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A dirty question

Astute readers of the daily fishwraps will have no doubt been aware of the Litvinenko poisoning. (Synopsis for aliens: a former FSB colonel, resident in London and noted for making serious accusations of terrorism at the Russian government, fell ill a month ago and died last week. The cause of death is now believed to be poisoning with radioactive Polonium 210, and police are treating the death as "suspicious" — legalese for "we think he was probably murdered but we don't have any evidence pointing to a specific third party so it's not technically a murder investigation, yet.")

Polonium 210 is interesting stuff. As noted in a variety of places on the web, it is entirely artificial — it doesn't occur naturally, but has to be created by irradiating bismuth in a nuclear reactor or particle accelerator — and it has a half life of 138 days, decaying via alpha emission. To do any damage, it needs to be up close and personal, inside the victim, because alpha particles are absorbed very rapidly: but the biological damage they cause is much more severe than gamma radiation, neutrons, or beta radiation, precisely because all their energy gets dumped into bodily tissues promptly, rather than most of it zipping right through the victim and dissipating harmlessly in mid-air.

And the Wikipedia section on Polonium toxicity makes for sobering reading. ("250 billion times as toxic as hydrogen cyanide" is not a typo!)

Anyway, I digress.

The point is, someone with access to fresh Polonium 210 (read: less than a year old, hot from the reactor) decided to use it to bump off an enemy.

And the terrorism alert status hasn't risen a notch? Pull the other one.

Anyway, to the point: this wasn't simply an assassination. There are any number of poisons out there that would do the job painfully well but much more rapidly, and without the same scope for a diplomatic incident. Likewise, a bullet to the back of the head would have worked just as well (as witness the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya).

What this is, is a warning: "we have the capability to detonate a dirty bomb in central London any time we feel like it, so don't fuck with us". (Just take Polonium and add a little TNT.)

Who the warning is from, and who the intended recipient is, are another question entirely. I don't think it's any accident that the COBRA committee was convened the day after Litvinenko's death (on a Saturday, no less). And I don't think it's any accident that the British press have been very carefully pretending the phrase "dirty bomb" is not part of their vocabulary for the past week.

We're actually facing a national security nightmare: someone has demonstrated the capability to use radiological weapons on the streets of London and we don't know who they are. (Although we can make a couple of guesses.)

Given that Litvinenko was promoting a book that asserted FSB agents blew up two apartment buildings in Moscow and pointed the finger at Chechen rebels in order to justify Putin's subsequent war on Chechnya, one possibility that must be considered is that elements of the FSB may be responsible — and willing to use radiological terrorism as a tool of foreign affairs. It may well not have been ordered by the Kremlin: all it takes is for Vladimir Putin to mutter "will nobody rid me of this turbulent priest?" over his breakfast one morning, and Shit Happens in a foreign capital thousands of kilometres away. (Or it may be entirely deliberate, merely "plausibly deniable", to use the charming CIA-surplus weasel words for "we did it but you can't prove it".)

But we don't know that. It's just a guess. It might be wrong.

And what disturbs me most is that all the other possibilities I've been able to think of are worse ...

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103 Comments

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1:

Personally it looks like they got the wrong guy at the Sushi bar. Mario Scaramella is a expert on Nuclear waste and his company tracks where its going.

Now if he died from radiation poisoning it may be possible to claim it was self inflicted.

2:

I've never read the actual report itself, but I seem to remember there was an old US military study referenced in 'The Power of Nightmares' that concluded that a "dirty bomb" would kill no one - based on exposure estimates that assumed no one moved from the affected area for a highly unlikely year - as it's a terribly bad vector for transmitting radiation and radioactive material in sufficient quantities to kill into a mass population. It leaves a mess and an area effectively uninhabitable until it can be cleaned up, but it's not a major health risk.

And if polonium has a half life of only 138 days, even the mess itself would be comparatively temporary.

Not that that's stopped anyone painting them as a terrible threat in the past, of course.

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3:

It's 11 years this month since Shamil Basayev had some cesium-137 buried in a Moscow park...

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4:

"someone has demonstrated the capability to use radiological weapons on the streets of London"

Calling a few milligrams of polonium a "radiological weapon" is technically correct but misleading for several reasons.

Where to start? Hmm...decay-fueled alpha emitters make lousy weapons. You can stop alpha radiation with a sheet of paper. Human epidermis is pretty good at it, too -- which is why Litvinenko had to be actually fed the stuff before it could kill him. Inhalation will do it too, but one thing about transuranic heavy metals is that they're heavy. Polonium is exceptional among these in that it volatilizes easily (a little-understood phenomenon that I just learned today may be driven by radiation-induced spalling) but it's really tough to get even very finely divided polonium to stay in the air where people can breathe it, and it's not water-soluble.

So the stuff is basically a sort of exotic ingestion poison, not something that's going to turn London into low-rent mutant hell. If you want to be frightened about this class of attack, being scared of ricin or botulin toxin would be much more rational. Mind you, I'm not saying that it isn't possible to build a really effective dirty bomb. But nothing you have to synthesize expensively in milligram lots using a cyclotron is ever going to be a practical route to one.

No, what you really want for dirty bombing is a pony nuke -- a subcritical-mass fission explosive like the North Koreans just tested. One of those could fuck up London pretty thoroughly, all right, but the technology and logistics required to do it would have almost nothing in common with handling polonium beyond the obvious fact that they're both radioactive.

So don't panic. What you're looking at here is a very small-scale terror weapon that won't scale up.

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5:

And, by the way, the MO has old-school KGB written all over it. Exotic poisons used to be their favorite way of offing defectors; there were at least six well-publicized cases between 1940 and 1992, and doubtless many more that weren't.

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6:

Don't panic is always good advice.

But why, when you consider the fuss made over the summer over binary liquid explosives, or over white-powder-by-mail, why hasn't this case, which involved the actual use of deadly substances and the actual death of a person by persons unknown , even put a blip on anyones anti-terror radar.

It would almost seem like some forms of death are more acceptable than others in the anti-terrorism community!!!

Unless it wasn't terrorism of course, Which makes everything OK.

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7:

Nits first: Polonium is atomic number 84, not a transuranic. Yes, it's a heavy element, but it's not a metal; it's in the same group as Oxygen and Sulfur (which I believe can act as a semi-metal in one of its valences, correct me if I'm wrong).

The important point is that ricin and botulism (and anthrax) have similar problems to Polonium: if they're not somehow modified ("weaponized"), they don't spread or attack human physiologies very effectively. That's already been proved by several terrorist attacks. Yes, milligram quantities don't make much of a weapon. Anyone know how much Po-210 you can make in, say 100 days, if you dedicate a reactor to the job? Tens of grams, perhaps? (just guessing). If so, and if it were delivered in finely divided form, I would imagine it would kill a few people.

And note that the weapon doesn't have to be very effective at killing to be very effective at its actual purpose: to instill terror. Remember, the anthrax attacks on Washington, DC killed only 5 people. If a dirty bomb exploded in London, ultimately killing 100 people, and if 1,000 people died in the stampede to get away from the explosion site, I'd say the attack was quite successful.

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8:

"a subcritical-mass fission explosive like the North Koreans just tested. "

You got a cite for that? Before it was knocked off the Agendaometer, I had that one down as a fizzle.

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9:
Litvinenko was promoting a book that asserted FSB agents blew up two apartment buildings in Moscow
I haven't been following this story very closely, I've only seen (and heard) stories from NPR, the New York Times, and on of the early BBC announcements, but I hadn't heard anything about his actual allegations. Is this being played down?

The reason I ask, is that I've been suspicious of that bombing myself since I first heard about it. And I just hate being cooroborated when I'm being paranoid.

10:

State terror? What terror? Remember, he looked into his eyes and saw his soul. And Blair went to the ballet with him.

Enter snark-ridden reference to Chelsea Football Club here.

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11:

"You got a cite for that?"

Yes, it might have been a fizzle -- for tolerably obvious reasons, those are difficult to tell from a pony nuke that basically works like an intentional fizzle.

I buy the pony nuke interpretation because, if I were the Dear Leader and really wanted to stir up some shit, I'd be developing those for the jihadi export market.

