Saturday, June 2, 2007

Spy vs. Spy

More developments in the Litvinenko affair:

In Britain, Crown Prosecutors are calling for Russia to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, the businessman and former KGB agent who is the prime suspect in Litvinenko's murder investigation. This is unlikely to happen in part because the Russian constitution prohibits the extradition of citizens.

Lugovoi had met with Litvinenko in a hotel room three weeks before the latter died of radioactive poisoning. British intelligence believes that a former or current Russian agent must be behind this assassination since Polonium-210 doesn't grow on trees and they think it must have come from a State institution.

Litvinenko himself was a former agent of the FSB (the KGB's successor) who sought political exile in Britain after he accused his fellow agents of plotting to kill a Russian expat living in London named Boris Berezovsky.

Here's the interesting part: in a press statement this week, Lugovoi -- who in the above picture looks sort of stylin' in that pinstripe suit, as if he belongs to the highest class of shady Russian biznezmen -- suggested MI6 was behind the murder. He claims that Litvinenko had been recruited by the British intelligence agency as part of their campaign to gather dirt on President Putin and his family and that the agency offers Russian spies British citizenship in return for their cooperation. Indeed, Lugovoi claims that he too had been propositioned by MI6, something the agency vehemently denies.

According to Lugovoi's account, Alexander Litvinenko had a big mouth and often boasted about his contacts with top MI6 officials, much to the agency's chagrin (British intelligence admits to having debriefed Litvinenko even if he was not an active agent). He also says that in the months before his death, Litvinenko had become increasingly disillusioned with MI6: he felt underpaid and underappreciated and managed to escape from the agency's control, at which point he became a liability and MI6 either had him killed or withdrew their protection allowing his enemies to kill him. Lugovoi claims that since Litvinenko was an agent if MI6, the assassination could not have happened without the agency's knowledge and assent. British authorities dismissed Lugovoi's tale as a smokescreen.

Anyway, the Litvinenko affair is starting to sound more and more like a spy movie or something (aren't there actual plans to make a movie out of this, with Johnnie Depp slated to play the lead?). For me Lugovoi's story especially brings to mind the '60s television series The Prisoner.

If you're not familiar, the Prisoner is a unique, brilliant-but-flawed 17 episode British television series. It's creator and star, Patrick McGoohan, had previously been the star of the hit TV series Danger Man (in the US it was called Secret Agent). Spy shows were apparently all the rage in the '60s especially in Britain which also produced the better known series The Saint (starring Roger Moore) and The Avengers (with Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg who would both go on to play Bond girls).

Anyway, Patrick McGoohan grew bored with Danger Man and quit. He then came up with the premise for the Prisoner: a spy abruptly resigns from his post. After tendering his resignation letter he returns home only to be drugged. When he wakes up in what appears to be his London apartment he looks outside to see that he has been transported to a surreal village (the series was filmed in a quirky Welsh resort town called Portmeirion) whose inhabitants (many of whom are former spies from around the world) wear colorful costumes and are known only by numbers (the person in charge of the village at any given time is #2, and the Prisoner is given the #6, I guess because he is a top priority).

Beneath its genteel facade the village is actually a high-tech prison where the unidentified Powers that Be (in the person of #2) struggle to break down our #6 "by hook or by crook" getting him to conform to their society and to spill "information," in particular the reason for his resignation. Meanwhile #6 attempts alternatively to escape the village or to uncover its secrets.

Although it does raise the question about what does happen to retired spies, more than espionage the series is interested in exploring the authoritarian, conformist nature of modern society and the individual's struggle to maintain his identity.

Now I did say brilliant but flawed: I think that McGoohan went a little mad with all the power and freedom he was given by the producers. The final episode is kind of an unwatchable mindfuck, and there's a ridiculous Avengers spoof and a cowboy episode thrown in there as filler. But if spy gadgets and philosophical musings on the individual v. society appeal to you, you should definitely check it out. My two favorite episodes are "the Schizoid Man" in which #2 employs a doppelganger in order to destroy #6's sense of identity and "the General" which involves a subliminal education/brainwashing device.

On a somewhat related note, if you haven't already checked out the Little Gray Books Lecture on Spy Rock you should it's hilarious. Here's a link to download the podcast.

You also might want to check out this cool site that Mennu found on Friday. It's for this European techno group called Stockholm Cylo and you can listen to streaming music off their album.

Be seeing you!

Photo of Lugovoi by Alexander Zemlianichenko, AP, Prisoner image is from a trading card used to promote the series, photo of Portmeirion is taken by Wikipedia user Arpingstone and it is in the public domain.

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