Crackers and Castor Beans: FBI Busts Wannabe Ricin WMD “Terrorists” in Georgia

Almost as if in response to Marcy’s noting less than two weeks ago that at least in Detroit the FBI overlooks white terrorists when profiling, the FBI yesterday announced the arrests of four individuals in Georgia accused of planning attacks using explosives, a silencer and the biological agent ricin:

Frederick Thomas, 73, of Cleveland, Ga.; Dan Roberts, 67, of Toccoa, Ga.; Ray H. Adams, 65, of Toccoa; and Samuel J. Crump, 68, of Toccoa, were arrested today relating to plans to obtain an unregistered explosive device and silencer and to manufacture the biological toxin ricin for use in attacks against other U.S. citizens and government personnel and officials.

The “attack” planned with ricin is laughable on its face:

The complaints charge that during the investigation of Thomas and Roberts, Roberts described another individual named “Sammy” who, according to Roberts, had manufactured the biological toxin, ricin, and had access to the beans used to make ricin. During one of the group’s meetings in September, which was recorded by the confidential source, Crump arrived and said that he would like to make 10 pounds of ricin and disperse it in various United States cities, including Atlanta. Crump described a scenario for dispersing the ricin in Atlanta in which the toxin would be blown from a car traveling on the interstates. Crump allegedly also said that he possessed the ingredient used to make the toxin and cautioned the source about the dangers of handling it.

Ricin is indeed highly toxic and can be deadly in very small amounts.  However, the prospect of delivering a lethal dose of the toxin to anyone by releasing it while driving along an interstate seems extremely unlikely to be effective.  As described in the CDC document, ricin powder, which was the planned form to be used, is not particularly toxic on contact with skin and does not transport readily across skin despite many references to keeping it off skin in the conversations reported in an affidavit from the case posted by MSNBC (pdf). Instead, ricin has to be eaten or inhaled to be toxic:

  • Inhalation: Within a few hours of inhaling significant amounts of ricin, the likely symptoms would be respiratory distress (difficulty breathing), fever, cough, nausea, and tightness in the chest. Heavy sweating may follow as well as fluid building up in the lungs (pulmonary edema). This would make breathing even more difficult, and the skin might turn blue. Excess fluid in the lungs would be diagnosed by x-ray or by listening to the chest with a stethoscope. Finally, low blood pressure and respiratory failure may occur, leading to death. In cases of known exposure to ricin, people having respiratory symptoms that started within 12 hours of inhaling ricin should seek medical care.
  • Ingestion: If someone swallows a significant amount of ricin, he or she would develop vomiting and diarrhea that may become bloody. Severe dehydration may be the result, followed by low blood pressure. Other signs or symptoms may include hallucinations, seizures, and blood in the urine. Within several days, the person’s liver, spleen, and kidneys might stop working, and the person could die.
  • Skin and eye exposure: Ricin is unlikely to be absorbed through normal skin. Contact with ricin powders or products may cause redness and pain of the skin and the eyes.

And how would a real terrorist go about using ricin as a WMD?  Well, al Qaeda knows:

Intelligence officials say they have collected evidence that Qaeda operatives are trying to move castor beans and processing agents to a hideaway in Shabwa Province, in one of Yemen’s rugged tribal areas controlled by insurgents. The officials say the evidence points to efforts to secretly concoct batches of the poison, pack them around small explosives, and then try to explode them in contained spaces, like a shopping mall, an airport or a subway station.

To carry out a significant attack with ricin, it would be necessary to suspend the ricin in air (hence the explosives) in an enclosed area where people are likely to inhale the powder.  Dispersing it instead along an interstate highway where people are driving up to 80 mph is almost the opposite of the scenario planned by al Qaeda, and yet the FBI devotes significant space to the freeway part of the plan in the affidavit.

Following the pattern seen in recent FBI busts of “terrorists”, this group also was infiltrated by a “confidential human source”, referred to as CHS1 in the affidavit.  Remarkably, even the first meeting discussed in this affidavit was recorded.  A bit of nomenclature stood out to me in the discussion of the recording; the affidavit described the meeting as “consensually recorded”.  After a bit of digging, I found an IRS description of terms where I learned that this means that the meeting was recorded with the “consent of at least one, but not all, of the participants”.  This means, of course, that CHS1 “consented” to the recording, but the other participants in the meeting almost certainly did not.