"I've been suspicious of that bombing myself since I first heard about it."

Anybody with two brain cells operating was suspicious of that one.

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12:

What makes me think "radiological weapon" is the half-life issue. Polonium doesn't stick around. So whoever got this stuff, got it fresh. Which implies they probably have ongoing access to a source of resupply.

Using it in a dirty bomb is, admittedly, not going to do much damage. But turning it into a water-soluble compound and getting it into a human-ingestible water supply somewhere is probably an entirely different matter. (I'll bet MI5 would like to come in to work at the glass pyramid one morning and find that their delivery of water cooler refills the week before had been spiked ...)

13:

The point is that this is retail violence, not wholesale. Terror is individualised and relies on quality.

And high-end retail at that - the kind of thing that sells to oligarchs' wives and mistresses. Or their security advisers.

14:

On the apartment bombings: I don't think it's unreasonable to be suspicious when the FT reports that, shortly after four blocks had gone up, local residents in Ryazan caught a couple of FSB blokes with a lot of hexogene in the basement of their building. The FSB said that it was "a training exercise", that the hexogene was sugar, that the detector that showed it was hexogene was malfunctioning, and... then they left quickly.

As for Kim Jong-Il developing a nuclear weapon for terrorist groups: utter fantasy. Name me one single nuclear power that has ever transferred a nuclear weapon to any other state or non-state group.

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15:

What I can't get out of my mind is that Litvinenko may be the first person in human history to be murdered with Polonium 210. If the point was just to shut him up I'm sure the FSB (if it was they) could have done it in a way that didn't wind up on the front page of every national daily. If the point was to punish him and send a message to others, there have to be less...outrageous ways of doing it.
If it was a warning to the rest of us, why poison one man? Why not poison everyone in that sushi bar? After all, the stuff is tough to get hold of and possibly tricky to weaponise - if you're going to go to all that trouble to get it you may as well use it for something spectacular, really get yout point across.
Something about this whole thing doesn't scan, and I can't put my finger on it. It seems way too exotic, sfnal almost.

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16:

I don't know how much mass-media attention has been given to this in the US, because I don't read/watch/listen to any of it systematically, but it's been one of the top stories in Google News consistently, and many of the pointers have been to domestic articles (I don't know how prominently placed those articles were). I've read several mentions of his accusations about the apartment bombings, for example. (I'm in the US; I suppose I should make that clear since I'm not a frequent poster here and can't reasonably expect people to know/remember.)

This doesn't read "terrorist" to me; the substance is too exotic, the sources of supply are too tightly controlled (and too few), and it's too ineffective. This reads "state-sponsored murder", and as has been pointed out, the KGB and successors are fond of exotic methods and poisons. But I make no claims to any expertise in analyzing this stuff, so I could easily be completely wrong.

17:

Charlie's right that it's more worrying because it indicates that someone has access to nuclear materials -- and unusual ones like polonium. It's not one that's used in labs or medical settings, or one that's used in weapons, so that implies that whoever is behind it has some rather unconventional connections.

Perhaps it was the FSB, they would seem like the most likely candidates both in motive and ability. I'm not sure why they'd use this particular method, unless they thought the British wouldn't be able to detect it. Which is sort of stupid. Eitehr that or they wanted to make a point that they could kill anyone who opposes them in really obvious ways and that they don't care who knows. Which is also stupid.

Which, if true, means that some rather stupid people have access to dangerous nuclear materials, which is worrying... If they can get polonium what else can they get next time they have a stupid idea?

18:

Kathryn Cramer's blog has three threads on this.

How to Make Polonium, Part 2.

and earlier:

How to Make Polonium


Her blog also points to Charlie's. Kathryn Cramer's blog attracts people deep into covert operations (black hats and white hats). And she's a Science Fiction personage whose father's a physicist. So I'm just saying that, without taking any readers away from Charlie, that Kathryn is a second point of reference.

I also think that this is a way of someone saying: "we have a radiological bomb capability" in a way that I anologize to Israel's first satellite launch. Israel first launched a satellite, and the mainstream press didn't realize what it meant that it had a retrograde orbit. But the intended recipients of the message all got it: "We have a working antisatellite capability."

In high-tech warfare, actions have an overt, covert, and deeper covert signal. Exoteric, Esoteric, and Eso-Esoteric. In crypto venues, one can take disinformation and encrypt it so that ONLY the best decrypters in the world can work hard to get it, and be more likely to be misled after investing that effort.

Recall that I invented and introduced the term "Cybernetic War" in Cybernetic War, Omni, May 1979, pp. 44-104, reprinted in The Omni Book of Computers & Robots, Zebra Books, Kensington Publishing Group, paperback, ISBN: 0-8217-1276. That's where we are, in these Interesting Times. And have been for quite a while (digital computers being made and used more or less simultaneously by USA, UK, Russia, Germany during World War II).

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19:
Name me one single nuclear power that has ever transferred a nuclear weapon to any other state or non-state group.
If I knew the answer to that question I'd have to kill myself ;-)

Seriously, this could very easily have happened more than once without our being told. Maybe our intelligence agencies don't know, or they've classified the information because they want to protect their sources, or, most likely, they don't want us to know because we might panic.

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20:

I'm with Charlie in being more worried about some minion having had the bright idea to use Polonium all by himself than that Putin thought it up. Putin has a lot more to lose, and is a lot less likely to play fast and loose with other nuclear-capable nations.

And there's a lot of historical precedent for really vicious minions. Molotov, Lord Walsingham, J. Edgar "Mary" Hoover, the list goes on, and there's damn little that any of them would have stuck at. When the boss is watching carefully things may go well, but if the minion turns into a loose cannon, no-one's safe.

21:

I think the central point of the attack on Litvinenko IS the demonstrated terror capability. Take everything above, concerning the difficulty of killing large numbers of people with a Polonium dirty bomb, as well as the fact that ingestion of a 'cube of pure Po about the size of a written period (0.35 mm wide, or 400 micrograms) would still be 3400 times the lethal dose.'

London would be empty in a day, at the cost of hundreds if not thousands of lives in the ensuing panic. I understand what is written above about the difficult of dying from a Polonium dirty bomb, and yet if one exploded in the major american city where I live, I would not hesitate to run over an innocent bystander (or a few of them) who happened to be in my way in my rush to leave here with my children. It isn't pretty, and I wish I were a better person, but I'm not. And I don't think I'm alone.

Even if the bomb killed no one, the city would be empty for at least several years, as it is tough to find enough people to refill a city that was the subject of a radiological attack, especially when those people would have to understand what a half-life is, and why it now means that they are safe.

I hope and pray that it is the Russians who killed Litvinenko. At this point, I trust them not to end London, NYC, DC, LA, Chicago etc. with a dirty bomb a hell of a lot more than I trust a lot of other countries and groups out there.

22:

I'm with Dave Hutchinson on this one, something doesn't sit quite right... the aim of a terrorist attack is after all to spread terror, that's why they kill indiscriminately. So while this could send a 'dirty bomb' message, it seems a remarkably incompetent way of doing it considering the effort that goes into aquiring polonium. But there again, if it's not a message of intent, why bother with polonium at all?....


On a less serious note, does that mean he's 250 billion times more dead than if they'd killed him with cyanide?

23:

Hope this isn't too off-topic, but the question: "does that mean he's 250 billion times more dead?" got this soundtrack running in my head:

"1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 million ways to die" by "Do or Die" [1993]
Remix by Cutty Ranks (born Philip Thomas in Jamaica in 1965) Priority Records, 1996

Lyrics begin:

"Double em' I lock the glock
To pop open up six more
Seventeen at the knees
Freeze a brother like a holocall
On the call to get all the rip off the Admin
To break a tip off the other men
Did we bury the men
Cause I'm gonna carry the man
In the land with a zombie again and me zombie again
My triple beam is my only friend..."

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24:

If it is the Russians, it's hardly a surprise that they have the capability to get radiological material into London, despite CCTV cameras all over the place and other flashy, but not terribly effective against foreign spies, measures that are ubiquitous in London.

