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The Assassination of Alexander Litvinenko

Aired December 5, 2006 - 14:00:00   ET


SHIHAB RATTANSI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: From Scotland Yards to the Kremlin, investigators try to crack the case of a poisoned spy, a real life "who done it" with an ending that hasn't been written. In this thriller, the secret agent doesn't make it to the sequel and the villain is yet to be unmasked.
Welcome to INSIGHT. I'm Shihab Rattansi.

Alexander Litvinenko once trod a world that few know but many fear. He died, he said, trying to expose some of these secrets. On his death bed, the former Russian spy said he was poisoned in a slow-handed hit by his former employer, Russia's Federal Security Services.

Russian authorities have denied any involvement in his death and said they will cooperate with British detectives.

It's a web of intrigue that sweeps two continents, but began with a man who may well have known he was going to the grave.

Jennifer Eccleston has more on the investigation.


JENNIFER ECCLESTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Scotland Yard detectives in Moscow to interview several people who met Alexander Litvinenko around the time of his poisoning in early November. On the first full day of their investigation, one that British authorities say could take weeks, a major snarl. Despite Kremlin pledges of full support, the country's prosecutor general says Russia will not expedite possible suspects.

YURI CHAIKA, RUSSIAN PROSECUTOR GENERAL (through translator): If they want to arrest them, it would be impossible. They are citizens of Russia, and the Russian constitution makes that impossible.

ECCLESTON: The Russian prosecutor general adds that any one who is questioned will be questioned by Russian prosecutors. The British will simply be allowed to listen in.

One of the people investigators are expected to speak to is the former KGB officer-turned-businessman, Andrei Lugovoi. He and another former agent met Litvinenko at London's Millennium Hotel the day Litvinenko became ill.

The Millennium Hotel tested positive for radiation exposure, and Lugovoi claims that he, his wife and children also tested positive. He is currently in a Moscow hospital. Any attempts to link him to Litvinenko's death, he says, is a set-up.

According to British media reports, Lugovoi visited the British embassy in Moscow last week to deny any involvement. Today the embassy was tested for possible contamination.

ANJOUM NORRANI, UNITED KINGDOM EMBASSY (through translator): A group of experts have arrived in Moscow from London to check the embassy building for radiation. These are just precautionary measures, like those undertaken in several public places in London.

ECCLESTON: A dozen sites in London have now been tested, as well as several airplanes that traveled the Moscow-London route since November 1st, when Litvinenko is believed to have been poisoned. Twenty-two days later, Alexander Litvinenko died in a London hospital, his organs ravaged by a rare radioactive isotope called Polonium-210.

From his death bed, the ex-spy-turned-Kremlin-critic accused Russian president Vladimir Putin of responsibility for his poisoning, an accusation the Kremlin has denied.

A number of Litvinenko's associates continue to blame active and rogue agents within Russia's Federal Security Services, the FSB, Litvinenko's former employer. A former FSB colleague, Mikhail Trepashkin (ph), through his lawyer, expressed his eagerness to talk to British investigators to make the case that Litvinenko was a victim of an FSB death squad set up to liquidate Kremlin opponents.

Trepashkin (ph) is currently serving a prison sentence for exposing state secrets. Russia's prison service ruled out any prospects of a meeting between the ex-spy and British investigators.

(on camera): A prison spokesman said somebody sentenced for disclosing state secrets will not continue to be a source for foreign states.

There may be limits to the Kremlin's pledge of full support.

Jennifer Eccleston, CNN, London.


RATTANSI: As we just heard, traces of the poison have been found throughout London and police have been analyzing them like radioactive thumbprints to a murder.

Paula Newton takes us back to square one, to retrace the final steps of the former spy.


PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Alexander Litvinenko's home remains contaminated with Polonium-210. Figuring out when and how that happened is key to cracking this case. We pick up the trail on November 1, the day he fell ill.

(on camera): Litvinenko left his home that morning, like he always did, on the lookout for anything suspicious. He was always afraid someone was following him. That morning, he thought it was all clear, so he headed off to central London.

(voice-over): Police say there were no traces of polonium in the private taxi. It's clean.

This Japanese restaurant, where he had lunch, is where the radioactive trail begins.

It is still the most likely scene of the crime, but police can't say for sure. What they do know, this is the first place Litvinenko visited that day that has since tested positive for atoms of Polonium.

