In New Book, Journalist Alleges Russian Links To Mysterious Deaths Abroad

Nov 19, 2019
Originally published on November 21, 2019 11:14 am

In 2006, as Russia was preparing to host the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, its parliament passed a law legalizing extrajudicial killings of accused "extremists" abroad.

"It was an extraordinary moment," BuzzFeed News journalist Heidi Blake says. "Even as Western leaders were sitting around the table with Putin in St. Petersburg, at that very moment, laws were being passed ... that enabled enemies of the Russian state to be murdered by Russian state agents on foreign soil with absolute impunity."

Blake maintains that Russia subsequently engaged in an assassination program that targeted exiled Russian oligarchs, security officials and others critical of the Kremlin.

"We could see there was a pattern of suspicious deaths linked to Russia," Blake says. "And in every single case there was evidence that would appear to connect those deaths to Russia."

Blake and her BuzzFeed News team were finalists in 2017 for their investigation of Russian assassinations on British soil. Her new book based on that reporting, From Russia with Blood, chronicles 14 suspected assassinations in the U.K., including the death by poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, a defector who had been critical of the law allowing extrajudicial killings.

"Litvinenko was trying to warn publicly that this [law] would mean that Russian defectors living in Britain would be at risk — and it was only months later that he himself was assassinated," Blake says.


Interview Highlights

On the Russian state's development of tools for assassination

Putin has, in a very concerted way, poured [resources] into a number of laboratories in which government scientists just dedicate their lives to the development of weapons and poisons, which are designed to kill without leaving a trace. We know that the Russian state has a whole armory of poisons, which are designed to trigger, for example, fast-acting cancers or to trigger cardiac arrest — or even psychotropic drugs, which are designed to destabilize enemy targets, to mood-altering substances, which can create the appearance that the person has plunged into a very deep and profound depression.

One of the things our intelligence sources have talked to us about is the study of suicide clusters in which there is a suspicion that the Russian state may have either driven individuals to kill themselves or has so successfully destabilized them that when their deaths are made to look like suicides, there's a pretext in which that can be made believable, because their behavior in the weeks leading up to their deaths has been so disordered.

On why many Russian exiles and oligarchs settle in Great Britain

London, in lots of ways, made the perfect playground for these superrich Russians who fled Vladimir Putin's regime, because it's a place where there is a kind of degree of respectability about investing your money in the United Kingdom. But actually, the vagaries of the British financial system make it very easy to establish shell companies, with fairly little scrutiny, into which money can be moved. It actually has been historically and, to some extent, still to this day, very easy to plow huge amounts of money into British properties, British companies and British banks without a huge amount of scrutiny from the authorities.

So it is possible for these Russian runaways to come to Britain to expatriate huge fortunes and reinvest them, and then also to launder their reputations into the West by sending their children to some of the most prestigious public schools that Britain has to offer, to making endowments to the colleges of leading universities in Britain, buying up some of the most prestigious stately homes in the country, and really kind of crafting a life that bore all the hallmarks of kind of British establishment respectability — but which was funded entirely by money, much of which had been expatriated from Russia in fairly corrupt and dubious circumstances.

On how British police handled the 2014 death of Scot Young, an associate of Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky's, who died under mysterious circumstances in 2013

In the case of the death of Scot Young ... who fell from his window [and] was impaled on the railings, the police came in and within minutes had shut that case down and treated it as a suicide.

We were able to establish that, in fact, the police had been called repeatedly by Scot Young in the months and years leading up to his death, that he told them that he feared he was being tailed by a team of Russian hitmen. He feared his life was in danger. ... His daughters had gone to the police and told them that he had been complaining that he feared for his life and that he didn't believe he was safe. And then, of course, we unraveled this whole series of connections to a number of deals in Russia that had come directly into the crosshairs of the Kremlin — that had angered the Kremlin — and that he'd been living in the shadow of serious threats. None of that had been investigated.

So really just the complete absence of any serious investigation by the police suggested to us that there was a strategic unwillingness on the part of the British authorities to look any further. -

The police hadn't even dusted for fingerprints in his apartment. They hadn't taken any CCTV footage. They hadn't sought extra witnesses. They'd really done absolutely nothing to investigate. They hadn't even taken photos of the window ledge from which he fell — and if they had, they would have seen that there were scratches on the ledge, which were later found by his daughters, which were about as far apart as the fingers on two hands, suggesting that he may have been fighting to stay in when he fell out.

So really just the complete absence of any serious investigation by the police suggested to us that there was a strategic unwillingness on the part of the British authorities to look any further.

On secrecy orders that prevent cases from being properly investigated

There are a number of cases in which the British government has obtained secrecy orders to prevent evidence being disclosed to inquests, which are the formal investigations into cause of death which take place when deaths in Britain are unexplained.

