Some of the purported U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks this month appear to shed light on the killing of former KGB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, who died of radioactive poisoning in London in November 2006. So says the headline in "The New York Times," which reported the story on Monday. If anything, they add more circumstantial evidence of a possible Russian cover-up of the prominent Kremlin critic's murder.
One of the cables reported in "The New York Times" details a meeting between U.S. ambassador at large Henry Crumpton and Russian Anatoly Safonov, a special representative of then-President Vladimir Putin. Both are former high-ranking intelligence officers who met for dinner in Paris on December 7, 2006, two weeks after Litvinenko's death.
The cable reports Safonov as telling Crumpton that the Russians had been trailing Litvinenko's suspected killers before his death but had been fobbed off by British security services. The revelation would appear to back a Russian theory that Litvinenko was a British agent, a charge leveled by Andrei Lugovoi -- the Russian former security service officer Britain accuses of having killed Litvinenko by dropping radioactive polonium into his tea when they met in London to discuss business on November 1, 2006.
Safonov's words smack of Russian misinformation concocted after Litvinenko's death aimed at deflecting attention away from possible Russian involvement by raising suspicions against the British.
Moscow has refused British requests to extradite Lugovoi, who now enjoys immunity as a member of parliament. Russia says it's conducting its own investigation into Litvinenko's death.
Another of the cables described in "The New York Times" concerns Dmitry Kovtun, another former Russian security officer who says he also met Litvinenko along with Lugovoi on November 1, 2006. The cable, dated December 19, 2006, is from the U.S. consulate in Hamburg, where Kovtun stopped on his way to London from Moscow before the meeting.
In the cable, a senior German counterintelligence officer is quoted as saying Kovtun "left polonium traces on everything he touched." The cable goes on to say the polonium wasn't found on his skin or clothes but was "coming out of his body." The conclusion appears to suggest Kovtun had absorbed the substance earlier.
Litvenenko's supporters have long suggested he may have been poisoned when he met Lugovoi and Kovtun in October 2006, before the November 1 meeting. Kovtun and Lugovoi have claimed they were also victims of a poisoning attempt.
The cable says the German authorities were preparing to ground the Aeroflot plane Kovtun took from Moscow to Hamburg but that the airline switched planes "at the last minute." The German counterintelligence officer suspected the Russians "must have found out about German plans."
Another cable reports then-U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried as questioning the theory that Russian security officers acting alone may have killed Litvinenko. Fried, the cable reads, "noting Putin's attention to detail, questioned whether rogue security elements could operate, in the U.K. no less, without Putin's knowledge."
Britain's relations with Russia sank to Cold War levels in 2006, when activists from a pro-Kremlin youth group harassed the British ambassador in Moscow. Ties are steadily improving despite Moscow's refusal to cooperate over the Litvinenko affair.
-- Gregory Feifer