This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
U.S. authorities investigated a Russian opposition activist’s two near-fatal illnesses as “intentional” poisonings, according to newly obtained government records that also show U.S. doctors and scientists mulled the possibility that he was targeted with a biotoxin or a radioactive substance.
The U.S. Justice Department documents, reviewed exclusively by RFE/RL, provide more glimpses into several years of deliberations by the FBI as it sought to determine why Vladimir Kara-Murza fell suddenly ill on two separate occasions in Moscow over the course of two years.
The records are among several tranches of documents the Justice Department has handed over to Kara-Murza in response to his legal quest to find out exactly what the U.S. government knows about the cause of his severe illnesses in 2015 and 2017.
Kara-Murza, who lives outside Washington, D.C., with his wife and children, believes he was twice poisoned deliberately during working trips to Moscow due to his lobbying for U.S. sanctions against Russian officials allegedly involved in rights abuses. In both of his illnesses, his Russian doctors indicated he suffered toxic effects of an “unidentified substance.”
An initial release reviewed by RFE/RL 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, possibly at the behest of congressional lawmakers.
But the Justice Department continues to withhold hundreds of pages of records — despite an agreement to give them to him amid his federal lawsuit. As reasons for this, it has variously cited national-security exemptions and an interagency review process.
And while the documents released so far suggest that U.S. authorities tested Kara-Murza’s blood and urine for sophisticated poisons, to date they have provided no records or summaries related to the results of such tests.
Stephen Rademaker, who is representing Kara-Murza in his lawsuit, told RFE/RL that around 275 pages were still being withheld “for consultation with other agencies,” while 10 had been withheld on grounds of national security.
“It’s possible that the national-security rationale for withholding them is embarrassment over an inability to determine what agent was used to poison Vladimir,” Rademaker said in an e-mail. “But given the enormous technical capabilities of the U.S. government, we think it’s more likely that they did reach some conclusions about the agent used to poison him.”
Though Kara-Murza’s case dates back more than five years, the overall effort to pinpoint the cause in both of his illnesses has taken on new urgency in the wake of two other Russian-linked poisonings that grabbed international attention.
One, in August 2020, involved anti-corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny, who fell severely ill in Siberia and was eventually transferred to Germany for treatment. The other, in March 2018, targeted former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England.
In both cases, a sophisticated nerve agent known as Novichok — which was first developed in the Soviet Union — was identified as the poison.
Navalny this week, together with the investigative group Bellingcat and its media partners, revealed evidence they say shows that his poisoning was carried out by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). Navalny has accused President Vladimir Putin of being behind the poisoning; the Kremlin denies any involvement of Russian authorities.
What has set Kara-Murza’s case apart from the other incidents is that it is known to have drawn the FBI’s sprawling investigative and scientific resources into the hunt for the cause.
Rademaker expressed frustration at Washington’s reticence regarding Kara-Murza’s case compared to Germany’s swift announcement of its conclusion in Navalny’s case. “Germany had no problem quickly revealing both its ability to detect the agent used to poison Aleksei Navalny, and the nature of that agent,” he said. “We can’t understand why the U.S. government wouldn’t be equally willing to reveal its findings, particularly as they bear on Vladimir’s health.”
Contacted by RFE/RL, the FBI said it had no comment on the investigation. The Justice Department did not respond to a query seeking comment.
‘A Case Of Intentional Poisoning’
The new records show that as of the middle of 2018, FBI officials had narrowed their theories and research — including what Kara-Murza’s wife, Yevgenia, described as Russian doctors’ initial suggestion that his 2015 poisoning was caused by an overdose of citalopram, a common antidepressant he had been taking. He was also taking medication for heartburn.
Political opponents of Kara-Murza, 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 citalopram by the time he again fell ill with poisoning symptoms in 2017.
“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,” said a summary report by the FBI’s Washington field office, dated June 13, 2018. “The FBI is investigating this matter as a case of intentional poisoning.”
