Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Russian Tip: Radioactive Smuggling In London

On Dec. 7, 2006, US Ambassador Henry Crumpton dined in Paris with Vladimir Putin’s special representative, Anatoly Safonov. Both men had deep experience in the spy game. Crumpton ran the CIA’s operation in Afghanistan in 2001 and Safonov, a former Colonel-General in the KGB, was the deputy director of its successor agency, the FSB in Moscow. What occurred at this extraordinary meeting emerged when Wikileak released a December 26,2006 State Department cable classified “secret.” The cable revealed that the subject of the meeting was the strange death of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian KGB officer, who had died in London two weeks earlier, from exposure to Polonium 210. This was in no way an ordinary death. Polonium 210 is a rare radioactive isotope that can be used to begin the chain reaction in early-stage nuclear bombs.

According to the cable, “Safonov claimed that Russian authorities in London had known about and followed individuals moving radioactive substances into the city, but were told by the British that they were under control before the poisoning took place.” , Safonov was certainly in a position to know that had reported to British intelligence on Nuclear material smuggling. He was the FSB representative on the joint British-Russian counter-terrorism task force, which, among other things, concerned itself with nuclear smuggling.

Presumably, Russian intelligence had a self-serving purpose for passing such information to American intelligence, whether it was true, partly true, or false. For one thing, it was a warning that the Litvinenko affair could prove highly embarrassing to the British, if indeed its intelligence had received a Russian heads-up on radioactive smuggling prior to Litvinenko’s death. If true, it meant that more was involved in the prelude to his death than has been publically disclosed.

It also casts new light on the involvement of Russian intelligence. The most plausible way that Russian intelligence could have been aware of radioactive smuggling activities in London was that it had an informant attempting to follow or penetrate the people involved. Consider the activities in London of Andrei Lugovoi. A former KGB officer, who owned a security business in Moscow, he had become involved with both Litvinenko and billionaire Boris Berezovsky, who was Litvinenko’s chief backer, in late 2005. He had also been contaminated with Polonium 210 more than a month before Litvinenko’s death, which made him a suspect. When I later interviewed him, he told me he had many meeting with both of Litvinenko and Berezovsky in London, and that he had entered into a “joint venture” to sell information about security conditions in Moscow to Berezovsky’s contacts in London. His involvement became such that Berezovsky seated him next to Litvinenko at his gala 60th birthday party in January 2006. Since both Litvinenko and Berezovsky were at that time engaged in a well-publicized campaign to discredit and overthrow Putin, I asked Lugovoi about his own vulnerabilities: Wouldn’t Putin government view his work in London as collaboration with the enemy. He answered that he had no such concern because he acted “patriotically,” kept no secrets, and even handed over items that Litvinenko had given him in London in September 2006 to the authorities in Moscow. When I pressed him further about the extent to which he was sharing information about his year long liaison with Litvinenko and Berezovsky, he did not answer directly but pointed out that he had been allowed to run for, and win, a seat in the Duma in 2007 (which he still holds). The implication was that his contacts with Putin’s enemies in London had the sanction of the Russian authorities, and the FSB. If so, it is likely that whatever information Lugovoi shared about the activities of Litvinenko and Berezovsky would reach Safonov in his role as the FSB’s representative on the Russian-British counter-terrorism task force. Since Russia in 2006 had been trying to extradite both Litvinenko and Berezovsky for alleged crimes, Safonov might also have had reason to tell his British colleagues on the task force about any alleged involvement they had in smuggling radioactive materials (even if it was untrue). Yet, if British intelligence ever received such a tip from Safonov, it has not made it public. Nor could it be expected to reveal it since Britain has been anything but transparent in the Litvinenko case. Indeed, it still keeps secret Litvinenko’s 2006 autopsy results, toxic analysis, and other data that could pinpoint the crucial date of his initial exposure. It is therefore doubtful that many pieces in this murky jigsaw puzzle will ever see the light of day.