Mar 19 2008

Litvinenko And Pollonium Resurfaces, Was This WMD Smuggling?

Important Update Below

I have posted extensively on the Litvinenko case of Polonium-210 poisoning ever since the case broke. I and a few other folks have resisted the flimsy stories laid in the UK and US media surrounding the news that a highly valuable and dangerous radioactive elements surfaced all over London. To me the evidence looked to be less the trail of assassination against a two-bit thug and more a case of a smuggling effort in nuclear arms technology gone awry.

And let’s be clear here – Polonium-210 is best applied to mass assassinations, as in Weapons Of Mass Destruction (WMDs). You would no more assassinate Litvinenko with the large amounts of Po-210 discovered running through London two Octobers ago than you would use a battleship to kill a shark. Po-210, as Litvinenko sadly demonstrated, is very useful as the core of a nuclear dirty bomb attack. 10 millionths of a gram (less than a few grains of sweetener in 1 gram paper packet) can kill a person within a month. Can people smell and taste their sweeteners when they rip open a paper packet? If that packet was powdered Po-210 then you would be facing a death just like Litvinenko’s – that’s all it takes.

But even more concerning is the role Po-210 plays in full up nuclear bombs. It is a key element in the trigger device which detonates the bomb (see here for example). What if Litvinenko and Berezovsky were actually aiding Islamic extremists in obtaining the grand-daddy of all WMDs? This scenario is highly plausible, but was ignored in the media in favor of the Berezovsky produced theories of assassination from Putin’s Russia. This is why this story has concerned me – the worst case scenario is frightening and has never been addressed, let alone proven to be unfounded.

In London in October 2006 there were three incidents of Po-210 transiting London hotels, where multiples rooms showed the mark of the material. Was it one source bringing in a shipment coming in and then being broken up into smaller segments and going out multiple paths? Or was it the other way around – multiple smaller shipments coming in and being combined? One thing is clear, only a few grains of dust-sized particles killed Litvinenko. You do not need three shipments to move this microscopic amount, and you cannot divide it or transport these amounts as the trail shows.

Anyway, one of the other folks who never bought into the hype was Edward Jay Epstein, who is now reporting out months of investigation and interviews – with some surprising and not so surprising results (depending on your views of the matter). First off, note how the entire story was being spun by Berezovsky’s media empire.

During his {Litvinenko’s} stay at the hospital, Litvinenko’s condition continually worsened. The initial diagnosis was that he had been poisoned by thallium, a non-radioactive toxin used in Russian rat poison. Since the KGB had reportedly used thallium as a poison in the Cold War era, the theory gained traction in the press that Litvinenko might have been the victim of the FSB. The main, if not only, source for this revenge-murder scenario were people funded by Mr. Berezovsky. A Web site in France, which had received financing from Mr. Berezovsky’s foundation, circulated a report that there was a Russian “hit list” that had Litvinenko’s name on it. Meanwhile, a Chechen website, also supported by Mr. Berezovsky’s foundation, ran stories such as “FSB Attempted to Murder Russian Defector in London.”

Why would you need to spin the story and control it as a media event is controlled unless you needed to divert attention and cover something up? It was this very act of controlling the story through paid surrogates that indicated to me this was not a grieving friend of an assassinated dissident, this was someone working frantically to direct the media in a specific direction. Which the naive and pliable media dutifully did. But note the extremist Chechen connections Berezovsky and Litvinenko both had. After his death, Litvinenko was hailed a martyred hero of Islam – not something bestowed on just anyone, especially Westerners.

So keep an eye on how Berezovsky set the propaganda spin about assassination well before the ‘smoking gun’ of Po-210 was discovered. Also, note that Litvinenko’s accusations against Putin only came after he died – why not before hand? Why wait until he died to make the claim?

As Litvinenko’s condition grew critical, Alex Goldfarb, the executive director of Mr. Berezovsky’s foundation, prepared for Litvinenko’s end by writing out his “deathbed” statement, which, according to Mr. Goldfarb, was drawn from statements Litvinenko had dictated to him.

