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The Litvinenko Case

By Carey Sublette

Last changed 14 December 2006


In 2001 Lieutenant Colonel Aleksandr Litvinenko of the Russian FSB (Federal Security Service), the descendent of the Soviet-era KGB secret police and intelligence organization, left Russia and obtained asylum in Britain. Litvinenko had a sensational tale to tell.

Boris Yeltin's Russia was a nation in despair. After Yeltsin abruptly dissolved the Russian-dominated empire that was the Soviet Union in December 1991, a disaster itself in the eyes of many Russians, Russia had suffered calamity after calamity. Successive economic collapses, unrelieved by any interim recovery; repeated diplomatic humiliations emphasizing its increasing irrelevancy on the international scene; a bloody little war within its own borders in Chechnya from 1994 to 1996, a war in which an agrarian republic with a population of only one million had bested the mighty Russian military.

With his health deteriorating and his popularity in polls in the low single digits, in August 1999 Yeltsin made a surprise appointment to the office of Prime Minister, the little known Vladimir Putin, current head of the FSB and a former KGB Lieutenant Colonel.

Soon after Putin's appointment, a series of dramatic terror bombings outraged the nation. Four huge bombs destroyed entire buildings of apartments, the first on 4 September 1999 in the southern city of Buinaksk, two more followed in Moscow, and the last in Volgodonsk on 16 September. The string of bombings killed 246 people (other sources say "more than 300").

The Yeltsin government declared that Chechen separatists were responsible, and even though separatist leader Shamil Basayev denied involvement, on 30 September a ground and air offensive was launched against Chechnya beginning the Second Chechen War. The operation immediately catapulted Putin to national prominence, with huge popularity ratings. On 31 December 1999, just as the siege of the Chechen capital of Grozny was getting under way, Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned and Putin became President.

In early February 2000 Russian forces captured the capital of Grozny, and in May Putin established direct rule of Chechnya. Although the war continued, it greatly enhanced Putin's popularity and strengthened his control.

Questions about the official account of the bombings surfaced soon after they occurred. A fifth bomb that failed to explode was discovered in the basement of an apartment building in the city of Ryazan on 22 September 1999. Examination of the bomb contradicted claims being made by the government, and police and journalistic investigation suggested a direct connection to the FSB. Additional support for this contention was uncovered by Moscow attorney and former FSB officer Mikhail Trepashkin, who was investigating the Moscow bombings. Prior to presenting his findings in court, Trepashkin was arrested under questionable circumstances on 22 October 2003.

Lt. Col. Litvinenko defected from Russia in November 2000 claiming to have inside information on an FSB plot for conducting the apartment bombings to provide a pretext for renewed war. Litvinenko's account was published in his book Blowing up Russia: Terror from Within published in 2002. On 25 June 2002, a Moscow court convicted Litvinenko in absentia for abuse of office and stealing explosives. Litvinenko went on to allege FSB officer involvement in drug dealing with warlords in Afghanistan. In December 2003 Russian authorities seized thousands of copies of Litvinenko's book [AP, 12 Jan. 2004]. In 2004 Litvinenko alleged to the New York Times that a secret KGB laboratory specializing in poison was still operational in the FSB.

The Poisonings

The bizarre series of events leading to Aleksandr Litvinenko's agonizing death by radioisotope poisoning began on 7 October 2006, when Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a leading critic of the Russian government and in particular the war in Chechnya, was shot dead in Moscow. Litvinenko, then living in London, launched his own investigation and claimed that she was assassinated because of her work.

On 1 November 2006, Litvinenko had two meetings at public eating establishments in London with foreign contacts interested in discussing his investigations. He met first with Russian businessman Andrei Lugovoy at the Pine Bar of the Mayfair Millennium Hotel near Grosvenor Square at 4 pm. Unexpectedly a second Russian, Dmitry Kovtun, accompanied Lugovoy. Later he met with Italian academic Mario Scaramella at the Itsu Sushi restaurant in Piccadilly. Scaramella had been investigating FSB-related espionage, and had reportedly received documents about the Politkovskaya's death. He gave as the reason for the meeting wanting to discuss e-mail death threats aimed at both of them. Later that evening, after returning to his Muswell Hill home on north London, Litvinenko became ill complaining of gastrointestinal distress. He was admitted to is admitted to Barnet General Hospital.

