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U.S. troops who came under fire from Russian mercenaries prepare for more attacks

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Theresa May promised to 'take every step' against Russian assassins — two years before latest attack

British Prime Minister Theresa May, who has protested the attempted assassination of a former Russian double agent in England earlier this month, promised two years ago to “take every step” to prevent such attacks.

The promise came in a letter to the widow of a former Russian intelligence officer, Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned in England in 2006. Ten years later, a British government inquiry concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “probably” behind the attack on Litvinenko, who had defected to the West in 2000 and become a whistleblower on corruption in the Kremlin. May, who was British home secretary at the time, wrote Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, that the government would “take every step to protect the U.K. and its people from such a crime ever being repeated.”

Marina Litvinenko shared a redacted version of the letter with Yahoo News during an interview with Yahoo News Chief Investigative Correspondent Michael Isikoff and Yahoo News Editor in Chief Dan Klaidman for the latest episode of their weekly podcast,“Skullduggery.”

“We have also made clear to Russia our profound concerns in relation to the Inquiry’s finding of probable Russian state involvement, and specifically the role of the [Russian security agency] FSB in your husband’s death,” May wrote. “This has been done at Ministerial and senior diplomatic levels and, I can assure you, will be done repeatedly and directly.”

May added that while “we have to have some form of relationship with Russia, it is guarded and heavily conditioned.”

“As the Prime Minister [David Cameron] put it, ‘We do it with clear eyes and a very cold heart,’” she wrote.

Download or subscribe on iTunes: “Skullduggery” by Yahoo News

The revelation of May’s letter to Litvinenko’s widow came a day after the British government announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats from the country in response to the attempted assassination of a former Russian spy and his daughter in England. May, now prime minister, also said that no members of the royal family will attend the upcoming World Cup in Russia.

Last week, Sergei Skripal, a retired Russian military intelligence officer, and his daughter, Yulia, collapsed in a public street in Salisbury in western England. They remain in critical condition. British counterterrorism officials said that a military-grade nerve agent was used in the attack. The attempted assassination quickly drew comparisons to Litvinenko’s 2006 poisoning by radioactive polonium.

Both substances are not normally used by criminal gangs or terrorist groups, but are produced in by government-controlled laboratories. In the case of Skripal, the poison was Novichok, a nerve agent first developed in the late 1980s as part of a Soviet chemical weapons program. Polonium, the poison slipped into Litvinenko’s teapot at a London hotel, is a highly radioactive substance almost exclusively under the control of Russia’s nuclear agency. 

On Friday, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said it was “overwhelmingly likely” Putin ordered the nerve agent attack on Skripal.

Marina Litvinenko told Yahoo News that she has no doubt Putin was behind her husband’s assassination, and that the latest poisoning has all the hallmarks of a Kremlin-ordered attack.

Earlier this week, May told British lawmakers that either Putin was directly behind the attack on Skripal, or that Moscow “lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.” May demanded an explanation from Moscow, which denied any involvement in the attack on Skripal and his daughter.

British lawmakers have also called for an investigation into 14 “suspicious” deaths some say may have been state-sponsored.

At the White House Thursday, President Trump said “it certainly looks like the Russians were behind” the attack on Skripal.

“We’re taking it very seriously, as, I think, are many others,” Trump said.

The president has long been criticized for his reluctance to publicly condemn Putin. (Earlier this week, the Trump administration announced sanctions against Russia for meddling in the 2016 presidential election. The president had signed off on the sanctions last fall but for months resisted calls from lawmakers to specify what they were.)

Related: White House denounces U.K. nerve agent attack, mum on Russia

Marina Litvinenko, who was critical of the British government’s response in the wake of her husband’s death, said she would like to see the U.K. put financial pressure on Russia through its Criminal Finances Bill — similar to the U.S.’s Magnitsky Act — which allows governments to freeze the assets of international human rights violators.

Skripal was convicted in 2006 of passing Russian secrets to MI6, the British spy agency. He has been living in the U.K. for the past eight years after being sent there in an exchange of prisoners between Russia and the West.

“Sacha did a very serious investigation of people very close to Putin,” Marina Litvinenko said, referring to her husband, adding that he warned her before his death that his life could be in danger. “After what happened with my husband, after what happened with [the annexation] of Ukraine, after what happened to Sergei Skripal and his daughter, you have to understand, there are not rules for these people.”

Read May’s redacted letter to Marina Litvinenko below:

More Skullduggery from Yahoo News:

Democrats' Surrender On Torture Is Nearly Complete

In the same tweet he used to unceremoniously fire Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Tuesday morning, President Donald Trump announced the twin nominations of CIA Director Mike Pompeo as Tillerson’s replacement and CIA veteran Gina Haspel as the new head of the nation’s premier intelligence agency. Haspel, the CIA’s current deputy director, now stands to become the agency’s first female director, despite the fact that she previously supervised a CIA black site where detainees were tortured and was later implicated in the destruction of video evidence of those interrogations.

