The Observer, UK,
Nuclear poison: the deadly trade
The killing of Alexander Litvinenko with polonium 210 created headlines around the world. It also raised disturbing questions about Russian secret agents and a lethal and growing black market in radioactive waste
It was hardly the stuff of international espionage. On the day Alexander Litvinenko`s was fatally poisoned, the former Russian spy`s last public meeting rarely deviated from football, Irish wolfhounds and, befitting his adopted country, the weather.
Around mid-afternoon, Litvinenko met Russian businessmen Dmitry Kovtun and Alexandrei Lugovei - who says that Litvinenko did not drink anything while they were with him. Later Kovtun left the lobby of the Millennium Hotel in London`s Grosvenor Square and headed north to watch CSKA Moscow take on Arsenal. Litvinenko went home in the drizzle to Muswell Hill, his trip caught by grainy CCTV, which is still being studied by Scotland Yard last night.
They would never meet again. Even before the full-time whistle, Litvinenko felt odd. The former Russian spy called Kovtun the following day to cancel their meeting. He felt worse. The dissident had no idea he was dying. Neither could the 43-year-old have deduced he was the victim of what could be one of the most elaborate assassinations in political history, a killing never before seen on British soil, orchestrated with such audacity that his death has bewildered Scotland Yard`s most experienced detectives.
It promises to be one of the most bewildering and diplomatically challenging investigations in the force`s history. Little more than two days since Litvinenko died after becoming the first human to have been killed with the rare, powerfully toxic radioactive material polonium 210, inquiries have shifted thousands of miles east to the vast interior of the Russian steppes, in particular the rusting relics of the Soviet nuclear trade and its burgeoning black market in radioactive materials.
The sheer difficulty of acquiring polonium 210 has though, for now, shifted the spotlight on to state-sponsored scientists working in Russian research laboratories and the country`s massive nuclear reprocessing plants. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), obtaining the material would require a level of access unthinkable only the most well-connected of individuals - just possibly with state backing.
A United Nations expert in the trade of nuclear materials said the sophistication required to harness polonium`s poison as a murder weapon meant it could not have been executed by a `lone assassin`, a madman with a grudge to take out. Such is the difficulty of obtaining radioactive material, it would have to be someone with skill and powerful connections.
And, whoever they are, they collected enough extremely rare radioactive material to ensure doctors discovered a `major dose` in the frail, sallow body of Litvinenko. Such material, it is believed by experts, could only have come from the massive nuclear structures of the old Soviet Union where, during the collapse of the empire, security was often sacrificed. Polonium can only be gained from such reprocessing plants or equally complex nuclear research plants. You cannot buy this stuff from local criminals.
The UN is expected to begin investigating which of the nuclear reprocessing plants the polonium 210 that destroyed the internal organs of the Russian exile may have come from.
First up, will be the principal plant in Krasnoyarsk, 600km east of Tomsk, a massive, remote structure notorious for the radioactive contamination of Siberia`s major rivers. Although UN officials remain sceptical the material may have been procured on the black market, British police are though to be liaising with the IAEA on whether the rare isotope may have originated on Russia`s flourishing underground trade in nuclear and radioactive sources.
After all, on several occasions in the past 15 years, Russian police have intercepted smugglers trying to carry the alpha-radiation emitting substance out of the former Soviet Union. In 1999 an army officer was caught trying to cross from Kazakhstan into Uzbekistan clutching a glass capsule marked `RA 23-54` and a metal canister covered with lead foil. Under interrogation, he admitted it contained a radioactive mixture of polonium and beryllium, used in Russia to trigger nuclear chain reactions. He had stolen the material from the Baikonur cosmodrome, where he worked, and intended to sell it in Uzbekistan. Other cases involve the theft of several canisters of polonium 210 from a secretive research centre in the city of Sarov called the All Russian Research Institute of Experimental Physics, a sprawling complex known as Russia`s Los Alamos.
Beyond rows of barbed wire and troop patrols, experts have admitted polonium isotopes are still produced there. Disturbing reports of thefts from the site continue to surface. In 1993 the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reported that 10kg of polonium had gone missing from the plant. Two years ago the IAEA established that Iran has been conducting experiments with polonium 210 as part of its nuclear programme, possibly using material obtained from Russia.
