There is a very curious omission from the final report which the Litvinenko Inquiry released this morning. It relates to a key fact which all parties, Russian and British, appear to have deliberately ignored.
It has been common knowledge since the eighties that intelligence agencies – the old KGB in particular – used minute quantities of radioactive or otherwise carcinogenic materials as tracing agents. You would sprinkle a bit over a door handle or a car seat or a menu, your target would come into contact with it, and would then leave a chemical or radiological trail behind him for as long as the material remained viable. The Americans called it “spy dust”.
As anybody can see from this inquiry, Polonium 210 makes perfectly viable spy dust. Had Litvinenko not digested it in fatal quantity, the invisible trails the authorities subsequently picked up would have lain there for weeks, requiring only a swipe or close Geiger reading to expose them. It was a perfect cobweb, its strands extending to every meeting and journey its marked men conducted for ages afterwards. The detailed, intricate, and deeply incriminating pattern the Polonium 210 created is described in depth, but the report makes no mention whatsoever that this is exactly what spy dust is supposed to do. In the world of the Litvinenko Inquiry, spy dust doesn’t exist. These trails, which just so happen to connect a Russian defector to an exiled Russian oligarch to an MI6 sub-office to two more potential Russian defectors to a series of safe houses in Germany, are simply the accidental by-product of a deeply eccentric choice of poison.
The omission is particularly startling when you consider that radioactive spy dust was a British invention in the first place. Kristie Mackrackis, of Michigan State, has written about how British security services first settled on Scandium 46, a gamma emittor, as their first tracer of choice. Caesium 137, a deeply penetratative isotope, was later used by the Stasi on East Germany’s borders. The East German ‘Cloud’ programme experimented with dozens of isotopes. Polonium 210, in contrast a very weak alpha emittor, is actually far safer, unless it happens to be consumed in quantity, which is what happened to Litvinenko. As the report states, he collected a dangerous quantity on the cuff of his jacket first, then it made its way into a teapot, then into his stomach. That has the signs of something accidental and indirect.
I am often told, was repeatedly told, during the writing of Dark Actors, that cock-up is more common than conspiracy. I don’t see any reason to assume otherwise here. MI5 and MI6 hailed it as a deliberate Putin-sanctioned assasssination from the start, but that’s exactly what they would do. We pay them to do that. Vilifying Putin was something Litvinenko did for a living too, and he worked at that right up until the very end of his long and difficult death. I know there are some in, or on the apron of, MI6 who have had to adapt the rationale that the reason Putin picked Polonium 210 is because he wanted everyone to know it was him. Well, perhaps. But it isn’t the most rational theory, is it?
Meanwhile, the idea that intelligence services expose sections of the public to dangerous substances on an operational basis is something every spymaster would probably like to keep quiet about. And make no mistake, it is the spymasters who have shaped this report.
Sir Robert Owen relies, inevitably, on secret evidence, which he cannot disclose, and which was supplied to him entirely by the ever-growing community on the other side of Britain’s Offical Secrets Act. Owen appears to have taken it all on faith. I find his blanket acceptance of the character and reliability of informant D2 to be entirely at odds with his skepticism over Bruce Burgess. Burgess administered a polygraph test to Lugovoy, which the Russian passed. Owen discounts this because Burgess has a criminal conviction for perverting the course of justice (Burgess tried to get out of a speeding ticket in 2009). Owen also opines that Lugovoy has probably been given expert training in how to beat lie detector tests by the FSB. But D2, by definition, lies for personal gain, and has been effectively trained in deception by his SIS handlers. If he’s anything like the average non-UK informant, he’ll have a rap sheet far worse than Burgess’. These facts, like the spy dust, have apparently eluded Sir Robert Owen.
Meanwhile the confederacy of dunces thunder on. Asset freezes occured within minutes of the report’s delivery. This isn’t justice. This is policy. It was the same with Hutton.