Heck, President Kennedy believed that the Soviet embassy in Washington DC contained a nuclear weapon, so it wouldn't be that new.

The question is why use such overkill? Why not just use the old ricin-in-the-umbrella trick, or a "mugging" which ends with the mugger killing the victim.

I wonder if this was done by someone in the FSB who has read too many James Bond novels and has gained a lot of seniority without being associated with a notable screw-up.

25:

I wonder if this was done by someone in the FSB who has read too many James Bond novels and has gained a lot of seniority without being associated with a notable screw-up.

Perhaps Putin's running a Hero Trap. :)

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26:

Laurence sez:

"So while this could send a 'dirty bomb' message, it seems a remarkably incompetent way of doing it considering the effort that goes into aquiring polonium."

Hmmm, I think I disagree. This was a demonstration of capability, not an actual terror attack, so the lack of any actual terror isn't an indicator of incompetance, but rather, subtlety.

Regards
Luke

27:

Name me one single nuclear power that has ever transferred a nuclear weapon to any other state or non-state group.

Well, I'm not sure we have any definite idea just what Musharraf was shipping to North Korea in that C-130 in July 2002.

But I still think that polonium is a strange way to send the message, if it was a general message at all. "We have access to a functioning nuclear reactor or a particle accelerator; clearly, we are non-state actors living in tents. Death to the Great Satan!" Or, "Hi, we're Russia. You complacent Western nations might not be aware of this, but we now have nuclear technology!" On the other hand, it could be an over-the-top message to other members of the Russian security apparatus about the perils of breaking omerta.

28:

Incidentally, there's some interesting information over at In The Pipeline about medical effects of polonium in relation to this.

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29:

Calling a few milligrams of polonium a "radiological weapon" is technically correct but misleading for several reasons.

Spare us the carnography. A weapon is a tool to adjust people's attitudes; if a dirty bomb went off in London, or New York, or Auckland, there'd be all sorts of attitude adjustments, regardless of the numbers of people killed.

A friend just mentioned the idea that it was concealed suicide, deliberately aimed at implicating Putin...

30:

He isn't even the first to suggest that those buildings were bombed by government agents. It's suggested pretty clearly between the lines in the book "Absurdistan", by ABC journalist Eric Campbell (which is good book, by the way).

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31:

My sense is that your guess is right--in fact I was thinking of "Will no one rid me..." myself. I suppose it could be a faction in the FSB trying to drive a wedge between the UK and Russia, perhaps Iran, or even the USA. But, given how hard polonium is to acquire, it's almost certainly the work of government officials of a nuclear power. I am more troubled by official British reaction, which is eerily like something out of Farthing:

Referring to Mr. Putin, Mr. Hain said, “His success in binding a disintegrating nation together must be balanced against the fact that there have been huge attacks on individual liberty and on democracy, and it’s important that he retakes the democratic view.?--<http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/27/world/europe/28spycnd.html>

32:

And there's a lot of historical precedent for really vicious minions

Or minions making decisions above their level. Dean Acheson ignoring Roosevelt's orders and blocking export licenses for non-aviation fuel, for example...

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33:

My sense is that your guess is right--in fact I was thinking of "Will no one rid me..." myself. I suppose it could be a faction in the FSB trying to drive a wedge between the UK and Russia, perhaps Iran, or even the USA.

Based on a little reading of who actually might have been making polonium, I have my theory.

Let us assume that it is a subtle warning of a dirty bomb.

Now, let's consider the characteristics of a possible nation that might want to do this:

i, Wants to send a strong "don't fuck with me" message to someone in the West.

ii, Doesn't want to necessarily scare the shit out of the lumpen prole Westerner. Bloggers might be following the story, but it isn't really being trumpeted.

iii, NOT Russia or Russian faction. Doesn't mind annoying the Russians a bit by diverting attention towards the "Putin is an assassin" explanation.

I'm plumping for Iran. Has Bush's rhetoric altered recently?

Given my years of experience and education, this and a $2.50 can buy you a coffee, but it seems plausible.

34:

I wonder if the most useful thing to do with a dirty bomb is to use it to smuggle a (non-dirty) nuclear bomb into the city while the dirty-bomb contamination has made radiation detectors useless. (OTOH, it'd be sure to heighten security as well.)

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35:

Why, exactly, would the FSB kill Litvinenko in this way? Certainly it wouldn't be a shock to see a renamed KGB assassinating people, but this seems like a profoundly stupid way to go about it.

If you have an unpleasant critic and just want him to shut up, there are any number of ways, from muggings gone wrong to a faked suicide or what have you. If one wanted to send a message, a Politkovskaya-style bullet to the head would work nicely. (Deniability would exist here since I gather Litvenenko was no angel, being a former FSB type, and likely had dealings with all sorts of shady people...)

All these ways work quickly, allow deniability and/or sending a clear message.

Killing someone with something extremely exotic - and slow - like polonium 210 is bizarre for an intelligence agency. It gave Litvinenko time to talk, it (predictably) caused diplomatic problems, and it just looks really, really dumb.

Why do it that way? I haven't (yet) heard any believable scenario under which the FSB or Russia benefit. And I don't believe this could be stupid incompetence, just because... it's too stupid, and this is the FSB. On this of all things you'd think they'd know what they're doing.

Aleksey

36:

In a sense, we may be looking at this story through the tropes of the wrong genre. It keeps being treated by some as an Espionage Thriller (James Bond has been mentioned), by others as a Medical Procedural (someone has mentioned House), yet others as a Political Thriller (was it Russia? Iran?), and by some as a Police Procedural, or obsessively elaborate Suicide Note.

One could do worse. A twisted bit of Travel Nonfiction (Five-Star Hotels to Avoid Because of Contamination), or Restaurant Review (although one journalist did list the most exotic items on the mention of a certain London sushi venue).

Just to jolt us out of this genre-subjectivity, imagine for a moment how the story would unfold, and be ideally narrated, in an alternate reality where Marie Curie died while trying to keep Pierre from being run down by that carriage.

Imagine that without her brilliant PR for Radium and the other elements she'd discovered, without her Nobel prizes, we could have had a world without Geiger Counters, chain reactors, "The Italian Navigator has Landed" in 1942 (an anagram of 1492), no Manhattan Project, no Heisenberg project with uranium from Silesia of conquered Poland (Marie's homeland), of no Hiroshima, and a million deaths in the protracted invasion of Japan, in a darker world.

Now, a military intelligence officer who has done terrible evil under orders, then recanted and fled when ordered to assassinate a very wealthy enemy of his former leader, has died slowly, horribly, and inexplicably, oozing ichor, appearing to age before our eyes, his hair falling out, oozing ichor.

It seems like poisoning, but no poison can be detected by the best experts. People who has dealt too closely with his excretions and have breaks in their skins (although we don't figure out that part of the puzzle) begin to die of the same hideous unexplained malady.

The coroner dies. The clean-up crew in the rest room of the restaurants die.

It is as if the places he'd been, and the places where he'd bet cohorts and those who he betrayed, and those who betrayed him, have somehow been caught up in a deadly web of evil.

The fact that no physical, cemical, or biological mechanism can be found makes things worse. It is as if the universe is beyond our narrow comprehension. That the laws of the cosmos are neither favorable nor hostile to humanity, but just inextrivably alien. Something dreadful, perhaps from beyond the skies, perhaps from another dimension, has invaded our reality. Things will never be the same.

Imagine this written by Poe, or Lovecraft.

Just because we did, in fact, figure out what killed him -- but not who, when, where, or why -- we are assuming so much.
Imagine this as a Bollywood epic, about how no one can escape the mechanisms of Karma, with singing dancing in hotels and tearooms and sushi houses. Imagine this as Dark Fantasy, as Black Comedy by Disch. Imagine this some other way, in some other style.

Imagine how Charles Stross would have imagined it...

37:


As commenters already noted, Po-210 makes lousy dirty bombs. It is easily shielded against and would not disperse well. It would also be futile to put it in the water supply, easily detected and easily filtered out.

