The Litvinenko Inquiry – Confirmation and denials.


How easy is it to actually kill someone anonymously?  I leaned into that question, albeit in a somewhat glib manner, with the post Not in front of the children. I ask it now because many commenting on the Litvinenko Inquiry have questioned why a would-be assassin might employ such a bizarre and sophisticated method as radiation poisoning when a ‘fatal mugging’ would more assuredly have achieved the same effect. But if the killer’s aim is to (a) ensure his own escape and (b) employ a method unlikely to be discovered, polonium-210 is the weapon of choice; no point getting up close and personal. Today, the inquiry learned how it kills and why it is so difficult to attribute blame.

Dr Nathaniel Cary was the lead pathologist that conducted the three-hour post-mortem, nine days after the death of Alexander Litvinenko on December 1st 2006.  He described how, as one of only about 35 Home Office-registered consultant forensic pathologists, he is able to give opinions and not just factual findings in relation to post-mortem examinations. He explained that while Litvinenko was in University College Hospital (UCH), apparently suffering from an unknown illness, Professor John Henry suggested testing for alpha radiation; a product of polonium-210 poisoning. It was the blood and urine samples, taken while Litvinenko was alive, and confirmed by testing a sample of thigh muscle tissue taken on the day of his death, that confirmed the presence of polonium-210.

Professor Henry we will not meet, as he died in 2007. As a London-based specialist in drugs and poisons we can assume he heard of the odd case at UCH and offered his advice. Nevertheless, without his suggestion, Dr Cary said the postmortem would probably not have detected alpha radiation as it is not routinely tested for, and that “polonium-210 detection is the smoking gun in this case”. As Mr Emmerson said, it is “capable of being used as a poison for assassination that would not necessarily be detected”. Professor Henry’s intervention was, therefore, timely and pivotal.

That is not to suggest he was acting on behalf of the intelligence services.  And we will never know anyway.  As Mr Garnham, Counsel for the Home Secretary, explained in his opening statement yesterday, the British Government operate a policy of Neither Confirm Nor Deny (NDNC) regarding the activities of the security and intelligence agencies. As he explained, “to deny a particular activity in one instance, the inference might well be drawn that the absence of a denial in another amounted to confirmation of the alleged activity”. Put another way, “useful ambiguity on these things is the most important thing,” as a senior politician connected to the intelligence agencies explained to me.

Dr Cary said the post-mortem was “one of the most dangerous ever undertaken in the Western world”. He described how he wore two suits with full radiation protection, battery-powered oxygen pumps and a colleague on hand to wipe off any blood splashes that, unchecked, may have contaminated him. Other paramedics watched from outside the secured room for signs of heat stress, and emergency evacuation procedures in the event of his fainting were rehearsed. Polonium-210 attacks bone marrow, preventing the production of white blood cells, with the victim eventually dying from multiple organ failure. Mr Litvinenko’s body had to be transported in two body bags and is now in a lead-lined coffin in Highgate cemetery in north London.

The inquiry then learned of the properties of polonium-210.  The anonymous ‘Scientist A1’, a well-spoken English woman with a soft Liverpudlian burr, screened from public view, has worked for Britain’s Atomic Weapons Establishment (and its forebears) for 34 years. She described polonium-210 as a rare, radioactive element which can, if exposed in the open, attach itself to water molecules in the air and be dispersed; leading to local contamination and the (slightly overblown) claims of a threat to thousands of Londoners. Nevertheless, it is fatal in quantities of sub-millionths of a gramme, which is pretty small.

There are three ways of producing polonium-210: deliberately produce it in a nuclear reactor, extract it from ore contained in a huge quantity of rock or inadvertently produce it in a nuclear reactor and put the resultant product through a refinement and filtration process.  Of these, only the first is practicable, and then only in a state-operated facility. So, the polonium-210 found in Mr Litvinenko, Scientist A1 suggested, could not be produced by an amateur outfit. But the trouble with state-sponsored nuclear reactors is that, the odd Chernobyl aside, they are usually pretty good at their job. And the stuff that killed Mr Litvinenko contained no impurities that may have indicated which reactor produced it. So, as Mr Tam said yesterday, although 97% of polonium is produced in Russia, “the fatal dose could easily have come from the other 3 per cent”. So not such a smoking gun after all.

