Cables Shed Light on Ex-K.G.B. Officer’s Death
By ALAN COWELL
The Russian assertion, denied by British officials, seemed to revive a theory that the British intelligence services played a murky role in the killing — a notion voiced at the time by some in
The cable, dated Dec. 26, 2006, and marked “secret,” was one of several in the WikiLeaks trove that tried to examine the still unanswered question of who exactly ordered the use of a rare radioactive isotope, polonium 210, to poison Mr. Litvinenko, leading to his death on Nov. 23, 2006. Russia produces polonium commercially, but the process is closely guarded and British investigators have concluded that the isotope could not have been easily diverted without high-level intervention.
In a telephone interview, Marina Litvinenko, the widow of the former K.G.B. officer, called the Russian assertion “disinformation.”
“When they prepared this, they never expected polonium would be known as a murder weapon,” she said. “But after Nov. 23, they needed some kind of disinformation.”
She said that “polonium could not be used without very high level” involvement of the security services.
A separate cable from Paris suggested that at least one senior American official, Daniel Fried, seemed skeptical of statements by Vladimir V. Putin — then Russia’s president and now prime minister — that he was unaware of the events leading to the killing, which Britain has blamed on another former K.G.B. officer, Andrei K. Lugovoi.
Mr. Lugovoi, now a member of the Russian Parliament, has denied British charges that he murdered Mr. Litvinenko by slipping polonium into a teapot at a British hotel where the two men met on Nov. 1, 2006.
Among several cables mentioning the affair, perhaps the most sensitive covers a meeting in
That encounter had a whiff of an espionage film script. The two met over a dinner described as “amicable.” Both men were veterans of their countries’ intelligence services, and were now assigned by their governments to cooperate in counterterrorism.
Mr. Crumpton had led the C.I.A.’s operation in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Mr. Safonov was a former K.G.B. colonel-general who had risen to high office as deputy director in its successor organization, the F.S.B., in the 1990s, according to Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist who has just published a study of that organization called “The New Nobility.”
One of Mr. Safonov’s subsequent assignments in the 2000s was to head a joint British-Russian counterterrorism group, which was dissolved in the diplomatic freeze provoked by Mr. Litvinenko’s death, Mr. Soldatov said in a telephone interview.
According to the leaked cable, “Safonov claimed that Russian authorities in
The cable did not identify the people carrying the material. Mr. Safonov’s comments reflected allegations by Mr. Lugovoi who, at the time, accused Mr. Litvinenko of being in the pay of British intelligence. But Mr. Safonov’s remarks seemed likely to be taken by British officials as an accusation of incompetence, with the poisoning happening under their eyes. If confirmed, they would also raise the question of how
The question of who ordered the killing surfaced in a separate leaked cable, also marked “secret,” about a meeting in Paris — on the same day as the former spies’ dinner — between a French presidential adviser, Maurice Gourdault-Montagne and Mr. Fried, then the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs in the Bush administration. Mr. Fried is now the Guantánamo special envoy, appointed by President Obama and charged with persuading other countries to take detainees held at the prison in
The French official, the cable said, ascribed the killing to “rogue elements” in the Russian security services. But Mr. Fried “commented that the short-term trend inside
Later, it said
Mr. Fried’s reported remark was the first time that such a suggestion by a serving American officer was made public.
That remark reflected some suspicions about high-level Kremlin involvement in the period after Mr. Litvinenko’s death, when conspiracy theories blossomed relating to Mr. Litvinenko’s activities as a visceral public enemy of Mr. Putin and as a whistle-blower on Russian organized crime. Mr. Litvinenko fled Russia in 2000 and sought asylum in Britain, where he acquired British citizenship shortly before his death.
Mr. Fried declined to comment publicly on the content of the cable.
Another cable, from the American Embassy in
That report added one more layer to the debate about the motives of his killers — could the killing have been done in revenge for his disclosures about the mob?
Perhaps the most tantalizing item in the cables was related to Dmitri Kovtun, a business associate of Mr. Lugovoi, who passed through Hamburg on his way to London on Nov. 1 and was, by his own account, present when Mr. Lugovoi met Mr. Litvinenko at the Millennium Hotel in the Mayfair district of London on Nov. 1, 2006.
According to a confidential cable from the American consulate in Hamburg, dated Dec. 19, 2006 — about a month after Mr. Litvinenko’s death — a senior German counterterrorism official, Gerhard Schindler, “said Kovtun left polonium traces on everything he touched” in Hamburg. That much had been publicly reported.
But, the cable said, “German investigators concluded Kovtun did not have polonium traces on his skin or clothes; Schindler said the polonium was coming out of his body, for example through his pores.”
That suggested that the exposure took place during an earlier visit to
The cable from
Andrew W. Lehren contributed reporting from New York, Clifford J. Levy from
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