ISIS Fearmongering Now Features Undeclared Syrian Toxins Changing Hands

Today’s New York Times wants us to be very afraid because Samantha Power tells us that Syria may have failed to declare some of its chemical weapons (all declared category 1 materials have been destroyed) and those materials just might fall into the hands of the ISIS evil monsters.  This is a very interesting development because now with ISIS as the most evil operator out there, the Syrian WMD’s that we have been fearmongering about now are scarier in the hands of ISIS than they are in the hands of Bashar al-Assad, whom many believe was responsible for the deadly August, 2013 sarin attack in Ghouta.

The long journey of Syrian WMD’s and just who makes them scary is a case study in the process of intelligence and diplomatic sources feeding propaganda to a willing press. Recall that just after the Ghouta attack, Joby Warrick was used,  in a very Judy Miller fashion, to try to develop fear of a probably non-existent Syrian bioweapons capability. Less than a month after that feeble attempt to claim bioweapons in Syria’s arsenal, Warrick was dumbfounded that ricin (see below for a description of this toxin) appeared on the list of materials that Syria declared for destruction (ricin did not appear anywhere in Warrick’s “documentation” of Syria’s bioweapons capability just a month earlier):

The movement of chemicals and equipment in recent days — which initially spurred fears that Syrian officials were trying to hide parts of their stockpile — suggests instead that the weapons are being consolidated ahead of a first visit by inspection teams that arrived in the country last week, administration officials said.

The activity has contributed to a cautious optimism among U.S. officials over the prospects for quickly dismantling the chemical arsenal. Syrian officials a week ago turned over their first inventory of chemical weapons and storage sites, a list that U.S. analysts described as detailed, although incomplete.

The records have helped shed light on a sizable Syrian stockpile that U.S. officials say contains hundreds of tons of precursors for the nerve agents sarin and VX, as well as a surprise: ricin, a highly lethal poison derived from castor beans.

Yesterday, The Intercept finally (the document is marked as having been approved for release just before last Christmas!) liberated a cache of email conversations (pdf) taking place between a number of national security reporters and the CIA’s Office of Public Affairs.  The document is 574 pages long, but I want to focus on only one email to the office and the reply it generated, because it fits perfectly into this overall pattern of intelligence (and diplomatic) operatives catapulting propaganda with the eager cooperation of sychophantic reporters and because it mentions ricin. The email in question comes from Wall Street Journal reporter Siobhan Gorman and appears to be sent to at least two redacted recipients at CIA and mentions ricin in the context of Syria:

Gorman email


Okay. So this email takes place in July of 2012, just over a year before the Ghouta attack that used sarin.

Before we get to more of this story, a bit of background on ricin is in order. Ricin is a protein that can be extracted from castor beans. It is one of the most toxic molecules known and it consists of two parts, one of which is used to target and attach to specific cells and the other which delivers the knockout blow once it is inside the cell. Cancer researchers have long held out hope to use an alternative version of the targeting part of the molecule to deliver the toxic part only to cancer cells. Bioweapons researchers instead focus on keeping the protein in active form and finding ways to deliver it into the cells of victims. Complicating matters, castor beans are also used to produce castor oil, which, in addition to its folk use as a laxative, can be used as an industrial lubricant. For the best analysis I have seen on ricin in the context of Syria, see this link and scroll down to the section labeled “Castor beans: cancer research, castor oil, or ricin?”, where it seems to me the most likely thing Syria was doing with castor beans was making castor oil from a cold press process (that keeps ricin active) and agreed to switch to a hot press process, thereby inactivating the ricin. (But this doesn’t fit with their claim of using it in cancer research, where they wouldn’t have needed to grow as many castor plants as they appear to have done.)

Okay, so going back to the Gorman email to CIA’s public affairs folks, we see that she is saying that the Wall Street Journal has learned from the US government that the government believes materials are being moved. Interestingly, she says that “Assad-associated militias” have been given ricin. The Journal article that did indeed come out the next day (but without Gorman in the byline) failed to mention ricin, but it is clear from this email that as early as July of 2012, someone in the government was trying to push the story that Syria had ricin.

For those keeping score, the CIA response to the email was “If you need to, please report we declined to comment”. The story as published groups these denials from various agencies: “The White House, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon declined to comment”, so we are left to assume that Gorman (or someone else at the Journal) had similar exchanges with the White House and Pentagon.

