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World In Conflict
Ricin in the mail

Ricin in the news

Google finds some "isolated incidents" reporting involving ricin

Orcinus has this commentary on ricin's "long and colorful history among members of the American far right." 

The Monterrey Institute has some historical data on CBW incidents for 2002, 2001, 2000,  1999, and a summary on previous ricin cases in DC.  The annual chronologies are digests of news reports and an "incident" means it was reported in the news, but not necessarily true.  The result is there is an over-emphasis on hoaxes and false initial reports.  Like many other research resources, the Monterrey chronologies are a good place to start but not definitive for each reported event. 

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February 4, 2004

Warbaby says:

Three ricin incidents show problems with anti-terrorism policies and programs.  The initial surge of news reports contain very strange statements about terrorism.  Like sending powerful biotoxins through the mail and shutting down the Senate isn't terrorism.  And the curious case of the Secret Service intercepting an earlier ricin attack and not bothering to tell anyone.  And the mysterious silence from Homeland Security.

The recent discovery of ricin (a potent toxin derived from castor beans) in the mail room of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist casts some interesting light on terrorism policy and practices.  The problem is that what's terrorism and what's not is incredibly muddled.

It's beyond strange:

  • The Department of Homeland Security says it's "monitoring" the situation but is not involved and "is calling this a criminal act, not the work of terrorists."  link
  • The notorious nonsense phrase "isolated incident" is popping up again.  The Capital News reports: "Monday's ricin attack in Washington DC may not be an isolated incident."  Thereby implying that there is some sort of consensus that it is an "isolated incident."
  • Sen. Frist also seems a little confused about what is terrorism and what is not.  In remarks made Feb. 3, Sen. Frist said, "Somebody in all likelihood manufactured this with an intent to harm, and this is a criminal investigation that will be under way."  Later, he said,
  • The usual "unnamed government official" popped up in Reuters reports to clear up the semantic confusion:  "A government official said the incident bore the hallmarks of a domestic criminal action -- not a terror attack. 'This does not bear the marks of international terrorism, it appears to be criminal in nature,' one U.S. government official said."
  • The Hill reported:  "Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who was the target of an anthrax-laced letter two years ago, called the latest episode a criminal incident and vowed to hold the perpetrators accountable. The FBI has been unable to discover who mailed the anthrax letters to Daschle and other senators in 2001. Daschle said he believed it was 'an act of terrorism.'"
  • Earlier, the Washington Post reported Daschle as lumping crime and terrorism together. "The work of government will continue," Daschle said Tuesday. "As we speak, the Senate is in session. Terrorist attacks, criminal acts of this kind will not stop the work of the Senate or the Congress, as we have important work to be done."

The early news reports were all aflutter with mention of Al Qaida, ricin and terrorism.  Then there was a quick shuffle of language and the attack became not terrorism, but a "criminal incident."  Evidently, the trigger was the belated realization that an American was responsible, very likely a participant in the violent right wing that produced 95% of the terrorist incidents of the previous decade like the Oklahoma City and Olympics bombings.  So if the actor is domestic, it's ipso facto NOT terrorism?

Just so we get this straight:  if somebody sends a potent biological toxin through the mail, attempts to kill people in the office of the Senate majority leader, shuts down the Senate offices for testing and decontamination and causes about twenty Senate staffers to go through decontamination, whether or not it is terrorism depends on the racial or ideological identity of the perpetrator?  That's nuts.

It's as goofy as the semantic shift that turned the anthrax attacks (also evidently domestic terrorism) into a "scare" -- despite five people murdered and around twenty seriously ill.

Equally goofy is the use of the nonsense phrase "isolated incident" to describe the attack on the Senate.  Which really means "never mind, just forget about it, no big deal." 

But then it turns out there have been two other incidents involving ricin recently.  One got the FBI stirred up enough to post a $100,000 reward (a sure sign their investigation is dead-ended). But it didn't get much mention in the media.   The other only involved mail sent to the White House and the Secret Service decided it wasn't worth telling anybody about.  It's a secret because of "national security." 

Those two earlier cases were also "isolated incidents," I guess.  Nothing to worry about.  Except the two earlier cases appear to be the work of the same person.  So much for "isolated."

This is a big problem.  Terrorism is political or social violence with effects that extend far beyond the immediate target.  Crime is limited in its effects and directed towards limited personal gain.  The two are fundamentally different and must be addressed by different methods and policies.  The recent ricin incidents are terrorism.  Period.

And until that sinks into the numb skulls at Homeland Security, the FBI, the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives  and the other denizens of government, law enforcement and the military, we're not facing up to the problem.


