Monday, June 26, 2006

MORE ON TIME'S TERROR PLOT INFOTAINMENT: Stupidest claim in many years

"That is the stupidest statement I have heard in many years," [Milton] Leitenberg said, adding that the concentrations at which the key chemicals were present in household materials were so low "you would get next to nothing" by using them.

This quote is excerpted from a Sunday story by United Press International security reporter Shaun Waterman. In an article piling on Pulitzer-winner Ron Suskind's pleasing tale of al Qaeda's Mubtakkar of Death, Leitenberg, a colleague of mine, was refering to Suskind's fantastic claim that the Mubtakkar was "the equivalent of splitting the atom. "Obtain a few widely available chemicals and you could construct it with a trip to Home Depot and then kill everyone in the store," and that's it, according to Suskind.

"Knock the hell out of that splitting that atom claim," wrote Leitenberg in e-mail last week and so we did here. In the continued criticism of Suskind's story, this blog has made it clear you couldn't buy Fisher Scientific salts of cyanide at Home Depot. It did not matter to Suskind, because his grasp of the science was feeble although his talent for exaggeration certainly was not. For National Public Radio's Fresh Air last week, in relating a description of the device he told incredulous interviewer Terry Gross that the Mubtakkar used sodium chloride and whatnot. (Simply read to the bottom of my Mubtakkar piece for the link to the radio transcript.)

Throughout last week the mainstream media declined to be critical with Suskind in any great way. National Public Radio even invited me for an interview. It turned out like this and the interview was 86'd.

While journalists enjoyed relating the pleasing tale of the Mubtakkar of Death -- terror plot infotainment for their readers, viewers and listeners -- they were not eager to convey a natural skepticism from others. When I stated that the "splitting of the atom" and "Home Depot" claims were risible, as any reasonable person might have done, NPR did not wish to hear it.

But getting back to Waterman's article:

Leitenberg and other scientists that UPI spoke to about the reaction, which uses acid and cyanide crystals to produce hydrogen cyanide gas, stressed that it was a highly volatile process, which generates a huge amount of heat as well as gas -- and would likely destroy the device itself.

The way facts about the device were presented in the book, it appeared they were "coming through the filter of someone who is not well-versed in the science," said George Smith, a molecular biologist and senior fellow with the Washington-area think tank

Leitenberg pointed out that Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese religious cult which is the only terrorist group to have ever used chemical weapons, had "much more access to money and equipment" and other resources than al-Qaida does, but had still failed to make an effective delivery device.

He said the group had spent "perhaps $20 or 30 million," and had a team of up to 20 scientists working on making chemical weapons. "They weren't in caves," he said, "Photos of their lab look like a commercial research or manufacturing facility."

Nonetheless, when the group attacked the Tokyo subway system with the nerve agent sarin, its members ended up dispersing it by punching holes in plastic bags.

Waterman contacted Suskind for comments and the Pulitzer-winner fell back upon a rascal's defence: Important security anonymoids had said it was all true. "Suskind defended his reporting about the device and the plot to use it, telling UPI it was based on 'senior intelligence sources.'"

You can read the entire UPI article here.


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