I have a simple rule of thumb when I have to deal with stories from the world of “intelligence” – I don’t believe a word I’m told.
I have read enough about “black propaganda” and “psy-ops” (psychological operations) to know that information – and misinformation – is often used as a weapon of war. So I suggest that you treat anything you read or hear about Alexander Litvinenko, Andrei Lugovoi and the rest of them with a healthy dollop of scepticism.
I remember once during my days as a newspaper reporter getting a phone call from a man who said he was a glazier who’d been hired by MI5 to bug what was then the Soviet Trade Mission in north London. It seemed a pretty unlikely tale, but we checked it out, and it seemed to be true. But we couldn’t be sure until the editor told us one afternoon that he’d been contacted by a “friend in Whitehall” asking him to pull the story. That’s when we knew it must be true.
So, lesson one: just because it doesn’t seem likely doesn’t mean it’s not true. Lesson Two: Intelligence agencies are not infallible. (Weapons of mass destruction, anyone?) Lesson Three: what they tell us may not be the whole truth. Or sometimes not even part of the truth.
Yes, I do believe that Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned. Yes, I do believe that the police believe they have enough evidence against Mr Lugovoi to justify his prosecution. Do I think Mr Litvinenko was in touch with MI6? I think it’s possible. Do I believe they tried to hire Mr Lugovoi? I think that’s possible too.
So did MI6 murder Mr Litvinenko? I have no idea. Was the exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky involved? Again, no idea. Did someone want Litvinenko dead to send a message to other future renegade intelligence operatives? Maybe. Or did someone want him dead so that that his murder would implicate the Kremlin and sour relations between London and Moscow? It’s possible.
The intelligence world is, as I’ve written before, a wilderness of mirrors. Sometimes, what is done is less important than what is said about it afterwards. Things are never what they seem. I wrote two weeks ago about the frosty state of relations between Moscow, Europe and the US, and I hope you’ve been able to listen to at least some of Gabriel Gatehouse’s superb reports on the programme this week from Russia … if not, they’re all available via the Listen Again facility on the website. The West has got used to ignoring Russia since the collapse of the old Soviet empire; and Mr Putin doesn’t like being ignored.
By the way, just a quick note to David Cameron: in case you hadn’t noticed, the honeymoon is over. Fleet Street has decided you’re fair game now, so put your helmet on. It’s going to get tough out there.
Finally, it’ll be 12 weeks on Monday since our friend and colleague Alan Johnston was abducted in Gaza. I’ve just seen the video showing Alan, apparently well and in good health, although clearly speaking according to an agreed script. Let’s hope it’s a sign of better news to come. More than 120,000 people have signed our online petition calling for Alan’s immediate release; if you haven’t yet done so, you’ll find it here.