New FBI Documents Shed Light On Probe Into Russian Activist's Near-Fatal Illnesses
By Mike Eckel September 07, 2021
Newly released, previously classified documents from the U.S. Justice Department shed further light on how FBI agents and U.S. government scientists rushed, and struggled, to pinpoint the cause of the two mysterious illnesses that nearly killed Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza.
The documents do not provide a final answer as to what the FBI found and whether it was conclusive. But they offer another piece of the puzzle of what happened to Kara-Murza on two separate occasions while he was working in Moscow.
The release comes as the U.S. government indicates it is nearing the end of the process of releasing hundreds of documents regarding its investigation into Kara-Murza's case. The releases were prompted by a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed by Kara-Murza himself.
Over the past two decades, a series of poisonings, inside and outside of Russia, have targeted dissidents, former intelligence agents, and opposition activists.
In August 2020, anti-corruption lawyer and Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny nearly died after falling ill during a trip in Siberia. German scientists and international chemical weapons experts identified a Soviet-era, military-grade nerve agent.
Kara-Murza's, however, is the only known case of a suspected poisoning victim drawing the investigative efforts of the FBI, and the scientific expertise of the U.S. government laboratories.
Previously released documents showed that the FBI treated the incidents as "intentional poisoning."
Kara-Murza, who lives part-time outside Washington with his wife and children, believes he was targeted -- in 2015 and 2017 -- due to his lobbying for U.S. sanctions against Russian officials allegedly involved in rights abuses.
Though no conclusive scientific proof has been publicly identified, Kara-Murza and his allies point to strong circumstantial evidence that he was deliberately targeted with poison.
That evidence includes findings from the open-source researchers at Bellingcat, which earlier this year found that several agents from the Federal Security Service, the main Russian intelligence agency known as the FSB, had "systematically tailed" Kara-Murza before both his first and second medical emergencies.
The agents worked for an FSB institute that had previously been tied to Navalny's poisoning.
The U.S government identified several of those FSB agents in August when it announced new financial sanctions on several individuals and entities related to Navalny's poisoning.
Threat Credibility Evaluation
After his first illness in May 2015, Kara-Murza spent six weeks in a Moscow hospital recuperating, and then returned to the United States with his wife.
Kara-Murza's allies also managed to smuggle fluid and tissue samples, including a blood-stained shirt, out of Moscow and get them tested by private laboratories in Israel and France.
They also succeeded in bringing some samples to the United States, where Kara-Murza's work in Washington, D.C., had resulted in building relationships with several top lawmakers, including Senator John McCain who championed Kara-Murza's work. After McCain died, Kara-Murza served as a pallbearer at his memorial service.
Those samples were sent to the FBI laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, "for toxicology testing in an attempt to determine if Kara-Murza was poisoned," says an FBI electronic communication dated June 25, 2015. The message notes that the FBI lab was advised that "the current samples have minimal volume, which makes testing difficult and limited.
In one indication of how serious the U.S. government initially perceived the case, the FBI convened a high-level, multiagency meeting called a Threat Credibility Evaluation, immediately following Kara-Murza's 2015 hospitalization, as his tissue samples were being transported to the United States.
The Threat Credibility Evaluation is a procedure to coordinate an urgent U.S government response if there is any hint of a potential WMD threat -- in this case, if the samples from Kara-Murza could have been radioactive or contaminated with deadly toxins. The FBI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate was also involved.
Previously released documents showed that the FBI sought -- and received -- permission from Kara-Murza to send blood samples to a leading U.S. government weapons-research laboratory for testing.
Those records also indicated that FBI Director Christopher Wray was directly involved in the overall investigation, at the behest of congressional lawmakers.
Kara-Murza also underwent rehabilitation at a Virginia hospital in the Washington suburbs. He underwent therapy to walk again, and he said he used a cane for a year.
Doctors at the hospital also performed a battery of tests, both to help him recover but also apparently to try to identify the cause.
Among the tests ordered were screenings for polonium and polonium-210 -- a rare, highly radioactive substance that gained international attention nine years earlier when it was put in tea that was drunk by a former Russian security services officer named Aleksandr Litvinenko in London. Litvinenko died weeks later.
British authorities later accused a Russian security agent named Andrei Lugovoi, who is now a Russian lawmaker, of the assassination.
