Saturday, February 20, 2010

Murder and spies

Assassinations and technology

Hitmen old and new
Feb 18th 2010
From The Economist print edition

Modern technology makes killing easier—but harder to get away with

ONLY a decade ago the assassins who killed Mahmoud al-Mabhouh would have disappeared into oblivion. Now that is much harder, and not merely for the obvious reason that lenses are ubiquitous. Modern cameras capture more than blurred images: they record the precise bone structure of people’s faces. Digitised and interpreted by an algorithm, this information is fed to police computers all over the world.

The net is closing around old-fashioned secret-service methods. Biometric passports are already the norm in most European countries. Their chips hold easily checkable data such as retina scans, which are both unique and unfakeable. The thought of an easily disproved false identity fills spymasters with horror. They remember the fate of western agents, in the Soviet Union after the second world war, whose painstakingly forged identity documents had a fatal flaw: they used stainless steel staples, rather than the soft iron fastenings found in authentic Soviet documents. The tell-tale absence of rust allowed Stalin’s secret police to spot them.

The age of Facebook creates another problem. Creating a false identity used to be simply a matter of forging a few documents and finding a plausible life story. Nowadays, leaving an internet trail of convincing evidence for a fake identity is increasingly difficult—and a phoney detail is worse than none at all.

Even poisoning, for a long time the best way to hide a killing, may have become more difficult. The Soviet Union developed formidable expertise in the art of assassination, and (as a by-product of its germ-war and poison-gas efforts) in making toxins. A book published in Britain last year and written by Boris Volodarsky, described as a former Russian military-intelligence officer, provided a glimpse into “The KGB’s Poison Factory” from 1917 until the present day. Its “successes” included the killing of a Soviet defector in Frankfurt with thallium in 1957, and that of a Bulgarian dissident, Georgy Markov, in 1978, in London with a ricin-tipped umbrella.

Toxin analysis has improved but sometimes it is only luck that reveals ingeniously administered substances. Alexander Litvinenko, a renegade Russian security officer living in London, was killed by poisoning with polonium, a rare radioactive substance, in 2006. His assassins—said by British officials to have had help from Russia’s security service—nearly got away with it. Had their victim died sooner, nobody would have tried the highly unusual test for that kind of radiation poisoning.

As another sign that sending hit squads to distant lands can go wrong, consider the tale of Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, a Chechen ex-president killed in 2004 by a car-bomb in Qatar. The Qatari authorities, using well-honed surveillance, arrested three Russian officials; one had diplomatic immunity, but the other two were sentenced to jail. Only after a messy row between Russia and Qatar, and much damage to Russia’s ties with Islam, did the pair return to Moscow—and a hero’s welcome.

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