Litvinenko's condition deteriorated over the next three weeks. On 11 November Litvinenko described himself as being in "very bad shape" after a "serious poisoning" on the BBC Russian Service. Litvinenko was transferred to University College Hospital, in central London, on 17 November as his condition continued to worsen. With suspicions of a criminal attack growing he was placed under armed police guard. On 19 November it was reported that poisoning by thallium (a highly toxic chemical once used to poison rats) was to blame.

As Litvinenko's condition became increasingly grave he was transferred to intensive care at University College Hospital on 20 November. Photos were released showing how he had suffered dramatic weight and hair loss (see image below). Scotland Yard's counter-terrorism unit took over the investigation into what made him ill as uncertainty about toxicological test results continued. Early measurements of Litvinenko for radioactivity, suggested by his hair loss, made with a Geiger-Muller counter were negative.

Over the next three days doubt about the diagnosis of thallium poisoning increased and Litvinenko's condition was described as being "critically ill". He suffered a heart attck on the night of Wednesday, November 22. The next day, Thursday evening, he died. Scotland Yard issued a statement saying that they were now investigating "an unexplained death".

Litvineko on deathbed

Photo released by the family of Aleksandr
Litvinenko showing him in his hospital bed, at the
University College Hospital in central London,
Monday 20 November 2006.

Finally, after Aleksandr Litvinenko's demise, the cause of his illness was finally identified. He had been poisoned by the radioisotope polonium-210. Polonium-210 is an unusual radioactive material in that it is an almost pure alpha-emitter, producing negligible quantities of gamma rays which accompany most other types of radiaoactive decay. Unlike gamma and beta particles, alpha particles are strongly charged and travel very short ranges through matter. This makes polonium-210 completely harmless unless ingested, and impossible to detect with routine radiation monitoring equipment.

The diagnosis of polonium was a remarkable discovery. It was not only the first case of fatal polonium poisoning in history, it was also the first case of someone dying from the acute effects of alpha radiation from any source. Polonium-210 has a short half-life, 138.38 days. This means that the material used to poison Litvinenko had to have been produced in the relatively recent past - it could not, for example, have been obtained from an old disused radioisotope source. Such sources using other radioisotopes, like cesium-137 and cobalt-60, have long been a concern for their potential use in terrorism and other criminal actions, and have been the cause of serious accidental exposures in the past, most notably in the Goiânia, Brazil disaster in September 1987 that significantly exposed 244 people and killed 2. Although mathematically it would be possible to have a toxic amount still left from an initial enormous quantity after as long as a few years, it does not make a plausible theory of the case that Litvinenko's attackers acquired their material so long ago.

Internal radioisotope contamination typically has a delay of several days or weeks before the victim becomes ill since it is not the presence of the radioisotope itself that causes injury (unlike chemical poisons) but the damage due to the radiation it emits. It takes time for the radiation dose to reach a level at which injury becomes evident. That Litvinenko became ill within mere hours of being poisoned indcates that he had ingested a massive dose, many times the minimal lethal amount.

The discovery that polonium poisoning was responsible for Litvinenko's death triggered a wide-ranging search for polonium contamination, starting with sites that he had visited around the day he first became ill and people who had met with him. Positive tests led to checks of many other people present at those sites, and sites that people who had met Litvinenko had visited. Soon the investigations found polonium traces at several locations in England, on aircraft, and sites in Germany and Russia. In all the sites where contamination was detectable it was present at such low levels that there were no health concerns.

Retracing Litvinenko's movements the police have found contamination at sites he visited after his 1 November afternoon meeting with Andrei Lugovoy at the Pine Bar, but not before, pinpointing it as the likely time of the poisoning.

Dmitry Kovtun who was present at Lugovoy's meeting with Litvinenko was reported to have become seriously ill from polonium poisoning on 7 December. Lugovoy himself was reported ill two days later, but apparently was not as seriously ill as Kovtun. These delayed illnesses are consistent with ingestion of much smaller amounts of polonium, perhaps a sub-lethal dose. Mario Scaramella was found to have polonium in his system, but at levels that cause no immediate health concern.

Traces of polonium have turned up at several locations in Germany, where Kovtun arrived on 28 October on a flight from Moscow. Contamination turned up in two cars in which he rode while in Germany, as well as his ex-wife's apartment in Hamburg where he stayed before travelling to London.

Discussion of polonium poisoning.

[AP, 12 Jan. 2004] Vladimir Isachenkov, Moscow Court Sentences 2 Men in Bombings, The Associated Press, Monday, January 12, 2004; 7:19 AM.