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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. Read more

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.

US Will Destroy Syrian Chemical Weapon Precursors at Sea

After the debacle of floating prisons used for interrogation that included torture, the US now is set to embark on a more noble mission at sea. Hundreds of tons of precursors to chemical weapons being surrendered by Syria will now be destroyed at sea, in part because no nation would agree to being the site for destruction of the chemicals.

Sadly, part of the reasoning behind the refusal to house the destruction can be seen in today’s press coverage of the announcement of destruction at sea. Headlines at the Washington Post, BBC, Los Angeles Times and ABC (this is just a quick representative sample, there are many others) all contain some variation on “US to Destroy Syrian Chemical Weapons at Sea”. However, if we read further, we find this tidbit buried in the BBC story:

It is believed that the chemicals, all but 30 tonnes of which take the form of precursors – two or more of which have to be mixed to create the lethal agents – have been gathered in several marshalling areas by the Syrian army and amount to more than 600 tonnes. The other 30 tonnes consist of mustard gas.

The headlines would have us believe that it is intact nerve agents such as sarin that are being destroyed in this process. The reality is that by the numbers cited here by BBC, more than 95% of the material is precursor material where at least two different components must first be mixed together to produce the active nerve agent. Only the 30 tons of mustard gas included in the overall collection of over 600 tons of material requires no processing to be a recognized chemical weapon. It would seem likely that nations have bowed out of serving as sites for destruction of the material because their citizens believe, based on sloppy reporting in the press, that the material to be destroyed is 100% active nerve agent.

The original announcement that the US would destroy the precursors was made by OPCW on November 30:

In a statement to the OPCW Executive Council on Friday 29 November 2013, Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü announced that the United States has offered to contribute a destruction technology, full operational support and financing to neutralise Syria’s priority chemicals, which are to be removed from the country by 31 December.

The Director-General stated that the neutralisation operations will be conducted on a U.S. vessel at sea using hydrolysis. Currently a suitable naval vessel is undergoing modifications to support the operations and to accommodate verification activities by the OPCW.

Joby Warrick reports in his article in the Post that an unidentified country has stepped up to gather the materials from a Syrian port and hand them off to the US ship when it is ready: Read more

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.

Do We Dare Dream of a Middle East Without WMD’s?

Just a few short months ago, speculation regarding a US attack on Syria centered only around when the attack would take place, how large it would be and how long bombardment would continue. But then accidental diplomacy broke out and it appears to be moving along remarkably well. Last week, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons certified that Syria has complied with the first stage of its giving up chemical weapons:

The Joint Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – United Nations Mission confirmed today that the government of the Syrian Arab Republic has completed the functional destruction of critical equipment for all of its declared chemical weapons production facilities and mixing/filling plants, rendering them inoperable.

By doing so, Syria has met the deadline set by the OPCW Executive Council* to “complete as soon as possible and in any case not later than 1 November 2013, the destruction of chemical weapons production and mixing/filling equipment.”

On a separate front, Iran’s Foreign Minister announced yesterday that he feels an agreement on Iran’s nuclear technology could be reached as early as this week:

Two days before negotiations resume in Geneva between Iran and the United States and other Western powers aimed at ending a fight over the disputed Iranian nuclear program, the country’s foreign minister sounded an optimistic note on Tuesday, saying a deal was possible as soon as this week.

“I believe it is even possible to reach that agreement this week,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in an interview with France 24, a major television network here, before meeting with the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius.

It is possible that these two diplomatic breakthroughs have provided cover for an even bigger diplomatic effort. An initiative had grown out of the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Review Conference to work toward an agreement banning all weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. A conference based on the initiative had been planned for last year, but the United States announced it had been delayed just before it was scheduled to begin.

A planning meeting for the formal conference was held October 21-22 in Switzerland. The Nuclear Threat Initiative outlined a number of issues that were to be addressed a few weeks before that meeting:

A United Nations-appointed diplomat on Tuesday said he will convene multinational consultations in Switzerland later this month as a potentially key step toward discussing an eventual ban on weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.

If nations in the region can agree on the terms and objectives of regional discussions, a formal conference on creating a Mideast WMD-free zone could occur in Helsinki, Finland, as early as mid-December, according to international diplomats and expert observers.

Jaakko Laajava, a Finnish envoy who serves as facilitator for the prospective talks, played down continued differences between Israel and its Arab neighbors over the necessity of this month’s multilateral planning session, which is to take place in Glion, a lakeside retreat roughly 60 miles northeast of Geneva.

Yes, you read that correctly. Even though Israel was not a participant in the 2010 conference that created this initiative, Israel now is suddenly a party to the discussions. Of course, the region faces a multitude of WMD issues and especially non-compliance issues for agreements already reached: Read more

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.

Scientist Who Destroyed Iraq’s Chemical Weapons the Last To Be Freed

In a little noticed piece (best as I can tell, only NYPost picked it up in the US), AFP reports that the last Iraqi WMD scientist still held in prison, Mahmud Faraj Bilal Al Samarrai, is set to be released.

