Litvinenko

by Daniel on November 28, 2006

I’ve just noticed that we haven’t had a specific post on the Litvinenko poisoning, despite the fact that it’s an interesting subject. I don’t really have anything to say on this, except that I would point out that this is a good refutation of those self-consciously “level-headed” types who like to believe that “most suspicious things are a case of cock-up rather than conspiracy”, that “you can’t put together any big plan without someone talking about it” or that there is something intrinsically weird or tin-foil-hattish about assuming that political ends of one sort or another are often advanced by illegal means. The most interesting thing about this case to me is that whoever is responsible for killing Litvinenko (and I suppose that the truly “rational” point of view of the non-conspiracy-theorist might be that the polonium got into his sushi by a series of coincidences), they will almost certainly get away with it. All of the main suspects are simply too geopolitically important in one way or another to ever be charged with or punished for anything as simple as murder. Informed opinions solicited, the other sort welcomed, try not to libel anyone please.

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1

John 11.28.06 at 6:39 pm

I don’t think we will know who ordered/organised this for at least fifty years. It could be any one of a number of ‘renegade’ elements within the Russian state. It could be any number of criminal elements linked to the oligarchy. It’s not likely that Putin ‘ordered’ the killing (anymore than Downer ‘ordered’ the AWB to breach sanctions).

If the Metropolitan Police happen to get on a hot trail (unlikely) they’ll be warned off. The British government doesn’t want to get into a spat with Moscow over this (or anything else really).

People like Putin don’t have to get their hands directly dirty in affairs like this. Hints about turbulent priests will do the trick and political morality has certainly not improved since the time of Henry II.

2

Brian 11.28.06 at 6:47 pm

At risk of making (more of) a fool of myself, I want to stand up for the “rational” types here. I always thought the rule was that when in doubt, it’s good to bet on cock-up rather than conspiracy. (This is obviously better advice if you live in places where people do screw things up on a regular basis. I grew up in Australia.) But it’s hard to see what the doubt is here. Polonium doesn’t get into people’s sushi by accident, so this one has gotta be murder.

On the more substantive question, I’d be interested in knowing what Daniel thinks of the “rogue element” theory, that this wasn’t something ordered by Putin or anyone close to him but was someone much further down the food chain of the secret service either doing his boss a “favour” or exacting some personal revenge? “Bad apple” theories have a really bad track record I think, especially when applied to apples in large, secretive organisations, so I’m inclined to be suspicious. But given Litvinenko’s apparent lack of influence before he was murdered, it’s hard to see what the payoff is for Putin (or those around him) here. Now Putin doesn’t always act in his own best interests, but he does so more often than a few other world leaders we could name. So perhaps this really wasn’t something that was ordered from particularly on high?

The “bad apple” theory manages to be both conspiracy (amongst the murderers) and cock-up (from the view of the Russian security service as a whole) but that probably just means it has all the flaws of both kinds of theory.

3

ogged 11.28.06 at 6:49 pm

Wasn’t there also a theory that this was a suicide, intended to make Putin look bad?

4

Leinad 11.28.06 at 6:50 pm

You’re barking up the wrong tree folks – it was Hitchens.

5

Randolph Fritz 11.28.06 at 6:50 pm

I have the strong sense that the UK government is acting like something out of a Jo Walton novel. Oy vey!

6

Neil 11.28.06 at 6:55 pm

I will stick to my theory that the 9/11 hijackers all had their idea independently and found themselves on the same planes at the same times coincidentally. Anything else deserves to be dismissed as a conspiracy theory.

7

radek 11.28.06 at 7:02 pm

it’s hard to see what the payoff is for Putin

The payoff is the same as for when you’re a mob boss and you get a chance to hit the guy who dissed you twenty years ago. It sends a message.

8

Ben M 11.28.06 at 7:21 pm

One odd thing among many:

Imagine yourself as the agent of a corrupt government, and with all of the rusting James Bond-y gizmos of the Cold War at your disposal. You’re ordered to kill someone—someone very visible—in a nearby, ostensibly friendly country. Would you:

a) Use an extremely unusual, hard-to-obtain weapon, one which is specifically associated with government agencies in ex-Cold War countries?

b) Run him over on a dark night with a nondescript car?

The choice, of course, depends on whether it’s an ordinary assassination, or an open letter and threat to would-be critics. If the intention was the latter, it seems like the perpetrators hit the nail right on the head. If it was the former, they may have screwed up by assuming, e.g., that the cause of death wouldn’t be found, or that it wouldn’t make the evening news.

9

Daniel 11.28.06 at 7:32 pm

Radek is right. If Putin wanted to kill Litvinenko, it made sense for him to do it in this specific way (ie, a gruesome one that obviously looks like him and if it is him, can easily be traced to him), as it will end up sending the message to all the other emigres that a) he is prepared to do it and b) he can do it with impunity (which he can; I don’t think anyone seriously believes that this case will have any material negative effects at all).

Given that, I am tempted to wield Occam’s razor on all other theories which involve someone getting hold of polonium, which is difficult to get if you aren’t the Russian state but easy if you are. Oh tee oh aitch, Occam’s razor is a really weak tool in explaining human events, because the damnedest things happen. I would guess that the “rogue element” and “turbulent priest” versions of the story are pretty observationally indistinguishable.

I think that the suicide version of the story is implausible – it’s a horrible way to die and would have required superhuman willpower to not let on to the doctors that it was polonium. Oh tee oh aitch, I regard a related theory (that Boris Beresovsky arranged the murder in order to scupper the Russia/UK extradition treaty which had a MoU signed a couple of weeks ago) as worth thinking about, if not necessarily anything more. My problem with this idea is that I don’t think that the UK was being sincere in negotiating that treaty with Russia in the first place and if I was aware of that, Beresovsky certainly was.

