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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Reflections on Litvinenko

A reader offers his thoughts on the Litvinenko tragedy:

Amidst much wild speculation, including the "leak" to the BBC's "Today" programme that Litvinenko had supposedly swallowed three 1/2inch wide packages which had just showed up on an X-ray (now reported to be Prussian Blue to counteract the thallium - and I wonder where that story came from...), an interesting insight comes once again from Boris Volodarsky, an historian who has looked back at how the KGB has behaved in the past to make some pertinent observations about recent events.

Before turning to Voldarsky's article I have some comments of my own.

Why so public? everyone seems to ask. And why not something that kills him quickly, as well as quietly? Here are some possible reasons:

1) The FSB chooses to show it doesn't care about possible fallout from this public attempt to nail an opponent abroad as a deliberate projection its new confidence. With one of their old colleagues as President, bankrolling their expansion, they feel their day has come once again.

One take on this story: "We are back in business, boys." This is the swagger of a revitalised KGB.

2) To make anyone still in Russia (especially in the FSB) think again if they are thinking of one day becoming a whistleblower themselves. They now know that they can't even escape abroad afterwards. In the 1960s KGB recruits were shown a film of one renegade GRU man (most people say it was Penkovsky but other names sometimes crop up) being torched to death for spying for the West. It was a very effective deterrent then. This will be now.

Another take on the story: This keeps a lid on as yet undiscovered FSB secrets and ensures that there won't be another Litvinenko for a long time.

3) To scare the **** out of any Russians who have fled abroad. Publicity has always been thought of as a protective asset for the dissident. "They couldn't go after Anna Politkovskaya, surely, isn't she too well known?". Not any more. The attack on Litvinenko will shut up dissenting voices abroad and provides a satisfying for way for an organisation of sadists to inject yet more terror into the lives of those people they can't or don't want to physically harm (yet?) - and their families, of course, because a wife who is terrified of seeing her husband die such a horrible, long drawn-out death will do whatever she can to stop him meddling in politics.

This take says: Its an efficient way to silence a lot of nuisances abroad all at once. If you can't stop them going, shut them up when they are there.

This poisoning may not have been ordered from the top of the FSB, or the Kremlin, but to those who cite the torrent of negative publicity (which the perpetrators surely should have anticipated) as a reason why it couldn't be from the Kremlin or the Lubyanka, I have a couple of other observations:

1) Bad publicity didn't put Syria off in the Lebanon when they assasinated Hariri last year. Many believe they are also responsible for a number of major political assasinations since then but the Hariri one at least is now pretty conclusively believed to be Syrian-sponsored.

Put simply, Russians ask themselves "Is the security of our nation more important than what people abroad think of us?" If the answer is "Yes" and if Litvienko is seen to be threatening the internal security of the nation, then Litvinenko's coffee is poisoned. It is as simple as that.

2) This Russian government has shown in the past it couldn't give a toss for what foreigners think about it. Look at the handling of the gas crisis last winter. Has Putin's chum Alexei Miller lost his job as head of Gazprom after one of Russia's worst PR own-goals of the decade? No way.

Many ordinary Russians are convinced the West wants to destroy them and their nation anyway (just read Pravda, Gazprom's newest acquisition), so at a public level they don't care. And not a few will feel proud that the KGB can still "get their man".

3) We credit governments too generously with the foresight to anticipate the negative implications of some action they are about to take. We make a mistake to believe someone wouldn't do something just because, after the event, it looks like it was handled in a crassly inept way. As in Iraq?

And now for Volodarsky.......

FSB May Be Up to Its Old Tricks
By Boris Volodarsky
The Moscow Times

On the evening of Feb. 18, 1954, in Frankfurt, a man called on Georgy Okolovich, a leader of an anti-Soviet emigre union. The business at hand was murder. But things took a different turn when Okolovich opened the door. "I'm a captain in the Ministry of State Security and I have been sent from Moscow to organize your assassination," the visitor told him straight out. "I don't want to carry the order out and I need your help." His name was Nikolai Khokhlov. He defected to the United States and revealed that the Soviets used assassination as a political instrument.

Three years later, Khokhlov was at a conference in Germany when, while with friends, he drank a cup of coffee and collapsed hours later. The doctors called it simple food poisoning, but his condition deteriorated until, 10 days into his illness, his hair began to fall out, his bone marrow was found to be severely damaged and his body showed an almost total loss of the white blood cells that are vital to the proper functioning of the immune system. Later tests uncovered the culprit: deliberate poisoning by a new and previously unknown form of thallium. He lived to tell the tale.