As usual, CHS1 is an informant facing other charges from the government.  From the affidavit:

CHS1 is currently on bond for pending felony state charges. The FBI administered a polygraph test to CHS1 during the investigation of a militia group. The FBI polygrapher determined that CHS1 gave less than truthful responses concerning the activities of the militia group.

It’s good that these clowns are off the streets, as it does sound like they had intentions of doing as much harm as they could.  However, from what I can see so far in the one affidavit I have read, they hadn’t gotten much farther than showing off a few castor beans after a meeting at the local Waffle House.  Oh, and the FBI breathlessly tells us that a castor bean obtained from the plotters “tested positive for ricin”.  Sheesh, I would hope so, since castor beans are the source of ricin.  And yes, they even carried out a DNA test to prove the bean was a castor bean.

It will be very informative to read the rest of the documents in this case as they become available in order to determine the extent to which these guys intended violence on their own or if they were pushed in that direction by infiltration.

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
23 replies
  1. Jim White says:

    @guest: Indeed. That is progress of a sort. It would be a major relief if we could consider this group to be the most dangerous militia out there. Somehow, I doubt that is the case. The FBI is very adept at catching clowns. I’d like to see more success against the truly dangerous.

  2. John B. says:

    For whatever reason this story reminds of a couple of lines from the Coen brothers remake of “The Ladykillers” and the Professor Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr character…

    The two lines are:

    “We will have waffles forthwith!”

    and

    “He brought his bitch to the waffle house.”

    sorry, couldn’t resist…

  3. bmaz says:

    @Barbara Cox: Why? There is nothing particularly going on at this time that I am aware of. Yes, it was a colossal fuckup, yes, both Bush and Obama Administrations ran the same program, yes it was super-sized under Obama’s term, yes people at DOJ knew exactly what was going on and now it is over. What else is there?

  4. MadDog says:

    Totally OT – Via the AP, fitting with the concept that not only are Georgia geezer crackers going crazy, but with them, the Israelis:

    “Israel sending signals of Iranian attack

    An Israeli official said Wednesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to persuade his Cabinet to authorize a military strike against Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program – a discussion that comes as Israel successfully tests a missile believed capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to Iran…

    …Israeli leaders have long hinted at a military option, but they always seemed mindful of the practical difficulties, the likelihood of a furious counterstrike and the risk of regional mayhem…

    [snip]

    …The government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing sensitive internal deliberations, told The Associated Press that the option is now being debated at the highest levels.

    The official confirmed a report Wednesday in the Haaretz daily that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak both favor an attack, but do not yet have the support of a majority of Cabinet ministers. The official also said Israel’s top security chiefs, including the heads of the military and Mossad spy agency, oppose military action…”

    Just as an fyi for those of you piloting aircraft, the remaining New Moon phases (GMT) in 2011 are November 25 and December 24. The first one in 2012 is January 23.

  5. Jim White says:

    @MadDog: Gaack. I know we’ve had “warnings” of Israel preparing an attack for years now, but I don’t remember the reports coming from a “mainstream” organization like AP. Someone please tell me I’m wrong on that point…

  6. MadDog says:

    @Jim White: Like you, I’ve not noticed it from the AP before.

    It may be just saber-rattling…or not.

    Add to the mix the following:

    1) With the Scary Iran Plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the US, I mentioned previously that the Saudis may be pissed enough with Iran to close their eyes to Israeli overflights through their airspace.

    2) Israel has got its hostages back (Gilad Shalit from Hamas and dual US and Israeli citizen Ilan Grapel from Egypt).

    3) Even if the Obama Administration’s inclination were to object, it is after all a Presidential election year and Israel’s unyielding political grip on the balls of both parties would cause any objection to be stillborn. If one thinks of objecting better not think of getting elected.

  7. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: More from The Telegraph:

    “Israel raises fears of military action against Iran with missile test

    Israel tested a long-range ballistic missile capable of a carrying a nuclear warhead yesterday amid growing speculation that Benjamin Netanyahu is preparing to authorise military action against Iran…”

    And more from Reuters:

    “Israel test-fires missile as Iran debate rages

    …Dan Meridor, minister for nuclear and intelligence affairs and a member of Netanyahu’s eight-man inner cabinet, played down the relevance of the launch to Israel’s view on Iran.

