A Rare Material and a Surprising Weapon - New York TimesPutin, a nasty piece of work, must have a thousand ways to kill his enemies. Why use a method that points directly to him? Did the KGB think the poison couldn't be identified? Did they want their murder to be publicly known, while still preserving some shred of deniability? Did someone else do it to implicate the KGB? Was it an accident of some other scheme?
... If substantial amounts of polonium 210 were used to poison Alexander V. Litvinenko, whoever did it presumably had access to a high-level nuclear laboratory and put himself at some risk carrying out the assassination, experts said yesterday.
Polonium 210 is highly radioactive and very toxic. By weight, it is about 250 million times as toxic as cyanide, so a particle smaller than a dust mote could be fatal. It would also, presumably, be too small to taste.
There is no antidote, and handling it in a laboratory requires special equipment. But to be fatal it must be swallowed, breathed in or injected; the alpha particles it produces cannot penetrate the skin. So it could theoretically be carried safely in a glass vial or paper envelope and sprinkled into food or drink by a killer willing to take the chance that he did not accidentally breathe it in or swallow it...
Every intelligence service in the west is working overtime now. This is bad news on many more levels than what appears to have been the murder of one of Putin's many enemies.
Will this be seen one day as the first shot in Cold War II?
Update 11/25/06: See the comment from Technologist. Polonium is not as hard to find as we've been told. I'm going to start reading Technologist's blog ...
Update 11/26/06: The NYT responds inside a column to the use of Polonium in antistatic devices:
A British counterterrorism official said polonium 210 was a byproduct of the nuclear industry and is used in the production of antistatic materials. But in the form believed to have been used in the suspected poisoning, it would have required high-grade technical skills and a sophisticated scientific process to produce, probably within a nuclear lab.The same article suggested one reason why someone would really want to kill Mr. Litvinenko:
In 2003, he wrote a book accusing the Russian secret service of orchestrating apartment house bombings in Russia in 1999 that led to the second Chechen war.The idea that rogue KGB agents, or even non-rogue agents were behind the bombings that led to a terrible war, received serious consideration in an Economist book review. That surprised me then, I figured it was just another conspiracy theory.
Gwynne Dyer wrote about the bombing allegations last year (emphases mine). I wonder if anyone has tried to interview Alyona Morozova recently ....
The Russian-American relationship is not thriving, and the proof of it is the fact that the United States granted political asylum a month ago to Alyona Morozova, a Russian citizen who claims that her life is in danger because of her role in investigating a series of "terrorist" bombing attacks that killed 246 Russians in September 1999. The chief suspect in the bombings, according to her, is Vladimir Putin.Was Mr. Litvinenko close to learning something new about the bombing?
Three apartment blocks in Russian cities were destroyed by huge bombs that month, including one that left Alyona Morozova's mother and boyfriend dead under the rubble...
Boris Yeltsin was in the last year of his presidency then, and he was seeking a way to retire without facing prosecution for the fortunes he and his cronies had amassed in their years of power. Vladimir Putin, former head of the FSB secret police, had recently been appointed prime minister by Yeltsin but was still largely unknown to the Russian public.
The deal was that Yeltsin would pass the presidency to Putin at the end of the year, and Putin would then grant Yeltsin an amnesty for all crimes committed while he was in office. But there was still the tedious business of an election to get through, and Russians who scarcely knew Putin's name had to be persuaded to vote for him on short notice. How to boost his profile as Saviour of the Nation? Well, a war, obviously.
Alyona Morozova (and many others) claim that Putin's old friends at the FSB carried out the apartment bombings themselves, in order to give their man a pretext to declare war on Chechnya and make himself a national hero in time for the presidential elections. It would be just one more unfounded conspiracy theory -- except that only days after the big Moscow bomb, a resident at a similar apartment building in the city of Ryazan spotted three people acting suspiciously and called the local police.
The police founds sacks in the cellar that they initially said contained hexogen, the explosive used in the other bombings, together with a timer set for 5.30 am. They also discovered that the three people who had planted the explosives were actually FSB agents. Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the FSB, insisted that the sacks contained only sugar and that the whole thing was a training exercise, and the local police fell silent, but there was no proper investigation.
Alyona Morozova fears the Russian government's wrath because a number of other people who have tried to investigate the incident have been murdered or jailed on trumped-up charges of "espionage". So she asked for political asylum in the United States: nothing surprising in that. It's much more surprising that the US government actually granted her asylum, because it is implicitly acknowledging the possibility that President Vladimir Putin, in addition to being a mass murderer of Chechens, may also be a mass murderer of Russians.
Polonium 210 is not as hard to get as journos are trying to tell you. Here is a device with (relatively small) quantity of Polonium 210 available online for just $71
Impressive! I'm going to add an update with your comment.
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