- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 24, 2007

It is no exaggeration to declare that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a true “spookocracy,” a government dominated by members and veterans of intelligence services, what Reuel Marc Gerecht calls a “unique corporate, capitalist police-state.”

Relying on Russian sources, Mr. Gerecht, a longtime clandestine services officer for the CIA, recently wrote that of Russia’s 1,016 leading political figures, including departmental heads in the presidential administration, all members of the government, deputies of both houses of parliament and the heads of federal units and regional, executive and legislative branches, “26 percent had reported serving in the KGB or its successor agencies.” (Given the penchant of intelligence operatives to conceal their backgrounds, Mr. Gerecht says the actual figure might be 78 percent.)

(For the text of Mr. Gerecht’s paper, written for the American Enterprise Institute, visit www.aei.org and search for “A Rogue Intelligence State?”)

These connections took on fearful relevance last November with the murder of former KGB officer and Putin loyalist Alexander “Sasha” Litvinenko, who was poisoned in London by a radioactive isotope, polonium 210. Litvinenko had turned on an intelligence service, charging it was “now being used for settling scores and carrying out private, political and criminal orders for payment.” He accused superiors of extortions, kidnappings and murder.

What apparently pushed him past the breaking point was an order by a superior at the Federal Security Service (FSB) to murder Boris Berezovsky, a powerful Russian businessman who helped put Mr. Putin into power, and who then broke with Mr. Putin and fled to London.

When Litvinenko protested the murder order, he, too, was suddenly in disfavor, accused of a wide range of crimes, including torture of Chechen prisoners. Jailed briefly, he escaped to London and went to work for Mr. Berezovsky and other exiled magnates. He spoke out stridently against Mr. Putin and the excesses of his regime, accusing him, among many other perfidies, of bombing Moscow apartment houses to stir fears against Chechen separatists.

In November 2006, he met two former KGB associates for tea in the bar ofthe Millennium Hotel, across Grosvenor Square from the U.S. embassy. Within hours, he was violently ill. In due course, physicians detected that he had been contaminated by polonium, a radioactive substance. He died after weeks of agony.

“The Litvinenko File,” by a former BBC correspondent in Moscow, reads like a nonfiction Martin Cruz Smith novel. Martin Sixsmith knew many of the principal players when he was stationed in Russia and later when many had fled into fearful exile in London. He details how dogged Scotland Yard detectives traced the polonium trail through swank London hotels, business offices there and on the Continent and British Airways planes that flew to Moscow. And he gives a superb picture of how Russian intrigue has spilled over into the rest of Europe as rival business factions compete for riches.

Although his book was in press weeks before the Crown Prosecution Service brought formal charges, Mr. Sixsmith does not hesitate to name the man he considered the culprit — Andrei K. Lugovoi, himself a former KGB officer.

Now that Mr. Lugovoi has been charged (on May 22), Moscow has waved away British demands that he be extradited and said the murder was actually carried out by MI-6, the British foreign intelligence service. Or perhaps even by Boris Berezovsky himself in a plot to discredit Mr. Putin.

As Mr. Sixsmith writes, hunting down and killing dissidents is a storied tradition of the Russian secret services, whatever their name at the time, Cheka, MKVD, KGB or FSB. He related, “it was the automatic duty of any serving agent who encountered a defector from the security services, whether in Russia or abroad, to kill him.”

In Mr. Putin’s Russia, such killings now are steeped in legality rather than in off-the-books tradition. In July of 2006 the Russian Duma, or parliament, passed Federal Law N 153-F3, which allows the president to use the secret service to eliminate “extremists” in Russia and on foreign territory.

A subsequent expansion, Federal Law N 148-F3, expanded the definition of “extremists” to include anyone “libelously critical of the Russian authorities.” Five months later, Litvinenko fell victim to polonium 210. When Mr. Sixsmith asked two Moscow detectives whether these laws were a “clear mandate” to kill dissidents such as Litvinenko, they stared at one another, then retreated to the telephone to ask “clarification” from higher-ups.

Then they explained that the laws were not adopted with any “evil intent,” but to empower Russian special forces to hunt down and kill the murderers of five Russian diplomats in Iraq.

Many factors complicated the case. Mr. Berezovsky competed with numerous other exiles of shady reputations for business deals. The dissidents quarreled among themselves. And, as Mr. Sixsmith acknowledges, “The view of Litvinenko as a fantasist, or at least an overly obsessive zealot in the anti-Putin cause, was widespread.”

Among his shakier accusations were that the FSB trained the September 11 hijackers, that the Kremlin had a role in the July 2005 bombings in the London Underground trains and that Mr. Putin had “regular sex withunderage boys, the evidence seemingly being that he had been filmed playfully kissing a toddler during his election campaign.” Scotland Yard’s chief investigator, Peter Clark, had to combat resistance not only in Moscow but in London itself.

To British businessmen, Russia was a valuable financial partner, “with British firms investing $3.5 billion in Russia in 2006 and Russian companies raising $15 billion with share offerings on the London Stock Exchange.”

Trade Minister Alistair Darling said of the Litvinenko affair, “Our relationship is robust. Where there have been difficulties, we need to talk frankly as partners.” Mr. Darling’s secondary goal was to “shore up Britain’s access to Russian oil and gas, a market in whichMoscow had been increasingly flexing its muscles … with 30 percent of the world’s gas production and oil production far outstripping all its rivals.”

For a time, Scotland Yard seemed hard up against decision, “business before justice.” In the end, prosecutors were permitted to proceed with bringing charges. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, action was delayed until after Prime Minister Tony Blair announced his date for leaving office, meaning that likely successor Gordon Brown will have to sit across the table from Mr. Putin at the next summit conference.

Mr. Sixsmith concludes that the question of whether the FSB did the murder “remained tantalizingly unresolved.” Further, “it was still completely unclear at what level the operation might have been planned and authorized? Had it been at the top, in the corridors of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin?” If so, we’ll never know. On the subject of “deniability,” intelligence professionals hark back to Henry II’s query about Thomas a Becket:

“Who will free me from this turbulent priest?” The cleric shortly thereafter was killed in Canterbury Cathedral. But, did the king actually order his murder? Or did his courtiers put their own interpretation on his outburst? KGB veteran Putin surely knows the rules of the game.

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is JosephG894 @aol.com.

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