    “The two things are separate,” he told Army Radio.

    Meridor lambasted as “unconscionable” a flurry of newspaper and television discussions, triggered by a front-page report in the biggest-selling Yedioth Ahronoth daily, about the possibility that Netanyahu and Barak were secretly planning, against the counsel of their security chiefs, to attack Iran.

    Three other members of the inner cabinet similarly denounced the Israeli media on Wednesday. None denied the speculation outright, and one minister, Benny Begin, accused former Defense officials of leaking classified information…”

  8. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: And the NYT now gets into the fray as well:

    “Israel Tests a Long-Range Missile

    …The flurry of speculation about possible plans to attack Iran began with a column by one of Israel’s most prominent journalists, Nahum Barnea, that was prominently displayed on the front page of the popular Yediot Aharonot newspaper on Friday. Mr. Barnea posed the question of whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mr. Barak had privately decided on a military strike, a question that Mr. Barnea said was preoccupying many in the Israeli government and the security establishment, as well as foreign governments.

    As the highly competitive Israeli news media began trying to outdo each other with Iran-related articles, all based on anonymous sources, a fierce debate arose over the merits and dangers of a public airing of such a sensitive matter of state security…”

  9. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: And this from The Guardian:

    “UK military steps up plans for Iran attack amid fresh nuclear fears

    British officials consider contingency options to back up a possible US action as fears mount over Tehran’s capability.

    Britain’s armed forces are stepping up their contingency planning for potential military action against Iran amid mounting concern about Tehran’s nuclear enrichment programme, the Guardian has learned.

    The Ministry of Defence believes the US may decide to fast-forward plans for targeted missile strikes at some key Iranian facilities. British officials say that if Washington presses ahead it will seek, and receive, UK military help for any mission, despite some deep reservations within the coalition government.

    In anticipation of a potential attack, British military planners are examining where best to deploy Royal Navy ships and submarines equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles over the coming months as part of what would be an air and sea campaign.

    They also believe the US would ask permission to launch attacks from Diego Garcia, the British Indian ocean territory, which the Americans have used previously for conflicts in the Middle East…”

  10. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The reference to “consensually recorded”, as you point out, is misleading. It has a specific legal meaning that is sometimes at odds with its meaning in normal speech. Local state laws determine which parties to a conversation, be it real or virtual, face-to-face or over the telephone or Internet, must “consent” for the recording to be legal. In many states, only one person needs to consent. In other states, several or all parties to a conversation must consent, otherwise, the recording is an illegal act.

    Whether a legally made recording is admissible in court would be a matter of the rules of evidence; obviously, if it was made illegally in the place where the conversation occurred, it should be inadmissible. That raises the question whether the recordings were made in the locations where the conversations took place or at a remote site, subject to different state laws. Arguably, it is the law where the conversation took place, not where a recording was made, that should govern. Rest assured this DoJ will make the argument most convenient to its case.

  11. Jim White says:

    Hmmm. Perhaps my use of “WMD” in the title is a bit overstated. These yahoos had a target of preparing 10 pounds of ricin powder. Even if they were able to get their hands on the “waste” from production of castor oil, that mash is only 5-10% ricin by weight and needs to be purified. But, FAS (pdf) informs us:

    Biological weapons experts estimate that 8 metric tons would be required to cover a 100 km2 area with enough toxin to kill 50% of the people. Thus, using ricin to cause mass casualties becomes logistically impractical even for a well-funded terrorist organization.

  12. emptywheel says:

    @earlofhuntingdon: At some point it’ll be a lot harder for DOJ to get convictions on anything in which they say “terror.”

    But we’re years off from that time, unfortunately.

  13. P J Evans says:

    the extent to which these guys intended violence on their own or if they were pushed in that direction by infiltration

    I’ll take pushed by infiltration. It’s about all the FBI seems to be able to do in these cases. Actual investigation and proof seems to be left as an exercise for someone else.

  14. orionATL says:

    oh boy.

    this is three stooges territory for sure.

    larry, moe, and curly in

    “rice ‘n crackers”.

    or would that be groucho and freres in

    “vegetable crackers”?

  15. orionATL says:

    say, bmaz,

    how would you handle these guys defence?

    – insanity?

    – stupidity?

    – early onset alzheimer’s?

    – too much fox news?

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