Although the source of the polonium-210 looks unlikely to be revealed, Scientist A1 did leave the inquiry in no doubt whatsoever that it had been present in at least two locations. Andrei Lugovoy (one of the alleged assassins) stayed in the Sheraton Hotel on Park Lane, London, between 25th and 28th October 2006. His room was tested for traces of polonium-210 in December 2006.  As can be seen from the 3D graphic here, there are multiple traces of radiation that simply could not occur naturally. Scientist A1 told the inquiry that a naturally occurring sample of polonium-210 would barely register on measurement devices and that if ingested and exhuded through the skin by sweating would only reach about 150 Counts Per Second (CPS). There are areas of Lugovoy’s room that registered over 10,000 CPS.  Likewise the Pine Bar in the Millennium Hotel where the supposed poisoning of Mr Litvinenko took place.  The graphic here shows the nest of three tables at which Litvinenko, Lugovoy and Kovtun sat. One of the chairs registered 24,000 CPS and the tea pot from which Litvinenko supposedly ingested the polonium-210 that killed him is of particular interest. Scientist A1 described how easily the stuff could be spread, a possible reason for such widespread contamination.  Whether the person handling this highly radioactive substance knew what it was or what an obvious signature (at least to those who knew what to look for) it would leave, is another matter.

Thank goodness for the intervention of (the now deceased) Professor Henry.

More to follow when the inquiry sits again on Monday 2nd February…

All linked material reproduced here is courtesy of the Litvinenko Inquiry –

The Litvinenko Inquiry – Day 1


The Litvinenko Inquiry that started today in London’s Royal Courts of Justice is expected to take nine weeks and be complete before Easter. There will be many who will wish it could take longer.  Sir Robert Owen, Chairman of the inquiry, said he will “make public the final conclusion on the issue of Russian state responsibility” for the death of Mr Litvinenko.  That will cause a big headache for the British government.

If the report blames Russia (and, by implication, Vladimir Putin) Britain will have to make a diplomatic stand against the state-sponsored murder on British soil of a British citizen (Mr Litvinenko was granted British citizenship the month before his death). But any other conclusion will see Britain accused of acquiescing to Russian pressure, given the strength of public feeling and the call from the Crown Prosecution Service for Andrei Lugovoy and Dimitri Kovtun, Russian nationals connected to state security agencies, to be tried for murder.  Not so Happy Easter, Mr Cameron.

But all that is for the future.  Today heard the opening remarks and statements from the Chairman, Counsel to the Inquiry (Robin Tam QC), Counsel for Mr Litvinenko’s wife and son, Marina and Anatoly (Ben Emmerson QC), Counsel for the Home Secretary (Neil Garnham QC) and Counsel for Britain’s Atomic Weapons Establishment (David Evans QC). Given that the Foreign Affairs Select Committee described the murder as “a miniature nuclear attack on the streets of London,” they were choosing their words carefully.

The inquiry nearly didn’t happen, for two reasons.  First, when Mr Litvinenko fell ill and was admitted to Barnet General Hospital on November 3rd 2006, it was unclear what was wrong with him.  As radiation sickness became evident and he was transferred to University College Hospital, tests were inconclusive as to the exact nature of his illness.  Doctors decided to test for alpha radiation poisoning, hitherto considered too remote a possibility, on a whim on November 21st, two days before Mr Litvinenko died.  Notwithstanding that this proved to be a most insightful hunch, the doctors were correct – the Atomic Weapons Establishment confirmed that Mr Litvinenko’s suffering was caused by the radioactive element polonium-210. They further discovered that he was displaying evidence (in hair samples) of having suffered an earlier exposure sometime around the middle of October 2006. The cause of death – acute radiation syndrome through the ingestion of polonium-210 – may have easily gone undiscovered and an inquest returned an open verdict, in which case there would have been no need for an inquiry

The second reason the inquiry almost didn’t come about was because of a spat between the British Foreign and Home Secretaries and Sir Robert Owen (assistant deputy coroner to the original inquest and now Chairman of the inquiry). Sir Robert decided, in his coroner’s capacity at the inquest into Mr Litvinenko’s death, to include the issue of the culpability of the Russian state. This would have meant sensitive information being publicly disclosed by Britain’s intelligence agencies and Atomic Weapons Establishment; a move the Foreign Secretary objected to in open session.  As closed hearings (where such material can be presented) are not permissible in an inquest, the coroner had to either discount Russian state involvement as a possibility to be explored or press for an inquiry.  After much wrangling the Home Secretary decided in July last year to allow an inquiry to take place. Many think Russia’s action in Crimea and the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH-17 by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine helped clarify matters for the Home Secretary.

So, we’re off, at an inquiry, not an inquest, and with the Chairman and legal representatives in suits, not wigs and gowns, as this is not a court of law and no judgement is being handed down. Witnesses, some of whom will give evidence without the public or media present, will be called from tomorrow, starting with the anonymous ‘Scientist A1’ who will explain polonium-210; what it is, how it is produced; how it can get into the human body; what it does when it gets there, and so on. I will also explain the British Government’s policy of Neither Confirm Nor Deny, or NCND in the jargon, relating to release of material from the intelligence agencies.

