Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Readers of this blog and my various articles on bioterrorism, chemical terrorism and the London ricin trial over the last few years know the strong scent of intellectual bankruptcy which accompanies statements on the same from the US government.

Today we have a slim report by retired CIA officer Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, now a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government.

"[Mowatt-Larssen] provides a detailed chronology of relentless efforts by Al Qaeda from 1988 to 2003 to get and use chemical and biological weapons including ricin and anthrax, and, most worrying, nuclear weapons," reports a Boston Globe piece on the thing. "Most of the details he cites have been reported before, but Mowatt-Larssen assembles the evidence in a fashion that leaves little doubt that Al Qaeda operatives would not hesitate to launch attacks that could kill tens or even hundreds of thousands of Americans if they could pull off such an attack."

Jason Sigger at Armchair Generalist immediately issues this takedown:

Actually, there's a lot of doubt that al Qaeda would have the talent, opportunity, and skills to develop NBC weapons into a capability that would cause any level of mass casualties, and again, I'd say read the report - it pretty much explains itself. First of all, the foreword was written by Graham Allison, and if there's ever been someone who exaggerated the potential for nuclear terrorism, he's the one I would pick. The report covers 1988-2003, a broad spectrum of time, but certainly not reflective of what al Qaeda could do today. Still, it's illustrative by its examples.

You find the famous bin Laden 1998 quote about WMDs, references from George "slam dunk" Tenet's book on al Qaeda intentions and actions in the desert, meetings between Muslim scientists and suppliers, statements by terrorists that were obtained under "interrogations," and yes, even Jose Padilla's "dirty bomb" - a charge which people may remember the US government dropped because it had no evidence on this point. And no discussion about AQ would be complete without the "mobtaker" device that never really emerged in any plot against the West. That is to say, we have a collection of weak evidence of intent without any feasible capability and zero WMD incidents - over a period of fifteen years ...

Paradoxically, Mowatt-Larssen writes this at the beginning of his report:

Yet WMD-skeptics abound, and for understandable reasons. There is widespread suspicion in America and abroad that WMD terrorism is another phony threat being hyped for political purposes, and to stoke fears among the public. It is difficult to debunk this allegation, given the US's lack of credibility in the case of Iraqi WMD.

On page 4 of 32, before Mowatt-Larssen 'fesses up on the issue, Graham Allison, the author of the report's introduction writes:

"Skeptics, however, abound."

He adds, somewhat defensively: "The individual in the intelligence community who is widely recognized as the leading analyst of WMD-terrorism is Rolf Mowatt-Larssen."

At this juncture and depending on one's point-of-view, this can be interpreted as a Freudian slur or a recommendation. In any case, half a decade ago to see two such identical concessions on the reality of the WMD argument would have been highly unlikely.

It is a sign of progress and a thing which cannot be credited to the US government or its intel and threat assessment functions.

But now down to brass tacks.

Mowatt-Larssen covers the famous "London ricin cell" and gets everything about it wrong.

Perhaps this is not so surprising.

After all, the US government had it all wrong in 2003 as did Colin Powell in his infamous presentation to the UN Security Council. And the truth was not made known in Britain until the trial of Kamel Bourgass in 2004-2005. This was not astutely covered in the mainstream US press, partly because the news was unwelcome -- that there was no London ricin ring, among other things -- at a time when it was still considered really bad form to doubt US claims having to do with al Qaeda's links to Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

"This highly publicized reporting, including the shooting death of a London policeman in a raid on a terrorist safehouse, represented the front edge of a wave of arrests in the United Kingdom ... The arrests confirm the reliability of intelligence reporting and produce forensic evidence of crude poisons and toxin-related attack planning," Mowatt-Larssen says.

"Seven extremists are arrested in the 'UK ricin plot,' the Zarqawi network's effort to use ricin poison on the London underground."

On the reliability of intelligence reporting, let's take a look back at the news reporting on the murder of the policeman, Stephen Oake, by Kamel Bourgass, who was eventually convicted of the crime.

"The murdered officer, who was stabbed in the chest, was named early today as 40-year-old Special Branch detective constable Stephen Oake, a married father of three," reported the Times of London.

"He died at North Manchester General Hospital after receiving emergency treatment at the scene of the raid. His father is Robin Oake, the former Chief Constable of the Isle of Man.

"The murdered officer and his colleagues were members of Greater Manchester Police.

The news appeared in virtually every newspaper in the United Kingdom. But perhaps the CIA does not read or doublecheck stories in English newspapers. Mowatt-Larssen's report footnotes the item as being from George 'slam dunk' Tenet's book. As far as effort goes, this is a pretty slack error.

Continuing right along, the arrests Mowatt-Larssen says, "produce forensic evidence of crude poisons ..."

To inform on this, it's necessary to quote extensively from material published at GlobalSecurity.Org in 2005, information gained because I was consulted by a representative for the defense during the course of the alleged ricin ring's trial.

