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BBC OnePanorama


Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 January 2007, 12:34 GMT
How to poison a spy: Transcript


JEREMY VINE: Hello, I'm Jeremy Vine, and this is Panorama. Tonight Russian poison in a very British cuppa.

MARIA LITVINENKO: And he just took this cup of tea, and how he later said tea wasn't very tasty.

VINE: An agent dies an agonising death, and a city is contaminated with radiation. Tonight his widow points the finger at a President.

DMITRY PESKOV: If she says that Russia has killed Sasha she's a liar in this world.

VINE: Welcome to the programme, and welcome to a world of espionage and assassination which most of us thought belonged to the Cold War. Panorama has, like Scotland Yard, been following the trail of radioactive poison, trying to make sense of the killing of Alexander Litvinenko. We've discovered evidence they tried to kill him not once, but twice. His widow Marina says he was silenced because he knew too many secrets.

Reporter: John Sweeney

SWEENEY: November the 1st 2006, the day they poisoned Alexander Litvinenko. Heading for London that day a mysterious Italian investigator, carrying with him a warning that Litvinenko was: "a dead man walking."

Spy Investigator
I received the weeks before November 1st several messages from a source mentioning a growing alarm, a growing risk, and Litvinenko was mentioned several times.

SWEENEY: Also converging on London 3 Russians, all coming to meet one man, Litvinenko.

Oh he never try to be extra protected, like camera or special bodyguard. And he every time felt very safe in London, and he was very happy here.

SWEENEY: He set off late morning from his North London home. The former spy, known as 'Sasha' to his friends, took the bus. Litvinenko had arranged a late lunch with Scaramella. The two men shared an obsession for rooting out Russian spies in Europe.

SCARAMELLA: We said simply let's meet as always, which means at Piccadilly Circus. When we meet we exchanged kisses. He gave one, and I gave two. I said it's Italian.. Italian way.

SWEENEY: The Russian had been feeding the Italian top secret information about his old bosses in the KGB, now re-branded the FSB.

SCARAMELLA: He co-operated for 3 years with us. He passed so strong information, and some of this information were lethal information say. Other people have been killed for this kind of co-operation.

SWEENEY: In return Scaramella wanted to warn his friend that he'd received a death list with both their names on it.

SCARAMELLA: The email was the reasons why I contacted him.

SWEENEY: Litvinenko had soup, Scaramella just water.


4:30 pm, the Pine Bar in the Millennium Hotel. Litvinenko drops in on his Russian contact Andrei Lugovoi and his friends. They're drinking ahead of that night's game between Arsenal and CSKA Moscow. They're on the gin. Litvinenko had a cuppa.

MARINA: I knew about two meetings. Scaramella and Sasha had lunch, and second meeting with Lugovoi, very short meeting, he told me, very short.

SWEENEY: He arranged to meet up with the Russians the next day and then made his way home.

MARINA: Just exactly before midnight he became sick. And when it started and repeated it every 20 minutes it was quite scared.

SWEENEY: Litvinenko himself suspected foul play. His KGB training told him something was seriously wrong.

MARINA: And he said 'this look like chemical vapours'. I said 'why Sasha?' And he started to concern 'Maria, they could poison me.' I said: "Who?. How's possible? And why you think about this?" Because he said: "It's everything so unusual."

SWEENEY: His condition baffled the doctors. They'd already tested for all known poisons. Then they suspected radiation poisoning, and they even checked with a Geiger counter, but found nothing.

MARINA: I notice his hair when I just touch his head all his hair would still be in my hand. I said 'Sasha, what is it?' He said 'I don't know'. And I did it again, it's again all his hair in my hand.

SWEENEY: These pictures, shot by his filmmaker friend Andrei Nekrasov, show Litvinenko's last days. Even two weeks after the poisoning nobody knew what was killing him.

MARINA: He looked completely different. He try just every time protect me, to say 'Marina, don't worry, everything will be okay.' I tried to protect him, to say 'Sasha, it just couldn't happen.' And you see we never spoke about death, never. Every day you could see he became worse. Every day it was fight for life.

SWEENEY: This is the iconic image of the dying spy that was flashed around the world. And this is his friend's footage of the real Litvinenko, before his terrifying transformation. He described what it's like to be on the run from the KGB. He knew he'd be looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life.

It's like freefall. It's only terrifying when you're jumping from the plane, when you look down. But after the jump there isn't much you can do about it. you're in freefall, you can't go back, you can only go downwards.