The wiki entry on Po-210 is inconsistent about its lethality. If we take the estimate of 0.12 micrograms as the lethal ingested dose, then the comparable HCN dose is about 50 milligrams, which is about 400,000 times larger.
The maximum permissible dose of Po-210 is only a picogram, which comes closer to the claimed ratio, but is nowhere near lethal dose (eg LD50 dose - it is more like the dose which causes 1-in-a-million incremental risk of cancer).

You can buy Po-210 on the web, though not generally in the quantities needed for a lethal dose. That would take a dedicated facility.

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38:

Litvinenko also claimed that Russia was behind Al Qaeda and the 9/11 hijackings. He was a crazy conspiracy theorist and is definitely more trouble to the Russian government dead than he was alive -- alive, he was just a crackpot; dead, he's a martyr.

I think this is a strong argument that Putin himself had nothing to do with the death.

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39:

Since almost all of the explanations involve either stupidity or a devious message, consider another common manifestation of stupidity: slipping a decimal point.

Polonium would make a dandy assassination weapon at doses much lower than Litvinenko received. Less-acute symptoms would not be recognized as radiation sickness, but the immune system would be severely compromised and multiple organ failure (short-term) or cancer (longer term) the result.

Septicemia with disseminated intravascular coagulation and multiple organ failure are common enough, and investigation is usually limited to finding an agent to deal with the bacterium immediately responsible, together with supportive measures. The patient then survives, or not, and nobody is surprised either way.

How often do medicos check urine for radioactivity, anyway, and how long would it be before the polonium had gone its way by decay and excretion and no longer be detectable even if looked for?

40:

Considering the number of medical accidents from slipped decimal points, I can certainly believe that. But, considering how the Polonium seems to have been administered, things could easily have been a less arithmetical sort of accidental overdose.

And maybe somebody has been watching too much CSI and decided traditional murder was too easy to investigate.

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41:

or alternatively, how to buy polonium-210 for $69.00

42:

Just to give a radiation shot to a passing furphy, it is not "just bloggers" who have been following the story. The entire, and I mean entire, UK press splashed it for a week, the Sun to the Financial Times, soup to nuts.

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43:

I'm not so concerned about present national security threats - although I agree with Charlie that the meeting of COBRA was sort of suggestive. What I'm more concerned about is future security threats. Somewhere in the world, someone who had never even heard of Polonium 210 until this month is thinking, `250 billion times more toxic than cyanide? Wow. Imagine what we could do if we had a couple of ounces of that stuff...'

44:

Dave, less than 100g is made in the world per year and its halflife is about 140 days, I understand.

To be honest, though, I'd worry about what a SMART terrorist could do in terms of low intensity warfare. Nukes and radiation and so on.. high tech, hard to use...

You start by infecting livestock arround the country with foot and mouth disease. When the government meets, you use several fuel trucks to level the buildings they're in with improvised (but highly effective) FAE's...

...and so on.

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45:

Ajay (and others) well, they weren't actual weapons but the UK did export weapons grade plutonium to the USA and continue to deny it long after the records were publicly available at the Library of Congress. The UK also exported pre-fissile material to Israel, to the intense annoyance of Secretary MacNamara.

Thanks for shining some light into the darkness, Charlie (I knew you would) The trouble is that it makes nothing clearer.

I have problems with any of Putin's many minions going to such exotic extremes when, as we know, a bullet in the head is much more their contemporary style. Even by spook standards, it isn't easy to see the benefit to Putin here - after all, the guy had Al Quaida as a Russian tool (like, Afghanistan never happened, Chechnya, the other Islamic republics) which means they didn't take him seriously, even in the ziggurat (I can't speak for Langley, they seem to operate on principles unknown to the rest of the world, with the possible exception of their colleagues in Pyong Yang and Tel Aviv) I may be wrong, but right now I don't see it. Need more data.

What we actually need is a trustworthy source of data and seeing as we are talking about spooks and nuclear establishments here, there ain't no such thing. Nuclear establishments are even less acquainted with truth than are spooks.

Oh, and about terrorism - go and read your textbooks (the works of Che should be available, next to The Motorcycle Diaries) Really succesful terrorism doesn't need to do anything at all, just convince the object population to move in the required direction to render the terrorist's predictions true. Looking real good for whoever the terrorists are.

Who? As I say, I doubt (official) Russia. I equally doubt Iran and Iraq. The other middle eastern I state? I doubt they have the capacity these days - hell, they can't even shell the right town five minutes after they walk out. The UK? The USA? France? No, we're happy with Mr Putin. We don't want to encourage the nationalists queueing up for 2008 by destablising him just now, before winter.

The list of those who might be able to pull off such an exotic stunt and see themselves as benefitting by it gets shorter by the minute. Unofficial Russia - when the capo di tutti capi is in the Kremlin who knows what a particular family will do and for what reason? Anybody else?

Were I a betting man, my money would be on one of the most long drawn out and public suicides of recent times. But why?

Curiouser and curiouser, as a much better written character once said.

46:

Something to keep in mind, as sorta-mentioned above in various posts:

Polonium-210 is radioactive, sure, but it's not really the radioactivity part that's important, it's the fact that it's an extremely nasty poison. So while the radiation sickness makes the resulting illness worse, the radiation is a byproduct of making polonium out of bismuth. A sufficient dose of polonium will kill you well before you show any sort of signs of radiation poisoning. Arsenic to the nth power.

Using the "if we didn't know about radiation" post above, it wouldn't make a difference once you ran some samples through a good mass spectrometer - you'd get one really surprising spike way out there on the right side of the chart, and there is a certain amount of naturally occuring polonium in uranium ore.

47:

Martyn: isn't that the wrong way round? Surely the US would be sending Pu to the UK, not vice versa. And, of course, I'm sure there has been lots of trade in expertise and machinery - centrifuges, etc. But not in the weapons themselves. It. Does. Not. Happen. Especially not to non-state actors; the risks of blowback are just too great.

"Exotic extremes" are really quite a Russian thing, actually. Markov's already been mentioned, and Yushchenko. All the arguments against this being the Russians also apply, mutatis mutandis, to Markov and the Bulgarians. The benefit is: he was an embarrassment and he needed killing as a warning to others. There are a lot of Russians in London. Not all of them are just over here because we have Harrods. A lot of them are very rich and powerful and thus potential threats to the siloviki.

I mean, the Russians passed a law entitling the President to kill people in other countries who threatened Russia (and that includes slandering the President) without telling anyone about it. And you still think "No, the Russians wouldn't go around assassinating people?" Don't overestimate the enemy. Putin's not a supergenius logical statesman; it's quite possible that he was just thinking with his hormones when he ordered someone to "kill this [expletive]. And make sure it's something slow and painful so people will know not to [expletive] with us".

48:

London would be empty in a day, at the cost of hundreds if not thousands of lives in the ensuing panic.

You rather underestimate the people of London there. I certainly wouldn't be heading for the exits or running anyone over, I'd probably be heading for the pub and so would a lot of my rather phlegmatic fellow Londoners. RDDs don't scare me, although the hype rather pisses me off.

49:

Same here, Tommers. Dirty bomb, my arse.

Mind you, I'm more scared of Sir Ian "15 in the clip and one in da hole" Blair and his merry men's reaction, which going by current performance would be to drive back and forth across the city in unmarked-but-bluelight cars at the speed of heat, randomly shooting electricians.

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50:

Andrew, my apologies; I was being facetious with that `two ounces' stuff. Mind you, you wouldn't even have to get hold of any of it now. All you'd have to do is irradiate a believable-looking container marked `Polonium 210,' leave it where it would be easily noticed on the banks of any reservoir, and chaos would ensue.

51:

I haven't seen anyone come clean with quantities yet, but polonium is easily available in the U.S. and has plenty of civilian uses. I'm guessing that the amounts necessary to kill a person are higher than what $100 will buy you mail order (yes, you can find sources on the net), but it's not like this is some super exotic rare substance.

52:


I dunno, I'm more inclined to think it was a targeted message for exiles, oligarchs, and anyone in or retired from the FSB who might have been feeling chatty. The use of Polonium was to make it crystal clear that it was a government that did it. Killing more people would blur the message, possibly leading to an incorrect attribution putting the blame on someone else.

Andrew Crystall writes: "Dave, less than 100g is made in the world per year and its halflife is about 140 days, I understand."

