Italian emerges as an odd footnote in Litvinenko case

ROME: He first claimed to have been hit with five times the lethal dose of polonium 210, a radioactive substance, that killed the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko. "I'm not in the best mood," Mario Scaramella said in a dramatic interview with Italian television from his hospital bed in London last month.

Then, two days ago, he walked out of the hospital, with minute traces of radioactive poisoning, but otherwise perfectly fine.

It seemed a classic performance for Scaramella, 36, who has emerged as the oddest human footnote in the mystery of Litvinenko's death.

There are a few sure facts about him: On Nov. 1, the day Litvinenko is believed to have been poisoned, Scaramella and the former spy met at a sushi bar in London. And, at the moment, he is not considered a suspect.

Beyond that, it is hard to square Scaramella's words about himself with whatever the reality might be.

He has claimed to be a professor at the University of Naples, which in turn claims never to have heard of him. He was caught on a tape bragging that Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister, was considering him for a top job at the United Nations. He later had to admit that he never even met Berlusconi.

And so, a slew of media reports about him and his career here — which included trying to prove that some top Italian center-left politicians, including Prime Minister Romano Prodi, are Russian spies — have invariably included unflattering adjectives. They include: "incurable liar," "wannabe 007," "braggart," "bumbler" and "swindler" — not to mention "fool" and "mental case."

Those last two descriptions come from Oleg Gordievski, the highest- ranking known KGB defector, who has known Scaramella for years. His opinion of Scaramella is so low that he could not even consider him as a suspect in Litvinenko's poisoning, even after Litvinenko himself raised the possibility in a conversation with Gordievski.

"I said, 'Who poisoned you? Who did you have a meal with?'" Gordievski recalled in a telephone interview Friday. "He said, 'I had a meal with Scaramella. He was very nervous. He was very strange, but he is always strange.'"

"I said, 'Sasha, it could not be Scaramella because he has nothing to do with the KGB business,'" Gordievski said.

He concluded: "He is just a soap bubble. He doesn't know anything."

Repeated attempts to reach Scaramella, reportedly still in London and cooperating with investigators, were not successful.

But he told CNN this week that he had flown to London urgently to warn that he had received e-mail messages from a "source" Litvinenko had introduced him to earlier saying that both of them were "under the special attention of hostile people."

The trip seemed very much in character for Scaramella, who has for years cultivated a reputation as a man with shadowy contacts and friends in high places, with a particular interest in Italy's connection with Russian spying. Several years ago, he wrote a memo alleging that in 1970, a Soviet submarine had left 20 nuclear mines in the Bay of Naples.

Though his academic career seems fuzzy, there is no question of his employment between 2003 and 2006: He worked as a consultant to the Mitrokhin Commission, an Italian parliamentary body set up by center-right politicians to investigate ties between Russian intelligence and Italy.

Publicly, the commission looked into a wide array of cases: including the kidnapping and killing of Aldo Moro, the former Italian prime minister in 1978, by the Communist militant group the Red Brigades; and the assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II in 1981.

But telephone transcripts, made public since Litvinenko's poisoning, between Scaramella and Senator Paolo Guzzanti, the commission chairman and a member of Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, reveal that much effort was also spent trying to prove, before the election this year against Berlusconi, that Prodi was a KGB agent.

The transcripts have set off a political firestorm here, with Prodi threatening to sue and a new parliamentary commission being formed to investigate the old one.

One commission member, Senator Lucio Malan, also of Forza Italia, said there were good reasons to look into the allegations: Many top politicians, though not Prodi, once belonged to Italy's Communist Party.

And Prodi does have an unusual tie to the Moro kidnapping: In 1978, he and other professors at the University of Bologna held a séance, in which a Ouija board spelled the word "Gradoli," which turned out to be the address of a Red Brigades safe house.

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