would have melted the aluminum panels and, as the plane dived, the wind would have left tell-tale streaks in the molten metal. But there were no streaks on the panels. And no missile part or other ordinance had been found in the area.
They further rule out the possibility that there was an inboard fire while the plane was in the air since, if there had been one, the passengers would have breathed in soot before they died. Yet, the single autopsy performed, which was on the American general seated in the VIP capsule, showed there was no soot in his trachea, indicating that he had died before, not after, the fire ignited by the crash.
If it was not a missile or fire, the power might have somehow failed in flight. If this had
happened, the propellers would not have been turning at their full torque when the plane crashed, which would have affected the way their blades had broken off and curled on impact. But by examining the degree of curling on each broken propeller blades, they determined that in fact the engines were running at full speed when the propellers hit the ground.
Had the fuel been sabotaged? They ruled out the possibility of contaminated fuel by taking
samples of the diesel fuel from the refueling truck, and, by analyzing the residues still left in the fuel pumps in the plane, they could also tell that they had been operating normally at the time of the crash. They then ruled out any problem with the electric power on the plane because both electric clocks on board had stopped at the exact moment of impact, which they determined independently other evidence.
The final possibility of mechanical failure was that the controls did not work. But the Hercules
C-130 had not one but three redundant control system. The two sets of hydraulic controls were
backed up, in case of a leak of fluid in both of them, by a mechanical system of cables. If any one of them worked, the pilots would have been able to fly the plane. By comparing the position of the controls with the mechanisms in the hydraulic valves and the stabilizers in the tail of the plane (which are moved through this system when the pilot moves the steering wheel), they established that the control system was working when the plane crashed. This was confirmed by a computer simulation of the flight done by Lockheed, the builder of the C-130. They also ruled out the possibility that the controls had temporarily jammed by a microscopic examination of the mechanical parts to see if there were any signs of jamming or binding.
That left the possibility of pilot error. But the crash had occurred after a routine and safe take
off in perfectly clear daytime weather and the hand-picked pilots were fully experienced with the C-130 and had medical check-ups before the flight. Since the plane was not in any critical phase of flight, such as take off or landing, where poor judgment on the part of the pilots could have resulted in the mishap, the investigators ruled out pilot error as a possible cause. Based on this investigation, Pakistan’s Board of Inquiry concluded that the only other possible cause of the crash of Pak-One was a criminal act “leading to the loss of control of the aircraft." It suggested the pilots must have been incapacitated but this was as far as it could go since there was no black box or cockpit recorder on Pak One and no autopsies had been done on the remains of the pilots.
What had happened to the pilots during the final minutes of the flight? When I went to
Pakistan in February 1989, I attempted to answer that question. There were three other planes in the area tuned to the same frequency for communications– the turbojet carrying General Aslam Beg, the Army’s vice chief of staff, which was waiting on the runway at Bahawalpur airport to take off next; Pak 379, which was the backup C-130 in case anything went wrong to delay Pak One; and a Cessna security plane that took off before Pak One to scout for terrorists. With the assistance of the families of the military leaders killed in the crash, I managed to locate pilots of these planes-- all of whom were well acquainted with the flight crew of Pak One and its procedures-- who could listen to the conversation between Pak One and the control tower in Bahawalpur. They independently described the same sequence of events. First Pak One reported its estimated time of arrival in the capital. Then, when the control tower asked its position, it failed to respond. At the Same Time Pak 379 was trying unsuccessfully to get in touch with Pak One to verify its arrival time. All they heard from Pak One was "stand by" but no message followed. When this silence persisted, the control tower got progressively more frantic in its efforts to contact Zia's pilot, Wing Commander Mash'hood. Three or four minutes passed. Then, faint voice in Pak One called out "Mash'hood, Mash'hood". One of the pilots overhearing this conversation recognized the voice. It was Zia's military secretary, Brigadier Najib Ahmed who apparently, from the weakness of his voice, was in the back of the flight deck (where a door connected to the VIP capsule.) If the radio was switched on and was picking up background sounds, it was the next best thing to a cockpit flight recorder. Under these circumstances, the long silence between "stand bye" and the faint calls to Mash'hood, like the dog that didn't bark, was the relevant fact. Why wouldn't Mash'hood or the three other members of the flight crew spoken if they were in trouble? The pilots aboard the other planes, who were fully familiar Mash'hood, and the procedures he was trained in, explained that if Pak One's crew was conscious and in trouble they would not in any circumstances have remained silent for this period of time. If there had been difficulties with controls, Mash'hood instantly would have given the emergency "may day" signal so help would be dispatched to the scene. Even if he had for some reason chosen not to communicate with the control tower, he would have been heard shouting orders to his crew to prepare for an emergency landing. And if there had been an attempt at a hijacking in the cockpit or scuffle between the pilots, it would also be overheard. In retrospect, the pilots of the other aircraft had only one explanation for the prolonged silence: Mash'hood and the other pilots were unconscious while the thumb switch that operated the microphone had been kept opened by the clenched hand of a pilot..