Meanwhile, the National Threat Initiative in Washington warns that Russia`s porous borders present little obstacle to smugglers carrying radioactive substances out of the country and that concern over Russia`s huge stockpile of nuclear and radioactive materials slipping on to the international black market remained undimmed. Yesterday Vladimir Slivyak of the Eco-Defence organisation in Moscow, warned that radioactive substances are often poorly guarded and vulnerable to theft. Even so, IAEA sources say they have never confirmed a single case of polonium 210 being smuggled on the black market, indirectly giving weight to allegations that Litvinenko`s death was a state- sponsored assassination.
But Litvinenko`s death holds even greater resonance; claims that a terrorist organisation managed to acquired a rare, powerful radioactive material which was smuggled into Britain where it was targeted with deadly effect have caused much concern among UK security services. Officials are concerned that next time the target might be greater than the internal organs of a single human.
Intelligence sources said they had recently confirmed al-Qaeda is intensifying efforts to obtain a radioactive device amid new figures revealing that the black market of radioactive material is prospering. Smugglers have been caught trying to traffic nuclear material more than 300 times in the past four years, a doubling of such seizures.
It is little surprise that the man charged with investigating Litvinenko`s death is Peter Clarke, Scotland Yard`s deputy assistant commissioner who has taken the lead in protecting Britain from Islamic terrorists. He is understood to believe that tracking down the polonium 210 found in Litvinenko could unlock the key to his death, the toxic material`s very rarity the factor that guides British police to those responsible.
Officials from the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston and Porton Down, the government Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, will today continue studying samples of the radioactive material extracted from the tablecloth of the sushi restaurant where Litvinenko ate the day he died.
Experts maintain that the sample will yield its own `fingerprint` which can be used to track down where the polonium came from. So far, all they can say with reasonable surety is that the polonium 210 looks likely to have come from Russia and must have been smuggled into Britain relatively recently; it has a half-life (the length of time during which is radioactivity declines by 50 per cent) of just 138 days. Whoever is responsible knew what they were doing, appreciating the ease and safety with which the material could be transported in, say, a glass jar without detection or risk to its carrier.
`For anybody looking to kill an individual using nuclear material, polonium- 210 would be the radioactive isotope of choice,` said a IAEA source. A perpetrator may have entered Britain shortly before 1 November, the date Litvinenko is thought to have been poisoned, and one line of inquiry is that they a may have fled London after administering the deadly dose, safe in the knowledge that as the first alpha rays entered Litvineko`s body, he was good as finished.
No on disputes that Litvinenko had mustered his fair share of enemies. Some were dangerous, others less so, yet whether light can ever pierce the fog of claim, counter-claim and smoke and mirrors that characterise this case is hard to predict. Litvineko`s dissident friends blame the Kremlin. The Kremlin blames Litvineko`s dissident friends. Rogue Russian agents have been named, but still no central suspect has emerged.
Scotland Yard is thought to have sought the first tentative help from the Kremlin via Foreign Office officials. Officers too are examining four sheets of A4 thrust before Litvinenko by Italian lawyer Mario Scarmella on the day it is presumed he was poisoned. They reveal how Russia`s security services `had decided to use force` against Litvinenko for `incessant anti-Russian activities`. But, in keeping with such a case, it is impossible to determine whether the documents are a hoax or genuine. The more outlandish theories speculate that Litvinenko`s own allies could have been the culprits. Even by the Machiavellian standards of Russian politics, such a plot would mark something of a new nadir.
Moscow`s elite has been stunned at the British response to the scandal amid suspicion that the whole affair was some elaborate lie designed to discredit a post-soviet Russia. Vladimir Kuznetsov, former chief of Russia`s state atomic control agency, even came out to describe Litvinenko`s death by polonium 210 as mere `journalistic invention`.
They also point at the police`s response to the death, which veered from an investigation into a `suspicious poisoning` to `how this man became ill`. Officially Scotland Yard has yet to launch a murder inquiry, claiming they still do not have enough evidence to rule out Litvinenko`s death as an accident or suicide. But could it be suicide? Was this a desperate final act of man marginalised by the mainstream for whom his anti-Kremlin message depended on the oxygen of publicity?