That's probably because so little of it is needed. No point building an inventory of something so short-lived. United Nuclear's tiny samples are generated on demand at an Oak Ridge reactor and shipped directly from there to the customer.

I should think far more could be generated, without much trouble once you have the equipment and raw materials, if there were a *need* for, say, a kilo of it. Especially if it were done outside of normal regulatory procedures. (ie, it might be more difficult if you had to file with the NRC or something.)

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53:

ajay - the plutonium went west. Why do you think we built the reactors we did when, even then, there were better designs for generating electricity? And the heavy water went east (well, south east) I can't be bothered to search things out, but I know you'll find Tony Benn lyrical about selling the Yanks weapons grade stuff.

Exotic may have been the Soviet way, but these days they seem to be about as subtle as a rhino in heat. Why go to all this trouble when a simple bullet in the neck would deliver the same message.

Unless Charlie is right, but I cannot keep my legal background from raising its ugly head and asking 'cui bono?'

Not that we'll ever know, but its a good game,

54:

It's hardly news that people can sneak nasty shit into the country. Drug dealers smuggle smelly stuff like weed all the time. If I wanted to smuggle a chunk of alpha emitter, I'd wrap it in tin foil (to prevent alpha particles from leaking out) and put it in the diplomatic bag. If I weren't working for a government, I'd wrap it in tin foil and smuggle it the same way that I might try to smuggle anything else naughty.

But thanks anyway, that was a lovely piece of paranoia to start the day with :-)

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55:

Litvinenko also claimed that Russia was behind Al Qaeda and the 9/11 hijackings.

This is not as nutty a theory as it may sound. I'm not saying I believe it, mind you, but during the Cold War the Soviets had a huge amount of influence over every significant terror organization of the time, in many cases amounting to effective operational control.

Among other things, the Soviets used to run a sort of finishing school for guerillas and terrorists called Patrice Lumumba University; that's where all the cool kids in the world revolutionary underground learned how to blow up shit. And they were pretty generous with cash and weapons and explosives, too -- that's why your generic poster of a third-world insurrectionist is waving an AK47 around and Czech-made Semtex plastique is such a thriller-novel cliche.

It is not a huge leap of the imagination to suppose that the FSB still runs some of those networks, and Litvinenko shouldn't be dismissed as crazy for saying so. Possibly -- even probably -- wrong, but not crazy.

56:

Another scenario for why you might choose a [large, detectable] dose of polonium-210 for a murder weapon: you want to drive home the point that the security risks posed by terrorists with access to a nuclear reactor, even a little one like you find in research labs, are politically unacceptable. If you're willing to murder a russian former spy to send that message, and you've got the polonium-210 lying around anyway, then... well... ummm... as I've said elsewhere, it would be irresponsible to speculate any further along these lines.

57:

As with the aforementioned Kathryn Cramer, I like the Private Military Contractor angle. Also, the Dark Fantasy term "shadowlands."

Pale Fire and London Fog
By Chris Floyd
t r u t h o u t | UK Correspondent
Thursday 30 November 2006
Illuminating outliers in the death of Alexander Litvinenko.

"Everyone knows that Russian exile Alexander Litvinenko was killed by radiation poisoning in London last month. But beyond that bare fact, almost nothing is clear about the case. The truth has disappeared, probably forever, into the shadowlands - that murky confluence of crime, violence, money and politics where so much of the real business of the world is conducted. However, an examination of some of the curiously overlooked aspects of the affair might send at least a few shafts of light into the cloud of unknowing that has enveloped Litvinenko's death."

"Of course, one of the chief obstacles in assessing the situation is the fact that almost everything we knew about the case for weeks was spoon-fed to the media by the most elite PR operation in Britain...."

"(Speaking of the CPA, UK investigators now say they've found traces of Polonium 201, the radioactive isotope believed to have killed Litvinenko, in the London offices of Erinys, a private security company. As I noted in Counterpunch back in December 2003, Bush's CPA gave Erinys's Iraqi branch - formed as a joint venture with business cronies and family members of bigtime shadowlander Ahmad Chalabi - $80 million to guard oil pipelines in the conquered land. This has grown into an armed force of 16,000 men - something of a militia, one might say. The freebooters also bagged big money riding shotgun for Halliburton and Bechtel in those palmy CPA days of yore. And as the Guardian reports, Erinys is also active in Russia. You pull at one string in the shadowlands, and a whole tangled nest of other dark business starts shaking somewhere else.)...."

Also convenient to have yet another excuse for checking airplanes very very carefully, especially if they've been to Moscow.

And what's the deal with the former Russian premier who coincidently has just fallen ill?

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There are a few things about this whole polonium poisoning that bother me. The first thing that bothers me is the supply issue. Polonium having a halflife of 136 days makes for some very interesting logistics problems. First of all there is the issue of access to a facility capable of producing the material in the quantity that was used. So far we are looking at universities that conduct nuclear research, physics departments with cyclotrons and finally government installations that as a normal course of business deal with nuclear materials. The university angle requires that someone has access long enough to create the materal in question. This is unlikely because universities are typically only allotted a miniumum of nuclear material. And certainly not more than is required for the current batch of research.

In the case of a physics department it also has the same problem. To perform this kind of action in either situation it is going to require energy and lots of it. It would have to be masquaraded as another research project. Doing so without arising some suspicion is not as likely as an official government installation providing the material.

Now from the standpoint of the material coming from a facility like that... there are two possibilities... It was either sanctioned or it was stolen. If it was stolen, then the theif already had a buyer and would need to have the logistics of transport already worked out since this particular material is "perishable" due to its half life.

If it was provided due to official consent, then the logistics issue would not be so critical as the material could be created and passed along once all of the logistic issues of delivery have been worked out.

Now once we have the material to where it is going, we have some other issues that may or may not be the case. If a higher dose was in fact planned but not delivered it might explain why litvenenko lived as long as he did after being poisoned and thus had the opportunity to talk.

Lets shift gears here for a second and look at this from a different standpoint. When a crime is committed it is generally established that motive, opportunity and ability all line up.

So what is the motive here? Most spooks have some pretty extensive closets full of skeletons. Certainly the russian leadership has motive here because of his insistance that the FSB blew up that building with RDX charges. It would not be the first time innocent lives were sacrificed on the altar of political expedience. Good examples of this would be the japanese troop train blown up in manchuria to justify the japanese invasion, the reichstag fire and many other instances too numerous to mention. Certainly if this type of thing is the motive to silence litveneko then it is entirely obvious why they wanted to shut him up.

But things are not always as they appear. The motive could be something else that is concealed from general knowledge. perhaps litvenenko was involved or aware of some ops that someone has alot of vested interest in seeing succeed. It could also be a case of connecting the dots. Intelligence is a dirty business and you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelette. Someone who is currently operating may have a vested interest in not being connected to someone else. If there is any other explanation other than "the russians did it" then this would be it. And yes.... I agree it would probably be someone like Iran. But other possibilities would be pakistan, saudi arabia, china or maybe even a remote chance someone like south africa who is known to sell alot of weaponry on the open market. There are currently alot of unknown facts here, but my money is first and foremost on the russians being responsible and respobsible from an organization level of the FSB or even higher. A serious misstep in those kinds of circles means a swift end to ensure damage control takes place.

If it was russia... The motive is obvious...But if Iran is responsible, then what would their motive be? What do they have to hide? What would they have to hide that intersects with russian intelligence if it was them? It would probably be a secret transfer of nuclear material or technology for the purposes of enhancing the nuclear capability of iran. If this is the case, then Iran may be acting as the russians proxy just as is being said on JRNYQUIST.COM.

Many unanswered questions here, but there is enough evidence to say it is likely a state sponsored entity is responsible. It is also likely that this effort was conducted with director or higher consent within that state sponsored organization. You have to pull alot of strings to get the operator of a nuke reactor or other nuclear facility to give up some rogue material for any nefarious purpose. You certainly would have to be able to force them to hand it over or you would have to pay them to look the other way. Only one of these options comes without serious consequences when the truth becomes known. Just my $0.02

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59:

Gregg, I think your analysis leaves out at least one other possibility for the source of the Polonium. You don't need a full scale power reactor to produce the stuff. There are a lot of smaller reactors that are used solely as neutron sources for creating medical radio-isotopes. I don't offhand know what scale we're talking about here, but I know it has to be fairly large; there are a lot of PET scans done these days, for instance, and many cancer radiation treatments use injected or implanted isotopes because the dosage to healthy tissue is less than with an external gamma or x-ray source.

