Litvinenko Murder Saga Continues

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The recent flurry in the comments section over the polonium poisoning of Aleksandr Litvinenko has inspired me to revisit the issue. When I last left the case, it was reveled that Litvinenko was on retainer with MI6. Andrei Lugovoi, Britain’s chief suspect in the crime, was listed as a Duma candidate on the LDPR ticket. Now Deputy Lugovoi’s goal was to get the immunity that comes with the seat. Lugovoi didn’t need it. The Russian Constitution prohibits extradition, and the Russians weren’t looking like their they were going to fold anyway.

Nevertheless, Lugovoi was clearly looking for a little extra krysha in case some behind the scenes deal was hammered out. Zhirinovskii’s LDPR was a good pick. The case is the kinda thing the flamboyant Zhirik loves, and that is despite the fact the LDPR (and all major Russian political parties) are known to sell their Duma seats to the highest bidder. Whether Lugovoi dolled out cash for the privilege of getting one of the forty coveted LDPR seats is unknown. It’s likely that adding Lugovoi to the ticket was a PR move on Zhirik’s part. Not to mention a way to stick it to the Brits.

Here we are in April 2008 and the fascination with the Litvinenko case doesn’t seem to be going away. There is no real reason why it should. The case is just flat out weird. And it’s getting weirder. On April 1, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution urging the Kremlin to aid the British in their investigation. House Resolution 154, authored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lethtinen (R, FL-18th). The resolution is fitting for an April Fool’s joke. With a sliding economy, a war seemingly without end, and litany of other domestic issues, one would think the House has something better to do. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to think so.

Litvinenko’s wife Marina is continuing her efforts to get her husband’s murder solved. And who could blame her given the circumstances and the aftermath of her husband’s death. In a plea published in the London Times, Mrs. Litvinenko is doubtful Lugovoi will ever be extradited, saying “I cannot wait for another ten years for a slim chance that their approach would bear fruit.” Ten years? Try never. She understands this as much as anyone else and instead of urging the British government to issue yet another extradition request, she rather have them open the investigation to the public. “If I cannot get justice,” she writes, “then at least I need the full truth.”

Perhaps. I’m increasingly convinced that the “full truth” will never be revealed in this case. Simply because the “truth” became so blackened by both the British and the Russians as soon as the case became a diplomatic fiasco. So much of the available information has been subject to what Nick Davies calls “flat earth news” i.e. “A story appears to be true. It is widely accepted as true. It becomes a heresy to suggest that it is not true – even if it is riddled with falsehood, distortion and propaganda.”

“Flat earth news” aptly describes the Litvinenko case. The question of who killed him is so mired in duel of diplomatic dick swinging between the “rule of law” British versus shadowy “elements of the Russian government” (the British version) and a conniving Boris Berezovsky and an “imperialist” Britain using the Litvinenko case in a broader effort to undermine Russian sovereignty (the Russian version). Finally, the biggest flat earth notion of all is the canonization of Litvinenko as some sort of dissident martyr. A LexisNexis search for use of “Litvinenko” and “dissident” in the same sentence reveals 597 stories. Even more interesting is that the two words appear only in five articles before his poisoning in November 2006.

Creeping from the mire is a theory that Litvinenko was poisoned by accidentally coming into contact with or being personally involved in a polonium smuggling ring. This is the line Edward Jay Epstein is peddling his article “The Specter that Haunts the Death of Litvinenko” in the New York Sun. Granted, the Sun is, as Marina Litvinenko called it, “a third rate paper.” But Epstein has made the Litvinenko Case a pet project, doing more investigation into it than any other Western journalist. You can find a his thoughts on the case on his blog. The question then is if Epstein’s investigation is so serious and thorough then why publish it in a proto-tabloid like the Sun? I think the answer is simple. Epstein’s take on the Litvinenko Case completely diverges from the accepted narrative you find in every paper that has covered the story. Perhaps, he suggests, the earth isn’t as flat as we think.

Epstein’s article is worth a read. Not so much because he has any concrete evidence linking Litvinenko’s murder to polonium smuggling. In fact, his evidence is no more solid that any other journalists’ account. The article’s value is in his questioning of the accepted and unchallenged assumptions about the British investigation, the chain of events, Litvinenko’s movement around London, the role of Berezovsky, and why no one seems to be concerned about finding out where exactly the polonium came from, especially given the global concern for possible nuclear terrorism. The British criminal indictment of Andrei Lugovoi has obscured the very question of nuclear terrorism. Epstein writes,

In terms of a public relations tactic, it resulted in a brilliant success by putting the blame on Russian stonewalling for the failure to solve the mystery. 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?

This leads him to his own hypothesis:

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.

The Russian media gleefully jumped all over Epstein’s article. Andrei Lugovoi quickly voiced his agreement with Epstein’s finding in a press conference. “I was pleasantly surprised that a foreign journalist carried out the first independent investigation into the “Litvinenko Case” and made, in my view, the correct conclusions.”

Who knows whether Epstein is right or wrong, or I should say, no more right or wrong than anyone else. But at least he’s stirring the proverbial pot.