Saturday, June 09, 2007

Polonium - an update

Slate features excerpts from a book on the "Sasha" Litvinenko murder:
Who killed Alexander Litvinenko? - By Alex Goldfarb and Marina Litvinenko - Slate Magazine

.... Whoever chose polonium to kill Sasha did so because the chances of its ever being discovered were close to zero. It could not be easily identified chemically: the toxicology lab found only low levels of thallium, a minor contaminant of polonium production. Polonium was unlikely to be detected by its radioactivity, since common Geiger counters were not designed to detect alpha rays. Polonium is perhaps the most toxic substance on earth: a tiny speck is a highly lethal dose, and one gram is enough to kill half a million people. But it is absolutely harmless to a handler unless it is inhaled or swallowed. Most important, polonium had never been used to murder anyone before, so practically no one in the expert community—toxicologists, police, or terrorism experts—would have been looking for it or expecting it. It was sheer luck, plus Sasha's phenomenal endurance, that it was found. He had received a huge dose. Had he died in Barnet Hospital within the first two weeks, his death would have been attributed to thallium, meaning that anyone could have given it to him.

The irony is that once it was detected, polonium became a smoking gun. No amateur killer—even one awash with money—could have used it...

....Within hours of Sasha's death, HPA radioactivity hunters identified and closed off several contaminated sites in London, including Itsu, the sushi restaurant on Piccadilly where Sasha met Mario Scaramella, and the bar in the Millennium Hotel where he had tea with the Russians. As the investigation progressed, they added dozens of other places to the polonium map; the eventual list included offices, restaurants, hotel rooms, homes, cars, and airplanes in several countries. Hundreds of people all over Europe showed varying degrees of polonium contamination, spreading from the epicenter of the "tiny nuclear bomb" exploded in London. When the dust settled, the investigators had a pretty complete understanding of how to read the map. As the Scotland Yard liaison officer told Marina, "We know exactly who did it, where, and how."
Here's the quick summary:
1. Putin ordered Litivenko killed.

2. Lugovy was part of the hit, but there were two poisoning attempts. The second one might have involved someone else.

3. Polonium is actually quite a reasonable murder weapon.

4. Litvinenko knew nothing.

5. Russia adores Putin.
Hmpph. Polonium still seems to be a ridiculous murder weapon. Surely there must be equally undetectable poisons that wouldn't point so clearly to Putin. The motive still makes no sense to me, unless one assumes Putin is batty.

Perhaps the most credible explanation is that Putin ordered Litvinenko killed by Polonium because Putin's even battier than Bush. Bush has proven that you can be a leader loon; we have to be ready to assume Putin's no better.

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