Jewish World Review Feb. 6, 2004 / 14 Shevat, 5764
What the found senate powder really means
Analysis has confirmed that the suspicious white powder found in a letter
sent to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn) contained the deadly
poison ricin. In January of 2003, British police found traces of ricin in
an apartment used by Algerians who were linked to the al Qaida cell run by
Abu Musab Zarqawi, who was operating out of Baghdad at the time. Iraq was
working to weaponize ricin up until the U.S. invasion last March, David
Kay's investigators in the Iraq Survey Group found.
Ricin is made from the waste produced when castor beans are processed into
castor oil. It is technically a chemical weapon, because ricin is not
"alive," as an anthrax spore is. A dose as small as 500 micrograms - which
can fit on the head of a pin - can be fatal. There is no antidote for it.
Because ricin is not contagious (only the exposed person dies), and because
it is harder to spread in aerosol form than anthrax is, ricin is a better
assassination weapon than a weapon of mass terror.
But ricin is attractive to terrorists because it is easier to make and much
safer to transport than biological agents are, and all but impossible to
detect. The measure we take to protect the mail from anthrax - irradiation
- is useless against ricin.
If ways could be found to make ricin in aerosol form more deadly, and to
disperse it more widely, it could be a superb terror weapon. This,
presumably, is what the Iraqi scientists were working on.
I could store in my garage enough ricin or anthrax to kill every person in
the United States. It's important to keep this in mind as we ponder the
significance of the failure of the Iraq Survey Group to find large
stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
The only kind of WMD for which massive quantities are required are
battlefield chemicals like those Saddam used against the Iranians and the
Kurds. Because wind and weather rapidly dilute their effectiveness, large
quantities of nerve agents and blister agents are necessary even for attacks
on the unprotected.
Though we in the West have a moral objection to chemical weapons, the primary reason why they haven't been used much in war is because they aren't very effective against protected troops. And since chemical weapons deteriorate over time, it doesn't make much sense to maintain large stockpiles of them.
What is important about battlefield chemicals is to retain the capacity to
produce them. David Kay made it clear that Saddam's regime had.
The kind of WMD Saddam failed to account for at the end of the first Gulf
War would be of little use to terrorists. While a terrorist could smuggle
in an aspirin bottle enough ricin or anthrax to kill thousands, not many are
clever enough to get boxcars full of sarin or mustard past Customs.
If all Iraq were producing were battlefield chemicals, large stockpiles of
them wouldn't be much more dangerous to us than large stockpiles of muskets
and crossbows. The great danger to us would be if Saddam's scientists were
producing terror weapons. And for these, large stockpiles are not
It wouldn't be hard to disperse the contents of my garage throughout a state
the size of California, and it would be all but impossible for investigators
to find them unless they knew precisely where to look. And since biological
agents, like chemical agents, deteriorate over time, having stockpiles are
less important than having the capacity to produce more, and more deadly,
Iraq had the capacity to produce more, David Kay made clear. "What everyone
has skated over, both in the chemical and biological area, is what we indeed
have found," Kay told CNN last fall. "We found a vast network of undeclared
labs engaged in prohibited activity in both of those areas."
Though he didn't find the stockpiles he'd expected to find, Kay concluded Iraq was more dangerous than he'd realized, precisely because of the types of WMD Iraq was working on, and the ease of access terrorists had to it. We shouldn't let domestic politics blind us to the real threat Saddam's WMD programs posed.
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