The KGB's Poisoning Methods

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NPR Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr says that the death of Alexander Litvinenko, a strong critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is the latest in a long line of suspicious deaths that may have been politically motivated.


Traces of radiation have been found on two British Airways jets during the investigation into the poisoning death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko. The airline is trying to get in touch with people who may have flown on those planes. The risk to public health is said to be low. Litvinenko died in London last week. High doses of a rare, radioactive element, Polonium 210, were found in his body.

NPR senior news analyst Daniel Schorr has not been too surprised by the developments in this case. He reminds us that poisoning is nothing new in the world of international espionage.

DANIEL SCHORR: Both the KGB, now the FSB, and the CIA have records of developing toxic materials to be used against their adversaries. I myself got a taste of KGB chemistry in 1956 when I flew to Yalta to cover a meeting between Nikita Khrushchev and President Tito of Yugoslavia. The Kremlin didn't want that meeting to be covered and so, after breakfast in a seaside hotel, I began to feel funny, and I blacked out.

When I regained consciousness, I was on an Aeroflot plane arriving in Moscow. The U.S. embassy physician told me I had been slipped a Russian version of a Mickey Finn.

Other targets of the KGB didn't get off as easily. In 1978, a Bulgarian dissident was killed by a poison pellet fired from an umbrella on a London street. In 2004, Ukrainian reformer Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned with the chemical dioxin, which left his face disfigured. But he went on to win the Ukrainian presidential election. In Chechnya, a rebel leader named Khattab died after opening a poison soaked letter.

American spookdom has its own annals of chemistry in the service of the Cold War. On the very day that President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, a Cuban dissident was meeting in Paris with a CIA agent to receive a poison tipped ballpoint pen to be used against Fidel Castro. The agency also devised a diving suit dusted inside with a lethal powder. There is no sign that Castro ever saw the diving suit.

As to the radioactive poison death of Litvinenko, it may take a long time to solve this mystery, and meanwhile, what fuels suspicion is that he was fighting to denounce the Putin regime for the death of crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Proven or not, the radioactive death of Litvinenko hangs like a cloud over Putin's head.

This is Daniel Schorr.

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