The trial of the infamous "UK poison cell," a group portrayed by Secretary of State Powell as al Qaida-associated operatives plotting to launch ricin attacks in the United Kingdom and in league with Muhamad al Zarqawi in Iraq, found nothing of the sort. The jury did find "the UK poison cell," known as Kamel Bourgass and others ... [specifically the others] not guilty of conspiracy to murder by plotting ricin attacks and, generally speaking, not guilty of conspiracy to do anything. Kamel Bourgass had been previously convicted of murder of a British policeman in an unpublicized trial.

Months earlier and behind the scenes, the British government had seen its claims, that the group had the capability to produce ricin and that materials on a ricin recipe found in their belongings could be linked to al Qaida, rupture. And equally startling, it was confirmed that a preliminary positive finding of the poison in a residue tested in a raid on their apartment in Wood Green in January of 2003 was false but that through bureaucratic bungling, just the opposite news was presented to British authorities.

Two days after the January 5th 2003 search of the Wood Green "poison cell" flat, and well before the outbreak of war with Iraq, the chief scientist advising British anti-terrorism authorities, Martin Pearce -- leader of the Biological Weapon Identification Group at Porton Down, had finished lab tests which indicated the ricin finding was a false positive. "Subsequent confirmatory tests on the material from the pestle and mortar did not detect the presence of ricin. It is my opinion therefore that toxins are not detectable in the pestle and mortar," wrote Pearce in one document.

But in an astonishing example of sheer incompetence, another employee at Porton Down charged with passing on to British authorities the information that the preliminary finding of ricin was in error, turned around and did the opposite, informing that ricin had indeed been detected.

The original, at GlobalSecurity.Org, is here.

Through bureaucratic bumbling, something Mr. Justice Penry-Davey 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.

The ricin trial resulted in the jury exoneration of everyone but Kamel Bourgass. And a subsequent trial, which was to be held dependent on the results and evidence produced in the first, was cancelled.


GlobalSecurity.Org was appraised of the findings and materials secured at the Wood Green apartment.

These included:

A coffee grinder which was assayed for biological poisons. None were found. It did contain a bit of brown powder. The defendants apparently drank coffee.

In fact, no traces of biological or chemical weapons were detected in the apartment.

Martin Pearce, the Porton Down scientist who accompanied the anti-terrorism team on the Wood Green raid noted items of potential interest to include, toiletries, a common funnel, two scales, bottles of acetone and some rubber gloves.

Twenty-two intact castor seeds were recovered. Twenty-one were found in a jewelry case along with one other in an unspecified location within the Wood Green apartment. Castor seeds, as has been written many times, contain ricin and are easy to secure. A large number of "pips," apple seeds, were found in cups and a weighing pan. Spice was also seized, a jar of kalonji black onion seed.

However, widespread declarations in January of 2003 and continuing to the present -- official as well as unofficial -- that the Wood Green apartment was a working ricin laboratory were hasty and poorly informed.

The "UK poison cell" defendants were on trial for six months. In the British anti-terror sweep that netted them there were 90 arrests.

Outside of Kamel Bourgass, there were no convictions. And it subsequently came out that a confession, later recanted, had informed the UK government's intelligence and that the defendants in the ricin trial had been picked up for being the wrong religion and in the wrong place at the wrong time -- associated with the UK government informant -- Mohammed Meguerba.

The defense acted from the standpoint that Meguerba had been tortured during the delivery of the confession from a jail in Algeria. And my understanding was that after an extended wrangle, it was determined that the UK government would not be able to bring him as a source of evidence for the trial. At that point, the prosecution was irrevocably damaged.

Mowatt-Larssen writes there was a plot "to use ricin poison on the London underground."

The plan was actually to smear poisonous stuff on door handles in the Holloway Road.

This, too, was published in many UK newspapers, items someone would appear to have paid no mind to. Even though it was true.

Ricin is not a contact poison and expert testimony said this was so during the trial, another piece of evidence building the case that the plans of Kamel Bourgass were all wet.

Castor seeds in the jewelry tin. WMD?

It is worth returning to Mowatt-Larssen's comment on skeptics with regards to al Qaeda's alleged capability, or lack of it, with WMDs.

The disaster that was the London ricin trial, and the truths which emerged from it, soured a great many in the United Kingdom on the statements of its ally, the United States. The US government had pressed hard with talk about the ricin ring and al Qaeda, as it had about many things subsequently proven to be wrong with regards to terrorism and the war in Iraq. It is safe to say that it contributed to the belief among many there that the US government was full of it, something not altogether true, but now seen as a reasonable opinion.

It's certainly a shame to read in 2010 the same really old shabby cant about something one knows well, delivered by someone formerly with the CIA, given print space because of reasons having to do with bowing to arguments from authority.

"Prior to his appointment as a senior fellow at the Belfer Center, Mr. Rolf Mowatt-Larssen served for three years as the Director of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence at the US Dept. of Energy," reads the man's biography at the end of the report. "Prior to this, he served for 23 years as a CIA intelligence officer in various domestic and international posts, to include Chief of the Europe Division in the Directorate of Operations, Chief of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Department ..."

On the London ricin trial, at GlobalSecurity:

UK Terror Trial Finds No Terror here.

More UK Terror Trial here.

Poison recipe evidence from the UK ricin trial here.

Keywords: Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, Al Qaeda Weapons of Mass Destruction Threat: Hype or Reality?


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