The account of the eyewitnesses at the crash site dove-tailed with the radio silence. They had
seen the plane slowly pitching up and down. According to a C-130 expert I spoke to at
Lockheed, C-130's characteristically go into a pattern known as a "phugoid" when no pilot is
flying it. First, the unattended plane dives towards the ground, then the mechanism in the tail
automatically over-corrects for this downward motion, causing it to head momentarily upwards. Then, with no one at the controls, it would veer downward. Each swing would become more pronounced until the plane crashed. Analyzing the weight on the plane, and how it had been loaded on, this expert calculated the plane would have made three roller-coaster turns before crashing, which is exactly what the witnesses had been reported. He concluded from this pattern that the pilots had been conscious, they would have corrected the "phugoid"-- at least would have made an effort, which would have been reflected in the settings of the controls. Since this had not happened, he concluded, that they were paralyzed or unconscious
One hypothesis he advanced was that the flight crew might have been incapacitated by an
extremely rapid acting chemical agent, such as "VX" nerve gas. It is odorless, easily
transportable in liquid form, and a soda-sized can full would be enough to causes paralysis and
loss of speech within 30 seconds. Nerve gas would leave behind traces of phosphorous, and, as it turned out, the chemical analyzes of debris from the cockpit showed such traces of phosphorous.
So why were autopsies not performed on the bodies of the flight crew to determine whether a
nerve gas or other toxic agent had paralyzed them? The explanation given in the report was that Islamic law requires burial within 24 hours. But this could not been the real reason since the bodies were not returned to their families for burial until two days after the crash, as relatives confirmed to me. Nor were they ever asked permission for autopsy examinations. And, as I learned from a doctor for the Pakistan Air Force, Islamic law not withstanding, autopsies are routinely done on pilots in cases of air crashes. I was further told by doctors at the military hospital in Bahawalpur that parts of the victims' bodies had been brought there in plastic body bags from the crash site on the night of August 17, and stored there, so that autopsies could be performed by team of American and Pakistani pathologists. But before the pathologists had arrived, the hospital received orders to return these plastic bags to the coffins for burial.
These orders to literally bury the evidence came directly from the Army which was now
under the authority of General Beg, who, after having his turbojet pilot circle over the burning
wreckage of Pak One, few immediately back to the capital, Islamabad, to assume command.
For its part, Pakistani military authorities concentrated their investigation on the possibility
that Shi'ite fanatics were responsible for the crash. The co-pilot of Pak One, Wing Commander
Sajid, was a shi'ite (as are more than ten per cent of Pakistan's Moslems), as was one of the
pilots of the back-up C-130. This pilot, though he protested his innocence, was kept in custody
for more than two months and roughly interrogated about whether Wing Commander Sajid had discussed a suicide mission. Finally, the army abandoned this effort after the Air Force
demonstrated that it would have been physically impossible for the co-pilot alone to have caused a C-130 to crash in the way it did.
The government then appointed a commission headed by Justice Shafiur Rehman, a wellrespected judge on the Supreme Court, to establish the cause of the crash. Five years later, in 1993, it issued a secret report concluding that the Army's had so effectively obstructed the
investigation that the perpetrators behind the crash could not be brought to justice. The one
uncounted casualty of Pak One was thus the truth

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Enduring Mystery of Lee Harvey Oswald

The endless tangle of questions about bullets, trajectories, wounds, time sequences and inconsistent testimony that has surrounded the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and has obsessively fascinated, if not entirely blinded, two generations of self-styled assassination investigators, probably never will be satisfactorily resolved. Each new release of documents from the various bureaucracies involved in the nearly half century old investigation may only deepen the apparent contradictions.