Fast-forward to November 1998, in Moscow, when Colonel Alexander Litvinenko of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, publicly accused his superiors of ordering him to assassinate tycoon Boris Berezovsky. He was soon arrested and put in the infamous Lefortovo prison. The head of the FSB at the time was Vladimir Putin. A court cleared Litvinenko the following year of all accusations, including service misconduct and assorted others, but he was rearrested and retried the following year, and cleared again. In 2000, he and his family went to live in exile in Britain. There, Litvinenko published a book that tied the 1999 bombings of Moscow apartment buildings -- which justified Russia's reinvasion of Chechnya -- to the Putin presidential election campaign, which was successfully propelled by that war.

Earlier this month, Litvinenko was invited to tea at a London hotel with a Russian man who was familiar to him from his Moscow days. Some hours later, he had a sushi lunch at Piccadilly Circus with an Italian acquaintance, Mario Scaramella, who wanted to give him documents purportedly throwing light on the recent assassination in Moscow of the opposition journalist Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead last month in her apartment building.
That night, he became violently ill. At first, doctors suspected food poisoning. It was only on his 10th day in the hospital, when his hair began to fall out, that toxicology tests were performed. His body contained, these tests showed, three times the fatal dose of thallium. John Henry, a clinical toxicologist who was the first to pinpoint the dioxin poisoning of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, examined Litvinenko last Saturday and told the BBC: "There's no doubt that he's been poisoned by thallium." According to my sources close to Alexander, whom I've known for a couple years, investigators now suspect that he was poisoned at the tea, not the lunch. The name of the Russian suspect hasn't been made public by the police.

When I heard the other day that Alexander's condition was worsening, I thought the doctors perhaps made the same mistake as in the Khokhlov case. Thallium has never been known to attack the blood stream, but that's what's happening to Litvinenko. Specialists at the U.S. military hospital in Frankfurt only later discovered that Khokhlov was exposed to radioactivated thallium, which initially only results in non-specific gastrointestinal symptoms. Only later did they observe a moderate elevation of blood lipids, leukocytosis and anemia that occurs in most high-level intoxications. By the time the symptoms known to be after-effects of radiation began to appear, the radioactivated thallium had already disintegrated, making it very hard for doctors to find and for investigators to confirm the poisoning. The same scenario may be playing out with Litvinenko. On Tuesday, the London hospital treating him said it could not confirm the poison was thallium -- a diagnosis that in the Khokhlov case was only made by a special U.S. military hospital.

I last met Alexander at London's Connaught Hotel to discuss the Khokhlov case, about which I'd published a monograph. He was investigating the death of Yury Shchekochikhin, an opposition parliamentarian and journalist, who died in suspicious circumstances in 2003 after a two-week illness. His symptoms were similar to Yushchenko's, pointing clearly to exposure to a toxic agent. After his death, no autopsy was performed and access to medical records wasn't allowed.

Litvinenko is a small thorn in the side of the current Russian regime. He lives abroad and holds a British passport. That didn't protect him, nor did it protect Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident who in 1978 was killed by a KGB ricin-tipped umbrella near Waterloo station.

It is perhaps too early to discuss how and why Litvinenko was poisoned. Some things are clear. This was likely the work of the Russian secret service that had been after him for years. Whether the Russian president, who was often the object of Litvinenko's fierce and fearless mockery, is involved is open to doubt. I wonder if Putin is in control of his squabbling entourage. Whatever the truth, this poisoning also looks to be directed against Berezovsky, now in exile in London and campaigning for regime change in Russia. Litvinenko is one of his advisers.

Russian foreign intelligence denies any involvement in his poisoning. It cannot deny, however, its long history of using poison as a weapon. The "Kamera," or as KGB veterans might remember it, "Laboratory No. 12," was founded in 1921 in a corner of Lenin's Cheka. This office innovated biological and chemical agents as advancing science and the Kremlin dictated. But one thing in their design has stayed constant: To make the victim's death or illness appear natural, or at least produce symptoms that would baffle doctors long enough to delay proper treatment. The Chechen rebel Khattab was poisoned in 2004, as was Trotsky's secretary Wolfgang Salus in 1957. Countless other victims were never identified as such.

Before the Litvinenko case, the most prominent poisoning involved Yushchenko, whose digestive tract and once-chiseled face were destroyed by a complex, dioxin-based compound during a meal with the top officials of his country's security service. Yushchenko was an unwelcome candidate for Moscow in Ukraine's 2004 elections. Like Khokhlov, he survived; all leads in that case point to the Kamera. The investigation has been hindered by overt pressure on Yushchenko's doctors at home and in Austria, where he was treated, and Ukrainian politicians.

At this hour, Alexander Litvinenko is fighting for his life in a London hospital.

Boris Volodarsky, a former Soviet military intelligence officer who lives in London, is the author, with Oleg Gordievsky, of the forthcoming "KGB: The West Side Story." This comment first appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

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