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RFE/RL Exclusive: Mystery Over Russian’s Suspected Poisoning Deepens With New FBI Records

RFE/RL Exclusive: Mystery Over Russian’s Suspected Poisoning Deepens With New FBI Records

By Mike Eckel and Carl Schreck

September 24, 2020

In hundreds of FBI documents obtained exclusively by RFE/RL, new clues to the suspected poisoning of Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza -- and new details about how serious the U.S. government considered his case.

The U.S. government is seeking to delay the release of more than 1,000 pages of documents related to the suspected poisoning of Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, part of a multiyear struggle involving a case that has reached the top levels of the White House, the U.S. intelligence community, and Congress.

Hundreds of other FBI and Justice Department documents obtained exclusively by RFE/RL reveal new details about the U.S. investigation into what Kara-Murza believes were two separate, deliberate poisonings by Russian security services.

The materials show, among other things, that the FBI sought evidence that Kara-Murza was poisoned and turned to the expertise of a leading U.S. government weapons research laboratory for help in that search. They also suggest that the director of the FBI, Christopher Wray, was directly involved in the matter.

The documents, however, do not provide definitive proof that Kara-Murza was deliberately poisoned, and the Russian activist believes the answer may lie in the cache of official records whose release U.S. authorities are now seeking to postpone.

The first batch of files was released last week in response to a lawsuit Kara-Murza brought in federal court in an effort to learn exactly what U.S. law enforcement authorities knew about his illnesses, which occurred in 2015 and 2017, and what they did in response.

The disclosures come amid heightened international concern that Russian security agencies are growing bolder in the use of poisons or sophisticated toxins to target dissidents or former spies. That includes the case of Aleksei Navalny, the Kremlin opponent who German officials say was poisoned last month with a substance from the Novichok group of nerve agents, which were first developed by the Soviet Union.

After providing the first set of documents totaling around 400 pages, the Justice Department then said it had discovered an additional 1,100 pages including "lab results and blood work,” but that it would be unable to meet an October 15 deadline to release them to Kara-Murza.

His lawyer, Stephen Rademaker, told RFE/RL that they intend to challenge the request for a delay in releasing the additional 1,100 pages.

“It is hard to comprehend how Vladimir's test results could have been misplaced like this, particularly considering the indications in the documents that were released to us that FBI Director Wray has been personally involved in dealing with this matter,” Rademaker said.

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a query about the status of the document release.

‘Stop Poking Us In The Eye’

Though the Soviet-era KGB was known for using sophisticated poisons to target dissidents and defectors, the issue has gained new attention since Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia in 2000. In 2006, former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Aleksandr Litvinenko died in a British hospital after being exposed to the highly radioactive isotope polonium-210.

In March 2018, former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter nearly died in England after being exposed to what later was identified as Novichok, and a woman who accidentally came in contact with the substance died. British authorities blamed Russia’s military intelligence agency, and scores of Russian diplomats were ejected from the West.

British detectives at the scene of the attempted murder of Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter. AFP PHOTO / Ben STANSALL

As in previous cases, Russia has denied involvement, often in the face of substantial evidence.

Kara-Murza believes both incidents were retaliation for his political activism, including his lobbying for the U.S. Magnitsky Act, a 2012 law that imposed sanctions on Russians deemed by Washington to be rights abusers. The law infuriated the Kremlin.

Who Is Vladimir Kara-Murza?

Kara-Murza, 39, is a veteran politician who has been active in Russian liberal opposition parties and movements since President Vladimir Putin's rise 20 years ago. The son of a prominent journalist, also named Vladimir, who died last year, the younger Kara-Murza was a television correspondent in Washington for several years and later worked on political projects launched by former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a prominent Putin foe who now lives in Europe after spending more than a decade in prison.

Kara-Murza was also a friend and top deputy of Boris Nemtsov, a prominent opposition leader killed in a February 2015 assassination-style shooting near the Kremlin. He splits his time between Moscow and the United States, where his wife and children live outside Washington.