And so we end up in the normal state of affairs in parapolitics; knowing that something shady has gone on, but not a whit more enlightened as to what the hell it was.

(PS: I’ve just realised that this post would look to a longtime CT obsessive as if it was having a go at Brian Weatherson, as I have made the cockup/conspiracy joke at his expense once in the past – this was accidental, although obviously any abuse I heap on passing Aussies during an Ashes series is unlikely to be wholly unintentional at a deep, freudian level).

10

Ian 11.28.06 at 7:33 pm

No idea about Litvinenko, but some of Daniel’s assumptions seem a little straw-mannish. Cock-up vs conspiracy: are we forced to choose in this case, if we love both apples and oranges?
“you can’t put together any big plan without someone talking about it” – well, yes, but was the Litvinenko killing a Big Plan? Rigging an election or a casus belli is a big plan. Killing a private individual on neutral, unguarded ground may represent a very small plan, especially for a large organisation with specialist experience.

And has anyone except Pollyanna hacks claimed that there is something intrinsically weird or tin-foil-hattish about assuming that political ends of one sort or another are often advanced by illegal means? Is this what “level-headed” types are saying? Whatever happened to “realists”?

11

alkali 11.28.06 at 7:44 pm

Charles Stross had interesting comments on this issue, for values of “interesting” that include making you want to flee from the room and/or dissolve in tears.

12

Daniel 11.28.06 at 7:50 pm

I am not that worried about Charlie Stross’ theory. I am a child of the Chernobyl cloud (fun CT biographical fact: I still go click on a geiger counter measurably more than people who weren’t living in North Wales at that time) so I am somewhat more robust about “dirty bombs” than the median.

13

gashlycrumb 11.28.06 at 8:03 pm

When I learned how Litvinenko died I couldn’t help wondering if this was a case of life imitates art. In the Arkady Renko mystery Wolves Eat Dogs a gangster kills a rival “New Russian” billionaire with radiation poisoning.

14

radek 11.28.06 at 8:10 pm

Hmmm. The Russian government is saying that IT IS in fact a conspiracy.

15

Jack 11.28.06 at 8:23 pm

This:
http://www.ricelake.com/docs/viewProduct.php?productID=91906
is a $225 dollar source of several lethal doses of Polonium. The range of people who could use Polonium as poison is probably wider than has been suggested.

16

Matt Weiner 11.28.06 at 8:36 pm

About Stross’s theory, these two passages seem in tension:

To do any damage, [polonium] needs to be up close and personal, inside the victim

What this is, is a warning: “we have the capability to detonate a dirty bomb in central London any time we feel like it, so don’t fuck with us”. (Just take Polonium and add a little TNT.)

If polonium has to be ingested to harm someone, then a bomb seems like an ineffective way to deliver it.

17

Matt Weiner 11.28.06 at 8:43 pm

I see that was hashed out thoroughly in Stross’s comments.

18

Jake 11.28.06 at 8:57 pm

The main effect of dirty bombs is to scare people. After all, “haha – now you have a 10% chance of getting cancer in the next 50 years” is hardly a threat in the same category as “give me your money or I’ll shoot you.”

13: in order to turn that anti-static source into a poison, you need to do some somewhat complicated chemistry with very good lab technique, lest you poison yourself instead of your intended victim.

19

Matt 11.28.06 at 9:01 pm

I really don’t think you should under estimate the ability of the Russian government to do a ham-fisted job on this sort of thing. (Or any government, for example- James Bond really is a fantasy, and most stuff is more ham-fisted than that.) But, consider the obvious assassination in Qatar a year or so ago, where the Russian agents were picked up in less than a day, the transparent lies during the Kursk affair, the jabbing of a distraught mother of a Kursk sailor with sedatives _on national television_, the obvious fuck-ups and lies with the Nord Ost affair, the obvious fuck-ups and lies with Beslan, the ‘fake’ bomb planted by the FSB in Ryazan (even if you don’t think they planted the real ones), and so on. Given all of this, it wouldn’t surprise me if this was done by the Russian security services and they didn’t see that it would be as much of a problem as it has been. I really think they still have the mind-set from the Soviet Union where the fact that this stuff was done in an obvious was didn’t matter because no one would know about it.

20

Jake 11.28.06 at 9:02 pm

Didn’t the KGB have the Bulgarian Secret Police stab some former spy who defected in the leg with an umbrella that had a needle with ricin on the tip?

The message of “If you used to work for the KGB, leave, and turn against us, we will hunt you down and kill you in a particularly gruesome and unpleasant way” seems to have been reinforced.

21

Walt 11.28.06 at 9:06 pm

Are there any realistic possibilities other than a) the Russians did it, or b) someone else did it to make it look like the Russians did it?

22

Jake 11.28.06 at 9:11 pm

I find it very unlikely that someone with the dedication to kill a former KGB agent via Po-210 poisoning would be unaware that it would look like the Russians did it. Implausible, even.

Not that there couldn’t be someone with a grudge against Litvinenko who decided killing him this way meant that he’d never get caught… but even the dude who poisoned the Tylenol to kill his wife got caught eventually. The Russians, on the other hand, aren’t really going to get in trouble for this even if they get unambiguously fingered.

23

engels 11.28.06 at 9:20 pm

Didn’t the KGB have the Bulgarian Secret Police stab some former spy who defected in the leg with an umbrella that had a needle with ricin on the tip?

You’re thinking of Georgi Markov. He was a dissident writer (not a spy) who was murdered in London (it seems) by Bulgarian/KGB agents acting on the orders of the Bulgarian government.

24

harry b 11.28.06 at 9:36 pm

engels — I think the parenthetical “(it seems)” is a bit overcautious there. They’re not going to sue you, you know!

25

Walt 11.28.06 at 9:47 pm

Yeah, engels, it’s a ricin needle for you.

26

engels 11.28.06 at 9:55 pm

Yes, as Walt implies, fear of litigation is pretty far down the list of reasons not to badmouth the KGB.

