Tuesday, February 26, 2008

VANITY FAIR DISCOVERS LONDON RICIN TRIAL: Three years late, its "international correspondent" flogs it, rebranding previously covered news for the snob crowd

Kamel Bourgass's jewelry tin of castor seeds, used to help grease the Iraq invasion. "The prosecuting authorities effectively stand accused of suborning justice to shore up support for an unjustifiable war," wrote a columnist for The Telegraph in April of 2005.

February's issue of Vanity Fair contained an 18,000 word piece covering Moloud Sihali, one of the acquitted men in the London ricin trial of 2004-2005. Entitled "A Face in the Crowd," it was written by William Langeweische, "International Correspondent." A noticeable portion of it recapitulates news your friendly neighborhood GlobalSecurity.Org Senior Fellow broke in 2005, one day before the gag order came off the trial in England. But since this is now for a very big magazine sold in supermarkets, edited by important literary people, it's buffed up so as not to appear copied directly from older sources.

Langeweische is semi-famous, usually dealing in juiced-up retellings of old news a couple years after the original details have been reported elsewhere. One of the more recent things flogged under his name was a book entitled "The Atomic Bazaar," a collection of all the stories you've heard from the last five years on how allegedly easy it is to make and bring an atomic bomb to the United States.

For Vanity Fair, Langeweische goes back to the London ricin case, built on the confessions of Mohammed Meguerba, a man whose information could not be used in the trial because of the bad circumstances surrounding the yielding of the intelligence said to have been provided. Meguerba knew Kamel Bourgass and, under torture, gave some rough details of dangerous things in the latter's possession. This obviously meant an al Qaeda team was in London. Or not.

Meguerba was an Algerian petty crook claimed to be an al Qaeda man by British authorities. Originally arrested in England during an anti-terror raid (or an anti-fraud sweep, or an anti-immigration raid, depending on who you listen to), he was subsequently released and essentially told to stick around. He didn't, winding up back in Algeria.

In Algeria, Meguerba was re-arrested and, it has been widely assumed, tortured into a confession which triggered the ricin gang round-up, called Operation Springbourne. Because his information was tainted, he was never brought as a witness at the trial. The defense had also engaged in an argument that since Meguerba would not be made available for cross-examination, such evidence as provided by him was inadmissible.

"By January 3 the Algerians had extracted new information," writes Langeweische.

Meguerba and Kamel Bourgass, the only person convicted in the eventual ricin trial, were said to be al Qaeda confederates, allegedly sent to engineer poison attacks in England. The British government was never able to produce persuasive evidence that both men had any real training in terror and the part of Langewische's Vanity Fair piece which deals with it is apparently reconstructed from the British government's large book of opinion on the matter.

"Meguerba was confused about the address [of the poison factory,] but he was able to describe a cheap apartment above an unnamed pharmacy in Wood Green. Scotland Yard found the match on an immigrant street ... On January 5, Scotland Yard flooded the street with police and, with the assistance of M.I.5, busted into the building behind an assault squad in protective suits. The press was impressed. The neighbors were concerned and surprised. Seven North Africans in the building were arrested, including a teenage tenant. As Meguerba had predicted, the apartment contained materials for the making of poisons, albeit limited and more in the nature of a kitchen lab than the production line of a 'poison factory,' as it came to be known in the news. Included among the materials were rubber gloves, acetone, a funnel, a scale, a coffee grinder, a pestle and mortar, thermometers, and the raw stuff from which poisons can be made -- apple pips, cherrystones, and 22 speckled castor beans. On a shelf in the corner stood a Nivea skin-cream pot, partially filled with a gooey brown substance. In a locked case, a large envelope contained schematics for bombs, as well as various poison formulas, including copies of the ricin recipe ... "

All of this was recounted in April 2005 at GlobalSecurity.Org here and here.

The actual translations of the recovered "poison recipes" are here. Langewiesche does not get into much comment on them for the glossy magazine. When one includes the raw documents it becomes quite evident their owner, Kamel Bourgass, was a crackpot and incompetent, although a physically dangerous man who subsequently murdered a British policemen while being taken into custody. At the end of the trial, British authorities went to some effort to insist Bourgass's formulas were a real threat, insisting famously that they were not "playtime recipes" and had been proven valid. This was a bit of a deceptive crock.

Additional material from the British government, including a link to a counter-terror video taken from the alleged ricin factory, is here -- all published in 2005. Be sure to note the paper laden with allegedly dangerous cherrystones.

"Specialists from Britain's chemical-weapons laboratory at Porton Down came in with testing equipment and determined that the substance in the Nivea pot was a noxious but nonlethal nicotine poison, probably extracted from cigarettes," carries on Langewiesche.

This was not precisely true. There was no conclusion drawn in the original Wood Green evidence proffer of Porton Down's scientist on the case, Martin Pearce. Drawing from the recovered poison recipes, a reasonable assumption was that it was tobacco juice which, sort of, can be called a "nonlethal nicotine poison."

