Old Moscow hands were not surprised when Austrian doctors determined that dioxin was the cause of the painful and disfiguring disease that afflicted Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko. "There is suspicion of third-party involvement," the director of the private clinic said.
Lethal chemicals have come to occupy a respected place in the arsenal of politics. The Soviet KGB had all kinds of tricks. In 1978, Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was killed by a pellet of ricin fired at him from a spring-loaded umbrella as he waited at a bus stop in London.
As a CBS correspondent in the Soviet Union in 1956, I had my own experience with KGB chemical warfare. I tried to cover a private meeting of Yugoslav President Tito and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev near Yalta on the Black Sea. The Soviet government had told correspondents to stay away. The next thing I knew - or didn't know - I fell unconscious in a restaurant. Apparently, I was then piled aboard an airplane, bound for Moscow. I must have slept all the way. The doctor at the US Embassy told me I had been given "knockout drops." It could have been much worse.
Use of poison may not be limited to the KGB. There is some speculation about the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. His nephew, Nasser al-Kidwa, after reviewing the French medical file, said his uncle died an "unnatural" death. French doctors who had treated Arafat said there was no sign of any known poison.
The CIA had its murderous ways with chemicals, too. A poison-tipped ballpoint pen, a poisoned cigar, a scuba-diving suit dusted inside with a deadly chemical were among the ways that the agency dreamed up methods of murdering Cuba's Fidel Castro. During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, Sukarno of Indonesia, and Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic were all at times targets of abortive CIA assassination plots.
The CIA also experimented with chemicals on American subjects. In 1953, an Army scientist named Frank Olson jumped out of a hotel window to his death after receiving a dose of LSD given to him by the CIA.
There's been no recent indication of CIA involvement in poison programs. In Moscow, Andrei Piontkovsky, head of the Center for Strategic Studies, said that "use of poisons was routine for the KGB in Soviet times," and probably continues today.
• Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.