I think the most striking example is the death of a man called Gareth Williams, who was a British spy who was found dead in his in the apartment, which was paid for by the British intelligence services in London. He was found zipped up and padlocked inside a large sports bag which had been placed inside the bathtub of his flat. The authorities very quickly shut that investigation down and deemed it as nonsuspicious.

[Gareth Williams] was found zipped up and padlocked inside a large sports bag which had been placed inside the bathtub of his flat. The authorities very quickly shut that investigation down and deemed it as nonsuspicious. -

Now, I was able to talk to the murder detective, who was the first on the scene of Gareth Williams' death. He said that he believed that the scene was too clean. It appeared to have been cleaned up and wiped down. There were no fingerprints anywhere in the flat. There were no [fingerprints] anywhere on the bathtub or on the bag's zipper, which is pretty much impossible if Gareth Williams had zipped himself into the bag himself, which ... was the line that the police ultimately took. But that investigation had been taken over by the counterterror police, who are the unit who liaise most closely with Britain's intelligence services. That detective was very strongly of the view that that had been done in order to conceal the involvement of some foreign states in Gareth Williams' death. What we were able to establish was that what he had been working on was strongly linked to Russia and that there was intelligence suggesting that he had been assassinated as a result of that work.

On why the British government is reluctant to pursue these cases

That's the really burning question at the heart of our investigation. And we've spent a huge amount of time talking to, I think, it's more than 40 current and former intelligence and law enforcement sources on both sides of the Atlantic to try to unravel that. And the answer is kind of complex and multilayered, but I think at the heart of it is a desire by the British government to foster close relations with the Kremlin. Putin was very strategically important as an ally for the West in the war on terror. He was seen as a critical ally in the Middle East and in Syria for many years. He was seen as a crucial part of the Iran nuclear deal and the resistance to Iran's development of nuclear weapons. There are many reasons on a grand geopolitical scale why the West wanted to try to bring Putin in from the cold and try to cultivate an alliance with him.

Then along with that, there is a huge amount of Russian money that has really propped up the British economy throughout the recession and beyond. And there is the central importance of Britain's energy investments in Russia, and the fact that Europe and Britain are pretty reliant on Russian energy to just keep the lights on.

So there are lots of reasons why Britain has wanted to continue to curry favor with Putin. But on top of all of that, there's the fact that Putin's ascent to power ... came just before 9/11 and after that, really all of the focus of British and American intelligence gathering and security spending and resource was on the war on terror. The kind of capabilities of the elements of those agencies that are dedicated to monitoring Russian threats was really, really undermined by that. So there was also a sense in which Britain was weakened in its ability to detect and to respond to these threats — as well as being keen to keep the Kremlin close.

On the threats Blake and her colleagues felt while investigating this story

For our team, certainly, this was a dicey ride investigating this story. And we had a number of fairly disturbing instances along the way. One of us had a man in a dark car appear outside the house for many months during the course of the investigation. Somebody else had items moved around inside their home. We had members of the team very conspicuously followed in the course of the investigation. We took that very seriously.

Sam Briger and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest Heidi Blake says it's well known that, for years, critics of Vladimir Putin have been gunned down, poisoned, thrown from windows, hit by cars and beaten to death in Russia. Less well known, she says, is Putin's aggressive campaign to kill his enemies on foreign soil, especially in Great Britain.

Blake is global investigations editor for BuzzFeed News and part of a team that has connected Russian assassins to 14 suspicious deaths in the United Kingdom and one in the United States. She says many of the murders were treated as suicides or deaths from natural causes by government officials reluctant to jeopardize the country's diplomatic ties with Russia.

The BuzzFeed team's investigation of Russian assassinations was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize last year. Heidi Blake has won many national and international media awards and is a former assistant editor of the U.K.'s Sunday Times. She spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies about her new book "From Russia With Blood: The Kremlin's Ruthless Assassination Program And Vladimir Putin's Secret War On The West."

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Heidi Blake, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, before we get to these many assassinations of Putin's opponents, I want to review a couple of events that have been reported before but people may have forgotten, and they tell us something about the nature of the Putin regime. One was the series of bombings at apartment houses in Moscow in '99 - terribly lethal - as Putin was running for president for the first time. These were attributed by the government to the rebels fighting for the independence of Chechnya. What does the evidence say about the root of these attacks?

HEIDI BLAKE: Well, as you say, these were a series of deadly bombings that took place in Moscow in 1999, and they were blamed very vociferously by Putin on the Chechen rebels and used as a pretext for bombing raids on Chechnya, which really allowed Putin to build himself up as a sort of strongman candidate for the presidency, you know, as the source of - a strong and defiant leader who could really defend the Russian motherland against this threat.

