The Litvinenko Inquiry – Clear eyes, cold heart, crossed fingers

There were two aspects of the Litvinenko Inquiry report, released yesterday, that surprised me. First, Sir Robert Owen, the Chairman of the Inquiry, having pulled no punches in stating who he thought had committed the murder in 2006, then went on to link the crime to President Putin in the strongest terms he was able to, given he was not speaking in a court of law.

This I find interesting, not only because I happen to believe it is correct (which you are quite at liberty to write-off as my love of Britannia and Pavlovian defence of the establishment). Apart from that, I find it interesting because of the difficult position it leaves the British Government in, a point I have alluded to in earlier blog posts about this inquiry (Parting Shots, Reading the Signals, Enemy at the Gates, Deeper Issues Deeper Questions, Small Details Big Impact).

If Sir Robert had really been acting as a government stooge he would have reined in his more inflammatory conclusions so as to leave the Prime Minister some wriggle room. David Cameron could then have huffed a few statements here and puffed a couple of asset freezes there, as he retreated behind a smokescreen of Davos-Migrant crisis-EU Referendum headlines, hand-wringing his way out of sight. So we can be reasonably assured of Sir Robert’s independence.

As it is, Mr Cameron has had to confront the issue head-on. And by issue, I mean the realities of global power politics. In his response, he was critical of Russia and then said: “But do we, at some level, go on having some sort of relationship with them because we need a solution to the Syria crisis? Yes we do…with clear eyes and a cold heart”. And that’s the nub of it: right now, there is greater need for a workable relationship with Russia, than there is to be seen to stand as a beacon of justice in the world. It’s called Realpolitik; one of the more enduring ideas Russia has imported from Germany.

Without a court of law, in which evidence could have been challenged and the accused offered a chance to explain their actions, the Inquiry was never going to be able to prove anything or hold any person or state entity to account. So, as expected, Russia has been all but accused of illegal actions, but by having to load the report with ‘probably’ and ‘possibly’ numerous times, they are able to dismiss any accusation of foul play.

They knew this all along, of course. Which led to my second eyebrow-raising moment. I was expecting a more sophisticated and nuanced response to the report from Russian officials and media. In typical fashion there was an immediate attempt to muddy the waters sufficiently to obscure the overwhelmingly compelling evidence.

The Russian Ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, dutifully went through the motions of rebutting the report’s accusations in what, were it a Hollywood spy movie, would have been described as a ‘dialled-in’ performance. Andrei Lugovoy, one of the two alleged assassins, suggested Sir Robert Owen had “gone mad”. And Russia Today then waded in by casting aspersions on the Inquiry and its Chairman. They stated:

The report stresses that its conclusions are based on many witness opinions that “would not be admissible as evidence” and that in his report Sir Robert was not bound by strict procedural rules that apply to court hearings.

I won’t play ‘he-said-you said’ over this, all I’d ask is that you follow this link to the Inquiry report and have a look at the relevant passage, paragraph 9.205 on page 242, and make your own mind up. As I said: an unsophisticated response. (In none of the rebuttals will you find an explanation for the trail of polonium-210 linked to Lugovoy and Dmitri Kovtun.)

So where does it all leave us? I think the Inquiry has produced the most accurate findings it could, given the limitations of the proceedings. We can be reasonably sure we now know what happened and why. The reality of the relationship between nation states had been laid bare for all to see, if it was ever in doubt. And a spotlight has been thrown on the regressive, reductionist and brutish state of Russian politics in 2016.

What happens next, I think, is up to Mr Putin. Mr Cameron cannot take any meaningful action, so Russia need not damage international relations further. In a few weeks, disappointingly but realistically, most of the world will move on. But if Russia miscalculates in Ukraine, Estonia (which hosts a sizeable minority of Russian nationals that Mr Putin has talked of ‘needing protection’) or Syria in the near future, the demands for some sort of concerted diplomatic action could become overwhelming.