PETER ZIMMERMAN, FORMER CHIEF SCIENTIST, U.S. SENATE FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: They drift in the air. They settle down like dust. But they're radioactive, and that certainly is helping people identify where Mr. Litvinenko might have been, conceivably, where his poisoner was, and -- and where other people, perhaps, like Professor Scaramella.

NEWTON: Mario Scaramella, Italian spy catcher, he's certainly a witness. He is the man who met Litvinenko at Itsu that day, and claimed he warned that both of them were on a Russian mafia hit list. He remains in a London hospital in good condition, but with high doses of Polonium still in his system.

Picking up the trail of Litvinenko, he leaves the restaurant for Down Street, and the office of a friend, Russian exile Boris Berezovsky. And then it's off to another meeting.

(on camera): And that brought him here, to the Millennium Hotel and a mysterious meeting with two Russian men now at the center of this investigation.

(voice-over): That from British authorities who have not named either as suspects.

Andrei Lugovoy is a former Russian agent now in Moscow, who's been telling the media he's been framed. He, too, has low levels of polonium in his body.

The other man who met Litvinenko at the hotel, Dmitri Kovtun, a Russian businessman, who police say will also be questioned by British investigators now in Moscow.

Back in London, police know that Litvinenko's home, the Itsu restaurant, the Millennium Hotel were all contaminated by the former spy. But more than a dozen sites are contaminated, hotels Litvinenko wasn't in, airplanes, offices in central London. And, tonight, police were checking even more sites for Polonium. By plotting them on a timeline, investigators believe they can piece together crucial evidence the assassins left behind.

JOHN O'CONNOR, FORMER SCOTLAND YARD COMMANDER: What they -- I think what they didn't realize is how the radiation trail could be left. I don't think they realized the extent of that. And that's what's going to be their undoing.

NEWTON: The radioactive trail left by Litvinenko, the men he met, and possibly his killers remains the best forensic evidence police have.

Paula Newton, CNN, London.


RATTANSI: We'll take a break, but when we return, a closer look, or at least as close as we can, at the secret world of spies.


RATTANSI: We do not know who poisoned Alexander Litvinenko, nor have we heard much concrete evidence to implicate anyone in his death, but as with any high-profile assassination, the pundits already have their opinions. From the Kremlin to Moscow's opponents, the Oligarchs, and even Litvinenko himself, taken together leading figures across the spectrum of modern Russian life, are being fingered.

Welcome back.

Having absorbed the coverage of his death over the past few weeks, the question might be asked just who didn't want Alexander Litvinenko dead.

As the investigation continues, we're not going to add further to the speculation. Instead, we thought we'd take a look at the art of assassination. Governments, as well as the powerful, have long found it expedient to remove those who stand in their way, and as the executive director of the International Spy Museum in Washington, Peter Earnest is an expert on such murky operations.

He joins us now.

Thank you very much for joining us.

It's often said, this looks like a throwback to the Cold War, but is it? Is this what's been going on all the time and we just don't usually hear about it?

PETER EARNEST, INTL. SPY MUSEUM: Well, you can describe it as a throwback to the Cold War. It involves Russia, part of the former Soviet Union.

But I think if you look back through history, which we do in the museum, you can see assassination has played a role throughout history. Usually it's a weapon of the defenseless against the more powerful. But it's often used by the powerful against the defenseless.

Particularly during the Cold War, you saw countries like the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Romania, try to control, if you will, voices of the dissidents, those who left the country and were speaking out against it. That's how the Russian Revolution began, after all, by Lenin being brought back into the country, in effect igniting the revolution, and it's precisely voices of people like that that a regime will try to quiet.

RATTANSI: Your focus is interesting. But I suppose we should mention at this point that you, yourself, were a covert CIA spy during the Cold War in Europe and in the Soviet Union. Were you involved in anything like this on behalf of the CIA?

EARNEST: No, I can't say that I was. And by "can't say," I don't mean that I was and I can't say. I literally was not involved in anything of that nature.

However, as we know, publicly from the church and by committee hearings in the mid Seventies, the agency itself was involved in at least four attempted assassinations, none of which were consummated. Whether their heart wasn't in it or they simply were not very good at it, it's not clear. I think you saw much more of that sort of thing on the part of the Soviet Union and its allies.

RATTANSI: But, do you think we'll ever know how many assassinations did take place on behalf of both agencies and indeed other players during the Cold War?