In fact, it became clear to critical observers fairly quickly that there were a number of suspicious elements about these bombings, chiefly that residents of an apartment block in Moscow, after several of the bombs had already gone off, killing hundreds of civilians, caught a couple of men planting a sack labeled sugar in the basement of the apartment block. Now, this triggered a manhunt by the local police looking for these two men who'd been seen planting this sack, which actually turned out to contain the explosive hexogen, which was controlled by the government of Russia at the time as a controlled substance.

Now, that manhunt was called off but not before it'd became clear that the two men caught planting that sack had in fact been FSB officers - the FSB being Russia's security service. And that was the first in a long line of evidence that really pointed to involvement by the Russian state security apparatus in this series of bombings that were so deadly in Moscow.

Now, the FSB had been headed by Vladimir Putin before his ascent to power, and so the fact that the FSB had its fingerprints on these bombings indicated that Putin had potentially been involved. And certainly, the impact of those bombings was to allow Putin to build this platform from which he could fulminate against the threat of these Chechen rebels and, as I say, build himself up as this kind of strongman. And it really set the stage for his presidency, which has really been built around this idea of restoring Russian greatness and Russian might.

DAVIES: Now, you write in the book that covert killing was a particularly Soviet form of statecraft. This goes back decades. What do you mean?

BLAKE: That's right. So targeted assassination was a kind of tool of statecraft that really rested for many years in the hands of the KGB, the Soviet state security agency. And the KGB was famous for refining the kind of art and science of targeted killing and who've - you know, of having weapons labs and poisons factories that churned out kind of weapons of assassination, like ricin-tipped umbrellas, famously, for example, or lipstick pistols or exploding cigarette packets. You know, the KGB famously was behind the assassination of Leon Trotsky with an ice pick. You know, there were many notorious and brazen KGB-linked assassinations during the Soviet era.

But that had - that capability had really dwindled since the fall of the Soviet Union, and it was really when Putin came to power - Putin himself having come up through the ranks of the KGB and being, really, a student and a kind of major fanboy of the Soviet Union and of the KGB, who grew up reading stories of, you know, KGB spycraft - that he really began to pour resource back into tooling up the Russian state security apparatus to - you know, to once again reengage in the art of targeted assassination.

DAVIES: With some really creative means - various poisoning and radiation and that kind of thing.

BLAKE: That's right, yeah. And part of what the - you know, our research established was that Putin has, in a very concerted way, you know, poured resource into a number of laboratories in which government scientists just dedicate their lives to the development of weapons and poisons which are designed to kill without leaving a trace. So we know that the Russian state has a whole armory of poisons which are designed to trigger, for example, fast-acting cancers or to trigger cardiac arrest or even psychotropic drugs which are designed to destabilize enemy targets to, you know, mood-altering substances which can create the appearance that the person has plunged into a very deep and profound depression.

One of the things our intelligence sources had talked to us about is the study of suicide clusters in which there is a suspicion that the Russian state may have either driven individuals to kill themselves or has so successfully destabilized them that when their deaths are made to look like suicides, there's a pretext on which that can be made believable because their behavior in the weeks leading up to their deaths has been so disordered.

DAVIES: Now, a lot of the Russian exiles who became opponents and eventually targets of the Kremlin - some former oligarchs and, in some cases, not the most admirable of people...

BLAKE: No, indeed.

DAVIES: ...Seemed to settle in Great Britain. Why was it a favorite destination for these exiles?

BLAKE: Well, London in lots of ways kind of made the perfect playground for the superrich Russians who fled Vladimir Putin's regime because it's a place where, you know, that there is a kind of degree of respectability about investing your money in the United Kingdom. But actually, the vagaries of the British financial system make it very easy to establish shell companies with fairly little scrutiny into which money can be moved. And it's actually has been historically and, to some extent, still to this day very easy to plow huge amounts of money into British properties, British companies and British banks without a huge amount of scrutiny from the authorities.

And so, you know, it was possible for these Russian runaways to come to Britain, to expatriate huge fortunes and reinvest them, to - and then also to kind of launder their reputations into the West by sending their children to some of the most prestigious public schools that Britain has to offer, to making endowments to the colleges of leading universities in Britain, buying up some of the most prestigious, stately homes in the country and really kind of crafting a life that bore all the hallmarks of kind of British establishment respectability but which was funded entirely by money, much of which had been, you know, expatriated from Russia in fairly corrupt and dubious circumstances.

DAVIES: A lot of what you deal with in this book is the British government's attitude towards these suspicious deaths. How did the government generally regard these oligarchs arriving from Russia? And for that matter, you know, British business interests in Russia - how did they figure in to the British government's attitude towards these events?