Update: 2/4/04 --- Looking over the continuing news coverage on the ricin story underscores the extremely odd use of "terrorism" in stories. 

If Al Qaida is mentioned, so is terrorism.  Those Al Qaida incidents involved possession, but not use.  The recent and underplayed incidents involved use, which is a little further along the scale.  But the apparently domestic incidents get qualifications about the purity and potency of the ricin, which is absent in the foreign incidents.

If the story's focus is on domestic responsibility, the use of terrorism is absent or highly qualified.  And virtually none of the stories mention the long history of ricin and the domestic right wing. 

In short, foreigners are terrorists when they possess ricin, but Americans possessing or using ricin are never terrorists, they're criminals.


Update: 2/5/04 --- Sen. Frist again changes his language and opts for terrorism.  In this morning's Washington Post: "This did come through the mail," Frist said, adding that the powder was discovered in the cutting tray of the letter-opening machine in his office mailroom. "I regard this as a terrorist attack on my life."  

But the news reports are now calling this a "scare."  Maybe a script conference is in order.

And the silence from Tom Ridge at Homeland Security about the ricin attacks continues.  However, Ridge did hold a press conference in which he admitted there was no firm evidence for the holiday shift up to Code Orange, but still claimed it may have prevented attacks.  Weird.  And now the Senate has been attacked and we're still at Code Yellow.  Don't we go to Code Red when an attack has occurred?  Oh, wait.  This must mean there wasn't an attack on the Senate.  Will Ridge tell the Senators?  Do the Senators even remember the Homeland Security Department?

The House remembers.  They had officials testifying about ricin intelligence yesterday.  And the Terrorist Threat Integration Center didn't really seem to be on the ball.  As in, "I'll get back to you on that, Congressman..."  Oops.

In the absence of handouts, this story is getting the legs cut out from under it.  The only forward motion on the reporting is the "mail sorting equipment" in Sen. Frist's mail room wasn't sorting equipment at all.  It was an electric letter opener, about the size of an electric pencil sharpener.  Other than that, the investigation is looking stalled.  They're still trying to figure out how the ricin got there.


Update: 2/7/04 --- Dave Neiwert at Orcinus has amplified these comments in an article at his blog.  He gets right to the point with this passage:

The real problem, of course, is that for the Bush administration, it isn't real terrorism unless it's committed by brown-skinned foreigners. This isn't simply a blind spot. It goes beyond even the underlying silliness of the whole "Code Alert" system. Ultimately, it is a problem directly related to the basic hollowness of our so-called "war on terror" -- which is not a serious attempt to combat terrorism, but is instead, simply, a political marketing campaign at its core. A very, very costly one.

Dave also asks (tongue firmly in cheek) "Do we need a Code Flaming Magenta or something?" and then answers the question:

In reality, a Code Red probably wouldn't have been appropriate for the ricin attack -- but that's only because the alert system itself has proven such a demonstrable sham. Its main purpose has been more to invoke the "terrorist threat" at politically opportune moments, spreading fear as a way of aligning the public behind the administration's agenda.

Oricinus isn't the only one noticing there's something screwy with the muddle over what's terrorism and what's not.

The Bloomington Illinois Pantograph has an editorial "Terrorism or not, ricin sends unsettling message'" which sort of nibbles around the edges.

Rob Murray at the Mankato Free Press in Minnesota has a story GAC prof: Small-scale terror often unrecognized that gets right to the nub:

Gustavus Adolphus College Professor Karen Larson says people who don't think it is terrorism need to reexamine their definition of the term, and rethink what we're doing to combat it. It isn't always the foreigner across the ocean. Sometimes it's the disgruntled American.

"The question of whether a ricin attack on the U.S. Senate is crime or terrorism is outdated," Larson said. "Since 9-11, concepts of crime and terrorism have been merging in American consciousness. In the wake of anthrax and snipers, the two ideas can no longer be completely distinguished."

. . .

Larson says she's noticed several tendencies emerge in American attitudes toward terrorism post 9-11. One: That terrorists are foreigners. Two: That terrorism is group work. And three: That terrorism requires large-scale damage.

She presents a more academic definition, one with four elements. One: That the act be violent. Two: That it be public. Three: That it is intended to have a psychological effect. And four: That it be politically motivated.

Larson said discounting incidents such as this week's ricin attack as something less than terrorism is a form of denial, and allows people to not take it seriously.

"The problem with that is that it draws attention away from the psychological factor," Larson said. "It gives you one way to dismiss it from your consciousness."