A few hours after Litvinenko died on November 23, 2006, Mr. Goldfarb arranged a press conference and released the sensational deathbed statement accusing Mr. Putin of the poisoning.

In my view the delay was obvious. While it would have been more powerful to have Litvinenko utter the claim with his dying breathe, the fact is Berezovsky, Litvinenko and the others had no idea how exposed they were. If this was a smuggling ring that basically had an accident through Po-210 exposure, then they would want to delay the accusations until they could make sure they were not going to get caught in a lie. Thallium was clearly not the culprit and so all thallium-Putin lines would be a waste of time. And if Litvinenko survived, the last thing they would want to have come out was the Po-210. This was the second signal to me the too well orchestrated PR blitz was more cover up than anything else.

If my friend was dying and I though it was due to an assassination attempt I would be holding press conferences all day long pushing that story. That is not how this played out.

Just two hours before Litvinenko died, an unscripted surprise developed in the story: The hospital discovered that he had not been poisoned with thallium. Instead, lab tests showed that he had in his body one of the world’s rarest and most tightly controlled radioactive isotopes, polonium-210.

Even so, as a declassified Los Alamos document notes, the detection of polonium-210 remains “a key indication of a nuclear weapons program in its early stages.” So when polonium-210 was detected in Iraq in 1991, Iran in 2004, and North Korea in October 2006, the concern was that these countries might be trying to build a nuclear weapon.

One truly has to wonder why when Po-210 is found in London transiting through hotels which were all visited by Alexander Litvinenko – and in the offices of one Boris Berezovsky himself – would the WMD angle disappear and only assassination be deemed plausible? Here is my first post on Berezovsky from Nov 25th, 2006, the post where I suspected Berezovsky was a key element of the story on Nov 26th, 2006 and the post when it was learned the Po-210 trail led right to Berezovsky from Nov 27th, 2006. In my mind a corrupt Oligarch working to destabilize Russia with strong connections to extremists Chechens (you know, the kind that act as body guards to Bin Laden and Zawahiri) and a trail of nuclear weapons material in quantities well above that required to kill one man (and bloody expensive to boot) does not point to assassination. But hey, what do I know?

But back to what Epstein has recently discovered:

The Kremlin is not known to be forthcoming with secret documents but, in this instance, I was asking to see British, not Russian secrets. Even so, obtaining access to them was not easy. By the time I arrived in Moscow in late November 2007, the Russian Prosecutor General had consigned this (as well as other high-profile investigations) to a new unit called the National Investigative Committee. It was headed by Alexander Bastrykin, a former law professor and a deputy attorney general from St. Petersburg.

What immediately caught my attention was that it did not include the basic documents in any murder case, such as the postmortem autopsy report. In lieu of it, Detective Inspector Robert Lock of the Metropolitan Police Service at the New Scotland Yard wrote that he was “familiar with the autopsy results” and that Litvinenko had died of “Acute Radiation Syndrome.”

Like Sherlock Holmes’s clue of the dog that didn’t bark, this omission was illuminating in itself. After all, Britain and Russia had embarked on a joint investigation of the Litvinenko case, which, as far the Russians were concerned, involved the polonium-210 contamination of the Russian citizens who had contact with Litvinenko. They needed to determine when, how, and under what circumstances Litvinenko had been exposed to the radioactive nuclear component. There had already been a leak to a British newspaper that toxicologists had found two separate “spikes” of polonium-210 in Litvinenko’s body, which would indicate that he had been exposed at two different times to polonium-210. Such a multiple exposure could mean that Litvinenko was in contact with the polonium-210 days, or even weeks, before he fatally ingested it. To answer the “how” question, they wanted to see the postmortem slides of Litvinenko’s lungs, digestive track, and body. These photos could show if Litvinenko had inhaled, swallowed, or gotten the polonium-210 into the blood stream through an open cut.

