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IP: "The Billion Dollar Terror Rumor"




From: [email protected]
Subject: IP: "The Billion Dollar Terror Rumor"
Date: Tue, 13 Oct 1998 06:31:30 -0500
To: [email protected]

Source:  Salon Magazine
http://www.salonmagazine.com/news/1998/10/08newsa.html

The billion-dollar rumor 

 How unsubstantiated reports
 that the World Trade bombers
 may have included nerve gas in
 their arsenal led to some pretty
 pricey public policy. 

 BY JEFF STEIN

 It began as rumor, then
 became fact. 

 Fact became alarm. And
 alarm led to a rallying cry
for a multimillion-dollar federal program that has
now itself ricocheted out of control. 

Kenneth Starr's investigation of President Clinton?
No, it's the federal budget for countering a
doomsday attack by terrorists armed with chemical
and biological weapons. 

The rumor in this case was that terrorists had put
deadly sodium cyanide into the monstrous February
1993 World Trade Center bomb that killed six
people, injured more than 1,000, blasted a
seven-story hole underneath the twin towers and
created panic in the streets of lower Manhattan.
The blast should have turned any sodium cyanide
present into hydrogen cyanide, unleashing a
poisonous cloud that could have instantly killed
hundreds or thousands more people. 

That is, had any sodium cyanide been there.
According to a thorough, as yet unpublished study
of the incident by an arms-control think tank at the
Monterey Institute for International Studies, there is
no evidence to support the long-swirling assertion,
which first surfaced in the solemn pronouncement
of a respected federal judge in 1994. The rumor
then made its way into scores of newspaper articles
and was cited by leading U.S. senators to support
anti-terrorist initiatives that have amounted to
billions of dollars, many of them unaccounted for,
according to a recent investigation by congressional
auditors. 

John Parachini, a senior associate at the Monterey
Institute, made a draft of the study available after
being contacted by Salon. Word of his findings has
been circulating in the community of Washington
terrorism experts. "I'm not against spending money
for defending against chemical and biological
weapons," Parachini said in an interview, "but we
ought to know why we're spending for it, and to get
the facts straight." In his study, Parachini noted that
the World Trade Center bombers considered using
chemical weapons, but did not -- an important fact
for government terrorism specialists to ponder. 

"Examining the motivations and behaviors of
terrorists who would have used a chemical weapon
if it was available, but did not, may offer important
lessons about how to thwart such attacks in the
future," he writes. Parachini traced the origins of
the cyanide gas story to the first trial of World
Trade Center bombers in 1994, when federal
prosecutors raised the specter of a chemical bomb,
no doubt to darken the jury's view of the
defendants. The theme was picked up by presiding
federal Judge Kevin Duffy in his sentencing
statement to the stone-faced defendants. 

"You had sodium cyanide around, and I'm sure it
was in the bomb," the judge intoned. "Thank God
the sodium cyanide burned instead of vaporizing. If
the sodium cyanide had vaporized, it is clear what
would have happened is the cyanide gas would
have been sucked into the north tower and
everybody in the north tower would have been
killed. That to my mind is exactly what was
intended." 

The judge may have been "sure it was in the
bomb," but the defendants were never even
charged under anti-terrorism statutes that make
mere possession of potential chemical and biological
weapons a federal crime, Parachini noted. The
rumor's origins date back to an earlier raid by the
FBI of a New Jersey storage shed rented by the
suspects. The agents found one sealed bottle of
sodium cyanide in aqueous form. Aqueous sodium
cyanide is used for photographic purposes and can
cost less than $3 per pound, Parachini noted in his
study, after consulting chemical experts. But it is
sodium cyanide in solid form, usually briquettes
costing many hundreds of dollars more, that can be
effective as a chemical weapon when it's converted
to hydrogen cyanide gas by a blast. 

Nevertheless, the federal prosecutor in the initial
World Trade Center trial raised the idea of a
chemical bomb when questioning a senior FBI
official, Steven Burmeister, about the consequences
of mixing sodium cyanide with other chemicals
present in the bomb. Burmeister testified that "if
you breathe that gas I'm afraid you've breathed
your last breath." Despite this "chilling testimony,"
however, "Burmeister never suggested during the
trial that his investigation had led him to believe that
the bomb actually contained sodium cyanide,"
Parachini writes -- and the trial transcript proves. 

In addition, an FBI chemist who participated in the
case told Parachini flatly, "There is no forensic
evidence indicating the presence of sodium cyanide
at the bomb site." 

