Who Killed Alexander Litvinenko?

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June 8 2007 7:20 AM

Who Killed Alexander Litvinenko?

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Book cover.

Moscow, February 1, 2007: Speaking at a Kremlin press conference, President Putin indicates that the Russian secret services considered Litvinenko an insignificant target, and would not, therefore, have bothered to murder him. "He ­didn't know any secrets," says Putin. "Before being fired from the FSB Litvinenko served in the convoy troops and had no access to state secrets." On the same day, Scotland Yard announces that it has completed its investigation and sent the Litvinenko file to the Crown Prosecution Service to determine whether anyone should be charged with a crime. The content of the file has not been disclosed.

Whoever chose polonium to kill Sasha did so because the chances of its ever being discovered were close to zero. It could not be easily identified chemically: the toxicology lab found only low levels of thallium, a minor contaminant of polonium production. Polonium was unlikely to be detected by its radioactivity, since common Geiger counters were not designed to detect alpha rays. Polonium is perhaps the most toxic substance on earth: a tiny speck is a highly lethal dose, and one gram is enough to kill half a million people. But it is absolutely harmless to a handler unless it is inhaled or swallowed. Most important, polonium had never been used to murder anyone before, so practically no one in the expert community—toxicologists, police, or terrorism experts—would have been looking for it or expecting it. It was sheer luck, plus Sasha's phenomenal endurance, that it was found. He had received a huge dose. Had he died in Barnet Hospital within the first two weeks, his death would have been attributed to thallium, meaning that anyone could have given it to him.

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The irony is that once it was detected, polonium became a smoking gun. No amateur killer—even one awash with money—could have used it.

Any perpetrator who came up with the idea of employing polonium for a sinister purpose would necessarily have to have a high level of sophistication and knowledge of physics, medicine, and radioactive surveillance procedures, not to mention an understanding of polonium's production and distribution. All in all, it would have required a touch of genius, combined with tremendous resources—and access to polonium in the first place—to develop a murder plan of this sort on an ad hoc basis. Only an established organization with expertise in the area of science-based poisoning could have perpetrated this crime.

Ninety-seven percent of the known production of polonium, about 85 grams annually, takes place in Russia. Some is exported for industrial use, primarily to the United States. The Russian nuclear reactor that produces polonium is subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, such that each production cycle is supposed to be logged and recorded, although the IAEA does not register polonium per se.

Polonium, once it has been identified, is a detective's dream. Like an invisible dye it marks everything it touches, and it cannot be washed off. Once the right equipment is used, traces of polonium are detectable in a dilution as unimaginably weak as a millionth-of-a-millionth part. If someone, say, turns on a light in a hotel room with a contaminated hand, the light switch will be radioactive for months. From the amount and distribution of radioactivity on an armchair, an investigator can tell whether it was the right or the left hand that left the trace, and whether the hand was contaminated from the outside or the radioactivity came from the tiny droplets of sweat of someone who ingested the poison. In other words, traces left by a perpetrator and a victim are distinguishable from each other.

The Scotland Yard detectives uncovered several polonium trails in and out of London. Again, no official information has been released as this book goes to press. However, enough has been leaked from reliable sources to London newspapers to reconstruct a more or less complete picture, and the investigators essentially confirmed these leaks to Marina.

Within hours of Sasha's death, HPA radioactivity hunters identified and closed off several contaminated sites in London, including Itsu, the sushi restaurant on Piccadilly where Sasha met Mario Scaramella, and the bar in the Millennium Hotel where he had tea with the Russians. As the investigation progressed, they added dozens of other places to the polonium map; the eventual list included offices, restaurants, hotel rooms, homes, cars, and airplanes in several countries. Hundreds of people all over Europe showed varying degrees of polonium contamination, spreading from the epicenter of the "tiny nuclear bomb" exploded in London. When the dust settled, the investigators had a pretty complete understanding of how to read the map. As the Scotland Yard liaison officer told Marina, "We know exactly who did it, where, and how."

One of the polonium trails uncovered was left by Sasha. On the morning of November 1, 2006, he was clean. Detectives discovered a ticket in his pocket that led them to the bus that he took to Central London that day. No traces of polonium were found on the bus.

At about 6 p.m. Akhmed Zakayev picked him up from Boris Berezovsky's Mayfair office to bring him home to Muswell Hill. After that trip, Zakayev's Mercedes was rendered unusable by the tremendous amount of radioactivity Sasha left on the front seat.

Apparently the poisoning occurred in the Millennium Hotel bar, at around 5 p.m. Investigators found the teapot that was laced with the poison, which in turn contaminated the kitchen, including the dishwashing machine. The concentration of polonium at the hotel bar was apparently the highest of all, and it was airborne—indicating that the powder had been slipped into the pot of tea—because seven workers in the bar and several patrons tested positive for polonium.

