The Half Life of Alexander Litvinenko and Polonium 210

Ten years after Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer turned British citizen, was given a lethal dose of radioactive poison at a posh hotel in the middle of London, a government sanctioned British inquiry into the incident has released its findings. Led by retired judge Sir Robert Owen, the 328-page report concludes that Russian President Vladimir Putin most “probably” approved the assassination. The reports cites a blog post by Litvinenko calling Putin a pedophile as one of the possible motives.

As disturbing is this alleged secret about the Russian president is, the fact that the British Government delayed for an entire decade their investigation of the first nuclear attack in the 21st century and the first act of nuclear terrorism in human history for reasons of “diplomacy” or in reality, greed. Britain did not want to lose Russian investment, though the British government knew the truth a decade before the official inquiry.

The New York Times’ London Bureau Chief at the time of the 2006 murder, Alan Cowell brilliantly laid out the case for this murder eight years ago in his book The Terminal Spy. A decade since the assassination, which weaponized a hotel teapot to assassinate Alexander Litvinenko, the public may finally be listening. The question now is what message will they hear and are they ready to hear it?

If the British report is correct, then it wasn’t just a murder; it was a message from Putin, which is being received a decade too late. This is a wake up call that almost was not. The Russian president went nuclear on one of his critics, a new British citizen who thought he was safe in the UK. He was not, and the message then was the same as it is today: No one is safe.

The operation also was supposed to be shrouded in ominous mystery. Polonium’s short half-life meant that had it not been for a brilliant stroke of luck by one of Litvinenko’s physicians, then outside of a few intelligence and security agencies, the poisoning would have gone unnoticed by the public at large. It would have been just a chilling rumor—the stuff of conspiracy theories, never verified—elusive and murky like the fate of so many others who have lost their lives after crossing Putin. But this time was different. The primary suspect, former FSB agent Andrei Lugovoi, left a radioactive trail crisscrossing London from the airplane on which he arrived from Moscow to the one on which he departed.

Back home Lugovoi has been treated like a hero, reaching cynical celebrity status with his own TV show about traitors of the Russian motherland (seriously). He is even a member of parliament, which coincidentally gives him immunity from prosecution. Indeed Lugovoi is not the only one laughing from the Duma.

Very few acts terror or statecraft have shaken security services in the Western world more than murder of Alexander Litvinenko: A nuclear attack with a casualty of one. And it could have been thousands. The location of the incident was arbitrary. Polonium could have reached any number of targets just about anywhere. Had the motives been different, had it been a water supply instead of a teapot, the body count would have been unfathomable.

And yet why then are the conclusions in Sir Robert Owen’s 328-page report coming as “news”? There is nothing ‘new’ about any of it. It has been ten years, and still we miss the point. That an official inquiry took this long is as shameful, as cowardly and as dangerous as the murder itself.

One single investigative journalist methodically laid out and published in less than two years what has taken the British government an entire decade to “probably” conclude. The evidence was all there. Alan Cowell unveiled a brilliant investigation of a murder, which followed a radioactive path that glowed like some kind of morbid abstract art, reflective of what was to come and the absurdity of the simple teapot to which it all led. But then like the radioactive corpse of the former KGB officer turned dissident, it was sealed up for reasons of public safety and buried by a British government that was in reality more concerned about jeopardizing vast Russian investments in London than the truth.

The murder should have been recognized at the time as the watershed geopolitical event that it was—not just for the nuclear element but also for what it revealed about Vladimir Putin—a message that many did not want to hear. Many still do not.

The first act of nuclear terrorism on planet earth targeted only one man. It has gone unpunished and unrealized. Like so many before him and so many who have followed, Litvinenko ended up in an early grave for crossing Vladimir Putin. The difference is that Litvinenko’s grave was a lead-lined coffin. “Probably” isn’t good enough.

Will Cathcart

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