Mr Emmerson, counsel to Marina and Anatoly Litvinenko, said the trail of polonium-210  led from London to the doors of the Kremlin “like the trail of breadcrumbs left by Hansel and Gretel”. It was a messy business, he said, but “sunlight is the best disinfectant”. The sunlight of this inquiry is long overdue.

More to follow…

Not in front of the children

16x-2011-TFH-038-052The public inquiry into the death of Alexander Litvinenko starts tomorrow in the Royal Courts of Justice in London (details here).  Litvinenko was a former KGB officer, openly critical of Vladimir Putin and reportedly in the pay of MI6. He was allegedly murdered by two Russian nationals, Andrei Lugovoy and Dimitri Kovtun, both of whom are former KGB bodyguards, using the highly radioactive substance polonium-210.  Traces of the element were found in Litvinenko’s body, a Mayfair hotel and Itsu sushi bar, both in London and frequented by Litvinenko on the suspected day of his poisoning, and British Airways aircraft supposedly used by Lugovoy and Kovtun travelling to and from Russia.

One of the terms of reference for the inquiry is to identify where responsibility for the death lies.  This could be politically explosive if Sir Robert Owen, the inquiry’s Chairman, criticises the Russian state in any way, which is likely given its refusal to extradite Lugovoy and Kovtun.   What the inquiry will not be discussing however, is the much more politically charged issue of the efficacy and morality of the alleged tactic used; that of a targeted killing.

Much has been spoken of precision weapons in recent years (including an earlier post, Man versus machine). But little consideration has been given to debating the most precise way of targeting an adversary; using a human being to identify and kill another.  The most recent public use of this tactic was the killing in Dubai of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a senior Hamas member, allegedly by an Israeli team, on January 19th 2010 (see more here).  In terms of collateral damage (i.e. killing people other than those intended) it is about as precise a method as is currently available.  But to much of the world the employment of this tactic is abhorrent.

Why? Ultimately, killing is morally challenging and the demand from society for a clinically efficient targeting of its adversaries without the necessity of having to consider the realities of the task is naive and hypocritical. This view is understood by Gisela Stuart, Labour MP and member of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee: “Society is very happy to talk about peacekeeping,” she says, “but when you say, ‘do you know, there is a requirement to kill people before you get the peace and you can’t have one without the other’, we don’t like engaging with that.”

Society’s relationship with security and the necessity of killing is complicated.  The increasing impact of human rights legislation and the presumption in the West that existential threats are relics of history have contributed to a lower tolerance for casualties and collateral damage. But the desire not to engage with this issue leads to the contradictory position whereby the most precise and discriminatory technique of targeted killing is eschewed in favour of one, such as drone strikes, that will undoubtedly lead to greater collateral damage.  Targeted killing through the use of a small team in personal contact with the adversary exposes the wider civilian population to a level of harm far below that accepted with precision munitions.

Ms Stuart is in favour of discussing the merits and difficulties of employing such tactics, but accepts it will be a difficult to win the argument with the general public.  When asked if Britain should be prepared to go into a third country with a functioning state and carry out a targeted killing operation, she replied: “I hope so, but it’s a bit like sex education when a 5-year old asks you something. You don’t tell them the whole story, but what you do tell them has to be the truth.  It is un-British to make it too obvious.  Not in front of the children.”

Je suis inquiet

The attacks in Paris on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket reignited the debate about freedom of speech and tolerance for the beliefs of others.  One issue that received less attention is how far an open society should surrender freedoms it values highly in the name of security.

An illuminating exchange took place on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 13th January between presenter Justin Webb and the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg.  It showed that even at the highest level of government there is a reluctance to offer the public clear views about how to tackle terrorism in the modern world. Part of being a leader involves clarifying complex issues so that the public can understand better the choices they are asked to make.

Mr Clegg refused to answer whether he thinks some conversations on social media should be inaccessible to the security agencies for ever.  Vacillating on this crucial point and providing opaque explanations elsewhere, he did not engender a strong sense that he understood many in society are confused, worried and seeking leadership.  His reluctance to hold and defend a clear position also implied the government has not debated this issue at length and that confident and considered, albeit conflicting, positions had been taken.

It’s a long post (unedited to provide the overall context) but stick with it; this affects us all. The momentum in the war of ideas currently lies with those that wish us harm.

