Dark matters: the baleful lustre of the Litvinenko affair
by Noel Rooney
[ opinion - march 07 ]
Every so often, an event arrives and transfixes the media, and most of us, and then simply dissolves into thin air. The Romanian revolution, or the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad, are spectacular examples; the 'assassination' of Alexander Litvinenko may be another. Currently, there are murder enquiries in the UK and Russia, apparently in competition with each other, and related investigations in Italy and Germany; but the case for murder may not be as tenable as the press releases imply.
A review of the facts in this bizarre episode is a brief exercise. Mr Litvinenko died of radiation poisoning caused by two or more exposures to polonium-210, a volatile and deadly heavy metal isotope. Traces of polonium-210 have been found at a number of locations visited by Litvinenko, and some visited by his associates; and a number of people, including staff at a London hotel, have received measurable, though not to date deadly, doses of the lethal substance.
From that point on, the consensus narrative is all myths and tricksters; the plot seems to have developed a mischievous intelligence all of its own. The Cluedo finger-pointing by various interested parties, and the identities of those parties, strongly suggests that the unfortunate Litvinenko's demise was no more than a sideshow in another, grander narrative. His deathbed celebrity may be akin to Rosenkrantz playing Hamlet in a Hollywood Möbius remake.
I want to concentrate on three strands of strangeness in the Litvinenko affair: the provenance and peculiarities of polonium-210, and its tragically chequered history; the role of the geo-political entrepreneur, and catalytic mischief, in the economy known as the war on terror; and the received narrative's extraordinary autonomy, and plastic power, in relation to the evidence and events.
Polonium's plastic persona
First, a brief description of polonium-210 and its properties. Polonium is number 84 on the periodic table of elements. It is a metal with a very low melting point, and it is an alpha-emitter; that is to say, the radiation it gives off is very dangerous to humans, but also ensures a short half-life. Polonium is found in minute quantities in uranium ore, and can be manufactured in a nuclear processing plant; it is also a 'radon daughter', one of the radioactive elements released by radon gas.
How dangerous is it?
Very. The safe dose for human ingestion is 0.03 microcuries, or thirty billionths of a curie.  That would mean a particle of polonium weighing just under seven millionths of a microgram. As for a lethal dose, experts say that a tenth of a microgram (a microgram is one millionth of a gram) is enough to kill. That is the equivalent of taking an aspirin tablet and dividing it into ten million pieces, and ingesting just one of them.
Curiously, although alpha particles are lethal, they cannot usually penetrate unbroken skin. To succumb to polonium poisoning, the victim would need to take it in food or drink, inhale it, or absorb it through an open wound. Since the isotope can be carried either in powder or liquid form (it is easily soluble in dilute acid, though much harder to dissolve in alkali), it would seem like a menacingly efficient addition to the twenty-first century poisoner's tool kit.
However, its volatility makes it extremely difficult to handle. If it is not properly sealed, the violence of its disintegration makes little particles, a few hundred atoms in size, break off and fly away. Radon gas can also carry it around. Laboratory technicians describe how it can 'creep' around a room, turning up everywhere. The first recorded, and before Litvinenko most famous, victim of polonium poisoning was the daughter of Marie Curie, polonium's Nobel prize-winning discoverer, who died of leukaemia after a vial of polonium broke open in her laboratory (incidentally, it is quite possible that Marie Curie's own death was caused by polonium, but her daughter's death is indisputable). 
It is also worth noting that while polonium-210 can be excreted in faeces or urine, it is probably impossible to pass dangerous, or even detectable, amounts of it by other bodily secretions such as sweat. It is also virtually undetectable by conventional security equipment, which is designed to find gamma, rather than alpha, particles; so properly transported, it is eminently easy to smuggle.
There is another narrative of polonium as a killer; perhaps thousands, even millions, of people have died of polonium poisoning since the 1940s. Eminent physicians, including at least one director of the US Centre for Disease Control, have claimed that most of the deaths of smokers attributed to cancer, in particular lung cancer, are actually cases of radiation poisoning - perhaps as many as ninety-five percent. And polonium is the only ingredient in cigarettes which has been proven to cause cancer (via radiation poisoning) by inhalation, on its own.