This is very important, as is the dosage he ingested. I have been of the belief, based on eyewitness accounts from Litvinenko’s wife of his last days, Litvinenko inhaled the Polonium – which would put the tea theory into serious trouble, and point to more P0-210 in London than has been reported. Here were my observations at the time:

I also find the fact that Litvinenko’s burns showed up in his mucus membranes all over his body a telling clue which indicates to me he inhaled the material as well as ingested it:

Marina Litvinenko: Later I was told that not only the mucus membranes in his mouth, but everywhere in his body were horribly inflamed and covered with blisters.

I am sure those with a medical background who read this blog will correct me, but it would seem Litvinenko ran into a cloud of this stuff when he was poisoned.

If swallowed then the mucus membranes would see the same damage as all other tissues. It would be the throat and GI tract that would be most damaged. So what would this evidence do to the Tea and Tea Cup theory? Here is the rub. The tea cup and pot were found weeks after the incident. And the tea pot levels were way too high, in my opinion, to be consistent with Litvinenko’s slow death. Levels that discolored ceramics and melted tea leaves would have killed Litvinenko in a matter of days – not weeks. Which leaves only one possible answer – the pot and cup were planted later at the Millenium Pine Bar as a way to throw off the investigation.

As Epstein points out, the autopsy data is key in determining what scenario fits the evidence. And the fact it is still under wraps is very telling. There is no national security secrets that would be exposed by having the autopsy – everyone knows what Litvinenko died from. But there would be damage to the UK if the autopsy doesn’t fit the media stories – and to me that is the only reason to keep the report under wraps. The only secret it can be hiding is that the conventional propaganda surrounding Litvinenko’s death is not scientifically possible given the autopsy. Why else hide it?

And contrary to the conventional view that Russian businessman Lugovoi, who met with Litvinenko many times and had either the second or third most deadly Po-210 poisoning of this affair, is the center of the Po-210 trail, it is actually Litvinenko who is consistently linked to the trail:

From the list of the sites supplied to the Russian investigators, it is clear that a number of them coincide with Mr. Lugovoi’s movements in October and November 2006, but the direction is less certain. When Mr. Lugovoi flew from Moscow to London on October 15 on Transaero Airlines, no radiation traces were found on his plane. It was only after he had met with Litvinenko at Erinys International on October 16 that traces were found on the British Airways planes on which he later flew, suggesting to the Russian investigators that the trail began in London and then went to Moscow. They also found that in London the trail was inexplicably erratic, with traces that were found, as they noted, “in a place where a person stayed for a few minutes, but were absent in the place where he was staying for several hours, although these events follow one after another.” When the Russian investigators asked the British for a comprehensive list of all the sites tested, the British refused, saying it was not “in the interest of their investigation.” This led the Russian investigators to suspect that the British might be truncating the trail to “fit their case.”

Litvinenko, who was probably the best witness to that day’s events, initially said he believed that he had been poisoned at his lunch with Mr. Scaramella at the Itsu restaurant. Even one week after he had been in the hospital, he gave a bedside BBC radio interview in which he still pointed to that meeting, saying Mr. Scaramella “gave me some papers…. after several hours I felt sick with symptoms of poisoning.” At no time did he even mention his later meeting at the Pine Bar with Mr. Lugovoi.

Not only did the Itsu have traces of polonium-210, but Mr. Scaramella was contaminated. Since Mr. Scaramella had just arrived from Italy and had not met with either Mr. Lugovoi or Mr. Kovtun, Litvinenko was the only one among those people known to be exposed to polonium-210 who could have contaminated him. Which means that Litvinenko had been tainted by the polonium-210 before he met Mr. Lugovoi at the Pine Bar. Litvinenko certainly could have been contaminated well before his meeting with Mr. Scaramella. Several nights earlier, he had gone to the Hey Joe club in Mayfair. According to its manager, Litvinenko was seated in the VIP lap-dancing cubicle that later tested positive for polonium-210.