Justin Webb: Are you happy being in a position of disagreement not just with the Prime Minister but with the head of MI5 as well? The head of MI5 saying recently in his speech his sharpest concern, as he put it, is the gap between the challenging threat and the growing availability of capabilities to address it.

Nick Clegg: So just to be very clear, actually I met the head of MI5 yesterday and I’ve obviously spoken to him and the head of the agencies on numerous occasions.  The problem they’ve identified, which is a very real one and one we are acting on, is how to access data, how to, if necessary, on the back of a warrant from the Foreign Secretary or the Home Secretary, intrude on the communications between people who mean to do us harm, even where those communications originate from overseas or foreign internet service providers or communication service providers. That is the thing that the agencies have identified as being the biggest problem. That, by the way, is why we legislated, with my active support earlier in the summer, emergency or fast-track legislation, to kind of fill that gap because there was a problem that, as they put it, a lot of that communication would go dark if we didn’t have access to that data.

JW: But he’s [Andrew Parker – the head of MI5, the UK’s domestic spying agency] still worried about it going dark, without that, in the future and without necessarily that bill. Now, are you comfortable, or did he say to you that he is comfortable with your position on a lack of activity…

NC: Well let’s be clear. The one component of the various measures that have been floated that I have objected to, the so-called snooper’s charter, would do absolutely nothing to deal with this issue of how we, as a country, have access to data which originates overseas but which might relate to people who want to do us harm, because let’s remember what the snooper’s charter was about, was about storing the social media activity and the web sites visited by every single man, woman and child in this country; by everyone, and, by the way, by millions and millions of people, so that’s huge amounts of data…

JW: But not accessing it without a warrant.

NC: No, no, no, but it was about, exactly, but it doesn’t deal with the issue which we are having to grapple with, which is how, for instance, to make sure that your mobile, tablet or your phone is properly related to an IP address, just like your mobile phone is related to a telephone number, which, by the way, is another thing that we have acted on, in fact we’re legislating on as we speak right now. The point I make is that, you know, sometimes people sort of think if we pass the snooper’s charter everyone will be utterly safe and if you don’t pass it everybody utterly unsafe. It isn’t like that.

JW: But that’s not the point Andrew Parker is making.

NC: You have to make a judgment, don’t you, about the balance between security and liberty and the workability of these proposals.

JW: Can I just get this straight. What you are saying is there should be circumstances where people can have entirely private conversations via social media on the internet, that are inaccessible for ever to the security services. That is what you think is important.

NC: No, this has, this is where the great confusion lies, this has nothing to do with, as your question has implied, this has nothing to do with our right, which, of course, we should retain, as a state we always retain the right to steam open envelopes, to listen to telephone conversations…

JW: But that’s what Andrew Parker is saying he can’t do in the future.

NC: As I’m saying, a snooper’s charter is not the answer to that. The snooper’s charter, let’s be very clear, or what was dubbed the snooper’s charter, was one component among several measures, most of which we have acted on in whole or part, let’s repeat because it’s very important this, because I think it does cross a line in my view, it is not a proportionate response to that particular problem and, by the way, many experts say it’s not a particularly workable proposition either. What it would do is it would say that you, every single person listening to this programme now, every website they visit over the last year, every social media interaction they have will be stored by somebody. That doesn’t deal with the issue of how we make sure that when people mean to do us harm, which was the subject, quite rightly, of what the Prime Minister was talking about yesterday, we could retain the ability…

JW: But are you saying it shouldn’t be stored? That’s the point, isn’t it, that there should be some areas that are properly dark forever?

NC: It’s not about dark. It’s about do I think that scooping up vast amounts of information on millions of people, children, grand mothers, grand parents, elderly people who are doing nothing more offensive than visiting garden centre web sites, do I think that is a sensible use of our resources and our time, and does it address the issue which you, quite rightly, identify, the agency, quite rightly identify, which is as technology mutates, as this globalized industry becomes more and more global, how do we make sure that we continue to have the reach into those dark spaces so that terrorists cannot hide from us.

JW: But are you saying we should be able to or we shouldn’t be able to? I’m not understanding from you whether you accept, which some civil libertarians say, we absolutely should have the ability to communicate with each other in a way that is inaccessible, or, as Andrew Parker and others say, no we shouldn’t.

NC: With respect you’re confusing the right that the state has, always has done and should retain…

JW: No, I’m not talking about a right, I’m talking about the practical possibilities of doing it and what Andrew Parker wants is to be given, he thinks he does have the practical possibilities to do it, he wants to be given the right to do it.