FBI records show that two Israeli doctors traveled to Moscow at the request of allies of Kara-Murza after his 2015 hospitalization.
Both of the Israeli doctors’ names are redacted in the records, though one is clearly the same physician who told the BBC at the time that Kara-Murza’s symptoms were not typical of a citalopram overdose. (That assessment was later echoed by U.S. toxicologists who reviewed several of Kara-Murza’s medical records related to the 2015 incident at RFE/RL’s request.)
But the newly released records also include comments from the second Israeli doctor, whose name is redacted and whose identity RFE/RL was not able to establish in time for publication.
That doctor, the FBI records show, “was advised that Kara-Murza had ‘burns’ on his esophagus, stomach, and intestine,” but no signs of any external burns. This doctor stated the burns “were not caused by medicine” and “also felt the toxicity was not from medication,” the records showed.
It’s unclear exactly how the second Israeli doctor obtained this information. The records state that he was not allowed to “officially examine” Kara-Murza in the Moscow hospital.
‘Some Form Of Biotoxin’
After six weeks in Moscow, Kara-Murza was stabilized and discharged, and he and Yevgenia returned to the United States, where they both have legal residency.
A source whose name is redacted subsequently gave the FBI samples he claimed were taken from Kara-Murza, including a vomit-stained T-shirt, underwear, a vial of hair and nail clippings, and a vial “of what appeared to be blood,” the records showed.
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.”
Another message from around the same time showed that the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate began to be included in interagency correspondence.
A few weeks later, Kara-Murza began 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 and 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 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 Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
It was unclear from the records who or what agency requested that Kara-Murza’s blood and urine be tested for polonium.
Another lab test was also ordered 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 was badly disfigured and nearly died during the 2004 presidential election in Ukraine that he ultimately won. An Austrian scientist said tests showed Yushchenko had 1,000 times the usual concentration of the chemical in his body.
According to the records, the FBI laboratory ultimately was unable to identify a toxin after the 2015 incident “due to the age of the samples.”
Another doctor said that Kara-Murza appeared to have suffered from an inflammation of blood vessels in the brain or spinal cord, something known as central-nervous-system vasculitis. The timing was potentially suspicious, the doctor noted: “Given this developed all after his acute illness possibly propagated by a toxin/poison, it seems likely a secondary phenomenon” rather than a standalone disease.
Three years later, in a note dated June 13, 2018, an FBI summary of its entire investigation to date noted that following the first incident in 2015, Kara-Murza’s medical team were “of the opinion that Kara-Murza had been exposed to some form of biotoxin — either accidentally, or deliberately.”
On February 1, 2017, hours before he fell ill for second time, Kara-Murza said he had dined at a restaurant in Moscow. He recalled his order took a long time to be served, and the soup “tasted so bad that it was more or less inedible.” His dining companion, a fellow opposition activist who only drank tea during their encounter, did not report falling ill.
While the details in the most recent batch of Kara-Murza’s FBI files are being made public for the first time in this report, Navalny this week described a similar experience ingesting something with an unpleasant taste the night before he began experiencing his poisoning symptoms in August.
Shortly after 11 p.m. on the night before the flight on which he fell ill, Navalny said, he ordered a cocktail but no food while relaxing with his colleagues at a restaurant in Tomsk. “It tasted so bad that I only took a few sips and left it on the table,” Navalny said. “I went to bed at midnight.”
Citing metadata from leaked cell-phone records, Bellingcat and its partners reported that in the hour after Navalny went to bed on the night before he fell ill, FSB officers they have linked to the poisoning exchanged a flurry of messages.
Navalny began feeling ill about eight hours later, after his plane took off from the Tomsk airport.
Kara-Murza, who felt ill about 12 hours after eating the foul-tasting soup, found the experience significant enough to bring it up while discussing his second poisoning with an FBI agent. He conceded that it would be difficult to prove whether the soup might have been laced with a toxic substance, the new records show.
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.