Former Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov during an RFE/RL interview in 2007

While Kara-Murza is far from a household name among the Russian public, he has the ears of prominent members of the U.S. Congress and officials in European Union member states. He has lobbied in the United States and the EU for sanctions against members of Putin’s ruling elite.

In January 2018, less than two months before the Skripal poisoning, an unusual meeting took place in Washington. The directors of the three primary Russian intelligence agencies traveled to the U.S. capital for meetings with American counterparts including Mike Pompeo, then the director of the CIA.

U.S. intelligence veterans called the visit highly unusual, potentially unprecedented.

According to former White House officials, the meetings were part of an effort to arrest the downward spiral of relations between Moscow and Washington. That trend that began under President Barack Obama and worsened dramatically amid revelations that Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election won by Donald Trump.

Kara-Murza’s mysterious illnesses were deemed important enough to U.S.-Russian relations to include on the agenda for the January 2018 meetings with the visiting Russian officials, according to the two former officials.

According to one FBI e-mail included in the documents obtained by RFE/RL, a visitor to Washington sought a meeting with Wray, the FBI director, on January 25 or 26, 2018 -- the same week that the three Russian intelligence chiefs visited the U.S. capital.

The name of the person seeking the meeting with Wray is redacted in the e-mail, which came from the FBI’s Washington field office and included the subject line: “Kara-Murza Case Status.” It is unclear if the e-mail was related to the Russians’ visit to Washington.

There was no detailed readout of the discussions between Pompeo and the visiting Russian officials, according to the officials; only a general description. No detailed minutes were circulated at the White House, one of the officials said.

At the time, Pompeo defended the meeting after congressional Democrats criticized him.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo served as director of the CIA from January 2017 until April 2018. (Nicholas Kamm / POOL / AFP)

According to one former White House official, Kara-Murza’s case was one of several issues to be raised by U.S. officials essentially as a way to get the Russians to stop engaging in provocative actions.

“The message was: ‘If you’re serious about this, stop poking us in the eye and back off and have some restraint here,’” said the official, who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal administration deliberations.

Two months later, however, Skripal was hospitalized in critical condition after being poisoned with Novichok.

“Clearly they didn’t take the message to heart,” the official told RFE/RL.

“Everyone was super pissed off. It undermined the whole point [of the January meeting],” the official said. “It made the point, for many people, that [the Russians] were going to keep on doing this, they didn’t care about the international impact, what it would be.”

The Justice Department did not respond to the query about whether Wray met with the visiting Russians and if he did, whether Kara-Murza’s case was raised.

The State Department referred questions about Pompeo’s discussions to the CIA, which did not respond to an e-mail seeking further information about the January 2018 meeting, and how Kara-Murza’s case was brought up for discussion.

A senior official at the State Department, meanwhile, told RFE/RL that State Department officials were not involved in the January 2018 meeting, but that Kara-Murza’s case had been raised with the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Russian Embassy in Washington “at multiple levels and times.”

The Russian Embassy in Washington said in an e-mail that it "did not attend" the meeting between Pompeo and the visiting Russian officials and that it "does not comment on intelligence services' contacts."

The Kara-Murza Lawsuit

Six months after originally filing a formal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, Kara-Murza sued the Justice Department in U.S. District Court in February 2020, seeking to force the department to release any FBI records relevant to his case.

The argument Kara-Murza made was that the department had violated U.S. law by withholding the documents he was entitled to. On August 10, the Justice Department notified the court that it had identified approximately 400 pages of “responsive documents,” and anticipated making an initial release by September 15, then a final release on October 15.

Last week, shortly before releasing most of those 400 pages, however, the Justice Department notified Kara-Murza’s lawyers that FBI officials had located an additional 1,100 pages of documents but were unlikely to meet the October 15 deadline and would ask the court to delay the release until November 15.