NC: Right, let me explain again. The problem of what Andrew Parker calls things going dark, is because so much of the industry on which we depend for communications, particularly modern communications, aren’t located in this country. They are servers on the other side of the planet. They are internet service providers based in California. And the absolute heart of this issue is how do we, given that we can only have jurisdiction over our own affairs in Great Britain, make sure that we work well with those internet service providers so that they give us access to information where that helps to keep us safe. And we’ve done a number of things as I said, we’re actually legislating right now under the new terrorism bill to do that.

JW: I’m still not clear about whether you accept that people should be able to communicate in total privacy or not, just yes or no, should they be or should they not?

NC: Right, the snooper’s charter was nothing to do with…

JW: No, should they be or should they not? Never mind about the snooper’s charter.

NC: Privacy is a qualified right. If someone wants to do us harm we should be able to break their privacy and go after their communications…if you just let me finish the sentence I’ll explain to you why I think you’ve got this confused. The snooper’s charter wasn’t about intercepting communications it was about storing a record of all your social media activity of every website you’ve visited, and here’s the key thing: of every single individual in this country. Of people who would never dream of doing anyone else any harm, who would never dream of becoming a terrorist or even have anything to do with extremist ideologies. So the question we need to ask ourselves, in a free, open society as we defend our values against the abhorrent attacks we saw in Paris, is where do you draw the line? Look, I’ll give you an example. If you want to we could make ourselves a lot safer in this great city of London by imposing a curfew so no-one can leave the house after 9 o’clock. We don’t do that because that would be offensive to our values as a free and open society…[talked over by JW below}

JW: So, one of those values is that we can have conversations in total privacy?

NC: ..and what I’m saying is you strike the right balance, you take the actions to keep us physically safer through the fast-track legislation that we’re already proceeding with, but at the same time you valiantly defend and you are vigilant about things which might encroach on the basic freedom for people to go about their everyday business, particularly if they’re innocent of any wrong-doing whatsoever.

Morals and dilemmas

Mohammad_Mehdi_Al_BayatiAs introductions go, Mohammed Mahdi al-Bayati’s takes some beating.  Described by his media consultant as “the person with the worst job in global politics”, Iraq’s minister for human rights carries his burden with grace.  Mr Bayati, 52, an ethnic Turkmen, is a former foe of Saddam Hussein and still carries the physical scars of his efforts.  The moral compass employed by many western societies who view decisions in black and white terms does not work for Mr Bayati.  By necessity he inhabits a morally-grey world, wrestling daily with choices the likes of which will trouble mercifully few of us in our lifetimes.

Take for example what he describes as the most shocking moment of his time in office.  He talks of a 13-year-old Yazidi girl whose seven family members had been killed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, now commonly called Islamic State, or IS).  Kidnapped and repeatedly raped she was sold for $4000 US at a people-trafficking market held weekly in ISIL-controlled Mosul, Iraq’s second city.  Through his office Mr Bayati supported the girl’s purchase and continues to endorse the purchase of of other women and girls.  Does that encourage the kidnappers? “If you don’t buy for release,” he suggests, “they will be slaves.”  In the absence of a military or (highly unlikely) political solution to the problem of ISIL, moral pragmatism such as this has to suffice.

Or take his attitude towards the use of shia militias. These volunteers, as Mr Bayati prefers to call them, are critical to Baghdad’s fight against ISIL. But there are inevitable problems. They have been widely blamed for abuses and for the inflammation of the sectarian tensions that pushed the sunni community to support ISIL in the first place.  The Iraqi military is able to exert only tenuous control. “They are not necessarily well-trained, and yes, they will make mistakes,” Mr Bayati says.  “But if they are not used, then ISIL will control the whole of Iraq.”

The use of the death penalty, reinstated in 2004, is another controversial area. A recent United Nations report said that death sentences have been passed based on evidence from disputed confessions or secret informants, and that some defendants saw a defence attorney for the first time only when they arrived in court.  The Iraqi government says it is unfair to expect the same standards of due process from a country that is, effectively, in a state of civil war. It is also, Mr Bayati says, a deterrent to any foreign fighters heading to Iraq: “If they hear the news that we have stopped the death penalty, the whole world will come to Iraq to fight,” he said. Furthermore, when asked about an amnesty for ISIL fighters on death row Mr Bayati is uncompromising, perhaps because he has a domestic audience to consider: “How about an amnesty for all those already put in their graves by terrorists?” he said. “There are thousands of orphans, and many MPs and officials killed. These people should have a day in court too.”

Choices and dilemmas. Buy the girl? Use the militia? Reinstate the death penalty? It is extremely hard to bring an unwavering moral line to these issues. Much discourse in the western world is couched in zero-sum absolutism as politicians take ethical lumps out of each other, spurred on by an increasingly uncompromising public. If only the choices were that easy.