EARNEST: Well, the one thing you have to keep in mind, if you look back at the Cold War, no one ever called it a gentleman's war. But certainly if you take the CIA and the KGB, the two principals in the field, neither of us were deliberately trying to assassinate the others. Embarrass the others, yes. Recruit them, yes. Put them in terrible positions, yes. And people did lose their lives, but not as a result, typically, of assassination attempts.

What you're seeing here in the Litvinenko case, first of all, it's not clear that it's an assassination, but being done the way it was done seems incredibly sloppy to a professional.

Now, when I speak to former KGB officers, they smell a whiff of the KGB. If not of the KGB, then of officers who were in the KGB and are out to assassinate, if you will, or strike back at those they feel are bringing dishonor on the former KGB.

RATTANSI: But isn't that part of the point, though? Might it not be intentional sloppiness? One of the theories, and let's ask whether this has happened before and is there a precedent for it, is that, in fact, people are being killed, friends are being killed, in order to implicate enemies. It's not just a matter of killing enemies to get them out of the way. You're trying to frame people in assassinating someone. And did that happen during the Cold War?

EARNEST: Well, it's not simply a matter of framing them. It's also a matter of sending a message. That is, if you take the case like Litvinenko, if that was a deliberate assassination, it may be an attempt, by doing it in such a way that it becomes publicized, to send out a message to others, don't do what he's doing. He's a critic of the administration, of the Putin administration. He is a critic of the KGB. He was a critic of the Russian Mafia, of organized crime. So he certainly made a number of enemies in his time. Has one of those chosen to get back at him or to send out a message to the others.

RATTANSI: But looking back again, though, over how the state committed assassinations, what sort of decision making went into it? What sort of vetting procedure for victims? How readily did agencies use this method?

EARNEST: Well, I can certainly speak for my own agency, which was CIA, and even though there were, as I mentioned, four attempts, I certainly was totally unaware of any of those.

Something like that is so fraught with political implications that it would be handled in the most sensitive, compartmented manner. That is, a very, very small number would be aware of something like that, both that it was being contemplated and if it was carried out.

RATTANSI: Peter Earnest, thank you.

We'll take a break. When we return, we'll examine a favored method of assassination.


RATTANSI: The use of poison to kill others is possibly as old as murder itself. Poisons are readily available and relatively easy to administer. So what's startling about the case of Alexander Litvinenko is the highly cumbersome and possibly incriminating type of poison used to kill him.

Welcome back.

Alexander Litvinenko's assassin was not just successful but apparently original as well. The killer's chosen method had investigators reaching for their periodic tables. And as Sanjay Gupta reports, led to a prolonged death for the victim.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): At first, he just feels ill, checks into a hospital. He grows weaker. It could be the flu, an infection, even cancer. But something is different. He's in excruciating pain. And he is deteriorating, dying, right in front of his doctors.

DR. JOHN HENRY, TOXICOLOGIST: I didn't go into a sort of clear-cut, investigative mode straightaway. He just had a clinical illness. But, then, as it progressed, everybody began to think more seriously about this man.

GUPTA: They scratch their heads. They think thallium, a heavy metal, and rat poison, and even Geiger tests. But all tests are negative.

Twenty days later, a blip on a laboratory computer screen. The toxicologist finds radioactive poisoning. But he shows no rashes, no burns, none of the typical signs of severe radiation. Somehow, the radioactive poison is already inside him.

HENRY: It is not the kind of test or the kind of confirmation that you would get in a hospital laboratory. It's the kind of thing that has to be done in a very specialized laboratory.

GUPTA: In 22 days, Alexander Litvinenko went from living and breathing to dead. The now known cause, Polonium-210. It's a naturally- occurring radioactive material that can be found in trace amounts virtually anywhere: in soil, in rocks, even in our own bodies.

(on camera): Polonium-210 can be devastating if inhaled or ingested. As you can see I'm in this laboratory wearing really no protective gear. In fact, your skin can protect your against polonium in and of itself.

I'm going to put these gloves on just for an added player of protection and take you over to this laboratory over here. Take a look at this piece of plastic. This is a piece of plastic that has actually been irradiated. You're not going to believe what's happened to it. I'm going to show you here in just a moment.

(voice-over): When toxicologists realized the amount of Polonium- 210 in Litvinenko's body, it set off alarm bells.