27

KCinDC 11.28.06 at 10:07 pm

Matt, if they were thinking no one would know about it, what would be the point of killing him in such an exotic way?

28

Matt 11.28.06 at 10:14 pm

I mean that the domestic population could be kept in the dark in the past about such things, not that the people whom the security services would want to know about it wouldn’t know about it.

29

Putin 11.28.06 at 10:56 pm

Berezovskii did it to extract revenge on Litvinenko for the failed killing that Litvinenko attempted on Berezovskii a while back

Read all about it here, if you can

30

aidan 11.28.06 at 11:11 pm

Markov was also a broadcaster whose anti-communist views made him a target. The somewhat comical, 007 style assassination by umbrella, demonstrates the KGB fetish for doing the act in public, and yes as someone mentioned above, it very often is designed to cower other dissidents who are thinking of committing indiscretions.

I think there is some truth to the rogue/cock-up angle, but it could also have been orchestrated to appear that way. It’s highly unlikely that Putin would ever play godfather by picking up the phone and ordering a murder of this sort. But in the KGB (now FSB) culture in which he rose to the rank of Lt Colonel, permissions of this sort don’t always have to be spelled out, for obvious reasons. So the golden boy’s displeasure could be taken as a nod by those in the know.

However I don’t think it was always so indirect. It seems inconceivable to me that so many Putin detractors have suffered poisonings, shootings and car bombing (the Qatr incident alluded to above involved then President of Chechnya, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, who was living in exile) without Putin being more directly involved.

Prior to being gunned down in her apartment building in Moscow, Anna Politkovskaya was actively engaged in preparing a major expose of human rights abuses in Chechnya (according to the newspaper for which she wrote, Novaya Gazeta).

I did a post on these assassinations on my blog and someone sent me an excellent Times article going back a few years, that talks about the KGB tradition of public assassinations. Find it here:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,18389-1610952,00.html

We will never know if Putin had a hand in the dioxine poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko, but if you were really twisted, you might think that the poison had been chosen so poor old Viktor would be forced to appear in front of the world looking like a fried tomato with a sudden hair loss issue. It’s hard to believe that any plan would include anything quite so diabolical as adverse media exposure designed to make the victim look like a dick, but Russian agents seem to enjoy an audience.

As someone earlier pointed out, there is very little likelihood a European government will go the distance in attempting to expose this type of operation, let alone nail the perps, if it means making Russia look bad. Putin knows this, and it no doubt contributes to the impunity demonstrated by his agents.

31

P O'Neill 11.28.06 at 11:38 pm

It wouldn’t be a true conspiracy without an Italian angle, and of course there is one via Professor Scaramanga or whatever his name is.

32

Phoenician in a time of Romans 11.28.06 at 11:44 pm

Are there any realistic possibilities other than a) the Russians did it, or b) someone else did it to make it look like the Russians did it?

Consider my pet theory – Iran.

Why do it? Because it sends a message to the US and whoever might still be supporting them should they decide to attack saying “don’t fuck with us, bitches”

Why poison someone? Because explicitly screaming “dirty bomb” would panic significant parts of the Western population and force a response.

Why poison that guy? Why not? It gives an immediate diversion of attention away from Iran for the benefit of the media, and “Putin is an assassin” is plausible.

33

Tracy W 11.28.06 at 11:48 pm

I don’t really have anything to say on this, except that I would point out that this is a good refutation of those self-consciously “level-headed” types who like to believe that “most suspicious things are a case of cock-up rather than conspiracy”,

Umm not really. As stated, to refute the hypothesis that “most suspicious things are a case of cock-up rather than conspiracy” you would have to collect a database of suspicious things and identify which are clearly caused by conspiracy rather than cock-up and discover that most are caused by conspiracy, not cock-ups. (And to be effective, you’d need to get agreement from whoever was making the claim on what is meant by “suspicious things” and what is proof of conspiracy and what is proof of cock-up.)

You are treating the claim as if it was “All swans are white”, which can be disproved by producing a black swan. “Most swans are white” however cannot be disproved by producing a single black swan.

It also is not a refutation of “you can’t put together any big plan without someone talking about it” unless you define “big plan” as rather small. An assassination of the type discussed involves presumably a few people making the order, some chemists turning the polonium into the dangerous form, some people delivering said polonium, and the actual assassin or assassins. There seems to be no reason for the chemists and delivery people to be aware of the reasons for their actions (I’ve never bothered telling a courier why I’m having some documents couriered), so we’re talking a few people here. It sounds about the size of a marjiuna operation. Sometimes they get talked about to the media, sometimes they don’t.

This compares to conspiracy theories about things like the moon landings which require thousands of people to be involved.

34

Jasper Milvain 11.29.06 at 3:36 am

Is is certain that a hit-and-run “accident” would have been simpler and less traceable than spraying something on to sushi, given that London is stacked with traffic cameras and presents a motorist with relatively few opportunities to reach a fatal speed discreetly?

A spectacular poisoning is obviously and frighteningly an assassination, and I’m sure the killers want that. But if they’re powerful enough that they doesn’t need to source poison from anyone talkative, it’s going to be hellishly difficult to investigate and formally pin blame.

35

abb1 11.29.06 at 3:47 am

Karel Capek wrote a very short story called The Death of Baron Gandara. Baron Gandara, mysterious and demonic person, adventurer, gambler and international spy is shot and killed in his garden, his wallet missing.

Young police commissioner expects a sinister international intrigue to unravel, leading to his fame and publicity, but the old detective on the case says: “nah, nothing like this ever happens in my investigations – better send a cop to check if the maid has a nephew.”

An hour later the cop arrives and reports that the maid has a boyfriend who is out of town, but the cook has a nephew who’s around. They search nephew’s apartment and find the wallet.

