Radioactive Poison as an Assassin's Tool

Former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned by a radioactive substance, but why did his killer use such a dangerous tactic? Former CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz explains the reasons an assassin would choose to use a radioactive poison. Hitz is the author of The Great Game: The Myth and Reality of Espionage.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

MIKE PESCA, host:

And I'm Mike Pesca. In a few minutes we'll hear about the Pope's visit to Turkey.

BRAND: First, though, new developments on the story of a Russian spy who died from radiation poisoning in London.

An Italian academic and a specialist on the KGB is now being held by British police. Mario Scaramella told the Associated Press he is cooperating with authorities for investigating the death of Alexander Litvinenko.

Scaramella is also being test for radiation contamination. He met with Litvinenko on the day he fell ill. British officials are still puzzled by the use of this poison, the radioactive isotope Polonium 210. And so is Frederick Hitz, who worked at the CIA for 20 years.

Mr. FREDERICK HITZ (Former Inspector General, Central Intelligence Agency): It doesn't sound to me like the first thing you'd reach for if you wanted to terminate a life in this fashion. It sounds pretty ghastly, but it sounds fairly complicated.

BRAND: So why not use something simpler, like rat poison or a simple bullet?

Mr. HITZ: Maybe it's a traditional kind of method of dealing with people that dates from a bygone era. You are seeing references now to the famous ricin-tipped umbrella stabbing that occurred several decades ago. There appears to be a fascination with this way of exterminating an enemy.

BRAND: Before he died last Thursday, Mr. Litvinenko blamed the Russian government, blamed Vladimir Putin in fact for his poisoning. What do you make of that?

Mr. HITZ: I think it is good to realize, Madeleine, that there is a history of these kinds of operations in the KGB from whose ranks President Putin was joined. Well they called it wet affairs. They were quite active during the period after the Second World War in following closely the activities of émigrés in Western Europe in particular who took positions against the Soviet government. And where they felt they were provoked, they would seek to end that person's life.

So hopefully we are not seeing anything like that again. But I think that is the reason why people are - sort of a bell goes off in the minds of some. They have seen all this or seen the preparations for all this before.

BRAND: But does that make sense in this modern age for the Russian government to do that?

Mr. HITZ: No it doesn't, and that I think is what's causing people to stumble. I mean they look back to a period in history where the Soviets were vicious about trying to keep down dissent even in places where it probably couldn't hurt them terribly much. And all we are seeing here is in the use of this poison kind of a disturbing reminder of a bygone day. But I agree with your comment, I don't see what sense it makes.

BRAND: So if it seems counterintuitive and puzzling for the Russians to be involved, the Russian authorities at least, who could be involved? Could it be the Russian mafia?

Mr. HITZ: Well that is the point of speculation right now, people who have a rival position to this individual who was killed. And I think you have to ask yourself the question: If it wasn't the Russian government, who was it?

And apparently London is a gathering place for those who have been thrown out of Russia or Eastern Europe, and maybe it was a rivalry that grew out of activity outside the country.

BRAND: Would the mafia have a reason to embarrass the Russian government?

Mr. HITZ: Well the only way - the only connection that it strikes me that the mafia might be in on this would be if let's say those who wanted to suppress dissent to current government in Russia wouldn't use official officers to bring about a murder like this but would want to contract it out, so to speak. Sounds pretty far-fetched to me and obviously pretty messy.

As I say, the real issue on this to me is the fact that it evokes a period of in the past where the Soviet security service had a reputation for engaging in pretty hardball tactics.

BRAND: Right. And Vladimir Putin, as we all know, was part of the KGB during that time period.

Mr. HITZ: Well I think we are making a lot of assumptions here. And I think you asked a very good question, what does he have to gain out of this? But he has got the whip hand now in terms of having a commodity that everybody wants to buy. So perhaps he is not concerned about that.

BRAND: You are talking about oil?

Mr. HITZ: I am talking oil and gas.

BRAND: Frederick Hitz was inspector general for the CIA during most of the 1990s. He is a now a Lecturer at the University of Virginia Law School. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. HITZ: Thank you, Madeleine.

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