BLAKE: Well, the kind of inflow of Russian money into the British economy has been a major boon, particularly given the decline of the British manufacturing industry and the increasing reliance on financial services to prop up the British economy. So there has been a great eagerness on the part of the British authorities to welcome in these Russian runaways and to dole out investment visas, which are basically grants of, you know, the right to remain in the country to those who can afford to invest, you know, the requisite sums of money in the economy.

And so there's been, in lots of ways, you know, a decision by government to kind of roll out the red carpet and let wealthy Russians into the country. And you know, as a result, fairly soon after Putin came to power, huge sums of money - you know, tens of billions a year - were pouring into the British economy from these wealthy Russian oligarchs who'd been attracted here and also, you know, from major Russian companies floating on the London Stock Exchange and all sorts of other routes.

And you know, at the same time, Britain is a major investor in Russian energy projects as well. So there are all sorts of reasons why the British government has been keen to preserve that flow of Russian money into Britain. But at the same time, fairly soon after this kind of cast of Russian runaways arrived, it became clear that they were accompanied by some pretty major security threats. And I think that's where the British government found itself in a bit of a double bind - wanting to welcome these enemies of the Russian state in but then also not wanting to have a confrontation with the Kremlin when threats to their lives emerged on British soil.

DAVIES: Heidi Blake is global investigations editor at BuzzFeed News. Her new book is "From Russia With Blood." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAQUITO D'RIVERA'S "CONTRADANZA")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Heidi Blake. She's global investigations editor for BuzzFeed News. Her new book is based on the work of a team of BuzzFeed reporters who investigated multiple assassinations and suspicious deaths of critics of Vladimir Putin in the United Kingdom and, at least in one case, in the U.S. Her book is "From Russia With Blood: The Kremlin's Ruthless Assassination Program And Vladimir Putin's Secret War On The West."

So let's talk about some of these characters that began disappearing and dying in Britain. A key player among these exiled was Boris Berezovsky, who became a prominent opponent of Putin in Britain. Tell us just a little bit about his days in Russia and how he ran afoul of Vladimir Putin.

BLAKE: Boris Berezovsky was known in Russia as the godfather of the oligarchs because he was really chief amongst those who made a massive fortune buying up, you know, what had been formerly state-owned companies in the kind of fire sale auctions in Boris Yeltsin's post-communist Russia - buying them up at rock-bottom prices and becoming kind of billionaires overnight when they achieved their real value.

And he also credited himself with having been Putin's kingmaker. It was really - certainly in his own telling of it - him who had plucked Putin from obscurity from his position as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, brought him to Moscow, ingratiated him with the Kremlin and ultimately smoothed his path to power. But pretty soon after Putin arrived at the Kremlin, he fell out with Berezovsky in a very big way.

Putin quickly moved towards autocracy. He made it clear to the oligarchs who'd grown so rich under Yeltsin, that their power was going to be seriously curtailed in his Russia. He cracked down on media free speech. Now, Berezovsky was a big - you know, was a big media baron by that time. He owned Channel 1 and major newspapers in Russia. And Putin made it clear that media freedoms were going to be heavily curtailed.

And so Berezovsky began to lash out against his protege, began to attack Putin very publicly. And it was made clear to him, in the form of a series of arrest warrants issued from the Kremlin, that he was no longer welcome in Russia. And that was when Berezovsky fled to the United Kingdom.

DAVIES: Right. Now, a lot of oligarchs who fled with their money from Russia were happy enough to enjoy lives of yachting and five-star hotels. Berezovsky was different, wasn't he?

BLAKE: That is right. Berezovsky just couldn't stop poking the bear once he got to the United Kingdom. He used his new perch in the rolling green hills of Surrey - once he'd managed to expatriate the huge amounts of wealth that he had made for himself in Russia - to finance an international campaign of opposition to Putin's government. He funded investigations into Putin's links to organized crime in Russia, which are extensive, and his involvement in the series of apartment bombings and other atrocities in Moscow that had long been suspected in some circles. And he also did everything he could to stoke unrest on Russia's doorstep. He financed the 2004 and 2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, for example, and did his best to stoke unrest in Georgia and Belarus and elsewhere in the region.

And so he really did make it his business to antagonize the Kremlin in every way he possibly could. And on more than one occasion, he actually called for armed revolution in Russia and suggested that he had been plotting the violent overthrow of Putin's regime.

DAVIES: Right. I got to say, this is a fascinating description of his little nest of anti-Putin figures. I mean, there was, like, a Chechen leader who lived across the street. There were just various people who would come and go, and he had unlimited amounts of money to spend on this. And of course, he was spending a lot on lawyers to launder the assets that he had liquidated in Russia. He also had kind of a weird, kinky lifestyle, didn't he? I mean, not the most admirable of people.

