In a seven-part series of global exclusives, BuzzFeed News uncovered evidence connecting Russian hitmen to 14 deaths in the UK, and one in the US — all of which were treated as non-suspicious by authorities. The British government, leery of antagonizing the Kremlin, has deliberately sidelined evidence of Russian involvement for years, while senior US intelligence officials sent warnings from across the Atlantic, increasingly concerned that the pattern of assassinations would spread to America. Many of those American officials believe their fears came true with the death of Vladimir Putin’s media czar Mikhail Lesin, which was ruled an accident despite FBI and intelligence agents believing he was murdered.
Russia’s increasingly menacing posture is the focus of fevered media interest. In that ultra-competitive climate, this series blew the lid off a global secret, revealing for the first time the extent to which Russia’s targeted killing has spread beyond its own borders and into the West — and how authorities have turned a blind eye. The deaths of almost all the men in the series who died in Britain had been the subject of considerable media attention, but no one had previously joined the dots or uncovered compelling evidence pointing at Russia. And no news organization revealed more about Lesin’s death — or exposed greater gaps in the police investigation — than BuzzFeed News.
This series was the product of two years of reporting, which involved reviewing hundreds of thousands of documents, recovering the data from several computers and mobile phones, scrutinizing hours of surveillance footage, gathering crime scene evidence, cultivating hundreds of key sources, and obtaining details of top secret intelligence. Reporting on classified intelligence — the disclosure of which is a crime — can be impossible in the best of circumstances. In this series, the intelligence was classified in multiple countries, one of which has gone to great lengths to keep the truth out of view. And the series probed the most sensitive of subjects: calculated, state-backed assassination. The stakes and the risks could not have been higher. Still, the reporters persuaded more than 200 people to talk, including 28 current and former senior intelligence officials – some of whom spoke on the record – and 13 FBI agents. They obtained a vast cache of previously unseen evidence and read-outs of multiple secret US intelligence files, including a classified report sent to Congress by America’s top intelligence official (reporting later confirmed by the BBC). They corroborated that intelligence with 4 senior serving US spies with knowledge of all 14 British cases.
Augmented by compelling videos and cutting-edge infographics, the series garnered more than 2 million readers and extensive media coverage. It also sparked immediate alarm from across the political spectrum about the British government’s inaction. After the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal, its impact accelerated dramatically. Seven MPs as well as London’s former police commissioner demanded further investigation, and in the face of that pressure, the UK government agreed to review all 14 deaths.