36

Daniel 11.29.06 at 3:47 am

reading the blatts, by the way, it seems unlikely that the polonium was actually in the sushi as the amount of polonium hanging around that sushi bar is only consistent with what would have been in Litvinenko’s sweat and saliva.

37

astrongmaybe 11.29.06 at 4:00 am

Tracy @ 34

Assassination (incl. political assassination) is one of the two great areas in which conspiracy is the something close to the norm (the other being the coup d’etat, which is by definition a conspiracy – has there ever been a single-handed or an unplanned coup?). So while this case doesn’t prove the case that “all suspicious things are the result of conspiracies”, it does throw another rock on the ample pile of evidence that “the world is full of greedy, violent bastards who will collude to get their way”. That’s what “political conspiracy” is, and it is pervasive: it doesn’t have to be “faking up the moon-landings.”

The level-headed types are just anyway just trying to use the idea of “conspiracy” in order to redefine “vested interest” as “tinfoilhattery”, so as to claim it doesn’t exist.

38

Doctor Slack 11.29.06 at 4:02 am

Consider my pet theory – Iran.

Ummm, what’s the point of “sending a message” if you’re going to deliberately obscure who the message is from?

39

Harald Korneliussen 11.29.06 at 4:10 am

“I always thought the rule was that when in doubt, it’s good to bet on cock-up rather than conspiracy.”

I believe in stupidity too, but in this case I think the cock-up was using polonium. Whoever it was who poisoned him, they may have believed that it would just invisibly give him cancer or something. It’s by no means certain that it was intended to be a spectacular and frightening assasination (although the Putin-as-mob-boss theory doesn’t seem too unreasonable either. Certainly the theory that someone did it to make Putin look bad is even more ludicrous – Putin doesn’t care how he looks to the world)

40

Chris Bertram 11.29.06 at 4:21 am

Ironic that we have an authoritarian populist with a background in a Stalinist organization in charge of the British Home Office, giving briefings about an alleged hit ordered by another authoritarian populist with a background in a Stalinist organization.

41

Daniel 11.29.06 at 4:24 am

Certainly the theory that someone did it to make Putin look bad is even more ludicrous

True, although there is a closely related theory that it was done in order to remind the British government that Putin’s government is not the sort of place we should be signing extradition treaties with. I would certainly say that the timing of the MoU signed between the Crown Prosecution Service and its Russian equivalent gives weak support to the false-flag theory (although weak support is more or less all it has).

42

abb1 11.29.06 at 5:05 am

Also ironic that, as Justin Raimondo notes, Mr. Litvinenko was a bit of a conspiracy theorist himself. He (Raimondo) provides this link:

The right hand of bin Laden, the Number Two in “Al-Qaeda” was trained at the secret base of the Russian secret services on Caucasus, the former Lieutenant Colonel of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) Alexander Litvinenko told the Polish Rzeczpospolita newspaper.

43

Phoenician in a time of Romans 11.29.06 at 6:10 am

Ummm, what’s the point of “sending a message” if you’re going to deliberately obscure who the message is from?

Because they want the Bush administration and the other governments that might support them to know, but they don’t want to be in a situation of looking like North Korea to the Western public – this would limit the Western government’s reactions.

If your goal is to avoid a war, you want the opponent to know the consequences of starting it will be high, but you don’t want nimrods like Jeff Goldstein or Glenn Reynolds jumping up and down, wetting their panties and screeching to NukeSomeoneRealQuick.

44

Martin Bento 11.29.06 at 6:11 am

Brian wrote:

“I always thought the rule was that when in doubt, it’s good to bet on cock-up rather than conspiracy. “

Why? If you’re really in doubt, perhaps the rule should be to acknowledge that the matter is unsettled. The assumption of cock-up tends to be self-fufilling as far as public knowledge is concerned. For example, during the California power outages, two broad theories abounded: the “years of neglect” theory, i.e. cock-up, and the “evil corporations” theory, i.e., conspiracy. Years of investigation finally proved the conspiracy theory correct, but only because government officials took the theory seriously enough to conduct those investigations. If the government had followed the advice of the cock-up school and refused to attribute to malice what could plausibly be explained by incompetence, why the cockupers would still think they were correct. It would be a mighty victory for self-fufilling ignorance.

Ian wrote:

““you can’t put together any big plan without someone talking about it” – well, yes, but was the Litvinenko killing a Big Plan? Rigging an election or a casus belli is a big plan.”

Well, yes, it’s not a good example of that point, but we do have plentiful examples of rigged elections and fudged cases for war, not least recently. We also have huge efforts like Cointelpro and MK Ultra successfully kept secret for years. The notion that someone inevitably snitches posits that humans are poor at optimizing prisoner’s dilemma situations. Were that true it’s hard to see how we could develop complex societies or elaborate moral codes – two of our striking characterisics as a species, it seems.

Tracy wrote:

“As stated, to refute the hypothesis that “most suspicious things are a case of cock-up rather than conspiracy” you would have to collect a database of suspicious things and identify which are clearly caused by conspiracy rather than cock-up and discover that most are caused by conspiracy, not cock-ups.”

True, and since our knowledge about the world is always incomplete, and the terms of this debate are themselves ambiguous, there is no rigorous and fair way to settle which is more common. But it doesn’t matter much if most conspiracy theories are false; the same is true of most theories of all sorts. There simply are more wrong than right answers.

Daniel,

Thanks for framing the post in this way. It’s a good jumping off point. On the assasination itself, I have not looked into it really, so I have no opinion.

45

ajay 11.29.06 at 6:53 am

if you were really twisted, you might think that the poison had been chosen so poor old Viktor would be forced to appear in front of the world looking like a fried tomato with a sudden hair loss issue. It’s hard to believe that any plan would include anything quite so diabolical as adverse media exposure designed to make the victim look like a dick,

I assume this is a sarcastic reference to the “let’s poison Castro with thallium so his beard will fall out and he’ll lose the respect of the Cuban people (who are hypnotised by beards? wtf?)” plot that the US came up with in the 1950s.

