In the world of espionage, where information is power, it is not unusual to find men like Alexander Litvinenko, a former agent, trading on what he could pick up from his contacts. Nor is it remarkable that his services were shared by his paymasters, MI6, with authorities in another friendly country, Spain.
What was so unusual is that Mr Litvinenko ended up dead, and his death took place in such a shocking way. Intelligence agencies do not go around killing each other’s spies, especially in London, so long after the Cold War. Reports of Kremlin involvement have been around and, along with it, speculation as to the motive. One theory is Mr Litvinenko was executed as a traitor – a warning to others. This appeared to have been given some credence by the comments of Sergei Abeltsev, a Duma member with security connections, saying: “The deserved punishment reached the traitor. I am confident that this terrible death will be a serious warning to traitors of all colours, wherever they are located. In Russia, they do not pardon treachery.”
But over the years there have not been attempts to take retribution on defectors who had given up far more important secrets. If Mr Litvinenko was made an example of, why use means which the killers appeared to think would be undetectable?
There was a public disclosure yesterday which may point towards what actually happened. Mr Litvinenko had been supplying information to a Spanish prosecutor, Jose Grinda Gonzalez, regarding the activities of the Russian mafia. He was supposed to be travelling to Madrid with Andrei Lugovoi, a member of Russian intelligence service the FSB, and wanted in Britain for the murder.
The Russian mafia has no compunctions about killing its enemies to protect its profits; it also has links to the state security. This kind of working relationship is not uncommon, remember the CIA’s use of the American mafia in its attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro in Cuba.
In Russia now, spies and gangsters are enmeshed in what they do. By passing on damaging secrets to Spain, Mr Litvinenko would have become a target for crime bosses who would have been able to use government agents to silence him.
So was the British state also culpable in Mr Litvinenko’s death? Ben Emmerson QC, counsel for his widow, Marina, maintains that MI6 failed to protect its agent. If there was coercion involved – and Mr Emmerson may be able to prove it when the inquest takes place – there is certainly a case to answer. If not, then we have to accept Mr Litvinenko chose to get involved in such a mission knowing the vicious and ruthless nature of the adversaries he faced.