SWEENEY: Like many of his fellow countrymen Litvinenko found refuge in what they call 'London Grad'. Mega rich Russians, such as Roman Abramovich, like Britain because it's safe and stable. Other Russians come here because they can speak out. One exile is Boris Berezovsky, Putin's fiercest critic, and Britain's richest asylum seeker by about a billion pounds. Back in Russia Litvinenko, as a bodyguard, had saved Berezovsky's life twice, and he worked for him again in London. Litvinenko attacked Putin personally with, some say, reckless abandon. But who wanted him dead? Some were the shadowy exiles, or his old KGB masters back home.

LITVINENKO: There were two ideologies in the Soviet Union. Communist, and criminal. In 1991 the Communist ideology ceased to exist, and only the criminal remained. The KGB was renamed, it became the FSB. But nothing really changed. Everything stayed the way it was before. The only difference was that a KGB officer killed for his ideology, while an FSB officer kills for money.

SWEENEY: The Russian Secret Police, both the old guard and the new, privatised version, have the same code of silence. Litvinenko was a traitor to both.

MARINA: Last day when he could speak and I was ready to go to home, and he just told me 'Marina I love you so much.' It was last what I heard from him, because in a night, during the night after this, first time when his heart stopped.

SWEENEY: Whoever killed him would have expected him to die in a few days, and the poison would never have been discovered. It was only because he clung on to life for 23 days that the doctors had the chance to discover the truth.

MARINA: They arrived just after 2 o'clock am, and they told me what was finded and what killed Sasha. And, again, I saw people just don't know what to do. And they were very honest with me, because they don't have any practice with Polonium-210.

SWEENEY: So Litvinenko's assassin, Polonium-210, was the ultimate stealth poison. In hospital the doctors don't test for it, in the international airports it won't trigger any radiation alarms. But once the British scientists had cracked it, 'it's Polonium-210!', then it became as easy as following a burglar's footprints in the snow.

Radiation Scientist
Once you've got an open radioactive source of this type and of this size, then it's almost inevitable that you're going to be able to detect a whole spider web of contamination coming out.


So you can always follow a trail, you will always have a forensic trail with radioactivity which you can follow from one place to another place.

SWEENEY: We're going to follow that trail. Litvinenko caught the 134 on November the 1st. No trace of Polonium on his ticket or the bus. He was clean. The Itsu sushi bar. Everybody reported that the sushi bar was contaminated, and that Scaramella had tested positive for a massive dose of Polonium.

Did you kill him, did you poison him? Did you have any part in this poison plot yourself?

Spy Investigator
Not only I have not killed him, of course, but I think my role in this history is very marginal. I simply meet him, in the same day something horrible happened.

SWEENEY: How come the sushi bar was contaminated?

SCARAMELLA: I know they close it because they found the Polonium, but seems it was not in the place where we sitted. So those things must be clarified. Where we sitted there is no Polonium.

SWEENEY: The sushi bar laid a false trail. Scaramella is a red herring. The Italian was probably never contaminated. We understand that Aldermaston got that wrong. We also understand that the police aren't investigating a single attack but a series of attempts to kill Litvinenko. To get to the start of the Polonium trail we need to go back in time.

Parkes Hotel - Knightsbridge

Two weeks before, on October the 16th, staying at the Parks Hotel in Knightsbridge, Andrei Lugovoi, once a KGB officer, now a millionaire, and his friend Dimitri Kovtun, also ex-KGB. Two rooms at the hotel are later tested for Polonium. The result? Contaminated. The Polonium trail begins.

ITSU - Piccadilly

During this earlier trip Lugovoi and Kovtun meet Litvinenko for lunch in his usual place, the Itsu sushi bar in Piccadilly. The restaurant, contaminated, but not at the same seats which Scaramella and Litvinenko would use two weeks later. Could this have been the first attempt to kill him?

The Park Lane Hotel - Mayfair

October the 25th, Lugovoi returns to London and checks in at the Sheraton Park Lane Hotel. He meets Litvinenko two or three times during this trip. One hotel room at the hotel is left a radioactive mess. Today not just one room, but a whole section of the 8th floor corridor are still boarded up. Was this a second botched attempt? On October 28th Lugovoi flies back to Russia on British Airways flight GBNWX. And you've guessed it, at least one seat on the plane, contaminated. On the same day Kovtun arrives in Hamburg and sees his children, a toddler and a baby who live with his ex-wife. And they are contaminated. Lugovoi and Kovtun next meet with Litvinenko on the day he's poisoned, November the 1st.

Millennium Hotel - Mayfair

4:30 pm and the Pine Bar, the Millennium Hotel, just an hour after the sushi bar. This is when the Polonium trail gets really hot. Lugovoi and Kovtun are drinking with a third Russian, Vyacheslav Sokolenko. Business was done for the day, and they were relaxing ahead of the game. Litvinenko doesn't touch alcohol, but he'll always have a cuppa.