And it’s worth pointing out that, personally, if I were involved in a plot whose object was the long and painful death of someone who snitched about plots, I myself would be highly motivated not to snitch about that particular plot, for very obvious reasons.

46

Doctor Slack 11.29.06 at 6:55 am

If your goal is to avoid a war, you want the opponent to know the consequences of starting it will be high, but you don’t want nimrods like Jeff Goldstein or Glenn Reynolds jumping up and down

This assumes a) that the targets of the message will be able to read it accurately (which would be odd given that the primary target is famously proud of being obtuse and uninformed), b) that nimrods like Jeff Goldstein and Glenn Reynolds come by their obsessions independently instead of just echoing whatever IngSoc’s two-minute hate of the moment happens to be, and c) that the Iranians don’t already assume the Western public is largely anti-Iranian. Those all seem like pretty large assumptions.

47

soru 11.29.06 at 8:42 am

There’s always the ‘cocked up conspiracy’ theory.

Two questions:

1. what are the symptoms of a dose of polonium ten, or a hundred, times smaller than the one Litvinenko got?

2. Over the last 10 years, who died quietly in their sleep from symptoms like that?

48

stuart 11.29.06 at 9:04 am

Brian wrote:

“I always thought the rule was that when in doubt, it’s good to bet on cock-up rather than conspiracy. ”

Why? If you’re really in doubt, perhaps the rule should be to acknowledge that the matter is unsettled.

If you are betting on something being more likely, by definition the matter is unsettled, you are just intrinsicly stating an opinion of which option you think is more likely.

49

abb1 11.29.06 at 9:20 am

What, no one cares to make a joke about polonium named in honor of Poland vs. ruthenium named in honor of Russia?

OK then: if it was a message, clearly the message had something to do with Poland.

Oh, this is so lame it hurts… But someone had to do it.

50

Daniel 11.29.06 at 9:35 am

that’s not even necessarily as far-fetched as you think; I seem to remember a Borges short story where the protagonist murders a man with a particular surname in order to convey a message to someone else, and stranger things have happened in real life.

51

engels 11.29.06 at 9:49 am

The story is The Garden of Forking Paths. I can’t think of any real life examples though…

52

ajay 11.29.06 at 10:16 am

Ruthenium was named after Ruthenia. Not Russia.

Two questions:

1. what are the symptoms of a dose of polonium ten, or a hundred, times smaller than the one Litvinenko got?
2. Over the last 10 years, who died quietly in their sleep from symptoms like that?

Symptoms could be anything from nothing, via lung cancer, to acute radiation sickness. Link

Lots of people, possibly. But if you just wanted to kill someone in a way that looked un-suspicious, why wouldn’t you just push them under a bus? This is an incredibly stupid way to do it.

53

abb1 11.29.06 at 10:48 am

Wikipedia says “the name derives from Ruthenia, a latinized name for Russia” – and that’s good enough for me. Edit it out and then we’ll talk.

54

no one 11.29.06 at 11:01 am

wikipedia: the answer to all life’s problems. There will come a day in class when a student’s going to respond to argument with: “but that’s not wikipedia says.” Actually, it’s probably already happened.

55

soru 11.29.06 at 11:02 am

Not that I’ve tried it, but I rather suspect pushing somebody under a bus is a lot more difficult than you might think. Especially a fit, paranoid person with security training.

If it really is a matter of putting a full-stop’s worth of polonium in somone’s food and they ‘probably’ die of cancer within 6 months, that would actually be a very sensible and unrisky way of bumping off someone. Providing you don’t screw up the dose so they get visible symptoms while still radioactive.

56

JP 11.29.06 at 11:42 am

Didn’t the KGB have the Bulgarian Secret Police stab some former spy who defected in the leg with an umbrella that had a needle with ricin on the tip?

Only his leg defected? Hardly seems worth poisoning him over that…

57

Doctor Slack 11.29.06 at 12:10 pm

I rather suspect pushing somebody under a bus is a lot more difficult than you might think.

Boy, it sure is. And tying them to train tracks… sheesh. Don’t even get me started.

58

Frank 11.29.06 at 12:17 pm

> make the victim look like a dick

Speaking of dick—Phillip K. Dick, that is–can someone remind me of title the PKD novel, in which someone is killed by a miniturised A-bomb (as suggested might have happened in this case) ?

59

KCinDC 11.29.06 at 12:24 pm

As suggested by whom?

60

Cranky Observer 11.29.06 at 12:49 pm

frank,
[Martin Cruz Smith spoiler warning]
This incident is exactly the key plot device in the Martin Cruz Smith novel “Wolves Eat Dogs”, published November 2004.

Cranky

61

Doug 11.29.06 at 1:09 pm

54/55 What the WP actually says is

“Essentially, the word is a Latin rendering of the ancient place-name Rus (cf etymology of Rus and derivatives). Today, the historical territory of Rus, in the broadest sense, is formed with part(s) of the lands of Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, a small part of northeastern Slovakia and a narrow strip of eastern Poland.

The term “Ruthenia” may mean significantly different things, depending on to whom the term applies and the when, why, and to which period.”

Rus is not at all equivalent to Russia. Back to the main topic…

62

luci 11.29.06 at 1:16 pm

“putting a full-stop’s worth of polonium in somone’s food and they ‘probably’ die of cancer within 6 months, would actually be a very sensible and unrisky way of bumping off someone”

I agree, if the radiation does indeed become undetectable (or is unlikely to be tested). This could, I think, be even more discreet than just shooting the guy (in a staged mugging, for instance).

63

abb1 11.29.06 at 1:22 pm

Doug, you are quoting from the Ruthenia entry.