The Litvinenko Inquiry – Small details, big impact.

Days 3 and 4 – February 2nd and 3rd 

Small details can easily be muscled aside in big stories. But it is often the little things that provide the human context, especially where the subject matter is otherwise too extraordinary to allow such mundane issues to see much daylight. Marina and Anatoly Litvinenko, widow and son of Alexander, provided many such details in the evidence they gave over the last two days at the public inquiry into the Russian spy’s murder.

Marina described the evening of November 1st 2006 when Alexander first started vomiting, as he reacted to the radioactive polonium-210 he had supposedly ingested earlier that day. At first she thought she had added too much chilli to the chicken dish she had prepared for dinner in their Muswell Hill home.  Alexander moved into the spare room so as to allow Marina some sleep, so often was he dashing to the bathroom.  But within two days he was in Barnet General Hospital.

Having been transferred to University College Hospital and apparently aware he was  going to die, Alexander converted to Islam; an imam brought into the hospital specifically for that purpose. His father, Valter, arrived two days before Alexander died. Entering his hospital room Valter, a religious man, crossed himself. Alexander remarked, “Father, I am now a muslim”. “It doesn’t matter,” Valter replied, “at least you’re not communist.”

Earlier the inquiry had heard from Marina how Alexander had been a member of the Economic Security and Organised Crime unit (URPO), a secret part of the FSB (successor to the KGB) and little known even within the FSB itself.  He decided to speak out against the unit when Alexander Kamyshnikov, URPO’s deputy chief, allegedly told him to murder Boris Berezovsky, then a political advisor to the Russian President Boris Yeltsin, with the words: “you know Berezovsky – you will take him out.” In an ironic twist, after Mr Litvinenko aired these allegations Nikolai Kovalyov, head of the URPO (and a respected friend of Mr Litvinenko) resigned and Vladimir Putin took command. Marina suggested that her husband already knew of Putin’s alleged links to a St Petersburg crime syndicate, and that Mr Litvinenko’s disclosure of both the unit and it’s role in political assassinations immediately made an enemy of Putin. Thus started Mr Litvinenko’s estrangement from the Russian security apparatus, his arrest and imprisonment and eventual flight with his family from the “foul aroma of this political kitchen,” in his father’s words.

Marina’s evidence was impressively composed. On only three occasions did she falter. First, she showed extreme discomfort when discussing her husband’s allegations that Putin is a paedophile (allegedly evidenced by lifting a boy’s shirt to kiss his stomach – picture here). Whether she disagreed with her husband’s accusation or reacted to the subject matter we will not know. The second occasion was when tears came to her as she described the last conversation with her husband, on November 22nd 2006. As she was leaving the hospital he said “I love you so much.” She told the inquiry: “I tried to make a game, just like a joke, I said ‘Oh, finally’, because I haven’t listened this for a long time, because it’s usually, he says this every day, and I say, ‘I’m so happy you say it me’, and just, ‘See you tomorrow’, and ‘Everything will be fine’ “. She never saw him alive again.

The third occasion she appeared particularly animated was when questions were put to her regarding Mr Litvinenko’s relationship with MI6 (Britain’s overseas spy agency).  Among records of congestion charge payments and Tesco shopping, bank records showed a regular monthly payment from MI6 of £2000 (see here). This contradicted statements Marina had made to the Sunday Telegraph in 2007 denying he had ever been an agent for MI6. Technically, in the intelligence jargon, she was correct; Mr Litvinenko was a contractor on a rolling contract, not a salaried employee of MI6 and certainly not a paid informant directed by MI6 to provide information on specific organisations to which they have access (the usual description of an ‘agent’). But the meaning of the question would be clear to most and the paper ran the headline ‘Litvinenko’s widow denies MI6 link’ (see link). Her answer at the time was disingenuous and she appeared uncomfortable when it was raised.

More to follow…

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

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.”