Slowly but surely, mainstream Western media are getting wise to Vladimir Putin. First GQ carried the story of the Moscow apartment bombing coverup, and now the LA Times reports on the mystery and possible coverup of the attempted murder of Kremlin critic Paul Joyal:
That night, he was returning home from the International Spy Museum, of all places. He had been meeting with, of all people, an old friend who once was a top officer in the KGB.
It was raining when Paul Joyal pulled into his driveway in this suburb 10 miles from the White House. As he stepped out of his car, nothing seemed amiss. He did not see two men lurking in the darkness. But suddenly, he was under attack, cold-cocked on the side of his head. The 55-year-old Joyal fought back. He elbowed one of the attackers in the gut and bowled into him. He and the assailant tumbled to the ground.
“Shoot him!” barked the man he struggled with — and Joyal instinctively folded his arms across his chest and rolled to the side as the other attacker fired.
The bullet ripped through his intestines. Then the shooter moved in for a second shot at close range — and pulled the trigger.
But the gun jammed.
By now, Joyal’s dogs were barking because of the commotion and gunshot, and his family and neighbors were stirring.
Without a word more, the attackers ran, possibly through the sprawling cemetery behind Joyal’s backyard.
Normally, his wife Elizabeth would have been attending a dance class on Thursday, but she happened to be home that night, March 1, 2007, and frantically dialed 911.
“My husband’s just been shot. Please,” she said.
“Who was he shot by?” the dispatcher asked after confirming the address.
“I don’t know.”
And that’s still true today. Some 2½ years after the shooting, the motive still remains uncertain.
Police assumed that Joyal was the victim of a random street crime. He assumed the same, at first.
But he soon confronted another possibility. For years, he had warned that the Russian government was taking extreme steps, including assassinations, to silence its critics.
Perhaps he too had become a target.
Joyal studied the Soviet Union in college.
“I’m a child of the Cold War. It was the big issue growing up for me. It was the focus of many of our lives back then,” Joyal said.
Those who taught him said that to understand the Soviets, you have to understand the Soviet intelligence apparatus. You have to understand the KGB.
After graduation, Joyal went to work on Capitol Hill, eventually serving as director of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee when its chairman was Barry Goldwater, the fiercely anti-communist former Republican presidential nominee.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the zeal for reform within America’s former enemy was genuine, Joyal said, and he again placed himself in the middle of the action. He traveled frequently to Moscow and to the newly independent nation of Georgia, a former Soviet republic.
“In Moscow it was a very exciting time,” Joyal said. “There was a true opportunity to participate in the reform movement.”
It was during this time that he met former KGB counterintelligence chief Oleg Kalugin, forming a friendship and a business partnership. Joyal helped Kalugin land a teaching position at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
But in time the reformist tide ebbed in Russia, and men like Kalugin fell out of favor. Then-President Vladimir Putin called Kalugin a “traitor” for criticizing Russia. In 2002, Kalugin was convicted in absentia on treason charges; the United States refused to extradite him.
Joyal spoke out forcefully against the changes. He was a frequent commentator on the BBC decrying what he considered Russian bullying tactics against Georgia. Joyal became a paid lobbyist in the United States for Georgia, where last year tensions with Russia boiled over into a brief military conflict.
He and Kalugin remained close. It was Kalugin whom Joyal had met at the spy museum before the shooting.
Doctors kept Joyal in an induced coma for nearly a month after he was shot. Because the bullet tore through his intestine and colon, the wounds resulted in numerous infections requiring followup surgeries at Washington Hospital Center.
The Prince George’s County Police could not interview him for weeks.
As the investigation proceeded, some saw signs the shooting was not typical of a random street crime. Joyal’s wallet was not taken. His car still sat in the driveway.
“If it were a carjacking, the keys were laying right there for the taking,” said a skeptical Karl Milligan, a retired detective who was once chief of the intelligence unit in the county police.
The case remains open, but a police spokesman, Cpl. Mike Rodriguez, says they have no reason to think the shooting was anything but a random street crime. He declined to discuss why that is the working theory.
Joyal would like to believe that theory — it would comfort him and his family — but no longer does.
“It’s worthy of a thorough investigation,” Joyal said, one that would likely require a strong commitment from the FBI.