Within this morass of facts. however, there is a central actor, Lee Harvey Oswald. His rifle, which fired the fatal bullet into the president, was found in the sniper's nest at the Texas Book Depository. So was his palm print. He had also bought the ammunition. His cartridge cases were found near the body of a murdered policeman on the route of his flight.
In light of such evidence, the issue that ought to have concerned Americans was not Oswald's technical guilt but whether he was involved with others in the assassination. Oswald was not a "loner- in the conventional sense. Ever since he was handed a pamphlet about the Rosenberg prosecution at the age of 15, he was a joiner, seeking affiliations with groups at home and abroad. When he was only 16. he wrote the Socialist Party "I am a Marxist and have been studying Socialist Principles for well over five years" and he requested information about joining their "Youth League. He subsequently made membership inquiries to such organizations as the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Labor Party, The Gus Hall-Benjamin Davis Defense Committee, The Fair Play for Cuba Committee and the Communist Party, USA— correspondence that brought him under surveillance by the FBI.
Oswald also joined the Marine Corps. And after a two-year stint as a radar operator, Oswald sought still another affiliation: in October 1959 he became the first Marine to defect to the Soviet Union. In Moscow, he delivered a letter stating. "I affirm that my allegiance is to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics." Not only did he renounce his American citizenship but he told the U.S. consul that he intended to turn over to the Soviet Union military secrets that he had acquired while serving in the Marines, adding that he had data of "special interest" to the Russians. Since he indeed had exposure to military secrets such as the U-2 spy plane, his defection had serious espionage implications. Oswald thus had not only compromised the secret data he had come in contact with in the Marines, but put himself firmly in the hands of another country. He was now completely dependent on Russia for financial support, legal status and protection.
Before disappearing into the Soviet hinterland for a year, Oswald spelled out his operational creed in a long letter to his brother. From Moscow, he wrote presciently of his willingness to commit murder for a political cause: "I want you to understand what I say now, I do not say lightly, or unknowingly, since I've been in the military .... In the event of war I would kill any American who put a uniform on in defense of the American Government --", and then ominously added for emphasis, "Any American." His willingness to act as an assassin was now known to anyone who read this letter, which included not only his Russian hosts but American intelligence, since his letter was intercepted by the CIA and microfilmed.
Oswald returned from the Soviet Union in June 1962, joined by his Russian wife Marina, and settled in Dallas. He then acquired the means for killing. He purchased a rifle with telescopic sights and a revolver from a mail-order house under a false name. He also lectured a small circle of friends on the need for violent action rather than mere words. His particular focus was General Edwin A. Walker, an extreme conservative, who had been active in Dallas organizing anti-Castro guerrillas. For example, he suggested to a German geologist, Volkmar Schmidt that General Walker should be treated like a "murderer at large". He did not stop at fierce words. For weeks, he methodically stalked Walker's movements, photographing his residence from several angles. He then had his wife photograph him, dressed entirely in black, with his revolver strapped on a holster on his hip, his sniper's rifle in his right hand, and two newspapers, The Worker and The Militant, in his left hand. He made three copies of the photograph-- one of which he inscribed, dated "5--IV-63" and sent to a Dallas acquaintance, George De Mohrenschildt (who had also seen his rifle). He then left with his rifle wrapped in a raincoat, telling his wife he was off to "target practice", but his target, General Walker, was out of town that night. Five nights later, Oswald returned to Walker's house, and fired a shot at him that missed his head by inches, demonstrating to those that saw the photograph that he had the willingness to kill.
After the failed assassination, another friend, Ruth Paine, drove Oswald and his family to New Orleans, where he became the organizer for the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, which opposed the efforts of the Kennedy administration to overthrow Castro. . Aside from printing leaflets, staging demonstrations, getting arrested and appearing on local radio talk shows in support of Castro that summer, Oswald attempted to befriend leaders of and infiltrate anti-Castro groups that were organizing sabotage raids against Cuba. By this time, he apparently considered himself a sleeper operative, writing in August 1963 to the central committee of the Communist Party USA, and asking "Whether in your opinion, I can compete with anti-progressive forces above ground, or whether I should always remain in the background, i.e. underground." During this hot summer, while practicing sighting his rifle in his backyard, according to his wife, he told her about his plan to hijack an airliner to Cuba, saying he might earn a position in Castro's government. Then, on September 9th, in a report that appeared on the front page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Castro, who had been the target of a number of assassination attempts by the CIA, warned that if American leaders continued "aiding plans to eliminate Cuban leaders ... they themselves will not be safe".