Now, the Ruthenium entry (ruthenium, not ruthenia) says this:

The name derives from Ruthenia, a latinized name for Russia. Karl Klaus called the element in honour of his birthland. He was born in Tartu which at that time was part of the Russian Empire.

If you know that it’s wrong – change it. It sounds plausible enough to me.

64

KCinDC 11.29.06 at 1:38 pm

Clearly polonium wasn’t named after Poland but after Polonia.

65

Frank 11.29.06 at 2:03 pm

>As suggested by whom?

The Independent or The Guardian–they are the only daily papers I read (unless I caught a glance at Metro, on the way to work)

66

Frank 11.29.06 at 2:16 pm

Mr Litvinenko’s father Walter tells reporters his son was killed by a “tiny little nuclear bomb”.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6179074.stm

67

Jake 11.29.06 at 3:04 pm

63: the radiation will unfortunately not become undetectable – they had no problem detecting traces of it from the Litvinenko all over London. And otherwise healthy people getting sick and dying of radiation poisoning and/or cancer is unusual enough that I’d suspect it would be detected.

68

~~~~ 11.29.06 at 3:16 pm

The Japanese restaurant where he was allegedly poisoned serves Dynamite miso soup, but otherwise the menu is quite conventional.

69

Martin Bento 11.29.06 at 3:35 pm

stuart, you’re not addressing my point, which is that the cock-up thesis inhibits investigation and therefore the furtherance of knowledge. After all, “assume cock-up, not conspiracy” is just the mild form of the net favorite cliche: “never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence”, which is both imperative and absolute. And that thing is trotted out all the time as though it were some kind of legitimate principle of logic when it is not even an argument. And it is a position with consequences. It’s true that what Tracy said is actually more moderate than that, but it’s also an example of an attitude promoted all the time, as Daniel suggested in the initial post, and I think it important to put forth the contrary view.

70

soru 11.29.06 at 4:02 pm

‘imperative and absolute’, but also literally correct.

If you _can_ explain something by incompetence, you can’t _assume_ malice.

In general, you can explain pretty much anything by malice, even plausible malice. Unfortunately, that would leave no room for anything ever to happen by accident or incompetence, which seems contrary to my, and presumably your, personal experience.

Of course, ultimately it is proverbial wisdom, not strict logic. ‘Look before you leap’ doesn’t come with 47 pages of closely typed footnotes listing the cases where ‘he who hesitates is lost’ has precedence.

71

Tracy W 11.29.06 at 5:01 pm

Assassination (incl. political assassination) is one of the two great areas in which conspiracy is the something close to the norm (the other being the coup d’etat, which is by definition a conspiracy – has there ever been a single-handed or an unplanned coup?). So while this case doesn’t prove the case that “all suspicious things are the result of conspiracies”, it does throw another rock on the ample pile of evidence that “the world is full of greedy, violent bastards who will collude to get their way”. That’s what “political conspiracy” is, and it is pervasive: it doesn’t have to be “faking up the moon-landings.”

Is there much disbelief in assassinations? Eg is there a significant pool of people who believe that a small earthquake dislodged an ice axe onto Trotsky’s head? Or people who believe that JFK’s death was due to a blood vessel spontaneously bursting? Have people been complaining about security details given to senior politicians on the basis that no one will ever try to assassinate them? I hadn’t noticed this as a significant movement.
Knowing the Internet, any conceivable idea is almost certainly going to be held by at least one person, which is why I specify “significant”.

The level-headed types are just anyway just trying to use the idea of “conspiracy” in order to redefine “vested interest” as “tinfoilhattery”, so as to claim it doesn’t exist.

As far as I can tell this skepticism is directed more at big conspiracies with complicated plots that involve doing a, b, c, d to get effects e, f, g, h, which will have effects i, j, …. and etc. Not at the idea that people will occasionally try to murder each other or otherwise break the law.

72

Ajax 11.29.06 at 5:26 pm

Doesn’t anyone else find it very suspicious that this assassination should happen exactly at a time when OJ Simpson is again in the news? Does OJ like sushi? Where was he during that lunch? Are the movements of the top people at NASA all accounted for? We should be told!

73

radek 11.29.06 at 6:39 pm

If you know that it’s wrong – change it. It sounds plausible enough to me.

Hmmm, now it says:

The name derives from Ruthenia, a historical area which includes present day Ukraine, Belarus, and parts of the Russia, Baltics, Slovakia and Poland. Karl Klaus called the element in honour of his birthland. He was born in Tartu, Estonia.

Strange how that happened. I got a feeling this might lead to the “Ruthenian Wiki-War III” (with spillover conflicts in “Great Patriotic War”, “Lviv”, and “Soviet Partisans”)

74

nick s 11.29.06 at 6:59 pm

Consider my pet theory – Iran.

You are Michael Ledeen, and I claim my ten shillings.

75

Martin Bento 11.29.06 at 7:58 pm

soru,

So if something can be plausibly attributed to incompetence one cannot assume it is malice, but if it can be plausibly attributed to malice, that is no reason not to attribute it to incompetence. Why the assymetry? Because things can be plausibly attributed to malice that are not so caused? But that is also true for incompetence and accident. The power outages were plausibly and wrongly attributed to incompetence. I do not think failing to attribute to incompetence things everything that could plausibly be malice leaves no room for accident for most values of “plausibly”, though that is not what I’m proposing in any case. Saying “Never attribute to malice…” is invalid does not imply making the opposite case, and I am not. I think there is no valid general rule here; it always has to rely on the nature of the case, which kind of explanation is better to provisionally accept, even supposing one must make a provisional judgement, which is highly questionable. And if one does make a provisional judgement, the provisional judgement towards malice provides a basis for further investigation that may resolve the question, whereas a provisional one of incompetence leaves, in most cases, nothing to investigate.