Polonium can be found in tiny amounts in natural tobacco, depending on its immediate environment; but not in dangerous amounts. And the incidence of lung cancer has not followed the rise and fall in consumption of tobacco in the way one might expect. The biggest rise in smoking-related cancers has an eerily similar trajectory to the rise in the use of phosphate fertilisers in tobacco growing. Phosphates accumulate uranium, and uranium gives off radon gas, and the daughter polonium (along with a radioactive isotope of lead) sticks to dust particles, and the dust particles stick to the hairy underside of the tobacco leaf.
The $30 million hit
About one hundred grams of polonium are manufactured worldwide every year. Russia is the biggest producer, followed by the USA. It is used in a number of industrial processes, mainly as an anti-static device. The IAEA in Vienna has fifteen recorded cases of lost or stolen polonium in significant amounts. The majority of these cases have occurred in the USA; Russia's record is pretty good so far.
As to how expensive it is, well, think of a number. You can buy trace amounts of polonium-210 for as little as $30 (typically about 0.1 microcuries). However, since it is always used in tiny quantities, it is extremely difficult to price a large amount (this has not stopped a few journalists and PR people from trying). Just multiplying the sample price the required number of times is a specious algorithm. Apart from the obvious problems of overheads and the economies of scale, one has to consider the potential market: currently, there isn't one for macro-amounts of the stuff.
So polonium is both vanishingly rare and available fairly easily on e-bay. It is egregiously expensive and cheerfully cheap. It is an exotic killer of a few famous people, or a mass murderer by infiltration. It flies off at the merest hint of an escape route, but cannot be easily passed from one person to another through casual social contact. It can be smuggled with ease, but cannot easily be kept in safety. The term 'trickster' comes promptly to mind.
The geo-political entrepreneur and emergent phenomena
This is the most fortean, and also the most complex and opaque, aspect of the Litvinenko affair. There are three themes here: the growth of the terror industry to the status of a world economy; the appearance of a class of entrepreneurs and freelancers in that economy; and the strange matter of emergent terrorist phenomena. Politics, at least in the sense of those people on the other side of the telly, is largely irrelevant here; at best, it represents inept opportunism after the event.
Since at least the late 1970s, terrorism has been an integral part of our bronze-age political process. Its niche in the war economy is similar to that of organised crime in commerce. More generally, the economic forces and instruments that drive the terror economy have become increasingly intertwined, so that while the dominant political metaphor has been the enemy at the gate, the enemies have melded, economically, into a seamless and productive whole.
Gradually, a class of powerful and well-connected freelance operators has emerged from the new economy. Some of these people and organisations are pivotal in the making of 'world events'. They do not follow the orders of any one state apparatus, usually, but sub-contract as the opportunity arises. They have also on occasion committed atrocities on their own initiative, to open up new markets. It is not easy to find concrete evidence for these people and their activities in the mainstream media; but a number of investigative journalists have charted the characters involved and their fluid affiliations. 
Litvinenko's list of associates and business partners belong, in large part, to this entrepreneur class. They include Boris Berezovsky and Leonid Nevzlin, billionaire businessmen with allegedly criminal connections and business practices; Akhmed Zakayev, allegedly a source of funds for Shamil Besayev, the mastermind of the Beslan massacre; Andrei Lugovoi, one-time bodyguard for Vladimir Putin (and ex-prime minister Gaidar, of whom more later); Mario Scaramella, self-appointed security expert and academic, with alleged links to the nuclear smuggling industry; and Alex Goldfarb, spokesperson for Berezovsky, and mouthpiece for a number of dubious organisations.
While the economy of terror is relatively seamless, its bureaucracy is not. In the fluid circumstances of asymmetrical warfare and political intrigue, lapses in communication or protocol can have unforeseen consequences. Quirks and accidents of this nature happen at all levels of the economy. Enmity or rivalry between separate arms of a single state entity, for instance, create information walls, so mixed or contradictory messages are given to sub-contractors. Emergent phenomena are not only possible in these circumstances, they are unfortunately likely. It is also possible that so many of these accidents occur in the cloak and dagger penumbra that we enter an environment where emergent phenomena are the only events; this is a chain of circumstances I would characterise as 'nested emergence', where accidental phenomena trigger each other.