Despite this push for Gorman and the Journal to link ricin to Syria in 2012, I see no public mentions of this sort after Warrick’s surprise until an April, 2014 Reuters article:

In interviews over the last two months with Western officials with access to intelligence about Syria, Reuters learned that topics of concern include deadly nerve agent ricin, mustard gas, precursor chemicals used to make sarin, and, more recently, the use of chlorine gas in Syria.

But just in case we were starting to relax about Syria at that time, Daily Beast came running in to fan more flames of fear about ricin just about a week later:

Concerns are growing among Western intelligence services that Syria still has a significant and undeclared arsenal of chemical weapons, including crude chlorine-filled bombs, secret stockpiles of sophisticated nerve gasses or their components—and the scientific know-how to rebuild a larger-scale, higher-grade chemical weapons effort once the Bashar al-Assad regime has escaped the international spotlight.

“A ghost of CW [chemical weapons] program in a place riven with conflict—that’s a real concern,” one American intelligence official tells The Daily Beast.

The story eventually gets to ricin:

The Israelis, who have obvious reasons to keep close tabs on the weapons of mass destruction next door, have raised the alarm about the Syrian biological program many times. “The biological warfare agents that are believed to have been developed by Syria include virulent pathogens, such as anthrax germs, and the lethal biological toxins botulinum and ricin,” writes Dany Shoham at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “Western estimations suggest that Syria has significant quantities of these biological warfare agents, although the evidence for this is inconclusive.” Shoham adds without substantive evidence that “Syrian possession of the smallpox virus is likely.”


U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said at the end of January this year: “We judge that some elements of Syria’s biological warfare (BW) program might have advanced beyond the research and development stage and might be capable of limited agent production, based on the duration of its longstanding program.” But “to the best of our knowledge, Syria has not successfully weaponized biological agents in an effective delivery system” even thought “it possesses conventional weapon systems that could be modified for biological-agent delivery.”

At least one U.S. intelligence official says that Clapper might have gotten just a bit ahead of his skis. While Assad made some progress on weaponizing ricin—a toxin derived from the castor bean—his scientists “never got past R&D phase for anything else.” About five years ago, the official says, Syria made the switch from developing  “botanicals” like ricin to “microbial” weapons like anthrax. “They still haven’t settled on anything—they’re researching agents, and whether they can mass-produce them. It’s the very early kernel of a BW program.” In part, the official said, that’s because the U.S. and its allies have been able to prevent Syria from acquiring the equipment needed for mass production, like large fermenters. “I think we’ve blocked anything above what goes on a lab bench,” the official added.

Ah, so it seems the Daily Beast folks kind of knew the debunking of ricin as a likely agent published last month (linked above in the ricin background material) was on the way. So now we are to fear anthrax from them. Except, of course, that they really can’t produce it in meaningful quantities even if they did think they could weaponize it with anything better than kitty litter. But I am sure the government will find a new way to make all this scary again in the very near future.

8 replies
  1. Pete says:

    Not to underplay any concerns about anyone REALLY having ricin or anthrax (I’m thinking about you USA and Russia), it ought to be reported that massive quantities of airborne desert sand could choke you to death. Why, here is South Florida a little Sahara Desert sand blowing in drives my sinuses crazy. I believe there is plenty of desert sand in the Levant. I believe desert sand may be why the Packers played so poorly last night in Seattle.

  2. TarheelDem says:

    If they’re really freaked out about WMD instead of making up propaganda, they’d be hammering Israel about its chemical and biological weapons programs. Apparently not signing nonproliferation agreements in the first place gives a nation the status of being “safe”.

    But I have to admit there is a lot of transparency in recent foreign policy statements. They can easily be shown to be transparent lies. Who inside the White House bubble thinks this is a good idea? I guess Samantha Powers has observed Condoleeza’s post-White Housee careeer trajectory. I’m beginning to warm up to the idea of John Kerry serving until January 2017.

    • Phoenix Woman says:

      THD, I forget: Has Israel officially ‘fessed up to having any nukes at all, much less the fourth-biggest cache in the world behind the US, Chinese, and Russian caches?

      As for ISIS, we’re talking about yet another means to part gullible Saudi and Kuwaiti armchair jihadists from their petrodollars. The biggest haul these clowns made was the group of oil towns around the Iraq – Syria frontier, and while the $3 million a day it’s giving ISIS is high cotton for sectarian grifter bullies, it’s not enough to get them the tools they need to actually set up a functional government, much less a “caliphate”. Worse yet, they killed most of the folks who know how to keep the oil rigs and refineries running — and the gear is starting to fall apart as a result.