In Millennium Hotel Sasha told me he meet Lugovoi, and during this meeting he drank tea, and he said it was tea already served on the table, and he just took this cup of tea and didn't finish at all. And, how he later said, tea wasn't very tasty.

SWEENEY: The polonium trail across London implies that Litvinenko's tea had been laced with Polonium-210. The dose was massive, we estimate 4 billion becquerels. The normal level in the body is just 20.

Radiation Scientist
If he was contaminated in this way then when he drank it all around his lips and mouth would have been contaminated with radioactivity. There would also be a lot of it left in the cup. So he might have wiped his mouth with his hand like this, which people do. Then this becomes heavily contaminated. He could then put the hand back onto the table, so that you start a contamination trail.

SWEENEY: And the contamination trail at the Pine Bar is astounding. The cup that contained the tea, contaminated. The seven bar staff at the hotel who took the cup away, washed it, wiped it, set it out for other guests, contaminated. The Pine Bar itself, contaminated and still closed two and a half months on. The contamination itself isn't lethal, but long term risks are not known. Lugovoi and Kovtun go to the match. Seats at the Arsenal, contaminated.

Arsenal Stadium - North London

Everything points to not one, but multiple attempts to kill Litvinenko. No-one's been arrested, but the Polonium trail has made Lugovoi and Kovtun prime suspects. After Litvinenko fell sick they flew to Moscow. After Litvinenko died so did Scotland Yard. Safe and sound in Moscow Lugovoi and Kovtun protested their innocence.

We sat at the table and talked for 20 or 30 minutes. I'm completely certain, I'm 100% sure, that he didn't order anything and we didn't offer anything to him.

Nobody offered him anything, at least nobody insisted. It's hard to remember now but maybe we suggested getting him something and he refused. We were sitting drinking. If someone drops by it's rude not to offer anything at all.

SWEENEY: But who might have ordered the assassination? Can the trail of Polonium help us with that?

PRIEST: At the moment facilities in the Russian Federation produce most of the world's Polonium 210. You cannot buy Polonium 210 unless you've got authorisations, and licences, and you've got a reason for being able to use it. Otherwise it's not available.

SWEENEY: Only two kinds of Russian's could get their hands on 4 billion becquerels of Polonium. The ultra rich, or the Government. In Moscow the spotlight is on one rich exile who's fallen out with the President. Boris Berezovsky. The Kremlin theory, he even had his friend Litvinenko killed to blacken his enemy, Putin.

Kremlin Spokesman
The only thing I know is that Berezovsky is showing himself ready for using whatever means, and he's not hiding these intentions. This is, by the way, this is a crime in our country. So this man is potentially ready for everything. And I know that he was a friend of Litvinenko, and I know that traces of Polonium were found in his office.

SWEENEY: Berezovsky's office was visited by both Lugovoi and Litvinenko separately. Berezovsky's been told by the police that he can't talk about the case in detail, but he denies murder.

You see, I don't care at all what people in Russia are thinking. For me it doesn't mean anything at all. I am sorry not to be so polite in front of public and public opinion. As I told before for me they're.. only one thing for me is important. To give maximum chance to police to go to the end.

SWEENEY: So what about the Kremlin? They've got history. This is the Lubyanka, the headquarters of the old KGB. Thousands of ordinary people were executed in the basement. The story of Soviet poisoning goes back to the early 20's. This building here is laboratory number 12, the poison factory. The question is, is it still in business? The answer is yes according to this man, a former Soviet Intelligence Officer. Scotland Yard have been talking to him too, and advised him to remain anonymous.

Former Military Intelligence Officer
ANON: The poison has been used against enemies of the state since 1921, and I have about 20 cases filed when enemies of the Russian State were poisoned abroad. It's the laboratory that every year gets its budget to work with radioactive poisons.

SWEENEY: A cup of tea has also proved lethal in the past in the case of this man, a former Putin bodyguard named Roman Tsepov.

ANON: On the 11th of September 2004 he was invited to the offices of the St Petersburg department of the FSB, had a cup of tea, and on the 11th day died. It was established that it was radioactive poison.

SWEENEY: But why would the Kremlin want to kill an exile in London no-one had heard of? First he was a traitor to the FSB. He joined the organisation and investigated organised crime. But he became disillusioned, accusing his masters at a televised press conference of running a criminal state. Litvinenko was the only one brave enough to show his face.

LITVINENKO: [reading statement] The FSB is being used by certain officials solely for their private purposes. Instead of it's original constitutional aim of providing security for the state and for citizens it's now being used for settling scores and carrying out private and criminal orders for payments. Sometimes the FSB is being used solely for the purpose of earning money.