Between the Millennium bar and the time Zakayev picked him up, Sasha stopped at Boris's office, where he used the fax machine. Accordingly, some radioactivity was found on the machine.

Everything that he touched after returning home was heavily contaminated. The amount of radioactivity shed during the first three days of his illness—that is, before he was taken to the hospital—was enormous. According to an early estimate, it would cost more than £100,000 ($200,000) to clean the house to make it safe to reinhabit. Six months later, Marina and son Tolik were still unable to return home.

Of all the people who were in contact with Sasha, Marina was the most exposed, since she cared for him and cleaned up during the three days of extensive vomiting. She tested positive for ingesting polonium—thankfully, not enough to cause an immediate health hazard. Remarkably, her levels were not even high enough to leave their own secondary trail. This is significant because it suggests that anyone who did leave a radioactive polonium trail did not pick up the poison from Sasha. Most likely, such a person was in direct contact with polonium himself. Tolik, who stayed in the same house for three days but had much less physical contact with his father, has not been contaminated at all.

Apart from Sasha, Andrei Lugovoy left a polonium trail. With his associate Dmitry Kovtun, Lugovoy's school friend and army buddy and a veteran of GRU army intelligence Lugovoy had two meetings with Sasha, on October 16 and November 1.

The levels and spread of radioactivity left behind suggest that he handled polonium directly, rather than ingesting it, because there were significant traces of radioactivity. The body dilutes polonium before excreting it in sweat; the amounts that would have had to be ingested to produce traces equal to those of Lugovoy would almost certainly be lethal.

When Scotland Yard releases its computer-aided simulations of radioactivity spread, it will be possible to say exactly where and how the poison was handled before it ended in Sasha's teapot. What can be said at this point is that Lugovoy was shedding radioactivity before Sasha was exposed on November 1. For example, Lugovoy contaminated the leather sofa in Boris's study when he visited him on October 31

There was a trail of polonium from Lugovoy's previous visit to London, on October 16–17: in hotel rooms, offices, restaurants, and on the British Airways plane that took him back to Moscow. It was during that visit that the Itsu sushi restaurant on Piccadilly was contaminated, the one that Sasha and Mario Scaramella also visited on the day of his poisoning. That coincidence was the source of much initial confusion until it was established that on November 1 Sasha and Scaramella sat at a different table than the one occupied by Lugovoy, Kovtun, and Sasha two weeks earlier.

What Lugovoy was doing with polonium in London during the October 16 visit is a mystery. One hypothesis is that there were two attempts to put polonium into Sasha's meal; the first one, possibly at Itsu, did not work out, so there was a second attempt, which succeeded. Another hypothesis is that the October 16 meeting was a dress rehearsal.

For me, there is yet another possibility: that the operation on October 16 went wrong, yet left a trail of contamination; in short, it was screwed up. So 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. This third-man theory has been promoted in the press by the ex-spy Oleg Gordievsky, who quotes his own anonymous sources. 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 police never gave Marina any hint in support of the third-man theory, but they have not disputed it, either. It is consistent with what Sasha told me and others: Lugovoy brought along a man whom Sasha had never seen before and who had "the eyes of a killer."

Finally, there was yet another man, Vladislav Sokolenko, who was associated with Lugovoy on November 1. His role is unclear, although he apparently was not contaminated by polonium.

There is no doubt that many questions will be answered in court—if the perpetrators are brought to trial. If the Crown Prosecution Service concludes that the perpetrators cannot be realistically apprehended, the police may still release the file. Then we would see not only the detailed polonium maps, but also the record of the minute-by-minute movements of Sasha, Lugovoy, and others through the streets of Central London, which are fully covered by CCTV surveillance cameras.

The story would be incomplete without considering a few alternative murder theories, which have been discounted after the polonium trails told their tales.

First, there was Mario Scaramella, a hapless political consultant who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. His relation to Sasha had to do with a squabble in Italian politics about some old and unproven allegations that the Italian prime minister Romano Prodi had been a KGB spy since the cold war. Back in 2004 Sasha told the Italian parliamentary commission investigating those rumors that once he had overheard his mentor General Trofimov referring to Prodi as "our man." The conversation with Trofimov, however, took place in 2000, after the Prodi-KGB scandal broke out in Italy in October 1999. So Trofimov could have been only repeating hearsay. In any case, it is unlikely that someone would deploy polonium in 2006 to kill Sasha for an inconsequential statement he made in 2004. Scaramella tested positive for polonium, but only in minute amounts.

Then there was Yulia Svetlichnaya, a Russian graduate student in Britain who briefly made headlines by claiming that Sasha had planned to blackmail a "Russian oligarch," not Berezovsky, who "had a connection with the Kremlin, a connection with Putin." Svetlichnaya had met Sasha while doing research for her book and he had corresponded with her.

