William Dunkerley is a media business analyst and consultant based in New Britain, CT. He works extensively with media organizations in Russia and other post-communist countries, and has advised government leaders on strategies for building press freedom and a healthy media sector. He is a Senior Fellow at the American University in Moscow.
An article titled "Litvinenko falls victim to Western security services' operations - journalist" was distributed on August 10, by Itar-TASS.
It reports on a Daily Mail piece by American freelance journalist Edward Jay Epstein titled "It's the murder mystery still causing political shockwaves in London and Moscow. But was the radioactive Russian spy killed by bungling MI6 agents?"
The Voice of Russia also chimed in with its story, "Alexander Litvinenko first victim of trade in radioactive materials."
All three articles contain misinformation and serious distortions.
Some were originated by Epstein. Others were introduced by the other media organizations themselves. While these stories may contain some information that is accurate, it is hard to know what to believe, given the presence of identifiably false information. As a result, they represent reports that can't be relied upon.
An obvious tip-off to Epstein's unreliability came when he reported that Litvinenko "died leaving behind a deathbed statement he had dictated to a friend, accusing Putin of orchestrating his murder."
That so-called deathbed statement was a hoax. It's been widely reported as such. The hoaxer has even confessed that he wrote the statement himself. If Epstein missed or misunderstood that one, what else did he miss or misunderstand?
Polonium is widely alleged to have been the poison that killed Litvinenko. Epstein called Litvinenko's polonium a "nuclear weapon." Years earlier, Epstein claimed that all known deaths from polonium were results of accidents. Where's Epstein's evidence of weaponized polonium? Reports have described it as component of some bombs. Aluminum also has been reported as a bomb component. That doesn't make aluminum a nuclear weapon.
That's not the only instance of Epstein being apparently self-contradictory. In his Daily Mail piece he said that a full inquest "isn't to be heard until next year." But at the same time he told the Voice of Russia UK Edition that "the British government has not allowed the inquest to go forward."
Epstein also writes about stockpiles of polonium. Since he calls polonium a weapon, that conjures up images of stockpiles of ammunition or missiles. But in earlier writing, Epstein claims "it cannot be stockpiled for more than a few months." "It rapidly decays..." he explained. That would make a stockpile of polonium more like a stockpile of potatoes than one of weapons, at least in terms of shelf life. This suggests quite a different image. Yet in the Daily Mail Epstein asserts that the Litvinenko polonium could have been "stolen from stockpiles in the former Soviet Union or in the US..."
Epstein goes on, "As for the small quantity of polonium 210 involved, it could have been made in any country with an uninspected nuclear reactor -- a list that in 2006 included Russia, Britain, China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea." That's suggestive that the polonium was produced in a nuclear weapons program, since that's a common thread connecting those countries. "But the more likely source of the polonium, and this is a submission I make, is from an industrial or commercial application, not from a power station or nuclear weapons programme," is what the British Home Office entered into the record at a pre-inquest hearing. If Epstein has evidence to the contrary, why didn't he present it in his article?
What Itar-TASS and Voice of Russia did was to take this bad story and make it worse.
The Itar-TASS lead sentence says that British security services might have played a role in the death, with attribution to Epstein. They quote him, "What I found led me to conclude that the accepted version of events is far from being the true story and raised a tantalizing question: could the British secret service be to blame?"
That's their scoop? It's just a tantalizing question, not even a developed theory. And actually it is old news. Back in November of last year the Litvinenko coroner said he was considering "the possible culpability of the British state in the death of Alexander Litvinenko." The Itar-TASS article actually reports on the pre-inquest hearing at which the coroner made that statement. The article said the coroner might look into involvement of Berezovsky, Chechens and the Spanish mafia. But they left the British government off the list. I guess if they had included it, readers could have seen that their scoop was indeed no scoop.
The Voice of Russia did its part to further confuse the issue. It's headline claimed that Litvinenko was the "first victim of trade in radioactive materials." But the article doesn't mention any trade at all. Perhaps the VoR writer was thinking of Epstein's former analysis of the case. In 2008 he wrote, "After considering all the evidence, my hypothesis is that Litvinenko came in contact with a Polonium-210 smuggling operation and was, either wittingly or unwittingly, exposed to it." Epstein has apparently now backed away from that conclusion without offering an explanation.
The VoR story also stated: "It is understood that Litvinenko worked for British, US, and Italian secret services." He was working for the US now? Epstein didn't say that. It was gratuitously added by VoR. What Epstein actually said is that "Litvinenko was involved with a number of intelligence services..." And his involvement with the CIA? According to Epstein, they "rejected his offer to defect in 2000." And that constitutes working for US secret services?
So what is Epstein's current analysis of the Litvinenko case? Now he says, "My belief is that the strange, radioactive death of Alexander Litvinenko is likely to earn its place in the annals of unsolved crime for ever."