"The bad news was that one of the field tests had come up positive for traces of ricin on the pestle and mortar," continues Langeweische over well-trod ground. "The result was preliminary only and would have to be backed up with thorough testing at Porton Down, but the laboratory would work around the clock and provide a definitive answer within days."

Naturally, we've known for some time through the trial, that this was a false positive.

No ricin was found.

But through bureaucratic bumbling, something Judge David Penry-Davy made quite clear to the jury during the original trial in the Old Bailey, Andrew Gould, an emissary from Porton Down charged with delivering the results, reported just the opposite. The official result was that the public was misled. For practical purposes, the error was not corrected until the end of trial, two years after the original arrests of the alleged Wood Green ricin ring.

"More important, Meguerba had said there were two Nivea pots, but the investigators had found only one," continues Langeweische excitingly. "What if the other pot contained the ricin, and Bourgass was about to use it? The [smear the ricin on the ] door-handle plan was perhaps impractical, but a collection of unopened toothbrushes in the flat suggested that he might have other means of attack in mind. That afternoon, Scotland Yard transmitted an urgent all-points bulletin for Bourgass's capture. Two senior officials issued a terse statement, in which they streamlined the truth just slightly by announcing that "a small amount of the material ... has tested positive for ricin.'"

"The Daily Mirror published a now classic scare-a black skull and crossbones over a yellow map of Britain, accompanied by the headline, 'It's here,'" writes Vanity Fair's "International Correspondent," William Langeweische.

"Meanwhile, after two days of further testing, the quiet scientists at Porton Down realized that the earlier result had been a false positive, and they concluded with absolute certainty that there was actually no trace of ricin to be found," writes the magazine's "International Correspondent." "Somehow the transmission of that message was so bungled or confused that even today it seems not truly to have lodged in the government's thinking or in the public's understanding of events. There was a plan to make ricin, for sure. But the truth is it never got off the ground."

Great, William.

"[Kamel Bourgass] was probably too stupid to know," writes Langeweische on the Algerian's actual potential for poison making. "He was at least as incompetent as Richard Reid. He seems to have responded to orders to make poisons by shopping the Internet and choosing ricin simply because it is one of the most lethal toxins known. When he saw on the news that his kitchen lab had been raided, he fled north to Manchester and holed up in a flat ... "

The journalist then recounts the incident in which Bourgass wounded four policemen and killed a fifth.

Eventually, the British legal system convicted Kamel Bourgass of murder and in the ricin trial, guilty of conspiracy to create a nuisance with poisons.

The balance of Langeweische's Vanity Fair piece deals with the ordeals faced by Mouloud Sihali, one of the ricin trial defendants. The story is plumped up with pleasing paint-the-scene color style common to glossy magazine story-telling, the tale focusing on the injustice faced by Sihali set against a paranoid backdrop in England during the early years of the war on terror.

Sihali had been swept up in the ricin trial case by extremely bad luck and coincidence even though he did not know Kamel Bourgass. He'd been dragged into it by dint of the fact that a man with which he had shared a room for a brief period had been Mohammed Meguerba. And Meguerba had the address of that bed sit in a pocket when authorities arrested the former in a raid. The police subsequently arrested Sihali. In the meantime, to recap -- Meguerba had been released and fled to Algeria where he was recaptured and tortured into a confession that yielded the name of Kamel Bourgass, also an acquaintance of the ricin investigation's primary informant.

Although acquitted by a jury in the ricin trial, Sihali was still a target of the British government. It eventually rearrested him with the intent of deporting him to Algeria. During the time he was kept under onerous house arrest conditions. Subsequently, Britain's Special Immigration Appeals Commission considered his case and a judge ruled there was no reason to Algeria because there was no evidence that he has been an Islamic extremist.

"At the time of the ricin trial, [Moloud Sihali] admitted two counts of possessing false passports and received 15 months imprisonment in Belmarsh maximum security prison," reported the Guardian newspaper in May of last year. "But he was cleared of charges connecting him with the ricin plot and was released soon after, as he had already served the time on remand."

"The SIAC judges ruled ... that [Sihali] had used false names and documents, fraudulently opened several bank and credit card accounts and falsely claimed state benefits and lied about them at the Old Bailey trial. But they added there was nothing in the evidence to suggest he knew that those he helped were terrorists.

"The judges said they were satisfied that although [Sihali] was unprincipled, he did not engage in anything beyond petty dishonesty. 'Whatever the risk to national security he may have posed in 2002, the risk now is insignificant,' they concluded."

Previous related reporting:

British immigration clears ricin suspect.

The elaborate myth of the London ricin cell.

Colin Powell and the UK poison cell.

Public statements of Bush administration officials flogging UK poison cell as part of Iraq war rationale.

Playtime Recipes for Poisons.


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