The implication of this warning was not lost on Oswald. Telling his wife that they might never meet again, he left New Orleans two weeks later headed for the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City. To convince the Cubans of his bona fides-- and seriousness-- he had prepared a dossier on himself, which included a 10 page resume, outlining his revolutionary activities, newspaper clippings about his defection to the Soviet Union, documents he had stolen from a printing company engaged in classified map reproduction for the US Army, his correspondence with the Fair Play for Cuba Committee executives, and, as if to demonstrate his lethal capability , the photographs linking him to the Walker shooting.
Oswald applied for a visa at the Cuban Embassy on the morning of September 27th 1963. He said that he wanted to stop in Havana en route to the Soviet Union. On the application the consular office who interviewed him, noted: "The applicant states that he is a member of the American Communist Party and Secretary in New Orleans of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee." Despite such recommendations, Oswald was told that he needed a Soviet visa before the Cuban visa could be issued. He argued over this requisite with the Cuban counsel, Eusebio Azque, in front of witnesses, and reportedly made wild claims about services he might perform for the Cuban cause. During the next five days, he traveled back and forth between the Soviet and Cuban embassies attempting to straighten out the difficulty. When he telephoned from the Cuban embassy to arrange an appointment at the Soviet Embassy with an officer called Valery Vladimirovich Kostikov, he set off alarm bells at the CIA, which had been surreptitiously monitoring the phone line. Kostikov was a KGB officer who had been under close surveillance in Mexico by the FBI. By the time the CIA had identified Oswald, and notified the FBI, he had left Mexico.
When he returned to Dallas, Oswald assumed a different identity--"O.H.Lee-- and, separating himself from his family, he moved to a rooming house. He also forbade his wife from divulging his whereabouts.
On October 18th, Oswald's visa was approved by the Cuban Foreign Ministry despite the fact that he had not officially received a Soviet visa, as required. Apparently unaware of this development, he wrote another letter to the Soviet Embassy, referring to his meeting with Kostikov in Mexico, and adding cryptically: "Had I been able to reach the Soviet Embassy in Havana as planned, the embassy there would have had time to complete our business." When FBI counterintelligence intercepted this letter in Washington. it urgently requested its field agent in Dallas to question him.
The FBI agent, James Hosty, unable to locate Oswald, warned his wife she could be sent back to Russia. When his wife told him about the FBI warning he threatened to bomb its Dallas office. By this time, Oswald had a menial $1.50 hour job at the Texas Book Depository, which overlooked the convergence of the three main streets into central Dallas.
On November 22nd, at 12:30 PM, as the President’s car passed the book depository, a burst of rifle fire fatally wounded him. Less than two hours later, a Dallas policeman had been shot and killed, and, near the shooting, Oswald was arrested with the murder weapon in his hand. He was charged with killing the policeman and, shortly afterwards, assassinating the President. Then, on November 24th, Oswald was shot to death in Dallas police headquarters by night club owner Jack Ruby.
The Warren Commission concluded– rightly I now believe– that Oswald fired all the shots that killed the President. But conspiracies do not necessarily require multiple rifleman to accomplish their purpose. And what the Warren Commission could not absolutely rule out, as two of its members pointed out to me, was the possibility that Oswald had acted at the behest of others. After all, he had advertised his willingness to undertake a high-profile assassination by circulating photographs connecting himself to the shooting of General Walker. Any party who was monitoring his activities in Dallas, New Orleans or Mexico City could have discerned from them that he was a potential assassin awaiting a mission. With his mind set on such violent actions as hijacking a plane, blowing up the FBI office, or killing "any American," not much would be required to prod him to violence. He had sought liaisons in dangerous quarters and someone could have provided him with an inducement. But with Oswald forever silenced by Ruby, and intelligence services capable of expunging embarrassing data about their contacts with a Presidential assassins from their files, it is doubtful that we will ever know who, if anyone, influenced Oswald to act on November 22nd 1963.

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.