This is a thumbnail sketch of a huge subject, but I hope it gives a flavour of the murky world in which Alexander Litvinenko operated, lived and died. There is not, as far as I know, any single source book on the terror industry and its entrepreneurs, and the notions of emergent terrorist phenomena, and of nested emergence, are I believe original. I would tentatively claim that this reading of geo-politics is at least as rational as the clash of civilisations, or the macabrely joyous march to Armageddon.
A story with a half-life of its own
Litvinenko's colourful past has been exhaustively reported on with apparent confidence by the media; but before he fell ill he was more or less completely unknown. How did an obscure émigré come to be catapulted into the media spotlight, and how did such a consistent narrative solidify so quickly around a decidedly mysterious sequence of events? And given the power of the orthodox narrative, how did Litvinenko, or rather his now very public image, manage to metamorphose so often during his last agony, and even posthumously?
His shape-shifting faculty equals, and even surpasses, that of polonium. There is of course his transformation from athletic and good-looking young man to the emaciated icon of his deathbed portrait; but there is more. Litvinenko the civil rights campaigner; Litvinenko the investigative journalist; Litvinenko the political conspiracy theorist; Litvinenko the ex-FSB colonel with contacts in very high places; Litvinenko the reluctant hitman; Litvinenko the beloved freedom fighter for Chechnya; Litvinenko the Muslim convert (and Litvinenko the devout cross-wearing Christian); Litvinenko the alleged nuclear smuggler; Litvinenko the purveyor of unreliable information to Anti-communist and anti-Russian groups around Europe.
At his funeral, either there was a private Muslim ceremony and a quiet family burial (with billionaire pallbearers); or a non-denominational funeral was interrupted and hi-jacked by Islamists, and a Muslim cleric was spirited in, much to the widow's shock, to utter funeral rites. His body was said to be too radioactive for a safe post-mortem. He was also, remember, assassinated twice.
The forensic and circumstantial evidence, as much as they are reliably in the public domain, do not lend themselves easily to a theory of murder. First, the dispersal patterns of polonium at a number of sites suggest direct contamination rather than secretion by a sick man. Second, the dates of confirmed visits by Litvinenko at the contaminated sites strongly suggest that he was in contact with polonium on more than one occasion; given the amount needed to kill someone, there is an anomalous superfluity of murder materiel here.
The two Russians who met Litvinenko at the London Millennium Hotel on 1 November 2006, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun, have also apparently been exposed (how seriously is not easy to say, since reports on their respective conditions have been paragons of contradiction). Again, the evidence suggests they were in contact with polonium on more than one occasion. It is hard to support a murder theory which claims it takes three trips to London to smuggle a lethal dose (one tenth of a microgram), and at least two attempts to successfully administer it, but this is the logical implication of the evidence divulged to date.
The possibility has been raised by a few journalists, and the UK police at least have grudgingly acknowledged it, that Litvinenko's death was the result of a nuclear smuggling operation gone horribly wrong. This theory too has its problems, even if it is infinitely more realistic than the megabuck assassination of a political nobody. The level of repeated ineptitude implied, and with such a dangerous substance, is breathtaking. There is again the problem of a market for relatively large quantities of polonium. The only potential market suggested so far is the production of dirty bombs; but the subject of dirty bombs, and whether they are any more than a fantasy, is also replete with contradictory evidence. It would be alluring to think there is a guerrilla anti-static movement out there (really out there) somewhere, but it seems unlikely.
The narrative, however, had no qualms about dodgy forensic evidence or unlikely circumstances. It raced away like a radioactive thoroughbred right from the off. This has something to do with the reluctance of contemporary journalists to let fact-checking interfere with a good story; but the pedigree of the press releases they were using might be equally germane. Tim Bell, the man who famously marketed Margaret Thatcher and her policies, ran the campaign, with Goldfarb as its leading spokesperson; Berezovsky picked up the bill.
