Saturday, November 25, 2006

A Big Power Spy-and-Statecraft Puzzle

What an interesting case.

His name is Alexander V. Litvinenko.

He is dead.

He claims -- that is, claimed before his death [it is said] -- that Putin ordered his death.

Before we talk about the material that killed him, consider the possible motivation.

Mr. Litvinenko at one point said, I believe, that the bombings of some residential buildings in Moscow -- Was it Moscow? -- were a ruse. He charged (did he not?) that the Russian secret service or some such agency actually did the bombing(s) with the plan to blame the bombing(s) on Chechen rebels.

The bombing did take place. I remember newspaper and media accounts immediately thereafter blamed it on the Chechen rebels.

Mr. Litvinenko was himself once a Russian intelligence agent.

What killed Mr. Litvinenko? It was, today's NYTimes reports, polonium 210, which is a "rare and hard-to-produce substance" and "dangerous when breathed, injected or ingested."

For the sleuth, the rare nature of polonium 210 should be an advantage. For example, does it take certain very expensive equipment to produce? Do only a few people know how to make it? Does it leave telltale radioactive traces when it is transported in, say, a suit case? Does a particular sample have a kind of signature? What is this stuff polonium 210?

Ancient facts: Stalin deported, it is said, the entire population of Chechnya during WWII. But the Chechens get little sympathy in the rest of the world, let alone in Russia. Do they deserve all of the hatred they get? Is some of their militaristic activity a prediction made true? Are Chechen rebels freedom fighters? How should we think about them? Does it matter -- for purposes of our little (big?) spymaster riddle?

Let's get more facts.

Putin rejected the family's charge of murder. Does his denial have any probative value? What say you, Richard Friedman?

Does it matter whether Putin's denial was "vehement"? How are we to know whether Putin denied the charge vehemently? By how red-faced the Russian spokesmen were when they made denials on his behalf? Did Putin make a denial in person -- e.g., before the cameras at the EU-Russia conference?

Read on, ptillers!

NYTimes today: "Mr. Litvinenko's slow and inexorable death was among the most bizarre since Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident, was murdered in London with a jab from a poison-tipped umbrella in 1978."

What would motivate someone to kill someone with a substance such as polonium 210 rather than with, say, rat poison or mercury or lead or arsenic? Was a message being sent? Or is polonium 210 harder to detect and trace?

Read on, ptillers.

NYTimes: "Doctors said that the Ukrainian president, Viktor A. Yushchenko -- who campaigned in 2004 to move Ukraine away from Russian influence and forge closer ties with the European Union -- was poisoned with dioxin when he was running for office, leaving his face badly disfigured. Russia, as well as an array of Mr. Yushchenko's political adversaries, was suspected in the poisoning, but the matter was never resolved."

Do only intelligence agencies use small quantities of rare radioactive substances to kill their targets? How would we know if that is the case?

Read on, ptillers.

NYTimes today: "The police searched several locations that Mr. Litvinenko had visited in early November -- the Itsu sushi bar on Piccadilly, his home in the white-collar Muswell Hill neighborhood of north London and the Mayfair Millennium Hotel near the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square -- and said they had found radioactive traces at each of them."

  • Now this is interesting.
  • We need some time lines -- both big and small.

    We need a time (and space) line of Mr L's movements over the last few weeks and perhaps months. We also need a timeline of his adult life, do we now?

    Rogue intelligence agents are a possibility.

    Another possibility: An intelligence agent (Russian?) with a purely personal animus against Mr. L.

    Another possibility: An elaborate suicide hoax (but the death was no hoax).

    Ah now, this tidbit from the NYTimes is very important:

    A British counterterrorism official said polonium 210 was a byproduct of the nuclear industry and is used in the production of antistatic materials. But in the form believed to have been used in the suspected poisoning, it would have required high-grade technical skills and a sophisticated scientific process to produce, probably within a nuclear lab.
    Nuclear labs? What kind? The kind that universities operate? Something more elaborate? A nuclear weapons plant?

    Note: NYTimes on Mr. L's personal past and also on alleged Russian skullduggeryuggery in creating bombing incidents to whip up enthusiasm for the second Chechen war (the 1999 war):

    Mr. Litvinenko was a former operative in the K.G.B. who became a colonel in its successor organization, known by its Russian initials as the F.S.B. In the late 1990s, Mr. Litvinenko said publicly that he had been ordered to assassinate Boris Berezovsky, an exiled Russian tycoon, but had refused to do so. He fled to Britain and secured British citizenship earlier this year. In 2003, he wrote a book accusing the Russian secret service of orchestrating apartment house bombings in Russia in 1999 that led to the second Chechen war.
    'Tis true that Soviet intelligence agents (and agents of ministries such as the "Interior Ministry") have a long history of agitprop, which sometimes took the form of staging violent incidents that could bebe blamed on chosen targets. Some people have said the Soviets learned these tricks from the Nazis. Or was it the reverse? In any case, the tactics were used by Soviet actors even in the Baltics in the early 1990s. But the Balts knew, of course, who was doing what. Unclear if the senior Bush saw through the ruses.

    Ah, Putin charges that L's death was a political act by Russia's enemies:

    Mr. Putin found himself on the defensive when he appeared in Helsinki, Finland, after a meeting with leaders of the European Union, as he had been when he traveled in Europe following the death of Ms. Politkovskaya.

    He called Mr. Litvinenko's death a tragedy, but suggested that there was "no indication that it was a violent death," citing what he said was a British medical report. He called for an investigation and pledged the assistance of Russian authorities.

    "I hope that the British authorities will not contribute to the fanning up of political scandals having no real grounds," he said in remarks televised in Russia.

    Mr. Putin also brushed aside the significance of Mr. Litvinenko's poisoning, suggesting his death was being used for political purposes.

    "Those who did it are not the Lord, and Mr. Litvinenko is not Lazarus," he went on. "It is regretful that even such a tragic event as the death of a human being is being used for political provocation."

    Note: Putin himself was a Soviet intelligence agent stationed in East Germany. He must have known about dirty tricks, even if he did not personally perpetrate them.

    Is the following a coincidence?:

    Andrei Lugovoi, a former K.G.B. colleague who met Mr. Litvinenko in London, denied in a radio interview on Friday that he or a colleague, Dmitry Kovtun, had any part in poisoning him. Speaking on Ekho Moskvy, an independent Russian radio station, Mr. Lugovoi said that he and Mr. Kovtun had met Mr. Litvinenko at a hotel in London on Nov. 1, the day he fell ill, and had discussed business for 20 to 30 minutes.

    "He did not order anything," he said. "We did not pour anything for him."

    Do I have the patience to unravel this puzzle? Do you? The FSB?

    In any event: problems of evidence are everywhere, and this one has pizazz.