Judge Duffy's statement to the contrary, however,
gave legs to the notion that the defendants had
made -- or tried to make -- a chemical bomb. No
less an authority than Maj. Gen. George Friel, the
former head of the U.S. Army's Chemical and
Biological Defense Command, told Gannett News
Service that the World Trade Center bombers may
have attempted to mix a toxic agent -- most likely
arsenic -- with the bomb they planted in the garage
of the building. 

That was a new one to federal investigators.
Neither FBI agents nor prosecutors mentioned
arsenic as a bomb ingredient in the trial. Despite the
nonexistent evidence, however, Judge Duffy's
charge was taken up by two influential senators,
Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Sam Nunn, D-Ga., who
called it "a warning bell." 

"The trial judge at the sentencing of those
responsible for the World Trade Center bombing
pointed out that the killers in that case had access to
chemicals to make lethal cyanide gas ... and
probably put those chemicals into that bomb that
exploded," Nunn said during a 1996 floor debate on
a multibillion-dollar bill aimed at bolstering U.S.
defenses against weapons of mass destruction. 

Lugar also cited Judge Duffy's statement as
evidence of "how close we have come to witnessing
acts of terrorism involving weapons of mass
destruction directed toward the United States." He
urged his Senate colleagues to "listen to Judge
Duffy," and compared the World Trade Center
bomb to both the 1995 sarin gas attack on the
Tokyo subway by Japanese cultists and the
placement of a radioactive package in a Moscow
park. 

The media were next to pick up Duffy's theme.
One typical story, in the Los Angeles Times in July
1996, stated, "The World Trade Center bombers
had sodium cyanide, which if used ... would have
released poison gas, vastly increasing the fatalities
in New York, intelligence officials said." Syndicated
columnist Trudy Rubin cited Judge Duffy in the
course of applauding "some farsighted lawmakers
trying to confront the unthinkable." 

The Nunn-Lugar bill, which included $235 million
for training local "first responders" to a chemical or
biological attack, passed 100-0. But that was
merely the gateway to a mushrooming federal
anti-terrorism crusade that now costs upwards of
$1 billion a year -- and perhaps twice that,
according to some experts -- and that last week led
to the creation of the Defense Threat Reduction
Agency, which will "spend hundreds of millions of
dollars in research for better sensors and technology
to detect biological and chemical weapons,"
according to the Associated Press. 

Counter-terrorism may be the magic word for
funding programs in Washington today, but a
withering audit by the General Accounting Office
has raised questions about where the money is
going: "More money is being spent to combat
terrorism without any assurance of whether it is
focused in the right programs or in the right
amounts,'' said Richard Davis, a GAO auditor
specializing in weapons of mass destruction.
"Billions of dollars are being spent by numerous
agencies with roles or potential roles in combating
terrorism, but because no federal entity has been
tasked to collect such information across the
government, the specific amount is unknown,'' the
GAO said in its most recent report on terrorism.
"Further, no government-wide spending priorities
for the various aspects of combating terrorism have
been set.'' 

Meanwhile, past studies have cautioned that while
chemical or biological weapons may be cheaper and
easier to make than nuclear bombs, terrorists have
shied away from using them. Despite past
allegations, neither the Red Army Faction, the
Beider-Meinhof Gang nor the Weather
Underground ever used them, Parachini concluded.

Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the convicted mastermind
of the World Trade Center blast, made the point
himself while flying back in custody from Pakistan,
where he was captured in 1996, the Monterey
Institute study notes. "Yousef ... revealed to U.S.
Secret Service agent Brian Parr that the WTC
bomb did not contain sodium cyanide or any other
poison, but that he had planned to use 'hydrogen
cyanide in some other form of a bomb, not as large
a bomb, but a different type of bomb to disperse
that [poison] in the Trade Center,'" the study says. 

"Yousef told Parr that he had decided not to take
this approach because 'it was going to be too
expensive to implement.'" 

The judge may have been "sure it was in the
bomb," but the defendants were never even
charged under anti-terrorism statutes that make
mere possession of potential chemical and biological
weapons a federal crime, Parachini noted. The
rumor's origins date back to an earlier raid by the
FBI of a New Jersey storage shed rented by the
suspects. The agents found one sealed bottle of
sodium cyanide in aqueous form. Aqueous sodium
cyanide is used for photographic purposes and can
cost less than $3 per pound, Parachini noted in his
study, after consulting chemical experts. But it is
sodium cyanide in solid form, usually briquettes
costing many hundreds of dollars more, that can be
effective as a chemical weapon when it's converted
to hydrogen cyanide gas by a blast. 