I have always said the timeline of the trail was the key. The fact is Litvinenko could just as easily been the vector dropping Po-210 all over the place. If you map the trail to Litvinenko you get a much higher association than with Lugovoi. You can multiple scenarios over the trail and contacts – but one stands out:

The Russian investigators concluded that the all the radiation traces provided in the British report, including the “high level” cited by “Scientist A,” could have emanated from a single event, such as a leak — by design or accident — at the October 16 meeting at the security company in Berezovsky’s building. But they could not find “a single piece of evidence which would confirm the charge brought against A.K. Lugovoi.”

This goes back to the three incidents of Po-210 transiting London. The October 16th meeting is the only one which can account for all of the pattern – including Lugovoi’s business associate Dimitri Kovtun’s trail in Germany – which happened independently of Lugovoi’s travels.

With all that said, the case is still an enigma and the missing evidence – which could be public – is critical in solving the mystery. The fact it is not public is more damning to the UK than Russia. Epstein notes that it is the UK who has the most to lose if this incident was fully vetted and all leads followed to their logical conclusions:

The Russian investigation could also have veered into Litvinenko’s activities in the shadowy world of security consultants, including his dealings with the two security companies in Mr. Berezovsky’s building, Erinys International and Titon International, and his involvement with Mr. Scaramella in an attempt to plant incriminating evidence on a suspected nuclear-component smuggler — a plot for which Mr. Scaramella was jailed after his phone conversations with Litvinenko were intercepted by the Italian national police.

The Russians had asked for more information about radiation traces at the offices of these security companies, and Mr. Lugovoi had said that at one of them, Erinys, he had been offered large sums of money to provide compromising information about Russian officials. Mr. Kovtun, who also attended that meeting, backs up Mr. Lugovoi’s story. Such charges had the potential for embarrassing not only the security companies that had employed Litvinenko, as well as former Scotland Yard and British intelligence officers, but the British government, since it had provided Litvinenko with a passport under the alias “Edwin Redwald Carter” to travel to parts of the former Soviet Union.

It has been confirmed Berezovsky and Litvinenko were paid to support UK authorities. It is also clear they had their own agendas and were not above breaking laws to get what they wanted. It is very possible the two Russians were playing the UK, pretending to be working for them while actually the whole thing was a cover up for their own plans. That is the most optimistic scenario. The really bad scenario is the one where the UK knew about the Po-210 shipments and were working with Berezovsky to cover up what was happening with the whole Putin assassination spin.

None of these ‘excuses’ fly in the face of what happened. Back to Edward Jay Epstein to get back to the core of this story:

What it obscured is the elephant-in-the-room that haunts the case: the fact that a crucial component for building an early-stage nuke was smuggled into London in 2006. Was it brought in merely as a murder weapon or as part of a transaction on the international arms market?

After considering all the evidence, my hypothesis is that Litvinenko came in contact with a polonium-210 smuggling operation and was, either wittingly or unwittingly, exposed to it. Litvinenko had been a person of interest to the intelligence services of many countries, including Britain’s MI-6, Russia’s FSB, America’s CIA (which rejected his offer to defect in 2000), and Italy’s SISMI, which was monitoring his phone conversations. His murky operations, whatever their purpose, involved his seeking contacts in one of the most lawless areas in the former Soviet Union, the Pankisi Gorge, which had become a center for arms smuggling. He had also dealt with people accused of everything from money laundering to trafficking in nuclear components. These activities may have brought him, or his associates, in contact with a sample of polonium-210, which then, either by accident or by design, contaminated and killed him.

To unlock the mystery, Britain must make available its secret evidence, including the autopsy report, the comprehensive list of places in which radiation was detected, and the surveillance reports of Litvinenko and his associates. If Britain considers it too sensitive for public release, it should be turned over to an international commission of inquiry. The stakes are too high here to leave unresolved the mystery of the smuggled polonium-210.

