Monday, September 04, 2006

LOS ANGELES TIMES GETS INTO TERROR PREP BIZ: Screws up simple facts on front page

Over the weekend, the Los Angeles Times and a local TV station distributed press releases announcing they'd conducted a terror simulation, one in which LA was attacked with anthrax and ricin. The press release stated the exercise had been developed by Rand Corporation's Brian Jenkins, a terror expert. Local government functionaries were also involved and the game exercise was conducted at the Times one day in late August.

Today, the results appeared on the front page, entitled "Hypothetical Terrorists Put Regional Officials to Test," written by Jim Newton.
Hmmm, this anthrax chemical sure sounds bad!
". . . a routine fire probe rapidly spun into an international investigation, uncovering a terrorist weapons lab in Mexico and a plan to douse the nation's second largest city with anthrax and ricin," wrote the newspaper. "By the 40th day of the crisis, panic-stricken residents were flooding area hospitals, which buckled under the strain and then reeled as terrorists targeted them as well, poisoning emergency rooms with the same deadly chemicals."

Whack! Full stop. Anthrax isn't a chemical. Bacillus anthracis is a spore-forming bacterium and it causes disease. Remember Amerithrax?

The Los Angeles Times mixes this simple fact up throughout the story, conflating anthrax with the plant protein, ricin, as if the two are apples and pears to be easily mixed in a terror bag.
That anthrax chemical is nasty stuff.
"Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert with the Rand Corp. who designed the complex and guided the group through it . . . " continued the newspaper.

At which point, the informed reader might ask: Did the expert not make clear the differing nature of the two alleged terror weapons? And if he didn't and the mistake is shared, why should anyone take seriously an exercise based on bad information?

"Rushing to investigate, Americans and Mexican officials took suspects into custody. Under questioning, they revealed they had been paid by Middle Eastern contacts, one known only as 'jefe' to manufacture chemicals. Authorities concluded that 4 pounds of ricin and 10 to 20 grams of anthrax were unaccounted for, as were four dispersal machines, resembling leaf blowers. How serious were these chemicals? Two workers at the ranch where they were being made became ill and died."

At this point, DD blog, with GlobalSecurity.Org Senior Fellow T-shirt on, threw up his hands.

When one of the biggest and most important newspapers in the country, one that has gone to the trouble to bring in a raft of "experts" to game a terror attack excercise, gets even the simplest of facts wrong, it deserves a rebuke.

Listen up big newspaper and Rand expert, ricin and anthrax aren't the same thing. They aren't like two different types of candy that can be made at a candy factory. They aren't even apples and oranges.

One, anthrax, is alive. It's produced by culturing and bacterial fermentation. Ricin is a toxic plant protein, an enzyme. It is not alive. It is contained in small amounts in castor seeds and it must be separated from the mixture contained in the seed by biochemical purification. They take two different sets of skills, equipment, procedures and knowledge to "produce."

Since they are so different, who gave you the idea that one could mix them like ethanol and gasoline? It doesn't even make faint intuitive sense. And no terrorists have ever mixed the two. If the newspaper was informed this has "been built upon the actions of real terrorists elsewhere," it was told wrong.

At National Security Notes on GlobalSecurity.Org and in this blog, readers know I've spend a lot of time digging into the details of bio and chemical attack. And some of the work has been on
documenting how terrorist capability in this domain is distorted or simply made up for consumption in misguided threat assessment exercises. Such activities are then passed off as public services in the name of national security, work superficially aimed at raising awareness and bolstering preparedness. For notorious examples, see here.

It's disappointing, then, when you see it in the newspaper you subscribe to.

"Funding for this event was provided by the Times' 125th anniversary fund," writes the newspaper, in a sidebar at the end. Dudes, ask for your money back.

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