The Terminal Spy

January 12, 2009

images.jpgThere are some stories where even the most diligent journalism cannot answer the basics: who, what, when, where, why and how? When the New York Times’s London correspondent, Alan Cowell, set out to turn his reporting on the poisoning of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko into a book, he must have known the most he could hope for would be the next best thing, a full and factual account tying together all the available knowledge, and whatever else he could dredge up.

Cowell has dome something better. His meticulously researched opus – The Terminal Spy: A True Story of Espionage, Betrayal and Murder – The First Act of Nuclear Terrorism and the New Cold War – fully justifies its sub-title, which is perhaps the more important part of the story. “Who?” is partly answered in the evidence piled up against Litvinenko’s erstwhile colleague Andrei Lugovoi, whom the British authorities have tried, unsuccessfully, to have extradited from Moscow .
 
Cowell’s summing up of the forensic investigation which proved Litvinenko was poisoned with a minute trace of the isotope Polonium-210, sprayed into a teapot is worthy of “CSI”. It also makes clear how close the authorities came to NOT finding the  murder weapon. Polonium only showed up when a secret facility tested Litvinenko’s final urine sample.

“If the (British)  Ministry of Defence scientists had not run the extremely unusual tests when they did”, Cowell writes. “it is conceivable that the nature of the poisoning would have remained a mystery, as Litvinenko’s killers surely intended it to be…” His description of the poison at work is chilling: “…the isotope tore relentlessly through his bone marrow and his organs, destroying the immune system. The lethal dose measured a tiny fraction of a microgram…This was no ordinary murder.” Rhe “no ordinary” aspect takes thia book to another level, an artful  melding of  “who?” with “why?”

The inescapable conclusion is that the other half of  “who” is the then president, now prime minister of Russia, Vladimir Putin. Cowell connects him to the “Why?” with a deft weaving of the role of the Russian oligarchs, especially Litvinenko’s one-time employer and Putin’s enemy Boris Berezovsky and their power struggles with the Kremlin and the Russian security service, the FSB.

Meticulous reporting, using intelligence sources and participants in the affair, shines a light into the usually opaque world of Russian policy. To restore Russia ‘s place as a world power Putin could not tolerate dissent from regional governments, troublesome members the Duma (parliament), journalists (twenty mysteriously killed, including Anna  Politkovskaya) or dissidents like Litvinenko railing from ostensibly safe exile. “Putin,” Cowell writes, “restored what the Russians call the ‘vertical’ power structure, whose apex is the Kremlin.”

The Terminal Spy sums up: “The death of Litvinenko would come to be seen as the defining moment of the Putin presidency. Putin sought to restore Moscow ‘s greatness. The death of Litvinenko ensured that Russia ‘s reputation as a land to be feared for the worst of reasons was revived for all the world to see.” Given that the book was written well before the latest clashes in Georgia, the observation is prescient to say the least.

Reviewed by Allen Pizzey, roving correspondent for CBS News, based in Rome. The Terminal Spy: A True Story of Espionage, Betrayal and Murder – The First Act of Nuclear Terrorism and the New Cold War by Alan Cowell published by Doubleday, £16.99.