Nevertheless, the federal prosecutor in the initial
World Trade Center trial raised the idea of a
chemical bomb when questioning a senior FBI
official, Steven Burmeister, about the consequences
of mixing sodium cyanide with other chemicals
present in the bomb. Burmeister testified that "if
you breathe that gas I'm afraid you've breathed
your last breath." Despite this "chilling testimony,"
however, "Burmeister never suggested during the
trial that his investigation had led him to believe that
the bomb actually contained sodium cyanide,"
Parachini writes -- and the trial transcript proves. 

In addition, an FBI chemist who participated in the
case told Parachini flatly, "There is no forensic
evidence indicating the presence of sodium cyanide
at the bomb site." 

Judge Duffy's statement to the contrary, however,
gave legs to the notion that the defendants had
made -- or tried to make -- a chemical bomb. No
less an authority than Maj. Gen. George Friel, the
former head of the U.S. Army's Chemical and
Biological Defense Command, told Gannett News
Service that the World Trade Center bombers may
have attempted to mix a toxic agent -- most likely
arsenic -- with the bomb they planted in the garage
of the building. 

That was a new one to federal investigators.
Neither FBI agents nor prosecutors mentioned
arsenic as a bomb ingredient in the trial. Despite the
nonexistent evidence, however, Judge Duffy's
charge was taken up by two influential senators,
Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Sam Nunn, D-Ga., who
called it "a warning bell." 

"The trial judge at the sentencing of those
responsible for the World Trade Center bombing
pointed out that the killers in that case had access to
chemicals to make lethal cyanide gas ... and
probably put those chemicals into that bomb that
exploded," Nunn said during a 1996 floor debate on
a multibillion-dollar bill aimed at bolstering U.S.
defenses against weapons of mass destruction. 

Lugar also cited Judge Duffy's statement as
evidence of "how close we have come to witnessing
acts of terrorism involving weapons of mass
destruction directed toward the United States." He
urged his Senate colleagues to "listen to Judge
Duffy," and compared the World Trade Center
bomb to both the 1995 sarin gas attack on the
Tokyo subway by Japanese cultists and the
placement of a radioactive package in a Moscow
park. 

The media were next to pick up Duffy's theme.
One typical story, in the Los Angeles Times in July
1996, stated, "The World Trade Center bombers
had sodium cyanide, which if used ... would have
released poison gas, vastly increasing the fatalities
in New York, intelligence officials said." Syndicated
columnist Trudy Rubin cited Judge Duffy in the
course of applauding "some farsighted lawmakers
trying to confront the unthinkable." 

The Nunn-Lugar bill, which included $235 million
for training local "first responders" to a chemical or
biological attack, passed 100-0. But that was
merely the gateway to a mushrooming federal
anti-terrorism crusade that now costs upwards of
$1 billion a year -- and perhaps twice that,
according to some experts -- and that last week led
to the creation of the Defense Threat Reduction
Agency, which will "spend hundreds of millions of
dollars in research for better sensors and technology
to detect biological and chemical weapons,"
according to the Associated Press. 

Counter-terrorism may be the magic word for
funding programs in Washington today, but a
withering audit by the General Accounting Office
has raised questions about where the money is
going: "More money is being spent to combat
terrorism without any assurance of whether it is
focused in the right programs or in the right
amounts,'' said Richard Davis, a GAO auditor
specializing in weapons of mass destruction.
"Billions of dollars are being spent by numerous
agencies with roles or potential roles in combating
terrorism, but because no federal entity has been
tasked to collect such information across the
government, the specific amount is unknown,'' the
GAO said in its most recent report on terrorism.
"Further, no government-wide spending priorities
for the various aspects of combating terrorism have
been set.'' 

Meanwhile, past studies have cautioned that while
chemical or biological weapons may be cheaper and
easier to make than nuclear bombs, terrorists have
shied away from using them. Despite past
allegations, neither the Red Army Faction, the
Beider-Meinhof Gang nor the Weather
Underground ever used them, Parachini concluded.

Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the convicted mastermind
of the World Trade Center blast, made the point
himself while flying back in custody from Pakistan,
where he was captured in 1996, the Monterey
Institute study notes. "Yousef ... revealed to U.S.
Secret Service agent Brian Parr that the WTC
bomb did not contain sodium cyanide or any other
poison, but that he had planned to use 'hydrogen
cyanide in some other form of a bomb, not as large
a bomb, but a different type of bomb to disperse
that [poison] in the Trade Center,'" the study says. 

"Yousef told Parr that he had decided not to take
this approach because 'it was going to be too
expensive to implement.'" 
SALON | Oct. 8, 1998 

Jeff Stein covers national security issues for Salon. 
-----------------------
NOTE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is
distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior
interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only. For more information go to:
http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml
-----------------------




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