The new James Bond film is playing to rapturous audiences across the country and right on cue a real-life tale bursts on to the scene from the sleazier end of the 007 repertoire. Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian secret agent granted asylum in this country, is in a London hospital after supping with a fellow spook at a sushi bar in Piccadilly. Scotland Yard is investigating the possibility that he was poisoned, perhaps with thallium, the former Soviet KGB's lethal drug of choice.
Here I should lay my cards on the table. I do not like spy stories outside the covers of a John le Carré novel and I never liked covering them as a reporter. I find the cloak and dagger world of espionage, with its necessary lies and subterfuge, unsettling. Any truth rests on constantly shifting sand. The borders of fact and fantasy are forever blurred. And a secret agent is precisely that: secret; a man (or woman) behind a mask, an unknown quantity of unknown loyalty. Spies who have defected I find doubly sinister: once someone has betrayed one set of loyalties, how much easier it must be to betray another.
All of which is by way of explaining why I treat all spy scandals with the deepest suspicion. It is also why the real explanation for Mr Litvinenko's plight need not be the one set out so confidently yesterday by the predictable procession of no-longer-secret agents who are beholden to the British authorities for their freedom to speak. The "authorised version" went something like this. Litvinenko met up with a former Italian colleague, who was offering him information. This related to the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, the campaigning Russian journalist who was shot dead in Moscow last month. After the meeting, Litvinenko fell critically ill; he suspected poisoning and was taken to hospital.
He was transferred to University College Hospital, where he is now given a 50-50 chance of survival. His symptoms resemble those of thallium poisoning, which means the immediate culprits are most likely to be the Russian secret service. And the motive? That's easy: it was to halt Litvinenko's inquiries into the murder of Politkovskaya. From there, a direct line would lead to Russia's President, Vladimir Putin. After all, who else stood to benefit more, from the killing of either Politkovskaya or Litvinenko?
This scenario is neat enough. It also happens to suit almost everyone who has supported it publicly - most of them sworn enemies of the Russian President. But neatness does not make a story true. And there are many assumptions here which call for a good deal more circumspection than has so far been applied.
The first is that the Kremlin was behind Politkovskaya's murder. It is a regrettable fact that prominent - and not so prominent - journalists have been killed in Russia in recent years. It is also true that Politkovskaya was highly critical of Russia's involvement in Chechnya and of Putin. But Politkovskaya had other powerful enemies, too. And the Kremlin's current efforts to improve its image would militate against Putin's involvement. The murder of an already sidelined journalist was arguably the last thing that Putin needed.
With or without the Putin-Politkovskaya link, though, there are several strange aspects of the account we heard yesterday. Litvinenko, we were told, had been offered secret papers in connection with his investigation into Politkovskaya's murder. If he was engaged in such an investigation, though, then on whose authority was he acting? Did the offer of secret papers exist or was it a manufactured come-on? Was Politkovskaya's name dragged into this perhaps because of her high reputation in the West?
Nor was Litvinenko without enemies of his own. He defected to Britain six years ago, while facing charges for treason. Here he wrote a book casting aspersions on his former comrades. If there is Russian involvement, personal or internal KGB vendettas cannot be ruled out.
I would also recall this. In February 2004, journalists were invited to a plush hotel (as it happens, also in Piccadilly), to be regaled with an extraordinary story from a bedraggled Russian MP, who was standing against Putin in imminent elections. The MP, Ivan Rybkin, gave a muddled account of being abducted, put on a train, drugged and filmed in compromising positions. It was all, we were told, the doing of Putin and his secret agents.
The truth turned out to be rather different. Rybkin, not for the first time, had been on a bender. He and his supporters abroad had found an ingenious way of "explaining" his absence to his wife and discrediting Putin at the same time. Alas, Rybkin could not keep up the pretence.
As I write, there seems no doubt that Litvinenko is a one-time KGB agent and that his illness is real. For the rest, a great many questions remain open.Reuse content