BLAKE: That's certainly true, yeah. One of the real challenges for the - you know, the police officers who were tasked with protecting Berezovsky when it became clear that there were various active plots to kill him on British soil was the fact that he not only insisted on taking a penis enlargement formula that he was having shipped in from Moscow, which they were seriously concerned exposed him to risk of poisoning, but he also was bringing planeloads of teenage sex workers from the Baltic states into Britain on his private jet.

He was going out to the plane and kind of holding kind of live auditions on the tarmac, and the - you know, the escorts who made the cut were brought into the country and kept at various hotel suites and at a smart address in Belgravia, and others were just sent straight back home if they didn't make the cut. But so - you know, he certainly was leading a pretty seedy lifestyle on British soil, and all the while he was being protected by the British police, who were constantly fending off a stream of live assassination plots against him.

DAVIES: Now, there's - another character in the drama is a young - dashing young Scotsman who has the unlikely name of Scot Young.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: Tell us about him and the service that he performed for Berezovsky.

BLAKE: Scot Young was really Berezovsky's bagman. He was the guy who knew how to Berezovsky's money into a really dazzling array of British properties and luxury cars and shell companies and offshore trusts. And so he was there once Berezovsky arrived to help him spend his money in Britain.

But he was also in many ways an incredibly colorful character himself. He was embroiled in a series of very risky business deals in Moscow, one of which went very bad, and he spent the last years of his life terrified that he was being teamed (ph) by a tail of Russian hit men - you know, calling the police and asking for protection and telling them that he believed his life was in danger and he feared he was going to be poisoned. And he ultimately fell to his death from a fourth floor bedroom window and was impaled on the spikes of a wrought iron fence underneath.

DAVIES: Now, in 2006 - this is remarkable - Putin actually gets a law passed, legalizing assassinations by Russian intelligence services on foreign soil, right? I mean, how unusual is that?

BLAKE: That's right. It was an extraordinary moment. And those laws were passed just as Russia was preparing to host the G8 Summit in St. Petersburg in 2006, with Putin as the president of the G8. And that really is almost the kind of apotheosis of attempts by the West to bring Putin in from the cold and kind of integrate him into the cozy club that is the - you know, the series of institutions and alliances that underpin the liberal world order.

And so even as Western leaders were sitting around the table with Putin in St. Petersburg, you know, at that very moment laws were being passed through the Russian parliament that enabled enemies of the Russian state to be murdered by Russian state agents on foreign soil with absolute impunity. And all the while, Litvinenko was trying to warn publicly that this would mean that Russian defectors living in Britain would be at risk, and it was only months later that he himself was assassinated.

DAVIES: You know, what puzzled me about it was, why would he - I mean, they don't particularly pay attention to the law anyway, right? I mean, they do these things and then deny them. Did the law have a purpose other than legalizing these operations?

BLAKE: I think the purpose of the law within Russia was really to strengthen the hand of the FSB and to give it, you know, elevated status and to kind of create a legislative framework for the kind of global killing campaign, which really had been part of the Russian state security playbook for a long time and had been part of the FSB's modus operandi, but it was really about legitimizing that course of action in Russia and, actually, also, about pretty brazenly sending a message to the West about what Putin's intentions were.

Around the time that those laws were passed, the Cold War defector Oleg Gordievsky wrote a letter to The Times in which he warned that, by passing those laws, what Putin was really doing was making the leaders of the West complicit in the killing campaign that he was about to escalate because they were sitting around the table with him at the very time those laws were passed, and by not saying a word, by continuing to court him and continuing to work with him, they had almost implicitly endorsed the course of action he'd made it very clear he intended to take.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview Dave Davies recorded with Heidi Blake, global investigations editor for BuzzFeed News and author of the new book "From Russia With Blood: The Kremlin's Assassination Program And Vladimir Putin's Secret War On The West." After a break, they'll talk about the strange death of a Russian defector in a Washington hotel room and about how reporters on the BuzzFeed team were followed when they were investigating the Russian assassinations. Also, Kevin Whitehead will review a reissue of music performed by the late jazz pianist Erroll Garner. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMERSON STRING QUARTET'S PERFORMANCE OF BARTOK'S STRING QUARTET NO. 4, BB 95, Sz.91 - 4. ALLEGRETTO PIZZICATO)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview Dave Davies recorded with Heidi Blake, global investigations editor for BuzzFeed News, about her new book, "From Russia With Blood: The Kremlin's Ruthless Assassination Program And Vladimir Putin's Secret War On The West."

Blake led a team of reporters who investigated the suspicious deaths of 14 people in Great Britain who were critics of Putin. Among them were Boris Berezovsky, a former Russian oligarch, and Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB and FSB intelligence officer who defected to England and became a British citizen.

DAVIES: When the men associated with this exile group began dying - a couple of lawyers died; one was in a helicopter crash, another of an apparent heart attack - although his home was then broken into - and then others - I mean, eventually Berezovsky and Litvinenko - how aggressively were these deaths investigated by British authorities?

