Nov 25 2006

How To Kill A Spy

I have to admit this sensational story about the ex-Soviet spy and his being poisoned by Polonium-210 is a real strange story. But we do need to keep perspective, which the media will not do – they are not educated enough to keep from going on wildly exaggerated trips of fancy. Clearly Alexnader Litvenenko died from posioning from Polonium-210. The question is why. First off, I find the poison spray theory ridiculous. There are numerous faster poisons which are hard to detect, and there are even more ways to cover an assasintation as an accident or another crime. Assassins would not want someone alive for days grabbing news headlines, pointing fingers. And they would not use a substance that is rare and traceable.

Polonium is a chemical element in the periodic table that has the symbol Po and atomic number 84. A rare radioactive metalloid, polonium is chemically similar to tellurium and bismuth and occurs in uranium ores. Polonium had been studied for possible use in heating spacecraft.

Polonium has no stable isotopes and has over 50 potential isotopes. Polonium is extremely toxic and highly radioactive.

This isotope of polonium is an alpha emitter that has a half-life of 138.39 days. A milligram of polonium-210 emits as many alpha particles as 5 grams of radium. A great deal of energy is released by its decay with a half a gram quickly reaching a temperature above 750 K.

OK, so Polonium is highly radioactive and decays quickly, burning the air around it with its heat. And it is only disolvable in acids. So any assassin would be at risk of dying themselves, not to mention I would think the food would start showing a serious reaction as it was burnt from heat and acid. So let’s just hokld off with the poisoning theory because it makes little to no sense. With thousands of other options available no assassin would use Polonium-210 as a silent, undetectable killing agent (the assassin’s weapon of choice, in a general sense).

So that leaves us two logical alternatives to investigate. The first is where Litvenenko accidentally comes in conctact with the Polonium-210, and the scenario where this is a self inflicted wound meant to garner wide spread media attentions. Let’s take the last option first. Litvenenko was a vocal critic of Putin and the current Soviet government. He was a self proclaimed ‘dissident’ I believe. He was investigating other mysterious deaths of Russian journalists investigating government corruption. And he was an ex-spy. The deliberate suicide for show theory would only hold water if Litvenenko was going to die anyway. I would suggest the discovery of a terminal illness would support this kind of theory. The problem is the Polonium-210 could have destroyed evidence of some cancers.

That leaves the ainadvertent contact (not due to assassination). The authorities seem pretty sure at this early stage Litvenenko came in contact at the Suhsi-bar. That would make it hard to come up with a plausible scenario for contact that was inadvertent. But it is possible. There are possibilities that Litvenenko was spying for money in London, he was a mercenary spy. Polonium-210 is used in certain space system applications so a space system element that had Polonium-210 residue could be the infecting agent. It is hard to believe such contact would be made at a Suhsi bar – but it is not out of the realm of possibilities the place was a contact-transfer site. It is interesting Polonium is used in some Russian space systems. We all know there is a black market for space system technology.

Of course, it all could be as advertised, an assassin sending a clear message to Putin and Russian dissidant voices. Organized crime has taken over in places and the amount of money available to curruption is staggering. But I think there is something much more complex going on here. This wil definitely be one we have to watch and see what happens. I for one am simply not going to fall for one theory over another at this early stage. The body has not even been examined yet.

Update: More here with this interesting introduction to Litvenenko:

But even a man whose job was to fight organised crime and counter subversion in the name of the Kremlin would have been surprised at an event as mired in low chicanery, high drama and cold-blooded cunning as his own passing. The spy novel saga of the life and death of the 43-year-old secret agent turned vehement critic of Vladimir Putin entered its most extraordinary phase yesterday when it was revealed that he died from exposure to a radioactive poison.

This would tell me Litvenenko had plenty of enemies across Russia – not just Putin. But what if Litvenenko was scheming with some of these folks to take down Putin? What if Litvenenko had turned back to his spying trade and something went horribly wrong with a plan that involved Polonium-210? I would not be jumping to conclusions at this stage of the investigation.

Update: You know, it is telling that a PR firm was brought into the situation long before any real hint of an assassination was discovered:

Initially, Mr Litvinenko spent 10 days at Barnet Hospital in north London. Staff put his extreme vomiting down to a violent stomach bug before moving him to a cancer ward when his white blood cell count dropped to zero. Poisoning was only investigated when he was transferred to University College London Hospital on 17 November and toxicology tests revealed small traces of thallium, known as the “secret agent’s poison” ­ it is odourless, tasteless and lethal in small quantities.

Behind the scenes, the exiled oligarch and arch-critic of Mr Putin, Boris Berezovsky, called in his PR agency, Bell Pottinger, to handle media inquiries. It was Bell Pottinger which distributed what will become the defining image of Alexander Litvinenko ­ a photograph of his shrunken and yellowed features taken in his hospital bed with wires to a bank of medical machines trailing from his chest.

It would seem there was a lot of stagecraft around this death. Like I said above – I would like to know if Litvenenko had a terminal disease prior to the ‘poisining’. That would be key for me to believe this was not an elaborate political stunt. The guy started to take the side of a man being investigated by the Russians, and then blames all Chechen attacks on wild conpsiracy theories like those here in the US who claim Bush and Cheney demolished the twin towers – that there were not terrorists on 9-11.

At a press conference he accused the FSB, then headed by Mr Putin, of ordering him to assassinate Mr Berezovsky. In turn charged with corruption by Moscow, Mr Litvinenko fled to London and continued his onslaught with a book, The FSB Blows Up Russia, in which he accused his former employers of murdering 300 people in 1999 by demolishing apartment blocks with explosives and blaming the attacks on Chechen rebels.

A series of further allegations were made, some of which ­ such as the claim that the Kremlin had ordered the Beslan massacre ­ were seen as undermining his credibility.

Excuse me if I am unconvinced and unimpressed. The same man he claims he was ordered to assassinate has a PR firm at the ready when he dies? How convenient.

3 responses so far

3 Responses to “How To Kill A Spy”

  1. Mike M. says:

    I’m not so sure that murder can be ruled out. This is just the sort of James-Bond-ish stunt that the KGB/FSB likes……particularly for the terror effect.

  2. Jean says:

    I agree with Mike M. Putin is very scary and every day he is in power is another day closer to the old Soviet Union ways…including terror. This is right out of the old Stalin play-book. Sometimes they don’t sign their work but when they want to send a message they send it. It’s more than a murder, it’s a threat to any other would-be squealers.
    Also, I would rule out the suicide theory. He could have made a different kind of suicide look like the work of the Kremlin, but radioactive poisoning, a slow and painful death? Also, while it’s true, of course, radiation can shrink tumors, would a large dose of polonium 210 which wasn’t focused on the tumor be able to do that?

  3. Ken says:

    America has been aggressively attempting to encircle Russia since the purported end of the Cold War. It’s actions encouraging
    anti-Russianism in Georgia, in Ukraine, through expanding Nato,
    against Serbia in the Balkans are reprehensible. Its encouragement
    of fifth-column dual loyalists like Berezovsky, Guzinski and
    Khodorevsky stealing from the Russian treasure is abominable.

    Let’s hope Putin continues to protect Russia against further
    weakening; I believe he is encouraging larger families
    for ethnic Russians as well, a healthy sign.