Spymania: Did radioactive sushi kill Litvinenko? Update: Litvinenko named Russian agent as suspect

Ace reminded me yesterday that after Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian president, was poisoned, some of his Russian enemies dismissed his illness as nothing more than a case of bad sushi. Today the Sun reports that “[p]olice and security services believe the assassin secretly sprayed a mist of radioactive polonium-210 on Mr Litvinenko’s meal at a sushi bar” on November 1.

That doesn’t make sense for two reasons. First, why would they have used a mist instead of solid particles? The mist puts them at greater risk of accidentally ingesting the substance (by inhaling). And assuming it was Russian agents who did it, when would they have applied this mist to his food? The guy he met at the sushi bar wasn’t a Russian but an Italian magistrate named Mario Scaramella. Says the Independent:

[Scaramella] told Mr Litvinenko that he had received a death threat aimed at both of them. They met for 35 minutes in the basement of a branch of Itsu, a sushi restaurant chain. Mr Scaramella said last week that, while he himself drank only water, Mr Litvinenko bought food and drink from a chiller cabinet.

The documents they discussed, seen by The Independent, accused both men of being part of a conspiracy to besmirch the name of the FSB and there was a “necessity to use force” to silence them.

Was Scaramella the assassin and the death-threat documents his alibi? If not, where, precisely, did the Russians intercept Litvinenko’s food?

The other puzzle is the fact that they’ve found traces of polonium in three locations: the sushi bar, Litvinenko’s home, and the hotel bar where he had tea with a former KGB agent on the same day that he met Scaramella. Presumably he carried particles of the polonium on his hands or clothes with him after he was poisoned, which explains how the other locations were contaminated. The problem is, according to nearly all of the reports I’ve read, he met with the Russians at the hotel bar before he went to to the sushi place. See the Beeb’s timeline here or the Sunday Telegraph:

Mr Litvinenko, a fierce critic of Mr Putin, first began to feel ill on November 1, after having tea with two Russians at a central London hotel, followed by lunch at a London sushi bar with an Italian academic.

Or the AP:

On the morning of Nov. 1, the former agent met with another former KGB spy Andrei Lugovoy — who had come to watch the Russian soccer team CSKA Moscow — and two other men he had never met before.

Drinking a cup of tea the men had ordered, Litvinenko discussed a joint business venture and said he was homesick for Russia…

He said he was planning on meeting a contact who claimed to have information about the slaying of his friend, investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya — a death that critics of the Russian government have blamed on state security forces.

That meeting happened the same day in the afternoon at the Itsu Sushi bar near Piccadilly Circus.

Or the Independent, which places him in the hotel bar with the Russians at 10 a.m. and having sushi with Scaramella at 3. Funny thing about that, too: their source for the timing of the first meeting appears to be Lugovoy, the former KGB agent who as of now is the prime suspect. Lugovoy was allegedly accompanied by two other men, including his “business partner,” Dmitri Kovtun. Kovtun finally came forward yesterday to profess his innocence — and in passing claimed that the meeting happened at 4, six hours later than the Independent has it and at a time when Litvinenko was, supposedly, having sushi with Scaramella.

And so we have our first inconsistency.

Whoever poisoned him with this stuff really knew what he was doing, too. According to the Daily Mail, “giving him too much would have caused almost instant death while it took weeks for him to become gravely ill, giving the killer ample chance to escape.” Likewise, from WaPo,

John Henry, a toxicologist who was asked by Litvinenko’s family to look into the case and who examined Litvinenko before his death, said the type of polonium involved is “only found in government-controlled institutions.” In an interview, Henry called polonium 210 an “extraordinary poison” that is lethal in doses so small, “you can lose it on the point of a pin.”

British police are so fearful of further contamination, they might not even autopsy him.

So who did it? According to the Guardian, “MI5 is understood to be deeply sceptical of any suggestion the Kremlin was behind it and Scotland Yard says it has no evidence of this.” That might just be the government’s way of managing an international incident, but some are wondering:

Few were prepared to raise the theory while Mr Litvinenko was fighting for his life, but some said yesterday that he could have poisoned himself to heap blame upon the Russian president.

Litvinenko was himself a former KGB agent, of course, so it’s not unthinkable that he would know how to get his hands on polonium. There’s no evidence that he was suicidal, though, and even in the unlikely event that he did despise Putin so much as to frame him for his own death, would he choose a poison that caused him to linger for weeks in excruciating pain? Even jihadi fanatics opt for the quick-and-painless when it comes to sacrificing themselves for the cause.

Update: Suddenly, all eyes are on Scaramella:

International ‘security consultant’ Mario Scaramella, who joined Litvinenko for the now infamous clandestine meeting in a London sushi bar, headed an organisation which tracked dumped nuclear waste, including Soviet nuclear missiles left over from the Cold War…

Our investigations have established that:

l He has a deep knowledge of nuclear materials and their whereabouts around the globe.

l Although he describes himself as an environmentalist, he has detailed knowledge of the activities of Russian agents.

l Some of the institutions listed on his impressive CV appear to have no record of him, prompting questions about a career involving a large number of posts around the globe.

He denies having murdered Litvinenko. Litvinenko’s family believes him.

Update: The plot thickens:

He named the agent in charge of monitoring him as “Viktor Kirov”. A man called Anatoly V Kirov worked at the Russian embassy in London, where he was listed as a diplomat, until late last year.

He is believed to have left the diplomatic service in October 2005 and returned to Russia. But Litvinenko claimed just days before he died that Kirov was an intelligence agent who continued to target him.

British cops have also found traces of polonium in two hotel rooms where Litvinenko met Lugovoy and Kovtun. What were they doing inside the hotel? I thought they just had a drink at the bar.