“The judicial authorities have decided to free Mahmud Faraj Bilal al Samarrai,” he said.

That’s welcome news for Bilal al Samarrai, I’m sure. But here’s the detail that ought to interest American taxpayers even more:

In a letter to the CIA in 2006, made public by his lawyer, the former head of research and development at the military industries ministry recalled that he had given himself up to the CIA on March 2, 2003.

[snip]

Samarrai said his immediate superior, General Faez Abdullah Shahin, was never jailed and Saddam scientific adviser General Hammudi al Saadi was freed in 2005, as was deputy premier and military industries minister Abdel Tawab Mullah Hawaish.

The AFP provides the evidence of the bombshell there, but doesn’t make it explicit. This guy “gave himself up” to the CIA on March 2, 2003, more that two weeks before the war started.

Which is all the more troubling paired with the Iraq Survey Group report, which makes clear Bilal al Samarrai (whom they refer to as Bilal) is the guy who destroyed undeclared chemical weapons in response to IAEA inspections in 1991.

Following a particularly invasive IAEA inspection in late-June 1991, Saddam ordered Dr. Mahmud Faraj Bilal, former deputy of the CW program, to destroy all hidden CW and BW materials, according to an interview with Bilal after OIF

[snip]

A senior Iraqi scientist who directed the destruction of chemical and biological munitions contends that the decision to destroy the hidden materials was made at the end of June 1991. David Kay’s inspection and the ensuing controversy prompted Iraqi concerns about renewed war with the United States, according to Dr. Mahmud Firaj Bilal. Amir Rashid contacted Dr. Bilal and ordered that all hidden chemical and biological munitions be destroyed within 48 hours. When Bilal responded that this was impossible, Rashid directed that Bilal use the resources of the Iraqi Air Force and the surface-to-surface missile force to accomplish the task. Dr. Bilal gathered his colleagues from Al Muthanna State Establishment, went to the locations of the stored munitions, and began the destruction.

[snip]

ISG interviewed Dr. Mahmud Firaj Bilal, the Iraqi scientist who supervised the destruction of Iraq’s undeclared chemical munitions, along with a number of Iraqi higher officials who were knowledgeable of the weapons destruction. Although other sources have corroborated parts of Dr. Bilal’s account, ISG’s understanding of Iraq’s chemical and biological warfare agent unilateral destruction is heavily dependent on Dr. Bilal’s information, which is a weakness in our analysis. Nevertheless, as with Iraq’s long range missiles, we obtained a reasonably coherent account of the disposition of the CW munitions, though we were not able physically to verify the story. The UN has, however, verified some of it.

  • Iraq likely destroyed all 20 concealed CW Al Husayn missile warheads in the summer of 1991, according to Dr. Bilal based on UN-sponsored excavations. All were “binary” GB/GF nerve agent warheads filled with a mixture of isopropanol and cyclohexanol and MPF. Read more
Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

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.

Jerry Doe “Proved Fucking Right”

[That’s a Judy Miller quote, btw, not me actually, um, swearing.]

Joby Warrick reports that Jerry Doe, a former CIA operative who warned that Iraq had no active nuclear program but was told to bury that warning, also warned that Iran had set aside its own program.

A former CIA operative who says he tried to warn the agency about faulty intelligence on Iraqi weapons programs now contends that CIA officials also ignored evidence that Iran had suspended work on a nuclear bomb.

Now, he’s trying to get key paragraphs from his complaint against the CIA for wrongful dismissal unredacted so he can prove that the intelligence he was directed to bury turned out to be correct.

There are a few interesting details about this revelation. As Warrick notes, we have known for years that Doe claimed to have warned the CIA that Iraq had stopped its nuclear program. Doe reported, among other things, that there were Iraqi centrifuge parts available in the arms market. But Doe is now claiming that some of the intelligence he provided pertained to Iran, as well. (He refers to one more country in his complaint: Doe is a fluent Arabic and Farsi speaker, so I invite you to place your bets on whether the third country is Syria, Libya, or Pakistan, accordingly. I’m putting $5 on Syria, with a side bet of $2 on Pakistan.)

But there’s another interesting bit, if you put together Warrick’s story and the motion to have key paragraphs from his complaint unredacted.

Warrick quotes Doe’s lawyer, Roy Krieger, as saying that key paragraphs in Doe’s complaint should no longer remain sealed because what those paragraphs reveal was declassified in last year’s Iran NIE.

The consensus view on Iran’s nuclear program shifted dramatically last December with the release of a landmark intelligence report that concluded that Iran halted work on nuclear weapons design in 2003. The publication of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran undermined the CIA’s rationale for censoring the former officer’s lawsuit, said his attorney, Roy Krieger. [my emphasis]

And Friday’s motion lists the actual paragraphs that–extrapolating from Krieger’s claim–may pertain to Iran. Read more

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.