      On top of all of this, do note, as Gary Brecher did, that these guys are running around on flat, featureless plains, in pickup trucks with big guns in the back. They are very good at killing utterly unarmed civilians and peasant tribes, but put a mountain in front of them and they’re stumped. It’s why they settled for trying to starve out the Yezidis rather than following them up the mountain. (It’s also why they’re so freaked out about aerial bombardment: The flat, featureless plains, with no place to hide, have suddenly turned from their best friend to their worst enemy.)

      Their best fighters are the thousand-odd Chechen imports, and they’ll be gone, along with ISIS’ top leadership, once the oil rigs they captured either fall apart or are taken away from them. At which point the remnants will fade back into the stew of Sunni sectarian groups and hope none of the co-religionists they pissed off with their high-handed kiss-up-kill-down ways in both Syria and Iraq decide to teach them a lesson or two.

  3. lefty665 says:

    Good post Jim, but this sentence in the lede, although tangential to the post, is disturbing. “…in the hands of Bashar al-Assad, whom many believe was responsible for the deadly August, 2013 sarin attack in Ghouta.”
    That has been thoroughly debunked. Nobody believes it, with the exception of morons like Kerry and Nuland at State and their ilk, . I understand why you referenced it, but presenting it blandly only serves to encourage the dingbats and inadvertently perpetuates falsehoods.

    • Jim White says:

      I hovered over that bit for quite a while on my final edit. I nearly added a parenthetical “but I remain agnostic about who carried out the attack”, but the sentence was already pretty much over the line on being unwieldy.
      But I am agnostic on this. The key issue I keep going back to is that the site was not secure before it was investigated, and so we have no way of knowing what evidence is real and what evidence is altered. Many plausible theories have been presented, but none on either side can be proved.

      • lefty665 says:

        I sympathize with the travails of editing. I certainly struggle, often unsuccessfully, with them.
        But… there’s no excuse for being agnostic on Sarin, unless of course you accept the neo-con fearmongering that damn close to stampeded us to war in Syria a year ago. It did not succeed, despite Kerry’s best hysterical efforts, due to the Brits chemical analysis and our joint chiefs. The Sarin did not come from Syrian government stocks.
        Seymour Hersh laid it out here:
        Robert Parry recently recapped it here
        Please save your agnosticism for things truly in doubt, like flat earthers. The great Syrian Sarin scare last year was neo-con war-mongering bullshit pure and simple. As Parry put it:
        “But conventional wisdom is a difficult thing to shake once many “very important people” have embraced its certainties. Such VIPs don’t like to admit that they were suckered and there are always some aspiring operatives who hope to earn some brownie points by attacking anyone who deviates from the “group think.”
        That’s what we’re seeing now as the Obama administration’s case against the Syrian government collapses, not that it was ever very sturdy. There is desperation across Official Washington to try to prop the old narrative back up.
        The flimsiness of the administration’s indictment was always apparent. The U.S. “Government Assessment” of the attack, published Aug. 30 (2013), was a four-page white paper making unsubstantiated allegations against the Syrian government. No verifiable evidence was presented either then or since then.”

  4. Vivek Jain says:

    the Obama administration has provided nothing to corroborate its charges.

    Sy Hersh and Gareth Porter, both investigative journalists, have exposed the lies of the Obama administration about who was responsible for the chemical weapons usage.

    The US government has provided NO evidence to support its claims and accusations against the Syrian government.

    And remember, the US ruling class wants to maintain dominance, total control, over the immense energy resources of the region. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, imperialist policymakers in the US have seized the opportunity to go full-throttle in their plans for world domination. They realize that having a stranglehold on the Middle East and Central Asia would give them enormous power over their economic rivals in Europe and Asia. This is why the US has been supporting and training right wing, anti-Russian terrorists in Central Europe, as well as right wing anti-socialist Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia, etc. It’s not the case that Washington is at war with Islamic terrorism; they’re USING Islamic terrorism as a tool to advance imperialist objectives, while disingenuously invoking the “threat” of Islamic terrorism to convince the American public that the diversion of vast public resources away from social spending and toward the military is in “the national interest.” The entire war on terror has been a fraud. The 9/11 attacks were a convenient pretext that were used by policymakers and propagandists to create a smokescreen that obscured the terrorism by the US government.

    See the following:

    Please see:

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