Kara-Murza’s lawyer told RFE/RL that they intended to fight the delay.

Inconclusive Records

The documents released to Kara-Murza by the Justice Department last week, and obtained by RFE/RL, offer no definitive conclusions about either of his suspected poisonings.

A top deputy to Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, Kara-Murza fell ill and was hospitalized in intensive care twice in two years while working in Russia. The first time was May 26, 2015, almost exactly three months after Nemtsov was shot dead not far from the Kremlin walls.

The FBI initiated a full investigation into Kara-Murza’s alleged poisoning within days after he fell suddenly and gravely ill during a work meeting in Moscow. A source whose name is redacted subsequently gave the FBI samples he claimed were taken from Kara-Murza, including a stained T-shirt, underwear, a vial of hair and nail clippings, and a vial “of what appeared to be blood,” the records show.

A Search For Answers In Kremlin Critic's Mysterious Illness

When Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza fell gravely ill in 2015, many suspected that dark forces were at work. The case is still shrouded in mystery, but he and his family believe he became one of the targets in a series of high-profile poisonings of anti-Kremlin figures.

Those samples were sent to the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, “for toxicology testing in an attempt to determine if Kara-Murza was poisoned,” an FBI electronic communication dated June 25, 2015, reads. The message notes that the FBI lab was advised that “the current samples have minimal volume, which makes testing difficult and limited.”

The first batch of FBI records released under Kara-Murza’s lawsuit, however, do not include any results from the Quantico lab concerning his first alleged poisoning.

The FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia

Kara-Murza’s doctors initially suggested his illness was linked to citalopram, an antidepressant he was taking at the time, according to his wife, Yevgenia.

But Kara-Murza’s medical records from the team of doctors treating him list the main diagnosis as “outside hospital two sided pneumonia” and “toxic effect of unidentified substance,” according to a translation included in the FBI documents. (Kara-Murza’s wife says he developed pneumonia at the hospital and that it was treated with antibiotics.)

When Kara-Murza again went into multiple organ failure in Moscow nearly two years later, in early February 2017, his official Russian diagnosis echoed the first: "toxicity from an unspecified substance."

An excerpt from Kara-Murza's medical report from a Moscow hospital after he fell gravely ill in February 2017. The diagnosis states "toxicity from an unspecified substance."

This time, Kara-Murza’s wife was ready, and immediately collected blood and urine samples for independent testing. His blood, hair, and tissue samples were spirited out of Russia, and sent to foreign laboratories to be tested. FBI agents met his wife “immediately upon her arrival in the United States and took custody of the samples...that she carried with her,” according to the lawsuit.

The FBI coordinated with Kara-Murza’s wife to obtain samples, “with emphasis on samples from initial onset of symptoms,” the newly released records show.

After suffering from what his doctor in Moscow described as six days of multiple organ failure, Kara-Murza recovered sufficiently to return to Virginia, where his wife and children live, less than three weeks after he collapsed.

The FBI again sent the blood and urine samples to its laboratory in Quantico. But according to the limited records released last week, the only potentially suspicious findings were elevated levels of barium in his urine.

A blood sample was sent to an outside laboratory for confirmation, but that analysis “did not reveal any positive findings of toxicological significance,” the records show.

The FBI agent handling Kara-Murza’s case informed him of this finding in early January 2018, noting that the opposition activist “expressed disappointment in the results but was willing to allow the FBI to send his blood sample to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for further testing.”

The Lawrence Livermore facility is one of four U.S. laboratories designated by the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) “for the analysis of authentic biomedical samples.” Kara-Murza told RFE/RL that the agent informed him the samples would be sent there.

A Chemical Weapons Expert Weighs In

RFE/RL asked Marc-Michael Blum, a chemical weapons expert who led the OPCW’s team that deployed to Britain in 2018 in the wake of the near-fatal poisoning of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, to review the first batch of medical and lab reports that the Justice Department released to Kara-Murza.

