WikiLeaks Conjures Litvinenko’s Ghost

Leaked cable raises new questions about Litvinenko's 'assassination'

by , December 13, 2010

We keep hearing there’s nothing in the WikiLeaks cables we didn’t already know – this from people who, more often than not, are frothing at the mouth about Julian Assange’s alleged “treason” and “anti-American” villainy. Of course, if these cables are no big deal, then the charge of having done great harm to the American empire rings hollow.

These folks are not interested in making an honest argument: they merely want Assange’s head. As Glenn Greenwald has noted, with great disgust, many of these people are journalists, of one sort or another, who have put themselves in the position of defending the keepers of official secrets: the idea that the public has a right to know anything except what our rulers want them to know is utterly alien to them.

Their hostility to Wikileaks, I’m convinced, isn’t due exclusively to any ideological or political considerations, although that factor also comes into play; a major motive behind their dogged defense of the epistemological status quo is, in my view, pure laziness. After all, we’re talking about over 250,000 diplomatic cables, some of which are written in the most insufferable bureaucratese, and all of them studded with nearly-indecipherable acronyms that take a bit of research to translate into plain language. The mere prospect of having to plough through all this gives these slackers (of all ages) the vapors. Much easier to transcribe the current version of the conventional wisdom as expressed by their favored contacts in officialdom, who are more than happy to hand down the party line from on high.

That’s what “real” journalism is, at least according to them: anything less (or, rather, more) is just blogging. Well, be that as it may, in my case I’d find such a methodology incredibly boring, producing far more ennui than I could possibly endure. It’s true that a great deal of the material in the cables is not exactly the stuff of which scoops are made: a missive from Hillary Clinton to the US Embassy in Brazil expressing her “Kudos for Political Reporting” is not exactly a page-turner. However, you have to keep digging, and eventually resisting the temptation to nod off pays off, as in the case of a Dec. 26, 2006 cable emanating from the US Embassy in Paris detailing “an amicable December 7 [2006] dinner meeting with Ambassador-at-Large Henry Crumpton [and] Russian Special Presidential Representative Anatoly Safonov.”

Crumpton is a former CIA station chief of some renown, who came “in from the cold” to become the Bush administration’s special envoy on terrorism-related matters: Safonov is a former KGB (now FSB) top official who serves the same function in the Putin Medvedev regime. In the midst of a rather affable conversation about the many ways in which the two nations could bring themselves to cooperate in catching the Bad Guys, Safonov dropped this bombshell:

“In the course of their exchange, Safonov made the following passing statements: Safonov claimed that Russian authorities in London had known about and followed individuals moving radioactive substances into the city but were told by the British that they were under control before the poisoning took place.”

This is a reference to the infamous Litvinenko incident, in which former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko, a close associate of the Russian oligarch-in-exile Boris Beresovsky, was supposedly poisoned with radioactive material alleged to have come from Russia via their intelligence services. For months the British tabloids screamed bloody murder about a supposed KGB/FSB plot, just as they had during the docu-drama over the alleged poisoning of Ukraine’s Viktor Yushchenko when he was campaigning for the Ukrainian presidency and leading the so-called Orange Revolution against the pro-Russian regime.

Longtime readers will recall my extreme skepticism of both these rather fanciful scenarios,which resemble a grade-B movie plot rather than a real life “conspiracy”: the Litvinenko scenario just didn’t add up for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the science of it. The idea that the Russians would leave a radioactive trail leading straight back to the Kremlin is just the sort of improbable narrative Fleet Street thrives on, no matter how fact-free, but the propaganda campaign has to be judged a great success: to this day, the Litvinenko case is cited by Russophobes as “proof” that the Russkies are a horrifically malevolent force in the world.

Yet now we have a genuine Russian spook in the middle of a private, frank, and seemingly friendly conversation with his American equivalent, casually referring to the Russian surveillance of the operation, and indicating some degree of British foreknowledge. It looks like the Russians informed the Brits the minute they caught wind of the plot, and the Brits, in effect, told the Russians not to worry, they’d take care of it. Except they didn’t – or perhaps they did, but not in the way the Russians imagined they would.

There is no record of Crumpton’s reaction, which in itself is telling. Surely if the two had disputed the matter to any great degree, the conversation would hardly have been characterized as “amiable.” Yet there’s nothing in the cable to indicate even a raised eyebrow: no dissent from Crumpton’s side was noted. This is an indication of either Crumpton’s remarkable capacity for restraint, or else it is a fair measure of Safonov’s credibility in the veteran spook’s eyes:

Well then, if the Russians weren’t behind the nuclear poisoning of Litvinenko, then who was – and why did they do it? The Russians, it seems, have a fair indication of the answer to this question, as do the British, but for the moment we are left in the dark. Going over this cable with a fine-toothed comb,we look for some hint, however subtle, some sliver of evidence, however fine, and early on in the Safonov-Crumpton dialogue, we dig up the only other mention of the Litvinenko affair:

“Safonov opened the meeting by expressing his appreciation for U.S./Russian cooperative efforts thus far. He cited the recent events in London – specifically the murder of a former Russian spy by exposure to radioactive agents – as evidence of how great the threat remained and how much more there was to do on the cooperative front. (Comment: The implication was that the FOR was not involved, although Safonov did not offer any further explanation.) Safonov noted the daunting number of countries that posed particular terrorism threats, mentioning North Korea, Pakistan, South Africa, Libya, Iran, India, and Israel (sic?). He described a range of dangers, stressing the more immediate threats posed by nuclear and biological terrorism, but also acknowledging the risks of chemical terrorism.”