76

engels 11.29.06 at 8:45 pm

Informed opinions solicited, the other sort welcomed…

So after 70 odd posts I am very surprised: nobody here seems to have anything to say about who killed Litvinenko that amounts to anything more than empty speculation! On the plus side, there has been an extended discussion of the etymology of the term “Ruthenium”. The days of the MSM are numbered, I tell you!

77

KCinDC 11.29.06 at 8:52 pm

Okay, Frank, since it was Litvinenko’s father, I’ll forgo calling him an idiot, but really.

78

KCinDC 11.29.06 at 9:04 pm

Engels, I don’t remember seeing blog triumphalism at CT. It’s generally only right-wing blogs that seem to believe they’ll be replacing the MSM in any area other than opinion writing (or, as you say, empty speculation).

79

radek 11.29.06 at 9:08 pm

I am very surprised: nobody here seems to have anything to say about who killed Litvinenko that amounts to anything more than empty speculation. On the plus side, there has been an extended discussion of the etymology of the term “Ruthenium”

If anybody had anything more substantial than wild speculation to offer by now they’d know to keep their yaps shut lest they get Lilliputium in their sushi or Brobdingnagium in their umbrella.
Shhhhh!!!!!

80

Doctor Slack 11.29.06 at 10:08 pm

The days of the MSM are numbered, I tell you!

Wrong venue. Try re-wording for “MSM credibility, R.I.P.” and go here.

81

aidan 11.29.06 at 10:51 pm

Earlier this evening BBC reported that two incoming flights from Moscow show traces of polonomium 210.

82

aidan 11.29.06 at 10:51 pm

Make that polonium

83

radek 11.29.06 at 10:57 pm

Make that polonium

Yeah, you better correct that before Polonomians get their panties in a bunch.

This’d be a good, well, not a course, but maybe a unit, in one of them new fangled cross-disciplinary courses that are so hip these days in academia.
Chemistry/History – 18th century Romantic Nationalism and the Periodic Table, narratives in Science and Ideology.

Research topic, gratis. Again. Like a 20$ bill on the sidewalk.

84

astrongmaybe 11.30.06 at 1:27 am

@72

The broader point which I understood Daniel to touch on is this: while “conspiracy theorizing” in the baroque form we know today (we all know the examples, or at least the caricatures of them), is clearly a reductive form of cause-effect thinking which primitively decomplexifies a massively complicated world, sneering at “conspiracy theorizing” is frequently a way of not-too-subtly removing credibility from political analyses you don’t like.

Say that oil may play some role in American policy in the Middle East and you’ll get “Oh, so the chairman of Exxon just, like, calls up the President, does he, does he?” Or suggest that the lone-nutter type of assassination is historically not the norm and you get asked is there a significant pool of people…or people who believe that JFK’s death was due to a blood vessel spontaneously bursting?

Check out, for example, Blair and Howard’s comments after this summer’s ban on hand-luggage on airlines. When people expressed skepticism as to the timing and the over-dramatic staging of the thing, both prime ministers answered along the lines of “oh, you believe in conspiracy theories, do you, then?” Which among other things says: if you question the version of events spooned out by official spokesmen and lapped up by the lazy media… you have poor personal hygiene, live alone with your mother and nobody wants to have sex with you.

[ps: can people stop starting their comments with “Umm…”? It keeps happening lately. It’s akin to saying “Like, duh!” and adds no more to the conversation than that would.]

85

Roy Belmont 11.30.06 at 2:35 am

“Say that oil may play some role in American policy in the Middle East”
and in Beresovski’s billions, and in Chechnya, and in Putin’s current power base, and in the work Litvinenko was doing immediately before his death

86

abb1 11.30.06 at 3:12 am

Hmmm, now it says:

The name derives from Ruthenia, a historical area which includes present day Ukraine, Belarus, and parts of the Russia, Baltics, Slovakia and Poland.

Lol. I changed history. Thank you, Crookedtimber Dot Org, you’re a time machine.

87

Daniel 11.30.06 at 3:24 am

As far as I can tell this skepticism is directed more at big conspiracies with complicated plots that involve doing a, b, c, d to get effects e, f, g, h, which will have effects i, j, …. and etc.

Well, not really – canonically, it is applied to the Kennedy assassinations, where people assume despite substantial contrary evidence that it is in some way crazy to believe in an entirely straightforward assassination plot carried out by people who had entirely straightforward motivations. (I am not claiming to have a definitive theory of the Kennedy assassination here, just making the point that the vehemence with which people defend the loan gunman theory is out of all proportion to its actual support).

88

abb1 11.30.06 at 3:37 am

Well, actually in the Kennedy assassination incident you would have to accept not one but two straightforward motivations: Oswald’s and Ruby’s. And this really does diminish the odds, doesn’t it?

89

astrongmaybe 11.30.06 at 4:48 am

Michael Corleone: “My father is no different than any other powerful man — any man who’s responsible for other people, like a senator or president.”

Kay: “You know how naive you sound?…Senators and presidents don’t have men killed.”

Michael: “Oh, who’s being naive, Kay?”
audio

90

Ajax 11.30.06 at 5:22 am

And the JFK assassination provides a good example of why non-conspiracy theories so often fail to provide satisfactory explanations. Oswald had defected twice — once from the USA to the USSR, and once back again. How many people in the world are there who had done that? Moreover, in Texas he had a friend (a Russian emigre) who knew Jackie K. How many of the people who had defected twice in the 1950s were just one step away from the wife of the US President.

Of course, such facts may be just coincidental to his being a lone gunman. But the lone gunman theory does not provide an explanation which includes these facts, while various of the conspiracy theories do (he was a cleverly-chosen patsy; he was a Soviet sleeper agent; etc, etc). That is a key reason for the continued attraction to conspiracy theories: they purport to explain more of the known facts.

91

Simstim 11.30.06 at 5:35 am

Borges’ “Garden of the Forked Paths” has already been mentioned, but there’s also his “Death and the Compass” plus Lem’s Chain of Chance to add to the pile.

92

soru 11.30.06 at 5:43 am

