Conspiracy

Life Turns Into Crazed Spy Novel: The Latest

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The latest in the bizarre mystery surrounding the death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko of apparent polonium-210 poisoning: Mario Scaramella, the Italian "security expert" he chowed on sushi with the night he suspects he was poisoned is also contaminated, the London Times is reporting–with amounts that are "significant" and "likely to be of concern to his immediate health."

Nature magazine has some news you can use about this baroquely bizarre tale (my goodness, why would someone choose such a crazy spy novel way of icing your foes in a world where bullets are abundant?): You needn't have access to a nuke plant to get your hands on polonium-210; the "and, if you suspect baddies with as convoluted a mind as those after Litvinenko might be after you, be apprised that sheets of paper are enough to block polonium-210 radiation.

skilled summation of all the twists and turns of this nutty, and scary, tale–including that former Russian prime minister Yegor Gaidar, who served in the Yeltsin era and was known as a market reformer, fell mysteriously ill in Ireland this week, and also thinks he was poisoned, though no radiation has yet been detected in his case.

NEXT: The Damndest Bit of Parking Meter Sneakiness I Ever Did See

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  1. (my goodness, why would someone choose such a crazy spy novel way of icing your foes in a world where bullets are abundant?):

    Maybe because of UK’s gun laws? Hey, I thought these gun laws were supposed to make the British people SAFER! Next up, Polonium registration, then polonium prohibition. When polonium is illegal, only dangerous government employees have polonium.

  2. It’s polonium-210. Not that it matters much, but why not be correct if you can? 🙂

  3. Grylliade–yes of course, thanks for the gentle correction. Fixed.

  4. The radiation poisoning takes a few days to kill someone. That gives the assasin time to cover his tracks.

  5. I’m not at all convinced that commercial sources of Po-210 could be involved. The most one can buy commercially — or indeed would have any reason to buy commercially — is about 25 picograms, a factor of 2000 less than the estimated 50 nanograms required to cause harm.

    When you consider that the amount in question was sufficient to poison two people and to leave traces in multiple buildings and planes, the amount of polonium used must have been comparatively huge. It seems implausible that this was private-sector poison.

  6. Perhaps Mr. Gaidar was felled by another toxin: the dread Irish Breakfast sausage!

  7. I think that this was the Kremlin’s way of “sending a message” to those who “love their country but hate their government.”

  8. I can’t believe the un-libertarian reaction to all of this. Where can I buy stock in polonium 210? How can we best oppose silly government restrictions on free trade in polonium 210?

  9. Dude’s name is really Gaidar?

  10. His name really is Gaidar and he is, if you’ll pardon the obvious allusion, a good Russian.

    Our president said, “I looked into his soul, and saw a good man” about my countrymen’s president. He was, unfortunately and obviously, wrong.

    All who fail to see the hand of Putin in the poisonings and murders – whether he gave the order or simply set the general policy – are simply afraid of where such a conclusion will lead them.

    I hope to live to see a Russia where the people are once and for all sovereign but I expect that, if that day comes, I will be a very old man.

  11. It is weirdly exotic. Polonium is much easier to trace than a gun or even the thousands of industrial chemicals and medicines that are potentially fatal if taken in the wrong dose or mixed the wrong way.

    jtuf: this doesn’t give the assassin “three days to cover his tracks.” It gives the police three days to interview the victim and learn about his movements. It was a botched job, no two ways about it

  12. The Russians have a long history of poorly done, obvious and brutal assasanations. Stalin’s killing of Trotsky comes to mind. During the Communist days, it was pretty common for the GPU or KGB to beat an out of favor official who was too well known internationally to just be shot or sent to the gulag, to death and put the body into a wrecked car and tell the media he died in a car accident. If you looked at the per capita deaths in car accidents of high Soviet officials and didn’t know any better, you would think that Soviet officials were the most dangerous drivers in human history. That backward brutish mentality hasn’t worn off with communism. Putin is just a communist thug turned crony capitalist. Good lord you could have paid some crazy Pakistani to mug the guy and kill him on the London streets. Even the mafia does a better job than the Russians.

  13. I hope to live to see a Russia where the people are once and for all sovereign

    Never happen. Not the “Russia” part, the “once and for all soverign.”

    “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
    -Thomas Jefferson, 1787

  14. The good news is that Po-210 has a half-life of 138 days and decays to Pb-206 (and 4-He-2), which is stable. The bad news is that because of the short 1/2-life, the decay of Po-210 is particularly energetic, which is bad for anyone who has it in his system.

    http://www.webelements.com/webelements/elements/text/Po/key.htm

  15. Er, excuse me, 2-He-4.

  16. Evidently the H&R thingy filters out the “sub” and “sup” html tags.

  17. Also note that because of the short half-life of Po-210, the stuff that was used to poison Litvinenko would have to have been recently made. Depending on the isotopic ratio of Po-210 to Pb-206, investigators should be able to pinpoint exactly when the Po-210 was made or purified.

  18. The thing about alpha radiation is that it has extremely low penetrating power, since it has a high probability of interacting with the first bit of matter it comes accross.

    You can hold a radioactive source emitting alpha radiation (high velocity He nuclei), and it won’t penetrate the layer of dead skin cells on the outside of the dermis.

