- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2006

LONDON — The Russian intelligence services, prime suspects in the death of Alexander Litvinenko, have a network of more than 30 spies operating in Britain.

The sophisticated ring represents the greatest espionage threat facing Britain, government and law-enforcement sources told the London Sunday Telegraph.

The startling intelligence was presented last week to Cabinet ministers at a meeting of Cobra, the anti-terrorist task force.

The spies, equivalent in number to one in five of Moscow government officials based in Britain, are known to be monitoring the movements and activities of Russian emigres and opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But they also are involved in a widespread operation targeting businessmen, members of Parliament and scientists in an attempt to steal commercial and state secrets.

Only the United States has more Russian agents operating on its soil.

Government sources claim that the agents are as active today as they were at the height of the Cold War, despite the fact that the Kremlin is now one of Britain’s major allies in the war on terrorism.

They were also told that Mr. Litvinenko, a former KGB agent who died Nov. 23, was “most probably” slain by “state-sponsored” assassins with the radioactive poison polonium 210 and that suspicion centered firmly on Moscow.

“The Russian intelligence services are highly bureaucratic and legalistic. There isn’t a great deal of room for personal initiative. Everything has to be officially authorized and signed off. And this murder would have been a highly complex operation involving many people, not one or two acting in isolation,” one source told the Telegraph.

The revelations came as the Italian investigator Mario Scaramella, a friend of Mr. Litvinenko, was still being treated in a hospital after also being contaminated with polonium 210 after their meeting at a sushi restaurant.

Last night he was showing “no evidence of radiation toxicity,” but doctors said they were continuing to monitor his condition and further tests were expected.

“The results may seem to suggest that Scaramella was an accidental victim, but it is still possible that the perpetrators simply failed to do their job properly, or that Scaramella himself might have had another role,” a police source said.

Mr. Scaramella flew to Britain on an Easyjet flight from Naples, Italy, to Stansted Airport on Oct. 31 and flew back on Nov. 3.

Mr. Scaramella’s name was one of five on a supposed “hit list” of people targeted for assassination by the Russian intelligence services and a shadowy group of KGB veterans called Dignity and Honor, which is run by a Col. Velentin Velichko.

During the Cobra meeting, government officials and the police were told that Russia is being ruled by a “brutal regime” that regards dissidents such as Mr. Litvinenko and Boris Berezovsky — a Russian businessman living in exile in Britain — as terrorists. The Russian state is suspected of ordering the killings of five persons in the past two decades.

Government sources said that Russia continues to spy on Britain because of its “insatiable” appetite for other countries’ state secrets. The main areas of interest include finance, the energy industry, defense and electronics.

The threat is so severe that senior businessmen in companies such as BP and Centrica have been warned by MI5, a British intelligence service, that they may be targeted.

Government officials said that the Russian spies target unsuspecting businessmen at trade fairs and functions at the Russian Embassy.

Meetings usually follow the exchange of business cards, during which a favor is asked and may be rewarded with cash or other “inducements.”

Officials said that in a “throwback” to the Cold War, agents communicate by “live letter boxes,” in which secret material is carried by one spy to another, or by “dead letter boxes,” where the material is left in a covert location.

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