Say that our unknown murderer, call sem 'X' for tradition's sake, has access to such a reactor, or at least to some percentage of its output. It would be easier to divert the use of an installation which is already producing as much product as it can for many different customers. How could anyone tell what source material was being put in the reactor just by looking at the container? This possibility doesn't require as much subterfuge, security, or high-level influence as does the use of a more constrained resource like a university or power reactor.

60:

Sadly, there is absolutely no evidence of any third state involvement whatsoever, so "Iran" must be filed under "risible neocon drum banging".

61:

You start by infecting livestock arround the country with foot and mouth disease.

Yeah, I read On Her Majesty's Secret Service, too. Here's hoping no Islamofascists get hold of a copy in Arabish.

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62:

And now we have a second person poisoned, probably Mario Scaramella (who does not appear to be a prof. at the University of Naples regardless of what the papers say; that is Maria Scaramella). Apparently there's a trail of polonium all over London and in two aircraft.

WtF?

63:

Did they poison the wife of the spy too, or was that an exchange of bodily fluids scene that we won't see in the USA version of the feature film? Other victims will be identified each time a new cliffhanger is demanded by the plot.

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64:

> Markov's already been mentioned, and Yushchenko.

Markov is Bulgaria responsibility.

The story is even more interesting with Yushchenko. After he was elected, all investigations into poisoning episode stopped. He was poisoned after having dinner with domestic spooks (Ukrainian). So, the only evidence pointing to Russia is, well, who else, and who exactly need any evidence if we could blame Russians?

Interestingly enough, after Yuschenko was elected there were couple of strange suicides among ministers in his camp, one of them managed to kill himself by 2 (two!) shots in a head. Somehow I doubt this suicide will be discussed widely in press.

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65:

Re the toxicity of PU 210 (it's the alpha particles, killing cells until you're dead), a wingnut on rightwing blog JustOneMinute suggested the following: "Every atom of polonium is like a tiny suicide bomber." Perfect.

66:

So some guy who maybe qualifies as a bee in Putin's bonnet dies a mysterious death involving an exotic, radiative poison. The story is splashed all over the media in Britain, relations with Russia deteriorate, and suddenly the public has to worry because radiation traces have been found all over London. Everyone says the KGB used to love those exotic poisons, so that points to them. But if you wanted to drive a wedge between Britain and Russia, you would want to get Britons up in arms and point the finger at Russia.
Polonium 210 is radioactive, but has a short half-life, so the killer(s) would need a ready supply. That limits the number of suspects. Russia is currently siding with China to prevent an American war against Iran. The British people are just as ready as the Americans to get out of the Middle East. Who would want to drive a wedge between Britain and Russia? Who wants to play up the fears of dirty bombs and terrorism (strongly associated with Muslim extremism in most Western minds)? What else could be gained by killing Litvenenko now?
It might be possible to spike the almost-concluded extradition agreement that would return criminal oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, to Russian. Berzovsky, AKA Platon Elenin, stole billions of rubles from the Russian government during the '90s privatization and is considered the Kremlin's "most wanted." He was also associated with Litvinenko. Radiation traces have since been found in Berezovsky's office.
Litvinenko recently flew to Israel to meet with despised (by Russians), former Yukos executive Leonid Nezlin who fled there after the Kremlin seized his company. Reportedly Litvinenko was there to discuss KGB assassination procedures. Now Litvinenko is dead.
His murder is a mystery, but by examining the possible outcomes, a motive may be discovered.
1) Soured relations between Britain and Russia.
2) Fear of, and anger at, Islamic terrorists.
3) Protection of rich friends of Israel.

Cui bono?

67:

The fact that a dirty bomb made with polonium would hurt almost nobody is entirely irrelevant. In fact, it is difficult to come up with any kind of dirty bomb design that would cause more than minor casualties. But the point of terrorism is not casualties. Those are only a means to an end, and the end is terror. And if you want terror, radiation is perfect:
1) It is detectable even in tiny quantities (if you want to kill people, an undetectable poison is great, but if you want to get them really upset, you want it to be detectable).
2) People are irrationally scared of it. If you tell them polonium won't hurt you unless you eat it, a) most of them won't believe you, and b) of those who do, a lot of them will be irrationally afraid that they will accidentally ingest a small quantity.
3) You're going to have to clean it up. And you have to clean it all up because people are so afraid (see point 2), and that will be very time consuming and difficult to do because it is detectable in tiny quantities (see point 1).

So we have panic, massive economic disruption and people living in fear for months, a terrorist's wet dream. And while it might be possible to head off a plot to build a dirty bomb to kill people (which would take a *lot* of radioactive material), it is almost impossible to stop somebody from building a dirty bomb designed specifically to scare people.

About the only thing that we can do in defense is start spreading the word about how little threat there really is in dirty bombs. Right now, the media is going around saying, "Watch out! Somebody might make a dirty bomb and kill us all with radiation!" which only enhances the harm that will ensue when somebody actually does it.

68:

There are apparently unconfirmed reports that Mr. Litvinenko may have been involved in the smuggling of nuclear materials with certain Russian businessmen.

He also apparently converted to Islam recently.

And the Polonium 210 came from a Russian Reactor.

I'm begining to think this is some sort of twilight zone episode.

69:

managed to kill himself by 2 (two!) shots in a head

I'm told that reflex action and/or recoil can make this possible... anyone know more?

70:

I know of stories of bullets doing funny things. Such as not penetrating the skull, but leaving holes in a soldier's helmet that look as though the bullet went right through.

So it's possible that the guy flinches, the first shot strikes at enough of an angle not to kill immediately, and he's able to take a second shot.

Just saying "two shots" just doesn't tell you enough.

71:

"Nearly-concluded extradition agreement"? Not heard of that one. Berezovsky has refugee status and a UK passport. Credib ility rating zero.

"Recently converted to Islam"? Bollocks.

"Shot himself twice" - it's entirely possible with a semi-automatic/selectfire weapon, if you put the selector switch in position 2 or 3 before pulling the trigger.

72:


On the issue of state provocations, and they precedents they provide for this murky episode:

Another agency that has a probable record of involvement in such activities is Britain's MI5 (note I say 'probable' not 'proven').

The Dublin and Monaghan bombings of 1974 produced the highest death toll in a single day's attack during the conflict in Northern Ireland. The bombings were attributed to loyalists, and they certainly had a major role in it - but the operation also appeared to involve a level of technical and organisational expertise which they displayed neither before or after.

So many think that MI5 provided a helping hand, for motives of their own. Another claim I've read in relation to this is that chemical analysis of the explosives used in the attack indicated they were of the same type as that used by the Provisional IRA. PIRA would have had no motive or need to bomb Dublin, in fact it was very much against their interests. But agents of the British state would have had access to captured PIRA explosives held in police evidence stores.

If this is true, it would indicate that the British state, like its Russian equivalent, also has an intelligence industry that is untroubled by scruples, and which is capable of killing innocents for its own agenda.

The courtship of Putin which Blair attempted in the late 1990s seems to have cooled. Who knows, this may all be an elaborate ploy to make Russia an enemy to be feared once again (since the public over here would tend to be uninterested in the deaths of journalists, the mutilation of army conscripts, and the everyday abuses heaped on the people of Chechenya).

I may be completely wrong of course, and I do not offer this as the last word on the subject. I merely put it forward as another way of looking at this subject.

73:

I agree with the "cui bono" heuristic here.

By that approach, this is not about spying nor poison as such. Nor is it about dirty bombs, as such. It is about who gets a bigger budget by exploiting the spin.

"At the Pentagon, the most feared weapon isn't a dirty nuke, but a line item in the budget."