BLAKE: Well, the really extraordinary feature of this pattern of killing for us, when we began investigating it at BuzzFeed News, was that we could see there was a pattern of suspicious deaths linked to Russia that really had started very shortly after Berezovsky and his associates moved to the U.K. And in every single case, there was evidence that would appear to connect those deaths to Russia, even on the face of it. And yet, in every single case, there had been little or no investigation. You know, any serious inquiry had been shut down, and the deaths had been designated non-suspicious.

And that, for us, was the thing that was most suspicious, actually, about the whole picture - was that there were 14 deaths here with very clear links to Russia, some of which had occurred in circumstances which just simply seemed to beggar belief, you know? In one case, an individual directly in the crosshairs of the Kremlin, who had apparently stabbed himself to death repeatedly with two knives - and there'd been no investigation. It had immediately been treated as a suicide. And the fact that there'd been no investigation, really, in any of these cases was the thing that made us think - well, something is very wrong with this picture.

DAVIES: And were you able to under - uncover evidence suggesting that there was interference? Or what happened?

BLAKE: Well, we - you know, in lots of these cases, we kind of went back over the evidence at the time of the death. So you know, in the case of the death of Scot Young, for example, the financier for Berezovsky and many of his associates who fell from his window and was impaled on the railings, the police came in and, within minutes, had shut that case down and treated it, you know, as a suicide. We were able to establish that, in fact, the police had been called repeatedly by Scot Young in the months and years leading up to his death - that he told them that he feared he was being tailed by a team of Russian hitmen. He feared his life was in danger, that his daughters had gone to the police and told them that he had been complaining that he feared for his life and that he didn't believe he was safe.

And then, of course, we unraveled this whole series of connections to a number of deals in Russia that had come directly into the crosshairs of the Kremlin, that had angered the Kremlin and, you know, that he had been living in the shadow of serious threats. And none of that had been investigated. The police hadn't even dusted for fingerprints in his apartment. They hadn't taken any CCTV footage. They hadn't sought extra witnesses. They'd really done absolutely nothing to investigate.

They hadn't even taken photos of the window ledge from which he fell. And if they had, they would have seen that there were scratches on the ledge, which were later found by his daughters, which were about as far apart as the fingers on two hands, suggesting that he may have been fighting to stay in when he fell out. And so really, just the complete absence of any serious investigation by the police suggested to us that there was kind of strategic unwillingness on the part of the British authorities to look any further.

DAVIES: Did you find cases in which the foreign service actually instructed that documents would be sealed or investigations would be limited?

BLAKE: Well, yeah. There's - I mean, there are a number of cases in which the British government has obtained secrecy orders to prevent evidence being disclosed to inquests, which are the formal investigations into cause of death, which take place, you know, when deaths in Britain are unexplained.

I think the most striking example is the death of a man called Gareth Williams, who was a British spy who was found dead in his - in the apartment which was paid for by the British intelligence services in London. He was found zipped up and padlocked inside a large sports bag which had been placed inside the bathtub of his flat. And the authorities very quickly shut that investigation down and deemed it as nonsuspicious.

Now, I was able to talk to the murder detective who was the first on the scene of Gareth Williams' death. He said that he believed that the scene was too clean, that it appeared to have been cleaned up and wiped down. There were no fingerprints anywhere in the flat. You know, there were no fingers anywhere on the bathtub or on the bag zipper, which is pretty much impossible if Gareth Williams had zipped himself into the bag himself, which was the line that the police ultimately took.

But that investigation had been taken over by the counter-terror police, who are the unit who liaise most closely with Britain's intelligence services. And that detective was very strongly of the view that that had been done in order to conceal the involvement of some foreign state in Gareth Williams' death. And what we were able to establish was that what he had been working on was strongly linked to Russia and that there was intelligence suggesting that he had been assassinated as a result of that work.

DAVIES: What do you think might be the explanation for the British government's reluctance to treat these cases more seriously?

BLAKE: Well, that's a really burning question at the heart of our investigation. And we've spent, you know, a huge amount of time talking to - I think it's more than 40 current and former intelligence and law enforcement sources on both sides of the Atlantic to try to unravel that. And the answer is kind of complex and multilayered. But I think at the heart of it is a desire by the British government to foster close relations with the Kremlin.

You know, Putin was very strategically important as an ally for the West in the war on terror. He was seen as a critical ally in the Middle East and in Syria for many years. He was, you know, seen as a crucial part of the Iran nuclear deal and the resistance to Iran's development of nuclear weapons. There were many kind of reasons at a grand geopolitical scale why the West wanted to try to bring Putin in from the cold and try to cultivate an alliance with him.