But FBI involvement does not appear to be extensive. Rich Wolf, a spokesman for the FBI in Baltimore, said the bureau provided some assistance to county police, but is not actively involved in the case. He declined to discuss in any detail why the bureau did not take a more active role.
The FBI’s lack of interest in the case mystifies Oliver “Buck” Revell, a former associate deputy director of the FBI who now owns a security consulting company.
“To think that the Russians might be willing to assassinate a U.S. citizen … in his front yard is rather alarming,” Revell said. “If that’s not a priority for the FBI, then it damn well ought to be.”
Yevgeny Khorishko, a spokesman for the Russian embassy in Washington, said the suggestion that Joyal’s shooting was carried out on behalf of the Russian government is “absolute nonsense.”
Even Joyal’s old friend, Kalugin, expresses doubt about Russian involvement. It would be the first time that Russia committed such a crime on U.S. territory, he said, comparable only to the 1940 assassination in Mexico of Leon Trotsky, who was stabbed in the head with an ice pick by a Soviet agent.
“A message has been communicated to anyone who wants to speak out against the Kremlin: If you do, no matter who you are, where you are, we will find you, and we will silence you — in the most horrible way possible.”
Those were Joyal’s words — not recently, but on the NBC television program “Dateline,” one month before his shooting.
He went on the February 2007 show to discuss the murder in London of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent who was poisoned with radioactive polonium. British authorities later named a chief suspect: Andrei Lugovoi, a flashy millionaire businessman and former KGB officer. Russia refused to extradite him, and Luguvoi denies involvement.
Also interviewed for the “Dateline” program was Times of London reporter Daniel McGrory, who also criticized the Russians. McGrory was found dead in his home just a few days before the segment aired. The 54-year-old had appeared to be healthy but died of a heart attack.
Some have questioned why the Russians would risk a diplomatic incident just because critics offered some televised criticism.
Joyal’s wife and others had worried about the risks of him speaking up, especially in a national broadcast, but before the shooting he dismissed their concern. Yes, outspoken Kremlin critics around the world might be placing their lives at risk, but as an American living in the United States he figured he was safe.
“Being an American is no longer a guarantee” of protection, he said.
Besides the “Dateline” appearance and his decades of high-level involvement on Russian security issues and friendships with people like Kalugin, other factors must be considered, Joyal said. Among them: what he described as the tangled, opaque nature of the relationships between the Russian government, organized crime, and elements of the business community that have enriched themselves through ties to the existing power structure.
“Only in today’s Russia can you be an intelligence officer, a businessman and a member of organized crime all at the same time,” Joyal said.
In February, he noted, Polish authorities arrested a suspect in the shooting death of 27-year-old Umar Israilov, a former bodyguard to Putin ally Ramzan Kadyrov. The bodyguard, who last year had accused Kadyrov, the Chechen president, of torture and human rights abuses, was gunned down while returning home from a grocery store in Vienna under circumstances that have some resemblance to the Joyal shooting.
Glen Howard, president of the Jamestown Foundation, a national-security think tank with expertise on Russian issues, said the Russians seem to be acting with impunity on the international stage. He noted that the Obama administration has moved to push the “reset button” in its relations with Russia.
Howard said it is certainly plausible that Joyal was targeted, given the breadth and depth of Russia’s campaign against its critics.
“It’s almost like we’re bending over backward to court Russia” at a time when it is indifferent to Western demands to respect human rights and political dissent, Howard said.
Joyal has maintained his professional involvement in Russian security issues — earlier this year he moderated a discussion of the Russia-Georgia conflict at a security conference. But he has scaled back his public profile in the last two years in part out of respect for his family’s concerns for his safety.
He continues to prod for a more extensive investigation, and met with county police and the FBI in July to discuss the case. Because of the time that has passed, some possible leads were never explored and cannot be retrieved, Joyal said. Cell-phone tower records, for instance, that might have been able to home in on an unusual call that could help identify the shooters, are only kept for two years.
Meanwhile, he stays vigilant.
“I now take precautions as I did when traveling or living in the former Soviet Union or Iraq,” Joyal said. “Never thought I would have to live like that here.”