Poison with a familiar scent

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David Wise writes frequently about intelligence and espionage. He is the author of "Spy: The Inside Story of How the FBI's Robert Hanssen Betrayed America."

THE COLD WAR was supposed to have ended 15 years ago, but the death in London of Alexander V. Litvinenko presents Scotland Yard with more than your average murder mystery. The former Russian spy and fierce critic of the Kremlin was poisoned. But how and by whom?

The tale began Nov. 1 at itsu, a busy London sushi restaurant near Piccadilly Circus that features a Madame Butterfly Zinger, Squirrels Dreams and something called Bang Bang Free Range Chicken. Poison is definitely not on the menu.

Litvinenko, an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and a KGB successor agency, had lunch at itsu with an Italian contact. Within hours, Litvinenko felt sick. Last week, he was in a London hospital, guarded by Scotland Yard. He died Thursday night.


Doctors and toxicologists at first thought that the Russian exile was a victim of poisoning with thallium, the same stuff the CIA once plotted to use to make Fidel Castro’s beard fall out. They subsequently suspected radioactive thallium or some other poison. A British health official said last week that Litvinenko had died of a large dose of polonium 210, a radioactive isotope, and British Home Secretary John Reid said police were checking for radiation “at a number of locations.” Scotland Yard reported that traces of polonium 210 were found at the sushi restaurant, a hotel where Litvenenko had met two Russians and in his home.

Suspicion immediately focused on the Russian Federal Security Service, the KGB successor agency for which Litvinenko had worked in Moscow. In 2000, he broke with the spy agency, accusing it of various crimes. He then fled to London, where he was granted political asylum. His 2003 book, “The FSB Blows up Russia,” accused the security service of bombing apartment houses in Moscow so the Russians could invade Chechnya again, a charge that enraged the Kremlin.

At the time he was poisoned, Litvinenko was investigating the Oct. 7 murder in Moscow of Anna Politkovskaya, a crusading journalist and leading critic of the Kremlin’s policies in Chechnya.

Although there is no solid evidence tying the Russian security service to the poison plot -- a Kremlin official called such suspicion “pure nonsense” -- the KGB has a track record of using poison to eliminate opponents, most notably in the 1978 poison umbrella case. In that episode, Moscow assisted in the murder of Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident, who was jabbed in the thigh on Waterloo Bridge in London with an umbrella tip containing ricin, a lethal extract of the castor bean. Four days later, Markov was dead.

The poisoning of Litvinenko has as many twists and turns as a plot by Agatha Christie, who had worked as a pharmacist and used thallium as the murder weapon in “The Pale Horse.” Friends of the Russian say they do not suspect Litvinenko’s sushi luncheon partner, Mario Scaramella, an Italian academic who is a consultant to an official inquiry in Rome into KGB activities in Italy.

Scaramella said Tuesday in Rome that he flew to London to meet with Litvinenko and turn over documents that identify individuals allegedly involved in the slaying of Politkovskaya, who was shot in her apartment building. The documents also were said to contain a hit list that included Litvinenko’s name. Scotland Yard, meanwhile, has visited the sushi restaurant to see whether any closed-circuit surveillance cameras might have caught the lunch on video. If so, the police are not talking.


But Scaramella, who Litvinenko said ate nothing at itsu, was not the only contact the Russian had that day. Hours before, he met with two Russians for tea at a hotel in central London. British news reports identified one as Andrei Lugovoy, a former KGB officer, and the other only as “Vladimir.”

To begin to untangle all of this, one must go back to 1998, when then-Col. Litvinenko of the FSB held an extraordinary news conference to say that a “criminal group” in his agency had ordered him to kill Boris A. Berezovsky, one of Russia’s richest oligarchs who had helped reelect Boris N. Yeltsin as president in 1996. After Putin became president in 2000, Berezovsky was charged with fraud and fled to Britain.

Putin, of course, served as a KGB officer in East Germany and headed the FSB before becoming president. On Friday, Putin, aware of suspicions that Moscow had ordered Litvinenko eliminated, called the former spy’s death a tragedy but said, “this is not a violent death, so there is no ground for speculations of this kind,” a rather odd observation.

So, given all his enemies, who poisoned Litvinenko?

Oleg Kalugin, for one, has no doubt. Kalugin, the former chief of KGB counterintelligence, became a highly vocal critic of the Soviet spy agency and now lives in the U.S. “This is just another confirmation of the criminal nature of the current regime,” he said. “Litvinenko fell victim to the Russian security services. They resort to murder, and poison is one of the weapons they have used for decades.”

Kalugin knows whereof he speaks. In his 1994 book, “The First Chief Directorate,” he wrote that when the Bulgarian government asked the KGB’s help in killing Markov, Sergei Golubev, the spy agency official in charge of “wet jobs” (the chilling terminology for KGB assassinations), went to Sofia with the ricin pellets used in the murder. The KGB also provided the assassin with the umbrella that had a gas cartridge built into the tip to fire the pellets.

Vitaly Yurchenko, a KGB official who defected to the West in 1985, told the CIA about a laboratory in Moscow where KGB scientists developed poisons for operational use, including the ricin used to kill Markov. According to Yurchenko, the facility was called Special Lab 100.


When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the KGB was split into the SVR, for foreign spying, and the FSB, for domestic security. Spy buffs might wonder how the domestic service could have targeted Litvinenko in London. But Kalugin says that about two years ago a new division was created inside the FSB, “a special department to carry out operations outside Russia. This was FSB, no question, not SVR.”

In Russia, there were suggestions that Litvinenko was the victim of a shadowy criminal gang or had even ingested the poison himself. About all that was certain was that Litvinenko, married and with a young son, was dead. And like a lot of Cold War mysteries, this one may never be solved.