MARINA LITVINENKO: When he went to TV and spoke openly about crime, about corruption and FSB everything started against him. And when he was put in a prison first time and I had meeting with some prosecution, and when I ask them 'why you decide to put him in a prison just now?' And they said 'he shouldn't go on TV to speak about this.'

SWEENEY: But it was a series of bomb outrages in '99 that provided the acid test for freedom of speech in Russia. The Moscow Apartment Bombs were blamed on Chechen terrorists. Putin came to power promising revenge, but some suspected the bombs had been planted by Putin's men all along. Investigating the Moscow Apartment Bombs has proved an unhealthy occupation. One MP was shot dead and a journalist killed in a mystery car crash. A third, Yuri Shchekochikhin, was poisoned say his family. Anna Politkovskaya, another journalist, was poisoned after drinking tea. She recovered, but last October she was shot dead in Moscow. She too had been on the death list Scaramella had shown his friend Litvinenko. A book, 'Blowing Up Russia', accused Putin outright of being behind the bombs. The author, poisoned in London. Is that story true?

DMITRY PESKOV: No, it is not. It is not true, and what he wrote in that book blaming Putin being guilty of blowing an FSB.. blowing these apartments in Russia is.. has nothing to do with reality. Actually, I mean again in my personal opinion, this is, let's say, a product of an ill brain. (laugh) I don't know a proper English word for that.

SWEENEY: A sick brain.

PESKOV: Yes, sick brain. Sick brain. I mean it's..

SWEENEY: Mentally ill?

PESKOV: Well in my understanding only a mentally ill person can think about Russian Government blowing homes of it's own people.

SWEENEY: Mikhail Trepaskin is a former FSB officer who was thrown in jail while investigating the apartment bombs. Scotland Yard wanted to talk to him about Litvinenko. The Russian Government said no, because he was in prison. A few weeks ago film maker Andrei Nekrasov got through to him on a mobile phone smuggled into his cell. He wanted to tell Scotland Yard that back in 2001 an officer in the FSB had been planning the assassination of Litvinenko.

MIKHAIL TREPASKIN: He asked me to go and check out Litvinenko, find out where he works, his pattern of movements, his regular meeting places. He asked me to get details about the book he's writing. It was obvious to me that they wanted to send one person in advance to check out his whereabouts, and then the group would follow.

ANDREI NEKRASOV: Would they have had access to radioactive materials?

TREPASKIN: That would be no problem for KGB officers.

SWEENEY: But that was 6 years ago. Why the delay? In July 2006 MPs in Russia's Parliament, in this building behind me, passed a new law allowing the Secret Police to pursue terrorists, that means enemies of the state, beyond Russia's borders. It was a licence to kill. Another answer to the question of timing may lie with Scaramella, who's now in prison in Italy on unrelated charges.

MARIO SCARAMELLA: His idea, when he left Moscow, was to arrive in Italy. And he mentioned a friend in the Secret Service who said.. who told him 'you cannot go to Italy because there are some big friends of Russia there in this country.'

SWEENEY: In this classified document Litvinenko alleges that one of those KGB friends is Romano Prody, now Italy's Prime Minister. Prody denies the claim.

Do you think Prody was a KGB spy?

SCARAMELLA: I don't think nothing.. I think nothing about that. I simply collected from different people some information about him, about the past, about the present. Some qualified sources, including Litvinenko, told me that some officers in Moscow considered him as their man, KGB man.

SWEENEY: In exile Litvinenko made some shocking claims. Even by his standards this was an extraordinary assertion. He was due to make it at the European Parliament on the 18th of October, shortly after the Polonium trail began. Had the FSB finally had enough of their rogue agent? He died on the 23rd of November, his irradiated body was buried in a coffin lined with lead. In his death bed statement he didn't pull his punches.

LITVINENKO: You may succeed in silencing one man, but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life.

MARINA: I can't say exactly Putin killed Sasha, but I can say Putin stand behind everything what happened in Russia.

Kremlin Spokesman
And I answer directly, Russia has not done that. And it is absurd even to think about that.

SWEENEY: And she's a liar for saying so?

PESKOV: In these words, yes.

SWEENEY: She's a liar?

PESKOV: Yes. If she says that Russia has killed Sasha she's a liar in these words.

SWEENEY: She's safe, is she? Nothing's going to happen to her? Because she is a critic.

PESKOV: I hope British police is effective. She's living in London. Why don't you ask British Authorities about her being safe or unsafe? He's not living in Moscow.

MARINA: Something worse can happen again. Because list of these people not finished yet. It was second person who was killed from this list by Polonium-210. Okay what they will use to kill other person? Atomic bomb? Could you tell me please, what is next?

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