I agree – though there is no way the autopsy contains anything of risk to national security outside the fact it won’t fit the spin forming the conventional wisdom. Inconvenient truths need to be exposed more than any others. What concerns me more is the naiveté of the media and the citizens of the UK. Parts to a nuclear weapon are shipped through one of the largest Cities in the West (London) and the people are lulled into believing this was a murder, not something associated with WMD smuggling. This is not something we can just let slip by. If we can investigate water boarding of terrorists, who the NSA and FISA work to intercept terrorists plans for attacking us, how the CIA moves enemies caught on the battlefield for interrogation, then we can investigate why Po-210 was being shipped through London during the fall (and some say even the summer) of 2006.

Important Update: I want to note one other new item Epstein reports which also dashes the entire Lugovoi-assassin theory. One of the last places made public that had Po-210 contamination was the “Gentlemen’s” club called Hey Joe. Not until today did I learn who was associated with the part of the trail, and where it fell in the time line:

Litvinenko certainly could have been contaminated well before his meeting with Mr. Scaramella. Several nights earlier, he had gone to the Hey Joe club in Mayfair. According to its manager, Litvinenko was seated in the VIP lap-dancing cubicle that later tested positive for polonium-210.

Whatever else, the trail doesn’t lie. It seems the only way for this location to be contaminated was by Litvinenko – before Lugovoi was even in country. Lugovoi came into London the night before he met Litvinenko – late enough that he probably went straight to the hotel with his family. Kovtun came in the day of the meeting in the Pine Bar from Germany (where he was leaving a trail of his own – possibly started two weeks prior on Oct 16th, the last time Litvinenko, Lugovoi and Kovtun were all together (Litvinenko and Lugovoi met a week earlier in London – and yes there was Po-210 detected). So for Litvinenko to be contaminated and leaving traced many nights prior means he was personally exposed before the Pine Bar. Which again makes the Pine Bar assassination theory very, very weak (and possibly contrived).

7 responses so far

7 Responses to “Litvinenko And Pollonium Resurfaces, Was This WMD Smuggling?”

  1. crosspatch says:

    Couple of things, I dodn’t read his blog and maybe I missed it in the quick skimming here, but I don’t see any reference to the contamination in Germany. That needs to be kept in mind.

    Also, put the notion of possible accidental poisoning in context with the recent poisoning of an individual in Las Vegas by ricin. He apparently accidentally poisoned himself and inhaled it.

    I think it is quite possible they were helping the Chechen rebels obtain polonium. Boris not directly involved but possibly acting as banker for it all.

  2. AJStrata says:


    I agree, the Germany trail should have been included. The problem is we get the trail in bits and pieces without dates or directions or people present. For example, this is the first time I heard that it was Litvinenko who went to the Hey Joe club, and that it was days prior to the ‘poisoning’. Clearly he was contaminated BEFORE the meeting in the pine bar – and before Lugovoi was even in London.

  3. VinceP1974 says:

    Good article and work.

    What tells me that the cover story of “Russia assainated him with the weapon of pollonium” was BS is basically this question: why in the world would anyone think of killing someone with this substance.. not to mention the Russian government. I’m sure you have the same increduilty that Russia would kill someone with the stuff.. blowing up his apartment would raise less eyebrows compared to the eyebrows that have been raised by this guy’s death.

    I have no idea what’s going on.. but I bet its roots reach deep into Iran.

  4. kathie says:

    AJ did you read this at “Northeast Intelligence” ?
    The Threat of Nuclear Attack

    By Sean Osborne, Associate Director, Military Affairs

  5. turboruss says:

    Hi AJ, that might be interesting for you:

  6. djhabakkuk says:

    Dear AJStrata,

    Having read with great interest a number of your postings on the Litvinenko affair, I thought you might be interested in a piece of mine that Yuri Mamchur has posted at his ‘Russia Blog’.


    It bears on a puzzle about which you posted repeatedly — that of where and when Litvinenko is supposed to have been poisoned. I have taken a closer look at the various accounts of Gordievsky and his fellow London-based ex-Chekist, and I think the results are quite interesting.

  7. AJStrata says:


    Thanks for the link, I look forward to reading your article.