Investigations: Putin, Russia and an Ex-Spy's Mysterious Death

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Byline: Mark Hosenball, Michael Isikoff and Owen Matthews

Until a few days ago, U.S. and British government inves-tigators had never heard of anyone being poisoned by the obscure and unstable isotope polonium-210. Now its extreme rarity is adding to the riddles in the death of exiled former Rus- sian spy Alexander Litvinenko, an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Just before falling ill, the dissident received a document that seemed to warn of threats from an alleged secret fraternity of former KGB men calling themselves "Dignity and Honor," says Lord Tim Bell, a former Margaret Thatcher adviser close to Litvinenko's circle.

Who silenced Litvinenko? His family and supporters insist Russian agents did it. Investigators in London think such a lethal dose must have been industrially produced--a job that usually takes not only bismuth metal for raw material but a nuclear reactor to bombard it with neutrons. "It's not something you can go into a drugstore and get off a shelf," says a nuclear-agency official, asking to be nameless because of the sensitive topic. "To get this amount of highly concentrated radioactivity would take a very sophisticated operation, access to nuclear materials and support systems," Litvinenko's friend and fellow Russian exile Alex Goldfarb told news-week. Last week he released a statement he says was dictated by Litvinenko as he died, blaming Putin for the poisoning: "The howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. …