The FBI conducted new tests, including at its Quantico laboratory, the records show. The only potentially suspicious findings, however, were elevated levels of barium in his urine, according to results of those tests that have been released so far. A blood sample was sent to an outside laboratory for confirmation, but that analysis “did not reveal any positive findings of toxicological significance.”
In early January 2018, Kara-Murza met with an FBI agent who was involved in the investigation. According to the notes taken by the agent, Kara-Murza was informed of the inconclusive laboratory findings, and “expressed disappointment in the results but was willing to allow the FBI to send his blood sample to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for further testing.”
Overseen by the Department of Energy, Lawrence Livermore is one of four U.S. laboratories designated by the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons “for the analysis of authentic biomedical samples.”
In earlier remarks to RFE/RL, a spokesman for the laboratory declined to comment on whether the facility had tested Kara-Murza’s samples.
Russian state media this fall attempted to portray the records released thus far as evidence that U.S. authorities had concluded he was not intentionally poisoned.
None of the records state this, and the FBI lab work released so far involves screening for drugs and other substances, but not more exotic poisons, according to Bruce Goldberger, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Analytical Toxicology and president of the American Board of Forensic Toxicology.
Goldberger, who reviewed this lab work at RFE/RL’s request, said that the methodology used at the FBI lab was “very sophisticated” and had “state-of-the-art equipment” and “very experienced analytical toxicologists and forensic toxicologists.”
But that laboratory does not test for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or biotoxins, such as anthrax, he said. “The laboratory tested for drugs and other substances, but not WMD,” Goldberger, who is also the chief of forensic medicine at the University of Florida College of Medicine, said in a telephone interview.
Kara-Murza was a top deputy to Boris Nemtsov, a regional governor and deputy prime minister in the 1990s who later became an opposition leader and vocal critic of Putin. Nemtsov was fatally shot near the Kremlin in February 2015 — about three months before Kara-Murza suffered the first sudden illness.
He believes both incidents, which he has long insisted were poisonings, were retaliation for his political activism, including his lobbying for the U.S. Magnitsky Act, a 2012 law that imposed sanctions on Russians deemed by Washington to be rights abusers. The law infuriated the Kremlin.
Kara-Murza’s case not only reached the top of the FBI, but also the agendas at top levels of the White House and the State Department. Antony Blinken, now U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to head the State Department, also monitored the 2015 poisoning while serving as deputy secretary of state.
In January 2018, two months before the Skripal poisoning, 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 mysterious 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 Kara-Murza’s illnesses indeed were in fact 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 said.
U.S. intelligence veterans called the visit highly unusual, potentially unprecedented. And Pompeo was forced to defend the meeting after congressional Democrats openly criticized him.
Asked previously for comment, the Russian Embassy in Washington responded to the question about the meeting between Pompeo and the visiting Russian security chiefs, saying it “did not attend” the meeting and that it “does not comment on intelligence services’ contacts.”
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 with symptoms later identified as the result of Novichok poisoning — and 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.
With his congressional allies pushing the FBI to identify what was behind both illnesses, Kara-Murza hoped to have some sort of public document he could use as a virtual shield, or warning, to his would-be attackers, which he said might afford him protection in the future.
But by mid-2018, after telling lawmakers some sort of statement or public documents would be forthcoming, the FBI reversed itself, and declined to release any information, frustrating members of Congress. One senator even suggested in a letter to the FBI that the substance that triggered Kara-Murza’s illness might be “classified” by the agency.
In comments to RFE/RL, Kara-Murza also drew a parallel to the Navalny case, in which German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly condemned Russia after German authorities concluded, within days of Navalny being hospitalized, that a Novichok-like substance was to blame.
The U.S. investigation “was a highly professional and sophisticated and wide-ranging inquiry conducted by FBI professionals. The political leadership is a different matter altogether,” he said.
“All I can say is, look at the result of this, I can’t think of a starker contrast between the German government in the Navalny case and the American government in my case,” he said.