And then along with that, there is the huge amount of Russian money that has really propped up the British economy throughout the recession and beyond. And there is, you know, the central importance of Britain's energy investments in Russia and the fact that Europe and Britain are pretty reliant on Russian energy to just keep the lights on. And so there are lots of reasons why Britain has wanted to continue to curry favor with Putin.

But on top of all of that, there's the fact that Putin's ascent to power coincided with - you know, well, it just came just before 9/11. And after that, really, all of the focus of British and American intelligence-gathering and security spending and resource was on the war on terror. And so the kind of capabilities of the elements of those agencies that are dedicated to monitoring Russian threats really, you know, was really, really undermined by that. And so there was a kind of - there was also a sense in which Britain was weakened in its ability to detect and to respond to these threats as well as being, you know - as well as just being keen to keep the Kremlin close.

DAVIES: Heidi Blake is global investigations editor at BuzzFeed News. Her new book is "From Russia With Blood." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with Heidi Blake. She's global investigations editor for BuzzFeed News. Her new book is based on the work of a team of BuzzFeed reporters who investigated multiple assassinations and suspicious deaths of critics of Vladimir Putin in the United Kingdom and in at least one case in the United States. Her book is "From Russia With Blood: The Kremlin's Ruthless Assassination Program And Vladimir Putin's Secret War On The West."

There was this case of this security expert Paul Joyal, who was shot in Maryland and survived, and then more recently, the death of a Putin defector in Washington D.C., Mikhail Lesin, who was Putin's former kind of communications and propaganda guy. You want to tell us about that case?

BLAKE: Yeah. That's a pretty extraordinary case, and it really represented the realization of a long-held fear in the U.S. intelligence community that the kind of tide of suspicious death on British soil was going to carry across the Atlantic and reach American shores. You know, British and American intelligence officials have been observing this dark trend for a long time and have been increasingly concerned about it, but, you know, this was the first instance of a highly suspicious death that took place in the U.S.

Mikhail Lesin was the architect of the RT, the Russia Today propaganda network that's been such a kind of crucial mechanism through which, you know, Russia has been able to propagate its kind of fake news and disinformation - kind of an alternative - the alternative narrative to Western events that it likes to spread around the world. And he had fallen out of favor in Russia and had fled to the U.S., where he was preparing to talk to the Department of Justice. The morning after his death, he was due to meet with officials and to begin to dish information to them about the makings of that kind of crucial mechanism of the Russian propaganda machine. Now, before he was able to get to that meeting, he was found bludgeoned to death in his hotel room. He had blunt force injuries to the head, the neck, the arms, the chest, the torso. He also had a broken bone in his neck.

So it was a, you know, pretty extraordinary case. And there was a short-lived investigation, after which it was announced by the FBI that Mikhail Lesin had bludgeoned himself to death by falling over repeatedly in his hotel room while drinking alone the night before this meeting. That was a conclusion that many FBI agents who'd worked on that case and intelligence officials we spoke to found extremely hard to swallow given the severity of the injuries that Lesin sustained and his obvious - you know, the obvious threat to him as a Kremlin insider. He was preparing to flip and start talking to the U.S. government.

DAVIES: Right. And we should note that Lesin himself did have a very serious drinking problem. That's one of the things that led to his falling out with Putin.

BLAKE: That's right.

DAVIES: But this, just on its face, seems really unlikely. Was there follow-up from Congress? Is there some explanation for why this would be treated this way?

BLAKE: It's a pretty extraordinary conclusion, as you say. I mean, it's true that Lesin had a serious drinking problem, but nonetheless, you know, managing to beat yourself to death by falling repeatedly in a carpeted hotel room is sort of - stretches credulity. The investigation has remained closed. You know, we've done a lot of reporting, and there's been - you know, there's been a lot of questions raised publicly about that conclusion into Lesin's death. But as yet, there's no sign that that investigation is going to be reopened or that that conclusion is going to change.

I think it came at a really delicate moment for U.S. relations with the Kremlin. You know, there had just been a spate of cyberattacks on the White House emanating from Russia. There was, at the time, growing consternation over Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But at the same time, Putin was playing a really key role in - you know, in the formulation of the Iran nuclear deal and also was seen as a hugely critical regional ally in Syria or at least a potential ally in Syria. We kind of know how that ended now.

But there was, I guess, the same set of reasons why the British authorities have struggled to deal decisively with these suspicious circumstances of some of the other deaths we've examined in the U.K. You know, it's always an unappetizing prospect, antagonizing the Kremlin over an isolated incident, a single death. You know, one of the things that some of the intelligence officials talked to - who we talked to said to us was that, you know, we have to keep our eyes on the really big strategic questions here. We're trying to figure out what Russia's intentions are in Ukraine, what their nuclear ambitions are, what their intentions are in Syria. You know, we have to keep our eyes at that kind of strategic level rather than getting bogged down in the details.