Blum said that Kara-Murza’s samples were not screened for cholinesterase inhibitors, which are found in some medicines and insecticides but also in chemical weapons such as the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok.

German doctors discovered cholinesterase inhibitors in Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny, who nearly died after falling ill on a flight from Siberia to Moscow on August 20. The German government concluded that Navalny had been poisoned with a nerve agent from the Novichok group. Novichok was identified as the cause of Skripal’s poisoning.

Blum said Kara-Murza’s medical records also indicate that doctors did not screen for organophosphorus agents, another substance found in chemical weapons as well as pesticides and herbicides.

“Russian doctors, in my opinion, really tried to find out what was wrong with [Kara-Murza] but took a classical approach,” he told RFE/RL’s Russian Service. “Also, the U.S. lab took a pretty conservative, classical approach, too.”

But the initial 241 pages of records released to Kara-Murza do not include any other references to the Lawrence Livermore lab.

Steve Wampler, a spokesman for the California-based lab, told RFE/RL that for almost all of the work that it does for outside agencies, the results become the property of those organizations.

“That rule remains in effect for any work we may or may not have done for the case of the Russian opposition activist that you mentioned,” Wampler said in an e-mail.

Kara-Murza told RFE/RL that the “whole reason I needed those lab test results out was to try to pierce through this plausible deniability that the Kremlin hides behind every time something like this happens.”

“Every time there's another political opponent, or independent journalist, or anti-corruption campaigner, or defector, or whoever else is targeted by poisoning; every time there's some sort of an alternative explanation offered by the Russian authorities,” he said.

An FBI memo included in the records describes a March 9, 2018, meeting in Washington between Kara-Murza and the FBI agent. The agent wrote that while Kara-Murza understood “that the FBI’s laboratory analysis was inconclusive, he is hoping to have the FBI comment in writing on his case indicating that it is being handled as a case of intentional poisoning.”

Kara-Murza, whom U.S. lawmakers have supported in his efforts to access the FBI files, indicated he would use these connections to pressure the bureau in the matter, the agent’s report states.

Kara-Murza told RFE/RL: “What I wanted above all were the lab test results -- but if the FBI decided to classify the specific substance, I at least asked them to give me the general reason for the poisoning.”

Support In Congress

Rademaker, Kara-Murza’s lawyer, said they were notified just days before the September 15 deadline that the Justice Department intended to delay release of the additional 1,100 pages until November 15.

Kara-Murza, who is a Russian citizen and legal U.S. resident, has over several years cultivated close ties with members of Congress, who advocated for him. Several lawmakers, Republican and Democratic, wrote directly to Wray, appealing for the involvement of the FBI director.

In early 2018, in discussions with U.S. lawmakers and congressional staff members, FBI officials indicated they would consider releasing some of the results, according to the people directly familiar with the matter. They spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the situation publicly.

But for unclear reasons, the FBI later notified members of Congress it would not do so, these people said -- frustrating those who felt it deserved more urgency.

One senator even suggested in a letter to the FBI that the substance that triggered Kara-Murza’s illness may be "classified" by the agency.

March 29, 2017: Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza (left) and Senator John McCain prepare to testify before a Senate committee hearing on Russia. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Among Kara-Murza’s champions in Congress was the late Republican Senator John McCain, who died in August 2018. Kara-Murza served as a pallbearer at his funeral.

A year earlier, in a September 22, 2017, letter to Wray, inquiring about the status of the investigation, McCain complained about administrative delays, and he pressed Wray to make the investigation a priority.

McCain also wrote that he believed both illnesses were deliberate poisonings -- and were politically motivated.

“Vladimir…has clearly been the victim of Putin’s brutal campaign to eliminate his opposition. Identifying who and how this was done will help Vladimir seek the justice he deserves and will provide a small form of protection against repeated attacks on his life and that of other dissidents,” McCain wrote.

With reporting by Sergei Dobrynin and Mark Krutov of RFE/RL’s Russian Service