Why the assymetry?.

It’s not asymmetrical, it is proverbial reasoning. The equal and opposite proverb is ‘qui bono?’.

Deciding which of the two contradictory principles applies is an exercise in skill and judgement.

The fact that you can’t accurately describe how to thrive in the the world with 40 bytes of ASCII text is the reason evolution has so far been unable to optimise out the human brain and replace it with a radically simpler mechanism.

93

abb1 11.30.06 at 6:11 am

How many people in the world are there who had done that?

But how many people in the world took a shot at an American president? Certainly if would’ve been even more weird if the guy was a H&R Block accountant from Peoria.

94

abb1 11.30.06 at 6:54 am

Doctors suspect former Russian PM was poisoned

Doctors have determined him to have been poisoned with,”a poison unknown to civilian medicine”

Speculation is running rampant as to whether or not this is connected to the Russian spy killed by radiation.

Anatoly Chubais, the influential head of Russia’s state electricity company and a longtime associate of Gaidar’s, connected the former premier’s illness with Litvinenko’s death and the recent murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, suggesting the Kremlin’s enemies were behind all three.

Uh-huh, here you go, a counter-conspiracy-theory: Kremlin’s enemies behind all three.

95

Richard J 11.30.06 at 11:05 am

I’m surprised I’ve not yet seen the theory that it’s a Kremlin plot masquerading as a Beresovsky plot masquerading as a Kremlin plot…

96

engels 11.30.06 at 12:11 pm

You find it surprising that noone has made that allegation in public??? How naive you are, Richard, how naive you are…

97

gordon 11.30.06 at 2:29 pm

Mr Litvinenko must have had a very good idea who poisoned him because they would have to be very close to him. I find the relative quiet coming from the british secret service rather curious as they would have been either involved, informed or first to try to put this all together their silence is deafening.

98

Martin Bento 11.30.06 at 3:06 pm

soru,

But these two adages are not, in fact, treated equally in our culture at the present time. Go read the wikipedia entries for Hanlon’s Razor and Cui Bono. The latter has many paragraphs expressing qualification and skepticism regarding its applicability to politics; the former has none of this. Try to make the Hanlon’s entry more balanced and you will have an edit war. Because both of biases of the intellectuals and the interest of the powerful in discrediting skepticism of officially-promulgated truth (as astrongmaybe pointed out in #85). Our proverbial “wisdom” has too much Hanlon and not enough Cui bono.

99

Martin Bento 11.30.06 at 3:23 pm

Daniel, Tracy

As for cannonical examples, what about Hillary’ s”vast right-wing conspiracy” to bring down the Clinton presidency. She was ridiculed right and left for that, and even most of those who tried to support her hemmed and hawed about the C word. Does anyone now doubt that she was correct in her inferences? Some quibble about “vast” – more precisely, some simply do not believe in “vast” conspiracies and dismiss what Hillary said simply because of that verbiage. But “vast” in a context like this is too vague a term to decide anything. What is vast? It is a noiseword, but its real function is to lend a melodramatic tone. This leads to skepticism as people tend to reflexively reject things expressed in melodramatic language unless that language confirms what they already believe (hence, in the American mainstream, describing the villiany of bin laden melodramatically does not produce skepticism, but speaking melodramatically about Bush’s undermining of the Constitution would only fly fairly far left. For the others, it does not “ring true”, it is not “plausible”, meaning it is not compatible with their existing beliefs. Melodrama reinforces beliefs; it cannot create them). None of this, though, has anything to do with argument, only with rhetoric.

100

aaron 11.30.06 at 5:34 pm

Isn’t it clear? The Polish are trying to send a message.

101

radek 11.30.06 at 6:32 pm

You sure it’s not the Ruthenians?

102

engels 11.30.06 at 7:29 pm

That’s what the Plutonians want you to think…

103

radek 11.30.06 at 7:54 pm

Yes but the Plutonians are just working for the Ununhexiumians.

104

anne 11.30.06 at 9:15 pm

Color me naive, but one of the many things I don’t understand is how they discovered it was polonium210. I mean, you don’t exactly go looking for it do you?

105

John 12.01.06 at 12:40 am

Polonium 210
Polonium 210 (Po210) was orginally called Radium F when the Curies discovered it.

It is highly radioactive with alpha decay, so much that the metal containers used to hold it become hot to the touch. It has been used as a heat source in satellites. You had better hope that the container has a good tight seal because it is a very fine dust and the alpha decay gives the dust particles a static electric charge. This means that it will creep out of its container, even through a screw thread. I have no doubt that whoever handled it has spread it all over themselves and all over wherever they have been and whoever they have been in contact with.

Alpha radation is not normally dangerous as even paper is thick enough to block it, but if the dust particles enter the system Po210 is so radioactive that it will immediately start to kill any cells it comes into contact with. It has a half life of 138 days, long enough for even a fraction of a gram to do its work. Po210 decays into Lead206 which is stable and would be undetectable given that any resident of an industrial society has accumulated lead from petrol, pait and oher sources.

The presence of Thallium isotopes suggets that this batch was made in a reactor, probably by bombarding Bismuth with neutrons. It might be posible for someone with access to a research reactor – say a post-doc student – to make a small amount but usually management of a reactor is so tight that the management would need to be aware of it.

More than a gram or so of Po210 will glow in the dark with blue Cherenkov radiation, so it tends to draw attention to itself.

An interesting possibility is that the dose could have been inhaled as a gas – Radon 222 (Rn222). With a half life of 3.8 days this decays into a series of very short lived daughter products each of which is quite radioactive. After less than seven days the Rn222 gas would only exist in the body as Po210, but there would be no thallium, just bismuth and lead isotopes

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