The Virginia hospital records do not indicate what the outcome of that test was, though an employee at the U.S. Department of Energy is identified as a contact. The Energy Department oversees the U.S. nuclear stockpile and several of the primary U.S. government laboratories that perform research on nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, including the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
Another federal facility, the Savannah River National Laboratory, was also involved, and tested samples that the FBI provided. A June 9, 2015, report indicates the facility tested for radioactive materials, but they were found to be under permissible levels.
Another lab test that was ordered by the Virginia hospital was for dioxin, which is a family of chemicals, some of which are potentially fatal in humans if ingested in significant quantities.
The records released so far do not indicate why this was ordered, or what the results were.
But dioxin was identified as a substance used in the poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko, who nearly died during the 2004 presidential election in Ukraine that he ultimately won. An Austrian scientist said tests showed Yushchenko, who was badly disfigured, had 1,000 times the usual concentration of the chemical in his body.
In June 2015, an FBI memo states: "Preliminary results show all items to be free of radioactive material of interest."
The following month, the FBI opened a full investigation.
After Kara-Murza's first illness, Russian doctors initially suggested that his condition might have been the result of overdose of an antidepressant he had been taking. He was also taking medication for heartburn.
Political opponents, Internet trolls, and Russian state media seized on this theory to portray him as a drug addict and his suspected poisonings as pharmaceutical mishaps, even though had stopped taking the antidepressant by the time he again fell ill with poisoning symptoms for the second time, in on February 1, 2017.
An FBI summation of the investigation dated June 2018 rejects that assessment: "The medical team overseeing Kara-Murza's recovery in the United States disagree with this assessment stating that his illness could not have been caused by an overdose of medication and alcohol. They are of the opinion that Kara-Murza had been exposed to some form of biotoxin-- either accidentally, or deliberately."
The summation also states: "Consultations with medical officials and the results of the FBI's laboratory tests dismiss the possibility of the victim overdosing on prescription medication and/or alcohol. The FBI is investigating this matter as case of intentional poisoning."
In 2017, in contrast to the incident two years earlier, Kara-Murza's allies and family managed to take his blood and tissue samples out of Russia promptly and bring them to the United States for FBI testing.
Kara-Murza's case not only reached the top of the FBI, but also top levels of the White House and the State Department. Antony Blinken, now U.S. secretary of state, also monitored the 2015 poisoning while serving as deputy secretary of state.
In January 2018, an unusual meeting took place in Washington. The directors of the three primary Russian intelligence agencies traveled to the U.S. capital for meetings with American counterparts including Mike Pompeo, then the director of the CIA.
According to former White House officials, the meetings were part of an effort to arrest the downward spiral of relations, a trend began under President Barack Obama and worsened dramatically amid revelations that Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election won by Donald Trump.
Kara-Murza's illnesses were deemed important enough to U.S.-Russian relations to include on the agenda with the visiting Russian officials, according to the two former officials who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity.
It was unclear, however, whether the illnesses indeed ultimately were discussed and if so, what was said. No detailed readout of the discussions between Pompeo and the visiting Russian officials was released after, according to the officials; only a general description. No detailed minutes were circulated at the White House, one of the officials told RFE/RL.
Two months later, in March 2018, a former Russian military intelligence agent named Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia nearly died in southern England after they were exposed to what British authorities said was Novichok, a Soviet-developed nerve-agent that had previously not been known publicly to still be in existence. A British woman who was exposed to the substance later died.
British authorities implicated agents from the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU.
German authorities said the substance used to target Navalny in August 2020 â€“- more than two years after Skripal -- was related to Novichok.
FBI laboratory logs show that Kara-Murza's blood samples were removed from storage on March 6, 2018 -- two days after Skripal and his daughter fell ill and were returned to an "evidence drop-off fridge" 27 minutes later. It was unclear if that was for testing purposes, routine maintenance, or some other reason.
Several of Kara-Murza's samples were removed from FBI storage refrigerators the following month as well.
The documents produced by the Justice Department came in response to a FOIA lawsuit that Kara-Murza filed, in part out of frustration of how slowly the FBI was moving in investigating his case.
Hundreds of pages have been released to date, many heavily redacted.
Court filings indicate that Kara-Murza and the Justice Department must report to the U.S. federal court by October 1 as to the status of the case and whether Kara-Murza intends to sue to seek more materials.
A lawyer for Kara-Murza did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
Copyright (c) 2021. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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