The “[sic?]” notation is presumably the work of the cable’s author, Karl Hofmann, former member of the National Security Council staff under the Clinton administration, career diplomat for 23 years, and at that time Deputy Chief of Mission at the Paris embassy. Hofmann’s bewilderment is understandable: after all, the cable was written before the assassination of an alleged Hamas commander in Dubai by the Mossad – and he no doubt missed these Fox News reports on Israeli covert activities in America.

In any case, it could be that in dropping what seems like an incongruous suggestion of Israeli involvement in terrorist activities Safonov was trying to set the stage for the bombshell he was about to set off – and hinting at the Russian view of who the real perpetrators might be.

Safonov has every reason to dissemble: his bias is a given. Yet by claiming the British warned the Russians off the trail of Litvinenko’s killers, he is also implicitly asking – daring – the Americans to examine their own intelligence – signals intercepts, or humint – for confirmation. It’s conceivable the Russians have the evidence in their possession.

Whatever the truth may be, it’s interesting that the Russophobes have gone on the counterattack by citing yet another cable, also coming from the Paris embassy, in which US diplomat Daniel Fried gave vent to the semi-official narrative pinning the blame on the Russians. Fried went so far as to say Russian President Vladimir Putin – a well-known micro-manager – must have known about the operation. Pure speculation, and not on the same level as Safonov’s assertion of a previously unknown fact, but that doesn’t stop Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, from claiming:

“There is some satisfaction in seeing what we have all known to be true documented so officially, and I would add brutally by being so matter of fact in its description. It brings me a little closer to achieving truth and justice for my late husband.

“For years we have been trying to get the authorities in the west to view my husband’s murder as a state-sponsored crime. Now it appears they knew it all along.”

There seems little doubt it was a state-sponsored crime: it isn’t easy to get one’s hands on Polonium-210, unless you’re a state actor. The question, however, is: which state? Naturally, Marina Litvinenko is blaming her husband’s former employer, but, as we have seen, no definitive evidence tying the Kremlin to the poisoning has emerged – and there are other possibilities.

It’s too much to expect the “mainstream” media will take up these possibilities with any degree of seriousness: so far, news stories on this subject have merely reported the bare facts, as related in the cable, without drawing any conclusions, or, indeed, even asking any questions. That’s why Newsweek was recently sold for a dollar, and the rest of the legacy media is headed down the same road. That’s also why Wikileaks is the wave of the future – if, indeed, there is to be a future for journalism in a free society.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

Due to their ridiculous and unprincipled accusations directed at WikiLeaks, I am no longer associated with the Bradley Manning Support Network. To be hounding WikiLeaks for money, of all things, at this particular moment in time – when their leader is jailed, their bank accounts are frozen, and they’re being pursued relentlessly by the US government and its allies worldwide – is not only crazy, it is downright destructive. I have resigned from their “Advisory Board” in protest, and cannot be responsible for the contents of their web site or other public pronouncements.

I want to make clear, though, that I wholeheartedly support the goal of freeing Manning: what he did wasn’t a crime, it was a patriotic act in defense of peoples’ right to know what crimes are being committed in their name and with their tax dollars.

I note, with some amusement, a similar pattern emerging on another front: the effort by a former WikiLeaks staff member and prominent smearer of Assange, to start his own “leaker” web site. It is called “Open Leaks,” but, as it turns out, it isn’t really going to be all that “open.” As one blogger put it:

“Even though the name of the new organization is called ‘Open’ Leaks, they will be far from as ‘open’ as WikiLeaks ever was. The plan is to allow for leaked documents to be submitted. However, these documents will not be published to the public. Instead they will be distributed to other news agencies and outlets for them to decide what is appropriate, legal, and constitutional to publish.”

This is an effort to salvage the gate-keeper role of the legacy media, but it’s a futile rearguard action that will flop spectacularly, as it deserves to: the whole idea of the internet, the sheer beauty of it, is that we don’t need gate-keepers anymore. Technology has rendered these witch doctors obsolescent, which is one good reason for them to hate WikiLeaks with such abandon. Assange is threatening to revoke their meal ticket, and they’re fighting back tooth and nail.

It’s only natural that a government-directed campaign to discredit – and supplant – WikiLeaks, and split its supporters, should enlist those poor doomed creatures we call “journalists.” The seemingly curious spectacle of the media leading an open attack on the First Amendment gives new meaning to the journalistic axiom that one must always protect one’s sources.

A lot of good it will do them. Like King Canute, they command the tides to recede, and still it rises.

Read more by Justin Raimondo