DR. CHAM DALLAS, UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA TOXICOLOGIST: Alexander Litvinenko died in a relatively short period of time after exposure to that Polonium-210. That tells me that he got a very large dose.

GUPTA: And in a large dose is when Polonium-210 becomes deadly.

DALLAS: The production of Polonium is going to be in very limited number of locations.

GUPTA: Purer, larger amounts of the substance are typically generated with the use of a nuclear reactor. And it's not a substance that patients with symptoms of illness are regularly screened for, but it will show up in urine tests.

(on camera): Without a doubt, we're looking at Polonium-210?


GUPTA (voice-over): But the problem in finding it is you have to know what you're look for. But because it hasn't been used as a poison, it's not typically the first suspect when a patient presents with symptoms.

HENRY: I think everybody was shocked. They were really taken aback because nobody expected this particular substance to be what caused the poisoning and what killed him.

GUPTA: Think of that radiation blasting microscopic holes throughout your body, wreaking havoc, mutating everything, even your DNA. Instant cancer.

(on camera): Now, back to that piece of plastic. If you look at this piece of plastic, it looks absolutely solid. But again, it's been radiated. So has a piece of plastic in here, at the bottom of this beaker.

Look what happens when I turn on -- pour in some water here. It comes straight through. There are tons of holes in that filter, just like there would be in your small intestine if it also got radiated.

Does this surprise you at all, using Polonium-210 as a murder weapon?

KAHN: Yes, it's shocking. But I guess if you think about it, it's -- if you really want somebody to suffer terribly before dying, that's, I guess, one thing you could do.

GUPTA (voice-over): You can't see it, smell it, taste it, so the assassin could transport it in a vial or in a plastic bag. Handling it is that simple. But the damage inside the body is devastatingly irreversible.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN, reporting.

(END VIDEOTAPE) RATTANSI: We know that many killers favor poison because so many have been caught, but as Randy Kaye reports, what we don't know is the number of people who actually manage to get away with murder.


RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): They call him the candy man. But Ronald Clark O'Brien was anything but sweet. The Texas dad killed his 8-year-old son by poisoning him with cyanide-laced pixie sticks after trick or treating. His motive, $20,000 in insurance money.

September 2004, Waltham, Massachusetts. Julie Cowan died after her husband allegedly slipped antifreeze in her Gatorade. She had a life insurance policy worth a quarter-million bucks. Her husband, charged with first-degree murder, pleaded not guilty and he is awaiting trial.

JOHN TRESTRAIL, TOXICOLOGIST: When you consider that people have to eat, they have to drink and breathe all the time, that is your entrance for this weapon into the body.

KAYE: Poison expert John Trestrail says many killers choose poison because they are usually home free by the time investigators figure out what really happened.

TRESTRAIL: Your chances of getting away with a successful poisoning are phenomenal.

KAYE: During his campaign, Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko fell victim to a yet unsolved plot to kill him with dioxin. He survived, but his face was badly disfigured.

(on camera): Poisoning has been around for centuries. It was in the 8th century an Arab chemist turned arsenic into an odorless, tasteless, undetectable powder, making it an attractive murder weapon.

And by the renaissance, people were selling poison rings, knives, letters, even poison lipstick.

(voice-over): The U.S. saw more than 147,000 poison-related deaths from 2001 to 2004. Of these, 434 were considered homicides. Were there more? Nobody knows since poisoning deaths often resemble natural deaths.

TRESTRAIL: It is an invisible murder. There's no signs of violence on the victim, no signs of trauma.

KAYE: Trestrail says poison is considered a white man's weapon, even though women use poison, too.

Women like Georgia resident Julia Lynn Womack Turner, the black widow killer. She was convicted of murder after putting antifreeze in her husband's Jell-o in 1995.

Then, of course, there are the mass poisonings. April 2003, more than a dozen members of a church in Maine were poisoned. One man died. Investigators found arsenic in the coffee. The key suspect, a church member, committed suicide.

And don't forget the 1982 Tylenol headache. Someone put Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide on store shelves in Chicago. Seven people died. The case, like so many others, remains unsolved.

(on camera): And Trestrail says until every death lacking obvious signs of trauma is examined as a poisoning, some poisoners will continue to get away with it.

Randi Kaye, CNN, New York.


RATTANSI: And that's it for this edition of INSIGHT. I'm Shihab Rattansi.



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