Column: Dispatches From the Edge: Spy vs. Spy; War With Syria?

By Conn Hallinan
Friday December 22, 2006

Spy vs. spy, the gang that couldn’t poison straight, or welcome to the new Cold War?  

Trying to unravel the tale behind the poisoning of former Russian KGB officer Alexander Litvineko is like taking a journey through Alice’s looking glass, with the central characters just as about as bizarre as those who populated Lewis Carroll’s tale. 

Take “Russian intelligence expert” and “academic” Mario Scaramella, who met with Litvineko the day it was thought the former agent was poisoned with radioactive polonium 210. Scaramella has led a chorus of Litvineko’s former associates who claim Russian President Vladimir Putin was behind the hit. 

It turns out that the two universities at which he claims he teaches —Naples University and San Jose State University—never heard of him. As for his assertion that he is an “expert” on Soviet intelligence, he got that credential in 2003 when former right wing Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi appointed him as consultant to the Mitrokin Commission, a parliamentary body supposedly investigating KGB influence in Italy. 

However, according to the center-left coalition that took power last April, the Commission was set up solely to smear Romano Prodi, the current prime minister. Scaramella was never able to demonstrate that Prodi was a KGB agent, but he told the Commission’s chair, Paolo Guzzanti, a member of Burlusconi’s Forza Italia Party, that Prodi had “friendly relations” with the Soviet intelligence organization. Prodi filed a libel suit Dec. 1 against “persons” who tried to link him with the KGB. 

Then there are on-the-lam Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky and Chechnya rebel spokesman Akhmen Zakayev, who have also fingered the Russian government for the poisoning, and who arrived arm in arm at Litvineko’s funeral. Zakayev claims to have converted Litvineko to Islam on his deathbed. 

Litvineko was close to London’s wealthy Russian community and worked for Titon International, a security firm that spies on businesses. The Observer reports that a Russian academic living in London, Julia Svetlichnaya, claims that Litvineko told her he intended to make a living blackmailing Russian billionaires and spies.  

On one level this all seems like dark comedy—John Le Carre on acid—but the fallout from the whole matter has deepened the chill between Russia and the West and damaged bilateral relations between London and Moscow.  

Which, as a German radiation expert suggests, may be the story behind the story. 

Sebastian Pflugbeil, president of the German Society for Radiation Protection, and a physicist, has strong doubts about the “Russian connection.”  

Pflugbeil says “If you keep polonium in a tightly shut vial, you can transport it without contamination. Either these killers were rank amateurs or, and I think this is also plausible, a trail has been deliberately created to cast suspicion in a certain direction.” 

The physicist, who has studied how East German spies used radioactive material, says that “secret agents are normally trained to kill without leaving any evidence,” but in this case, “it’s not just a trail. They have practically bulldozed a superhighway all the way to Moscow. They wanted to make a spectacle of it.” 

Oh, what tangled webs we weave… 


War by summer between Israel and either Lebanon or Syria is what a number of Middle East experts are now predicting. In a recent article in the Israeli daily Haaretz, Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff report that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are “already undergoing an intensive process of preparation, which is based in part on lessons already learned from last summer’s second Lebanon war. 

According to sources in the IDF, a major military incursion into Gaza is also likely. “Lebanon and the Gaza Strip have left too many issues undecided,” Haaretz reports the sources saying, “too many potential detonators that could cause a new conflagration. The army’s conclusion from this is that a new war in the future is a reasonable possibility.”  

Training of reservists has been stepped up, and Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz told army radio that the country must prepare itself for fighting an “unconventional war.”  

Peretz’s comment suggests that the IDF is preparing to strike at Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, but recent remarks by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert suggest Syria might be the target. In rejecting recommendations by the Iraq Study Group that Israel should consider negotiating over returning the Golan Heights, Olmert said “In my view, Syria’s subversive operations, its support for Hamas—which may be what’s preventing real negotiations with the Palestinians—do not give much hope for negotiations with Syria anytime soon.” 

That position was bolstered by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said, “There is no indication that Syria wishes to be a stabilizing force. They are causing problems in Lebanon of extraordinary proportions.” Rice went on to charge that Damascus is undermining the “moderate Arab states” and the “road map” peace plan between Israelis and Palestinians. 

In fact, the previous Sharon government and current Olmert government steadfastly maintained there was no “Palestinian partner” to talk with, and opted for unilateral actions rather than negotiations. The “road map” is considered largely defunct, particularly after the Bush Administration agreed with the Israeli interpretation that the plan did not require Israel to give up its large West Bank settlements.  

Not everyone in the Olmert government is a fan of war with Syria. Amos Yadlin, the chief of Israeli Military Intelligence, recently argued that Tel Aviv should examine the possibility of peace negotiations with Syria, a position Peretz took shortly after the end of the Lebanon war.  

Peretz came under fire for his comments, and Olmert suggested that Yadlin was “exceeding the bounds of his authority” write Harel and Issacharoff.  

There is little doubt that the IDF could smash up Syria’s conventional army, but, according to Yadlin, Damascus paid close attention to the Israeli debacle in Southern Lebanon this past summer and is creating a military force modeled on Hezbollah. That would mean missiles and guerilla units armed with anti-tank weapons. Those anti-tank weapons were not only efficient in neutralizing Israeli armor in Lebanon, they served as short-range artillery pieces that had a devastating effect on IDF infantry. 

If the Olmert government does decide to attack Syria, it will find that the Israeli public—at least for now—supports it. A recent poll by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research found that only 18 percent of Israelis thought that long-term peace with Syria is possible and 67 percent reject returning the Golan Heights in exchange for peace. Slightly over half think there will be another war with Syria. 


President George W. Bush has always said that he would be led by the views of his commanders on the ground when it came to making decisions about the war in Iraq.  

He should ask the men and women on the front line, like a Zogby International/Le Moyne College poll did. The poll found that only 23 percent of the troops felt they should stay “as long as they were needed,” and a whopping 72 percent felt the U.S, should withdraw within 12 months. A hefty 29 percent wanted out immediately, a figure that went up to 49 percent among reservists and 45 percent among National Guard troops. 

Zogby also found that most American troops thought the Iraq war was over the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Some 85 percent said the U.S. invasion was “to retaliate for Saddam’s role in the 9/11 attacks.