The news of her nomination was met with mild skepticism by some Democratic senators, but assuming she doesn’t get bottled up behind an impasse over Pompeo, nothing suggests her eventual confirmation is in serious doubt.

While Haspel might be preferable to some hackish alternatives ― either Pompeo’s continued tenure or the nomination of Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) ― her confirmation would also represent the culmination of the Democrats’ failure to categorically oppose torture.

Back in 2002, Haspel oversaw the black site in Thailand, where Abu Zubaydah, the man incorrectly thought to have masterminded Sept. 11 attacks, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who was allegedly behind the USS Cole attack, were tortured. It was long unclear whether Haspel oversaw just the waterboarding of Nashiri or also the 83 waterboards that Abu Zubaydah endured, long beyond the time he had agreed to talk, though new reports from ProPublica and The New York Times say the latter man was tortured before her time at the helm.

What’s not in dispute is Haspel’s role in the cover-up: Once Abu Zubaydah and Nashiri were shipped to their next stop in a series of black sites, Haspel started her multiyear campaign to destroy the videos that showed their torture, which indisputably contradicted written authorizations and records. Defying the warnings of multiple Democrats, the director of national intelligence and several judges, Haspel in November 2005, as chief of staff for the director of clandestine services, sent a cable ordering officers to stick the tapes into an industrial-strength shredder.

At key moments, Democrats missed their chance to move the country beyond torture.

America continues to suffer the consequences of those twin acts, the torture and the cover-up. The torture program, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s massive torture report, provided little useful intelligence, and in notable cases sent officers chasing false leads for months. Numerous detainees (including both Abu Zubaydah and Nashiri) were tortured beyond their ability to provide reliable intelligence. The country’s embrace of torture inflamed the same Muslims we needed as allies to fight terrorism.

And because of both the torture and the cover-up, the U.S. has failed to achieve justice for either the USS Cole or for Sept. 11 attacks. Abu Zubaydah remains warehoused in Guantanamo Bay, and Nashiri’s own trial has ground to a halt after his defense team discovered their privileged conversations were being spied on.

But Haspel, who advanced from line manager overseeing the imposition of torture to chief of staff for the cover-up, continues to thrive, now poised to run the agency whose reputation she attempted to preserve by destroying evidence.

To be clear: Republicans bear the bulk of the blame for promoting torturers while those who objected were ousted. Former President George Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney instituted the program, and outspoken torture fan Trump is the guy sponsoring Haspel’s promotion to lead the agency (after she was denied a promotion during the Obama administration).

But at key moments, Democrats missed their chance to move the country beyond torture.

After all, Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama was the first to elevate someone with involvement in the torture program. Even after political pressure about torture prevented Obama from naming veteran CIA officer John Brennan director in 2009, the career CIA official rehabilitated his reputation (in part by overseeing the drone killing program from the White House), and ultimately got the CIA director post in 2013.

That same year, Dianne Feinstein ― then chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee ― nixed Brennan’s attempts to make Haspel director of the agency’s clandestine services. But Brennan got his revenge when he, with Obama’s backing, thwarted Feinstein’s efforts for a fulsome declassification of the torture report she fought to complete. Brennan didn’t even face consequences for having staffers from the Senate Intelligence Committee spied on.

Feinstein’s failure to declassify key details of the torture report ― notably, including the real names or even pseudonyms for the officers involved ― is one thing that prevented an airing of precisely what Haspel did when she was confirmed as deputy director last year. Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) wrote a memo for colleagues describing Haspel’s role in the torture program, but the document remains classified, even as Haspel’s champions boast of her successes.

And now not even Feinstein herself is categorically opposed to Haspel’s nomination. “It’s no secret I’ve had concerns in the past with her connection to the CIA torture program and have spent time with her discussing this,” Feinstein said in a Tuesday statement. But she seems inclined to drop her past concerns about a torturer’s continued promotions in favor of competence leading the agency. “To the best of my knowledge she has been a good deputy director and I look forward to the opportunity to speak with her again.”

It may well be, as her supporters argue, that Haspel is the best, most competent, least politicized nominee we’re likely to get from Trump.

But that’s true as much because of what happened under Obama as under Trump. John Brennan’s success, even as critics were sidelined or imprisoned, paved the way for Gina Haspel.

This column has been updated to acknowledge new reporting about Haspel’s involvement with Abu Zubaydah’s torture.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog and is the author of “Anatomy of Deceit.” Follow her on Twitter at @emptywheel.

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.
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