There were numerous suggestions that Sasha's former colleagues in the URPO or some other rogue elements among present or former FSB officers had a motive for killing him. This theory became particularly popular when it was reported that a Russian Spetsnaz commando unit was using Sasha's image for target practice.

There was also a report by Yuri Shvets, another former KGB officer living in Washington, that Sasha had been compiling a file on a "prominent Kremlin figure" as part of a due diligence research for a commercial client.

All these theories suffer from two faults: they fail to explain access to polonium and the involvement of Andrei Lugovoy.

To my mind, no midlevel rogue officer, no hired hand, no hastily assembled hit squad could possibly get unauthorized access to the material, which, after all, is as suitable for a massive terror attack as any weapon of mass destruction: Polonium-210 is more toxic than anthrax and as good for making a dirty bomb as plutonium. Only the top levels of the Russian government should have access to it. And I am convinced that in the Russian government, all matters related to the London dissident group are personally controlled by the president. The London operation simply could not have been authorized without his knowledge.

Likewise, only a very persuasive argument could have brought Andrei Lugovoy into the project. After all, he is not a poor man, but worth somewhere around $20 to $25 million; he would not have done it for money. He did not have any motive to kill Sasha. Only a very powerful interest could have convinced him to get involved.

Why would anyone go to such lengths to kill a man living in a rented house in Muswell Hill? Here I agree with Putin: whatever Sasha had done or would do was not worth the trouble. He was not the ultimate target; his death was a means to an end. A very important end that justified the awesome means. There is only one credible murder motive—the one that Lord Tim Bell named even before Polonium-210 and Andrei Lugovoy became part of the equation: to pin a murder on the other side in the unending contest of wills between Putin and Berezovsky.

Regardless of Scotland Yard's confidence that they know "who did it, where, and how," they are unlikely to ever see their suspects in court. On 22 May, 2007, the Director of Public Prosecutions in the UK, Sir Ken Macdonald, called for the early extradition of Andrei Lugovoy, "so that he may be charged with murder—and be brought swiftly before a court in London to be prosecuted for this extraordinarily grave crime." But that the Russians will agree to his extradition appears highly unlikely." Instead of assisting the British investigation, the Russian government has been pursuing its own.

The Russian probe is designed as a mirror image of the British: there are detectives, witnesses, suspects, and a working theory, which balance everything that the Brits have to offer. Every British finding has a Russian counterfinding, every statement a counterstatement. Even the rhetoric is reciprocal. The Russians are using classic disinformation tactics, which are as reminiscent of the old KGB style as is the murder itself. The Kremlin-controlled press blasts the Western media for a cold war–style propaganda campaign.

As was outlined in a New York Times interview of Lugovoy published on March 18, 2007, the Russian countertheory regards him, not as a perpetrator, but as "an injured party," the victim of a murder attempt with polonium that occurred during the first visit to London on October 16. After being contaminated, he claimed, he carried traces of polonium back to Moscow, and then again to London on his second visit. In the Russian frame of reference, the reciprocal pair of suspects are Zakayev and Berezovsky.

In April 2007 Russian investigators flew to London to question Boris and Akhmed, balancing Scotland Yard's visit to Moscow to interview Lugovoy and Kovtun in December 2006. In response to the British identification of Lugovoy as a suspect in Sasha's murder, the Russians are likely to retaliate by charging Boris and Zakayev with an attempt on Kovtun. Because the case will never go to court, the question of who killed Sasha will never be officially resolved. The press will keep presenting a "balanced" view. Without a judicial conclusion, Sasha's murder will turn into a zero-sum game between two conflicting conspiracy theories, each the mirror image of the other. On the two ends of the hall of mirrors—with Sasha's body in the center—are the two main protagonists of this story, Boris and Putin, one the nemesis of the other. One of them did it. The choice is in the eye of the beholder.

A friend of mine who lives in Moscow said, "For you it's Putin, which is understandable because you work for Boris Berezovsky and live in the West. But I live in Moscow and Putin is my president. Not just a president, but someone who, rightly or wrongly, is adored and revered by most of the people. He restored our national pride and self-confidence. He is like the queen of England. If I imagined for a moment that he is the murderer, I ­couldn't live in this country. So it simply must be Boris, regardless of what evidence you produce. Boris is supposed to be vile."

My friend represents a better part of Russia, its conscientious class. He wants to believe it was Boris. The majority, I am sure, are the opposite: they want to believe it was Putin—and they are proud of him for it. Litvinenko, in their view, was a traitor, and the president got him. With polonium. Serves him right. That's what vlast—the "right of power" enjoyed by Russian leaders—should be: awesome.

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