Bell must have rang a few familiar telephone numbers early in the PR campaign, because in no time at all, rent-a-quote politicos were wallpapering the media with cold war glossolalia. Russia had morphed back into the old Soviet Union, the FSB were the KGB with a minimal makeover, and Vladimir Putin was Vlad the sub-atomic impaler. Predictably, witnesses surfaced to verify the miasma; Mario Scaramella claimed not to like sushi, but to know a man who did.
Meanwhile, the assumed single dose of deadly polonium was beginning to display the characteristics of a Warren Commission magic bullet. While its capacity for creep was well-known, the epic journey implied by the narrative beggared belief. It moved backwards and forwards between Moscow and London, including stopovers at the British embassy and eventually nearly a dozen UK locations, with a detour to Hamburg thrown in for good micro-measure.
The edifice began to show signs of wear and tear soon after Litvinenko's death. His glowing CV turned out to have a shorter half-life than the stuff that killed him, and doubts about his past, his probity, and his activities slowly surfaced. Nonetheless, the assassination theory was grimly adhered to by most media outlets. And their persistence seemed to be rewarded when news arrived that another Russian, this one genuinely high-profile, had succumbed to the poisoner's arts.
Yegor Gaidar, the ex-prime minister of Russia, suffered a mysterious attack of nausea and fainting during a conference in Ireland. He was rushed back to a Russian hospital, and journalists and hired mouths speculated gleefully on his survival chances. Then the story of another ex-bodyguard turned martyr, Roman Tsepov, came to light. His death by poisoning in 2004 bore many similarities to Litvinenko's (he was also diagnosed with radiation sickness, for instance, although in this case, radioactive thallium is a more likely source), and he had got himself mixed up in murky political dealings involving the oligarchs and the Putin administration.
Somehow, the assassination thesis has survived the evidence, as far as both the police and the media are concerned. All the witnesses have been publicly, and reliably, discredited; there is too much polonium, and it is in too many places; Berezovsky's team have retreated from the front pages, and seem to have lost interest in their erstwhile protégé; the cold war has finished. The story is fading into the human interest columns, dying in the blaze of its fantasy imago, rather than struggling on under the increasing weight of the facts.
There is a real story about geo-politics here, and the increasing inability of state entities to control the course of events. Perhaps Litvinenko and his brief, brutal apotheosis was a margin note to an internecine power struggle in Russia, played out among the émigré community. Perhaps right-wing elements in Russia are hoping to destabilise the place with the threat of dirty bombs; or as some commentators have suggested, hoping to persuade Putin to stay on for a third term (couldn't they just vote for him?).
It is equally likely that a series of accidents, and a little catalytic mischief, have conspired to rob Litvinenko of his life. The actions and movements of the people most closely involved resemble less the determined operations of ruthless terrorists, and more the fatal naughtiness of teenagers finding a cluster bomblet. The circus bandwagon which accompanied them, now filled to the brim with international schemers and venal interlocutors, will soon veer off in pursuit of another radon daughter, and stick to some new atrocity - planned or otherwise - like polonium to a tobacco leaf.
The Litvinenko affair will live on as a figment of global folklore, instructive in the way that scripture is, a proof text for the unifying narrative. The real lessons available from a brief public glimpse of the world behind the grubbiest of corporate veils are likely to end up as adiaphora, marginal footnotes to the texts of earnest dissident Cassandras. This is not what von Dechend and Santayana had in mind for myth; but in the inverted world of nested emergence, cultural narrative is vulnerable to the flexible persuasions of freelance mischief makers, human or heavy metal.
1 A curie is the amount of radiation given off by one gram of radium. A milligram of polonium is as radioactive as five grams of radium. [Back]
2 Some of Marie Curie’s notebooks are to this day too radioactive to be handled safely. [Back]
3 Daniel Hopsicker, or Wayne Madsen have written copiously on this subject. Both are well-documented online. [Back]