And then there is this interesting twist.  On the same day the ricin was discovered in the Senate, Bush was cutting the funding for responding to exactly this kind of attack.  The AP has the story here.

On the same day a poison-laced letter shuttered Senate offices, President Bush asked Congress to eliminate an $8.2 million research program on how to decontaminate buildings attacked with toxins.

Critics said Thursday that they were surprised by Bush's request, which was included in his 2005 budget proposal. Its release coincided with the discovery of the poison ricin in the office of the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, on Monday.

And on the investigation front, the Washington Times (yes, sigh.  Moon's bullhorn of the right) has the one new piece of news:  the ricin was mixed with paper dust, which suggests that it had been there for a while.  This makes it more likely (but not certain) the ricin arrived some time ago and went undiscovered until recently.

FBI spokeswoman Debra Weierman described the quantity of the toxin as "trace amounts mixed in with paper dust."

Law enforcement authorities said investigators have yet to determine how long the ricin powder had been in Mr. Frist's office, how it got onto a mail-sorting machine, or how it got into the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

And finally, a housekeeping note.  One sentence (quoted by Orcinus to my chagrin) in the original article above was sadly missing a verb phrase.  A frantic search of the World In Conflict offices has located this phrase and it is now restored to its rightful place. Warbaby blushes.


Update: 2/11/04 --- The attack is now downgraded to a "scare."  The amount of ricin recovered was small enough that determining its potency and particle size will be difficult if not impossible.  Here's the Washington Post on it:

The absence of additional clues further complicates an investigation that has found no letter or other evidence indicating how ricin got to the mailroom. One key theory is that it arrived by mail, possibly weeks ago, authorities said.

Sources said that only tiny amounts of ricin were found mixed with paper dust on the letter-opening machine. The powder was divided into smaller samples for testing by several labs, sources said.

"There was a small amount to begin with. It was difficult to separate, and I don't know how much is left to do additional testing," said Dan Mihalko, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

"It was a small amount of material," said another official. "It was kind of hard to say what the physical characteristics were."

One official said investigators have tried to retrieve more ricin by disassembling the letter opener and using a forensic vacuum but have been unsuccessful.

The investigation has now fallen out of sight in the news -- like the anthrax attacks and other stalled investigations.

The downgrading from "terrorism" to "scare" is interesting because it shows some of the rhetorical devices used to define away terrorism.  The number of casualties (zero) and quantity of ricin (tiny) are used to justify denying the attack was terrorism. 

Compare the current incident to the Jose Padilla "dirty bomb" case.  Padilla inflicted no casualties and possessed no radioactive material.  Unlike the ricin incidents, Padiilla's case was just talk.  But Padilla is still elevated to the highest level of terrorist threat.  He is classified as an "enemy combatant" and remains in military custody outside the criminal justice system.  So quantitative argumuments about what constitute terrorism are trumped by arguments about ideological association. 

If Padilla is a terrorist and the ricin attacker is not, then our policies about what constitute terrorism are nonsense.  Policies based on nonsense usually fail in dramatic and catastrophic ways -- described by more nonsense like "intelligence failure" or "human error."

The muddled thinking about what is and what is not terrorism is actually making the country less safe and increasing the risk of future attacks.  If domestic terrorists are encouraged by the dismissal of terrorist attacks as "scares," this stance on the part of authorities becomes a challenge for these terrorists to escalate their attacks both in frequency and potential for harm.

This was very much a factor in the Oklahoma City bombing.  Tim McVeigh was provoked by the dismissal of domestic terrorism as "pranks" or "insignificant."   So he set out to be as deadly as possible.  And in the case of the anthrax attacks, the dramatic rise of later hoax incidents was a direct result of the impact of the real attacks and the level of fear they created.  It has been downplayed, but there were thousands of hoax incidents, implying the presence of large numbers of Americans willing to exploit the fear of biological attack to create fear, anxiety and disruption.  The official line has been "never mind, these were just hoaxes and pranks."

We can expect a similar fallout in the future:  there will be a qualative escalation of the seriousness of terrorist incidents involving toxic materials and there will be a quantitative increase in the number of incidents involving hoaxes, attempted possession, plots with possession and use of toxic materials.  Under the current way of doing business, the underlying pattern will be dismissed until there is a spectacular event.

The current policies of defining terrorism according to ideology of the actors and the failure to pursue a variety of means to deter, dissuade and prevent domestic terrorism are not new.  They have repeatedly created vulnerabilities that attackers have exploited.  And until there is a fundamental change in how we approach terrorism, these problems will persist with ultimately tragic consequences.