    If you ingest the source, then you’re in trouble; the radioactive material wrecks the tissue it comes in contact with: the He nuclei ferociously ionize and destroy DNA, RNA, other proteins etc. This disrupts not only normal cell functioning, but can also prevent the tissue from repairing itself.

    If you are going to poison people with radioactive material, an alpha emitter with a low half life that stays in the body a long time is the best choice.

    As far a s the clumsiness/efficacy of the murder, I think it was intended to acuse a splash.

    Poison is even scarier than bullets. You can ear a bullet proof vest. You can hide from gunmnen, or run away/shoot them when they attack.

    Everybody is vulnerable to poison, and by the time you realize that you are poisoned, it is often too late to do anything about it.

    It’s really an announcement that Putin and his buddies can do whatever they want, and get away with it.

  19. I think you’re right, tarran.

    I also wonder how long Putin thinks he can murder people in other countries with impunity. At some point doesn’t this become an act of war? First the botched attempt in Urkraine, now this (and who knows how many others). I’ll be surprised if Britain hasn’t already warned Putin regarding his activities within their borders.

  20. That’s something I’d like to see. A war between two countries with top-rate militaries, neither of which happen to be the U.S. It’s about time we Americans got to be spectators in a good war for a change.

    I wonder what an actual war between the U.K and Russia would look like.

  21. db,

    Pulling a guess out of my ass, I’d imagine you’d see a chess match on a global scale. Britain would probably work quickly to reestablish something resembling its old empire, and the Russians would be forced to reassert control over the former Warsaw Pact and USSR nations.

    Hmm, is this why Putin has such a hard-on for meddling in the elections of former Soviet Republics?

    Or, am I just killing time and drinking way to much while I wait for Greg Oden to make his debut today for the Ohio State Buckeye basketball team?

  22. If the threat of nuclear escalation was ignored, the Royal Navy would likely make quick work with what exists of the Russian Navy. Hell, the Russian subs would probably sink themselves if they tried to go to extended combat operations.

  23. Maybe this is the next step in blockbuster advertising, and there’ll be a new Bond movie out featuring polonium-210.

  24. Anybody still exploring the theory that Putin and company are being set up? On the other hand, I agree that this is the kind of clumsy spy-movie assassination that the KGB used to go in for.

  25. russia may be falling into sloppy crony authoritarianism but unlike the cold war at least we have lovely, cheap russian cam girls to stare at — russia’s most important export IMHO…

  26. It’s about time we Americans got to be spectators in a good war for a change.

    Silly db, the United States will never be a spectator again…if Britain found Russia’s actions to be an act of war, then one could argue our NATO obligations would draw us into that war as well.

    Us folks in the Army will have to pull up all those old manuals on Commie field tactics. The best part is that we would at least know who the enemy is (presumably Mother Russia’s army would wear uniforms) instead of the grinding day-to-day of not knowing who you can trust.

  27. What’s disappointing about the writeup is that the owners of the United Nuclear website have had a disclaimer up for several days (since at LEAST the Slashdot article that linked to it):


    You would need about 15,000 of our Polonium-210 needle sources at a total cost of about $1 million – to have a toxic amount.

  28. Is anyone else bothered by the fact that almost no one seems to give a shit about this story beyond the nuts and bolts of how it was done?
    A major world leader is using radiological weapons to kill his enemies in other countries, and most of us are just shrugging like it’s no big deal. Why aren’t the usual suspects in the human rights/environmentalist “Axis of Hippie” out there making noise? Or at least a lot more noise?

  29. Is anyone else bothered by the fact that almost no one seems to give a shit about this story beyond the nuts and bolts of how it was done?

    Yes. But then, anyone under the delusion that Russia should have been allowed into the G7 was fooling only themselves. The question before the house now is whether they should (a) kick Russia out for being an autocracy or (b) fold and create a new organization to effect the same thing without annoying Putin, er, I mean the Russians.

  30. “Anybody still exploring the theory that Putin and company are being set up?”

    Yes.

    Pat Buchanan.

    http://buchanan.org/blog/?p=593

    Lately, I find myself agreeing with this guy more than half the time. In a world gone mad, Pat Buchanan’s only half-crazy.

    I

  31. Wish people took this much interest in the anthrax investigation.

  32. So, if the polonium you ingest decays into helium, will it make your voice sound funny?

  33. if you suspect baddies with as convoluted a mind as those after Litvinenko might be after you, be apprised that sheets of paper are enough to block polonium-210 radiation.

    All right, so today’s rainy-day project will be lining my tin foil hat with sheets of paper.

  34. I noted John’s comment @12:33 12/2/06 about the KGB using car crashes for purposes of assassination. That was the way the Soviets did in Andrei Almarik [sp?] author of “Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?”

    Putin is an ex-KGB operative. To him, any opposition is “enemy action”. Unfortunately, this is a common mentality in Russia and has played well for Putin, as he appears to have a certain amount of genuine support.

    Poor Russia.

  35. Is the poison more effective when deliverd by a spike toed shoe?

    I’m excited about this. Terrorist are boring movie villans. I for one am ready for the return of the evil Russian assasin.

  36. Sam Franklin | December 3, 2006, 9:07am | #

    Wish people took this much interest in the anthrax investigation.

    What evidence do you have that the anthrax cases have not been investigated with sufficient resources?

    Oh, never mind.

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