Certainly, Litvinenko`s profile has never been greater. Even his most incendiary allegations against the Kremlin had played to little effect in Russia. Yet his deathbed description of Putin as a `barbaric and ruthless` president played to millions worldwide. And, regardless of which direction the case twists next, the inquest and accompanying attacks on Putin from dissidents promise fresh embarrassment for the president.
The involvement of Russia`s intelligence service also remains a matter of scorn in the Kremlin. Sergei Ivanov, spokesman for the SVR, one of the organisations that replaced the KGB, said accusations of an assassination plot organised by his service, were `some kind of science fiction`. Sergei Markov, an analyst and Kremlin consultant, pointed the finger at renegade elements within the security services, still vengeful over his claims of corruption and murder among Russia`s intelligence agencies. He added that suggesting the Kremlin arranged the poisoning was absurd: `That is just a symptom of Russophobia, one of the main prejudices now active in Europe.`
Police will also examine the so-called Chechen connection, in particular alliance with the Chechen separatist envoy, Akhmed Zakayerebel Akhmed Zakayev, who lives on the same Muswell Hill street as Litvinenko and is rumoured to be on a hit list after the Russian parliament passed a law approving use of hit squads to eliminate terrorists abroad. Yet one nagging issue torments those looking into the case; Litvinenko was small-fry, an exile whose anti-Kremlin criticisms were largely ignored in his homeland. In London, only his closest friends would recognise him. `Litvinenko just wasn`t worth it. He didn`t pose a threat,` one FSB veteran told The Observer
We may never know how damaged Litvinenko`s insides were by the polonium, his body remaining so contaminated it may be deemed simply too toxic to touch. As his friend Alex Goldfarb said: `It is like being exposed to Chernobyl but not from outside but within.`
This week police will begin questioning witnesses. Kovtun is likely to be among those to be notified to ascertain precisely what, if anything of interest, may have arisen in the Millennium Hotel. So too his business partner, Andrei Lugovoi who also met Litvinenko on 1 November. Yesterday Kovtun said the fact traces of polonium 210 were found at several different locations across London supported his claim that he was not involved with Litvinenko`s illness.
The former KGB officer, told The Observer that he met Litvinenko that day principally to discuss a simple business deal. `It`s quite clear that we had nothing to do with it,` he said. `Of course, we will be very happy if all suspicion is removed from us, but on the other hand there`s now this information and the possibility that we may have received a dose of radiation while meeting him [Litvinenko].`
No arrests are expected imminently, but Metropolitan Police sources say that a list of witnesses has been prepared - and Foreign Office sources are not expecting the Kremlin to prevaricate or refuse to help with British inquiries for help.
Key figures in a plot straight out of a Cold War thriller
Italian academic and security expert who is part of an Italian parliamentary inquiry into KGB activity. Says he met Litvinenko for lunch lasting 35 minutes in the Itsu sushi bar on London`s Piccadilly on 1 November, the day he became ill. Claims they met because both their names were on a hit list which he had received an email about. Scotland Yard plan to interview him.
Friend of Litvinenko. Runs the International Foundation for Civil Liberties, a human rights group funded by Boris Berezovsky, the Russian oligarch emigre who lives in London and is a critic of Vladimir Putin. Berezovsky is the man Litvinenko claims he was ordered to assassinate by the FSB, the KGB`s successor. Goldfarb has accused the Kremlin of ordering his friend`s murder and implicated Andrei Logovoi.
Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun
Lugovoi, another ex-KGB officer, and Kovtun, another Russian, met Litvinenko at the Millennium Hotel in Grosvenor Square, just after his encounter with Scaramella. Lugovoi, now a security operator in Moscow, insists he had nothing to do with any poisoning, and that the trio met to discuss a potential business deal. Claims the dead man drank nothing at their meeting and has offered to give an interview to the police.
A prominent Russian journalist with the liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta who was shot dead in her Moscow block of flats on 7 October. Litvinenko is known to have been investigating her death when he was poisoned. Courageous and outspoken critic of President Putin and Russia`s policy towards Chechnya. Wrote regularly about human rights abuses. Joint winner in 2004 of the Olof Palme Prize for human rights work. Politkovskaya had previously received death threats in response to her work.
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