Quote is from:

US: The Secret World of Stephen Cambone: Rumsfeld's Enforcer
by Jeffrey St. Clair, CounterPunch
February 7th, 2006

in the context of:

Senior Pentagon Official Stephen Cambone to Resign
By REUTERS
Published: December 1, 2006

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - "Stephen Cambone, the U.S. Defense Department's top intelligence official and a close aide to outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, will resign on December 31, the Pentagon said on Friday...."

This is also why I mention the Billionaire who took the spy under his wing, and the investment by Neil Bush (remember the $2 Billion Silverado Savings & Loan bailout?) in the British PR organization that flacks for the billionaire, and private military contractors in Iraq.

It's very good for one's bottom line, if one has the infrastructure in place, to have the public scared senseless. The same applies to the catfight about Global Warming between members of Parliament in the UK and between Congressmen and Senators in the USA.

Forecast: someone vividly killed by greenhouse gas experiment gone horribly wrong.

Forecast: Michael Crichton will be a less popular science fiction/thriller writer in the White House once actual climate science experts start testifying.

But David Brin ("Earth" and his foreward to that Abortion stories anthology) will be more popular, and so will Charles Stross. The universe is NOT as simple as Bush and his handlers appear to believe. The increased oomplexity allows for better plots. The Litvinenko plot is a doozy, not plausibly translated/reduced into black-and-white.

Oh, and as to shooting onself twice in the head, wasn't there someone in Gormenghast (or was it Bored of the Rings?) who killed himself by flinging himself back-first onto several kitchen forks?

74:

The thing about scared MoP's (Members of Public) is that I dont personally know any. There must be some, but everyoen I personally know is more worried about their pension or lack of, or getting involved in a car accident, than terrorism and POlonium 210. Maybe it helps that they don't live in London, but I just keep wondering where these scared people are.

On the evidence so far presented, I woudl say its our elected representatives that are running scared. After all, if you've been attacked by viscious pro-hunt flour bombers, or are so scared of a bloke whose been camping outside parliament that you pass a law to get rid of him (Then find it doesnt work because you fluffed it), then maybe you do find it scary that some Russian chap has been killed in an exotic fashion.
Meanwhile the rest of us know that its all smoke and mirrors.

75:

I wonder if the FSB cowboys have access to any of the tons of smallpox that went missing awhile back?

A couple of kilos of that stuff in a bomb would probably depopulate London much more effectively than radioactive polonium.

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76:

Markov with ricin, Yuschenko with dioxins, Litvinenko with Polonium 210, and yesterday `The Times' ran an article about a Soviet dissident who was poisoned with radioactive thallium.
In the light of that I'd like to recant an earlier post. Litvinenko's poisoning no longer looks impossibly exotic, particularly as Polonium 210 now seems more available than I'd previously understood. Now it just looks like the work of an organisation which, for reasons best known to itself, has a culture of trying to kill people with very very outre poisons, and I have obviously led a sheltered life.

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77:

I have obviously led a sheltered life.

I commented upthread that the MO of Litvinenko's murder has "old school KGB" written all over it. You've just described the handwriting.

You've led a very sheltered life. Both the "empire" and the "evil" in Ronald Reagan's famous tag line about the Soviets were correct descriptions.

78:

Point of order: Markov wasn't the KGB; he was offed by the Bulgarian mini-Me equivalent, in a fit of excessive zeal. (It caused a lot of headaches for the KGB subsequently -- not the assassination, but the fact that it was exposed as an assassination, and everyone and their dog assumed the KGB were behind it. That kind of thing is bad for business, but the 25-year institutional memory lifespan has been exceeded by now ...)

Mind you, that's retail killing. If we want to go after cold war era agencies for assassination, we also need to mention Operation PHOENIX. (And the moral I want you to go away with is not "Charlie is apologizing for the KGB assassinating folks by pointing out that the CIA did it too", but "Charlie is pointing out that letting state agencies think that murdering people is part of their remit is morally WRONG, no matter how plausible sounding the excuse -- and if that's not good enough for you, it's also a bad idea because sooner or later they always get out of control".)

79:

There's a nice little article in the Science section of The NY Times on polonium-210, which points out that nominally lethal amounts of the stuff can be found in things like anti-static fans costing $225. "Manufacturers of antistatic devices take great pains to make the polonium hard to remove. Even so, Dr. Zimmerman of King’s College said it could be done with 'careful lab work,' which he declined to describe."

Of course, even the stuff used commercially is still produced in Russia, which exports about 96 grams a year to (for example) the US. I particularly liked this little discussion of the international trade in exotic isotopes:

In Tennessee, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory sells dozens of types of rare nuclear materials to American manufacturers. But Bill Cabage, a lab spokesman, said it sold no polonium 210 because Russia was able to do so much more inexpensively.

“That’s typical? of exotic radioisotopes, he said. “We can’t compete with their prices.?
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80:

The thing about scared MoP's (Members of Public) is that I dont personally know any.

Just to throw an anecdote in: My Mum is not afraid of going to London, and wasn't during various IRA bombing campaigns either (In fact she lived there during one, before I was born). However, when I lived in Earls Court in 1996 and a bomb went off within hearing distance of my flat, she was on the phone and very concerned*. Similarily, my brother lives in London and (along with 100,000 other people) might have been on one of the tubes involved in the 7/7 attack. Again, she was scared by this.

A lot of people react this way; it's not the danger to them, but to loved ones who appear to be in moredanger.

* And I was worried when the police shut off the area from the end of our road, not because a bomb had gone off and the police had closed off the end of the road, but this was the route home for one of my flatmates (who was fine, but had to walk half a mile out of his way to get around the closed off area).

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81:

Charlie - thanks for the pointer to Phoenix. I really should have known about that one; in retrospect in fact, I did. In 1967 I met a soldier in Vietnam who was a Kentucky hillman, and because of his experience with hunting and firearms, had been trained as a sniper. He claimed, and I only half-believed, that he had spent the last six months killing VC cadre from long distance with a sniper rifle. I have trouble believing that he had worked directly for the CIA; by that time I had been through a number of clearance interviews with at least 3 agencies (in at least one of those interviews I'm positive the agents asking the questions did not honestly identify their home agency), and he just wasn't the sort of person I could picture them picking for direct service. So I believe that by this point, (summer/fall of '67), the project was already in transition to the Army.

Note that that's still retail operations. And I think that transition to the Army is a sign that, at least in this case, the agency wasn't (as of then) out of control. The military is exactly that instrumentality that is intended to be used for killing without moral compunction (for the ones pulling the trigger, at any rate). The fact that the CIA was willing to give up what they would have considered black-ops at the time indicates they weren't obsessed with it. In my view, it's when an agency feels that only it has the right or ability to perform and judge some action that they've gone out of control. You can usually tell when this happens; they start talking about "making the hard choices" and they really mean "we're the only dudes around who get to do this; ain't that cool?"

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82:

Thallium? Poloniom? Dioxins? What happened to the quick-acting exotic poisins of yesteryear, like liquid nicotine or curare? Is this some sort of bizarre sexual display arms-race between agencies? And if it's all about omerte, what happened to finding the body with the mouth sewed shut? Is there no respect for tradition?

So far, the two most convincing theories I've heard are suicide (which is really bizarre) and an intent to send a message. So the next question has to be, what's the message, and who is for? If the message is "don't fuck with the bull or you get the horn", why such a potentially public message?

And the Polonium 210 came from a Russian Reactor.
What's the evidence for this? I couldn't offhand think of a way to determine something like this without at least a sample of the original material, before passing through the victim's body.
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83:

Polonium-210 has a couple of advantages.

1) It decays. If you get the dosage right the victim gets ill and wastes away, and at autopsy there's nothing left to detect. (In this instance, they botched the dose: he got enough to kill 200 people, and to make matters worse, it's not rapidly fatal: 200 times the dose doesn't kill 200 times as fast.)

2) It signals "state actor here". A pistol shot or a mugging gone wrong might be ambiguous (Mafiya hit, perhaps) but this spectacularly messy hit is so bloody expensive that it's almost certainly public sector.

Given the dosage thing, I'm inclined to consider ...