DAVIES: Right. And I guess we should note since anyone might suspect that this could be attributed to President Trump's relationship with Vladimir Putin, this was during the Obama administration that Lesin was - that Lesin died. There's one other attack I think we ought to talk about. This was in March of last year on Sergei Skripal. Do I have the name right? He was a...

BLAKE: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...Former Russian spy and his daughter. This was particularly troubling because of the nature of it. You want to tell us about this?

BLAKE: Yeah. The attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal, really was a kind of watershed moment in Anglo-Russian relations.

This was a brazen attack in broad daylight on the streets of the city of Salisbury in which, you know, assassins from Russia - or attempted assassins from Russia had smeared the nerve agent Novichok on the door handle of Sergei Skripal's home. Now, in doing so, they not only exposed the Skripals to this deadly nerve agent - which, you know, marked the first attack on European soil using a chemical weapon since the Second World War - they'd also exposed hundreds of members of the British public to this toxic substance. And you know, there is no more conspicuously Russian poison available than Novichok, which was developed by the Soviets from Russia's chemical weapons stockpile and, you know, which is a substance of which British and American intelligence agencies are well aware. You know, it originates in Russia. It's a message with a very clear return address from the Kremlin.

And so this was just a brazen provocation that the British government could not possibly ignore. It was - Theresa May stood up and accused the Kremlin of having been involved in ordering that attempted assassination. And that triggered waves of diplomatic expulsions of Russian diplomats around the world - I think 150 Russian diplomats were sent packing from various outposts - and also waves of further sanctions against Russia. And so the West really did take a pretty firm line.

Of course, by then, Russia's provocations had become so outlandish - you know, in terms of brazen meddling in the U.S. election and democracies across Europe and the overt financing of far-right extremist groups across Europe and the invasion of Ukraine and waves of cyberattacks against countries across the West and the, you know, overt support for, you know, the Assad regime as he continues his attacks on his own people. And so by then, you know, really, I think any hope of trying to cultivate a serious relationship with Russia had evaporated.

DAVIES: You know, many Russian journalists who've investigated the Kremlin have been murdered. And I'm wondering - what was the experience of you and your team as you spent years looking into this? Were you followed, bugs, threatened?

BLAKE: Yeah. I mean, we have just the greatest admiration for, you know, the women and men of the Russian media who, every day, expose themselves to great danger in their pursuit of the truth. It's just an act of extraordinary courage. And you know, we really find it humbling and amazing.

For our team, certainly, this was a dicey ride, investigating this story. And we had a number of fairly disturbing instances along the way. One of us had a man in a dark car appear outside the house, you know, for many months during the course of the investigation. Somebody else had items moved around inside their home. We had members of the team very conspicuously followed in the course of the investigation.

And you know, we kind of took that very seriously. We have an amazing security team at BuzzFeed News led by Eliot Stempf, who is a hero and a genius. And he had us all install trackers on our phones and panic alarms. And he kind of versed us all in some countersurveillance techniques that we could use when going home, when meeting sources. And you know, we had intruder alarms and sensors and cameras rigged up in our various homes. And ultimately, a couple of us were moved, in the final phases of the project, to kind of secure locations or kind of more discreet locations than home, just as a kind of additional measure.

So we took that seriously. But you know, it certainly was intimidating at times. And we just had to kind of keep focused on the importance of exposing the story.

DAVIES: Were any of you directly threatened?

BLAKE: Nobody was directly threatened. I think it was more the kind of smoke and mirrors technique, which is pretty standard for journalists and diplomats operating in Russia. The kind of - there's a kind of element of mind games, I think, about what goes on. You know, if you come home and things have been moved around strangely inside your home, you're pretty sure that's a message. But you also wonder - are you imagining that? And when lots of those things happen and it starts to feel like a pattern, I think the way in which that makes you doubt your own perception of reality is kind of part of what it's actually all about.

But there was enough of a pattern of events happening to enough different individuals, you know, that we were pretty clear that this was just a kind of campaign of kind of harassment and designed to say to us - look - we're watching you. We know what you're doing. Tread a little carefully.

But there was nothing more overt than that. And you know, we had our security experts at BuzzFeed kind of assessing each incident and, you know, just making assessment about the seriousness of that and the measures that we needed to take to just be responsible as we carried on with our reporting.

DAVIES: Well, Heidi Blake, thanks so much for speaking with us.

BLAKE: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Heidi Blake is global investigations editor for BuzzFeed News. She spoke with Dave Davies about her new book "From Russia With Blood: The Kremlin's Assassination Program And Vladimir Putin's Secret War On The West."

Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews one of a series of reissues by the late jazz pianist Erroll Garner.

This is FRESH AIR.

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