A wire arrived yesterday from Edward Jay Epstein, who rose to fame for his investigation of the murder of President Kennedy, with a question in respect of the death of Alexander Litvinenko. He is the ex-KGB agent who, in exile in England, died in a London hospital from exposure to Polonium 210. Mr. Epstein's question: "Do we really know whether or not he was murdered?" Mr. Epstein's answer we would encapsulate as "no." And his explanation, posted on his Web site at edwardjayepstein.com/Murderhypothesis, is a fascinating take on this most astounding of stories.
Mr. Epstein figures there are two possible ways Litvinenko got poisoned. One is that he was murdered when "someone surreptitiously sprinkled particles of Polonium 210 in his food." The second hypothesis is that it was an accident, in which "the particles leaked out of a faulty container of Polonium 210 that he (or his associates) were carrying."
Mr. Epstein reckons that "a former KGB agent might have a interest in obtaining a smuggled sample of Polonium 210 for a host of reasons, including arranging a sale to an intermediary, establishing the bona fides of someone claiming to have access to a Russian nuclear facility, or investigating the international black market in nuke components." He writes that according to Mario Scaramella, an Italian defense consultant who had lunch with Litvinenko at the Itsu Sushi buffet the day he was poisoned, "Litvinenko's past interests, included the ‘smuggling of nuclear material out of Russia' for the KGB. If true, the possibility that Litvinenko had a vial of Polonium 210 in his possession cannot be precluded."
With any damaged container, Mr. Epstein writes, particles can leak onto clothes,"such as a sleeve or handkerchief, and be ingested. The accident hypothesis would further account the radiation spreading it to multiple locations." He concludes by noting that at this point, "both the murder and accident hypothesis are equally nefarious — and viable." What struck us about the point, aside from the fact that Mr. Epstein is one of the shrewdest analysts around, is that as he begins to sketch the case, this mystery is not merely one of those British crimes we all love to read about in Agatha Christie or Conan Doyle but a situation in real life that provides a window into why the stakes in the Middle East are so high.