3) The dose was not an accident: it was intended to be detected, and send a very nasty message to anyone thinking of publicly crossing the FSB ("annoy us and you will die in screaming agony over a month-long period").

Unless ...

4) Some other state actor wants us to believe it's the FSB.

See also, wilderness of mirrors.

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84:

> And the Polonium 210 came from a Russian Reactor.

Kirienko (Russian nuke minister) said all polonium produced in RUssia (8 grams/month) is exported to US.

I suspect almost all Polonium-210 in the world is coming from Russian reactor. It would be very interesting and unusual if it were coming from somewhere else.

There are currently people in London that annoy FSB much more -- Berezovskiy, Zakaev, real KGB defectors who knew secrets like Gordievsky, a lot of others. Why to kill very minor virtually unknown Litvinenko rather then better known major annoyances?

Also see this:

http://russiaprofile.org/politics/2006/11/27/4768.wbp

85:

1) It decays. If you get the dosage right the victim gets ill and wastes away, and at autopsy there's nothing left to detect. (In this instance, they botched the dose: he got enough to kill 200 people, and to make matters worse, it's not rapidly fatal: 200 times the dose doesn't kill 200 times as fast.)

How long is this hypothetical wasting-away period? Poking around in Wikipedia entries suggests the nominal lethal dose for acute radiation exposure is about 4 Sieverts, corresponding to a 50% fatality rate after 30 days. But since polonium has a half-life of slightly over four months, you're not going to get much decay in only one month. If the initial lethal dose is detectable, then what's left after a month will probably still be detectable.

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86:

Peter: allegedly Po-210 is a really nastily toxic heavy metal poison as well as being radioactive. Think "like Thallium". The smart assassin would arrange to deliver several small doses over a period of several multiples of the half-life. Chronic poisoning, in other words, with a low dose of the poison and a poison that disappears completely within a few years of the event (making cold case autopsies a wee bit difficult).

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87:

What about the Ukrainians? Between the attempted assassination of Yushchenko and the price war over natural gas back in January, there's plenty of bad blood between Kiev and Moscow. Would Po-210 manufactured in Ukraine be chemically distinguishable from that made in Russia?

88:

Another possibility - a wild theory in absence of evidence:

Perhaps the dose was intended to be split between Litvinenko, Mario Scaramella, and perhaps the other guy they were meeting with (Lugovoi?) and kill them all but much more slowly and less dramatically. Perhaps also at the restaurant, faced with delivering it in some medium, the assassin decided to up the dosage a little since he couldn't be sure who would get how much. Then perhaps Litvinenko was hungry and polished off most of a tray of appetizers himself, perhaps their drinks got mixed up so he drank two of the poisoned drinks, perhaps he loved wasabi and the others hate it... and whatever the medium, he got almost the entire dose and the others almost none.

Sheesh, this sounds like a discussion of the Borgias. Let's hear it for modern-day enlightenment and the "End of History".

89:

That is plausible, but Scaramella claims he ate nothing. Mind you, we know he's a liar - he's been telling the Italian press he's desperately ill, whilst the medics at UCH say he has no symptoms.

90:

The evidence it came from Russia basically comes from radiation traces, whcih apparently go back to Russian airports (and there were multiple planes contaminated...). Possibly beyond, but no evidence of that yet.

91:

Re: "evidence from Russia:

Reuters - 56 minutes ago
"MOSCOW - Russia's chief prosecutor on Tuesday ruled out any extraditions to Britain over the poisoning to death in London of Russian ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko but said he would help British police in their inquiries in Moscow. A team of Scotland Yard detectives started work in the Russian capital looking for leads into the death of Litvinenko, an opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who died in a London hospital from a lethal dose of radioactive polonium 210."

Scotland Yard. Hmmm. I wish that my friends Mike Hodel and Isaac Asimov were still alive, as major figures in "The Baker Street Irregulars" (Sherlock Holmes community). Hodel's novel in the Holmes universe, starring the smarter brother Mycroft, is one of the very best noncanonical novels. Asimov was known in those circles as something like "The worm unknown to Science."

Imagine if Sherlock Holmes worked with Marie Curie to solve the first Polonium poisoning case in London. I wrote a poem many years ago (scrabbles through archives) called "Sweet Radium" about the tragic deaths in that family.

92:

Theory N+1: There's one more player with nuclear resources, where nobody is pointing a finger, and which has wanted to diminish Russia's influence and stature for at least 5 decades - the PRC. I like this theory just because nobody's looking in that direction.

Theory N+2: The official KGB^H^H^H FSB-endorsed theory that it's all due to struggles in Berezovsky's inner-circle is right; control over billions of pounds are enough to make a buy from Russia and have someone courier it over.

Theory N+3: It was a hit by someone with control over some portion of the FSB, with an long-term eye towards weakening Putin's position for an eventual takeover. The triple benefit is as a reminder that the FSB can still reach defectors, to embarass Putin internationally, and as a warning shot to Putin that they can mount operations without his knowledge or control.

93:

If you get the dosage right the victim gets ill and wastes away, and at autopsy there's nothing left to detect.

Well, it decays into lead - which could be detected at autopsy. I don't know how likely they would be to look for this, but surely an unexplained poisoning death would lead them to check for heavy metals?

Also the radiation damage to tissues would still be detectable at autopsy.

94:

What nuclear facilities are there in Italy?

95:

To answer these questions, we have to ask ourselves: who benefits the most?

In this case, the answer is clearly: newspaper publishers

My guess: Rupert Murdoch, having lost the OJ book launch opportunity, switched to plan B.

96:

I see OJ and Michael Richards in the film, produced by Mel Gibson. Working title: Apocalypto II: Radioacto! (English subtitle; all dialogue in Russian, Polish, French, Hebrew, and Ebonics).

My Lovecraft or Sherlock/Curie notion is strengthened by this lovely atmospheric sentence of this spreading dark horror story:

"A friend said family members were told that if they had wanted to cremate the body, they would first have to wait 22 years for the radioactive material to decay."

Seven British hotel workers have tested positive for the same kind of radiation blamed in the death of a former Russian spy.

97:

Thought American Elements' website (www.americanelements.com)would a useful resource--info on Po 210 and 100s of other Isotopes, Nanomaterials, etc. (Disclaimer: I'm an engineer with the company!)


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98:

What nuclear facilities are there in Italy?

No active ones, AFAIK; Caorso, Garigliano, Latina, and Trino Vercellese all appear to be permanently shut down.

http://www.insc.anl.gov/pwrmaps/map/italy.php

99:

By now it seems pretty likely that the "came from Russia" information was based not so much on isotopic composition but on British checks of airport terminals and specific airplanes for traces of radiation and matching them up with flight schedules.

Of course it could also be true that there is a history of polonium from different reactor facilities having consistent contamination with slightly different isotopic traces or other radioactive elements. Not entirely implausible.

However, Russia now claims that its only reactor for producing polonium has been shut down for two years, none of their stock is missing, and so it had to come from stock already sold to the US and UK, so they couldn't possibly be responsible. I don't buy it; do they think the public doesn't understand how easily records are altered?

Meanwhile a Hamburg apartment has been found which also showed traces of the same polonium contamination, and the Germans are starting to freak out. More shades of Cold War lunacy.

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100:

It was the CIA as a state of cold war would benefit Bush
If on the other hand it was Putin then Roman Abramovic gad the right idea in buying chelsea and becoming one of the most famous exiles from russia which would give him good protective status

102:

From today's New York Times:

Poisoned Spy’s Wife Says He Feared Kremlin’s Long Reach
By ALAN COWELL
Published: December 17, 2006

"The widow of the poisoned ex-spy Alexander V. Litvinenko said he worried about the safety of exiles after Russia passed a law legalizing attacks beyond its borders...."

103:

http://www.iht.com/bin/print.php?id=3952110 displays a little sanity; that Kings College boffin calls for controls on the sales of Po-210, et al., in amounts larger than 1/3 LD, a proposal more rigorous and meaningful than the suggested IAEA's larger limit. Now, stateside, anyone can buy

Also illustrated therein is fire brigades have no alpha radiation detectors, so they would not detect Po-210 and other alpha emitters. Happy happy, joy joy.