Guardian pulls ricin terror debunk from website
The Register | April 27, 2005
It would have been nice to get a credit due to the fact that we were the ones to break this story nearly a week ago.
AGuardian story on "The ricin ring that never was" has been pulled from the newspaper's website, for what are said to be 'legal reasons'. The story, by Duncan Campbell (the investigative writer, not the Guardian journalist of the same name), analysed the collapse of the UK's 'ricin conspiracy' trial, and reported Porton Down evidence that had made it clear that claims of mass poisoning attacks had no basis.
Campbell's story, which is still widely available on the web (including here), covered similar territory to George Smith's pieces at GlobalSecurity.org (here and here). Campbell and Smith were both involved in the preparation of the defence case in the ricin trial, and what they and the Porton evidence had to say was essentially that ricin is a one-on-one poison, not a weapon of mass destruction; that Kamel Bourgass' efforts to manufacture it were amateurish and had left no sign of having been successful; and that the distribution of ricin by smearing it on car door handles was not feasible, because it is not absorbed through the skin.
Experiments undertaken by Porton Down had made this clear at the trial (subtext: no ricin terror campaign), but these tests did no more than support the generally known facts about ricin. The Guardian has not yet responded to a Register request for an explanation for the story's removal, but The Insider reports that it was told the article was "removed from the archive for legal reasons", and that a further request for clarification received the response: "The article was not removed because of any inaccuracy. It was to do with a PII certicate [sic] protecting the identity of Porton Down [government weapons laboratory] experts who appeared as witnesses in the trial."
Campbell's piece had named a Porton scientist who had given evidence, but the names of Porton Down scientists are not a state secret. Or they weren't, anyway. A Public Interest Immunity Certificate is a relatively seldom-used legal mechanism for placing restrictions on evidence. According to the Crown Prosecution Service "the government now considers that where government documents or information are material to legal proceedings, PII will only arise if disclosure could cause real damage to a genuine public interest."
If a PII did constitute the "legal reasons" it's difficult to see where the public interest in the action lies. The removal of the article does however mean that one of the very few correctives to widespread 'UK 911 poison terror scare' hysteria no longer exists in the mainstream press. Au contraire; the weekend after the end of the trial and the publication of the evidence, the Sunday Telegraph reported that we were/are faced with "chaos and panic in London's public transport system", and our security forces narrowly averted "our September 11, our Madrid. There is no doubt about it, if this had come off this would have been one of al-Qa'eda's biggest strikes", a "senior officer at Scotland Yard" told the paper.
Having observed the trial and - one presumes - read and digested the Porton evidence the "senior officer at Scotland Yard" should surely have grasped that smearing ricin on the handles of the Heathrow Express was a complete non-starter. Security forces' 'discovery' of a 'map' of the train's route is meanwhile baffling; the train is non-stop, so either you're in it smearing away or you're not. But perhaps the terrorists intended to fling gobs of it at ventilation intakes as the train whistled by.
As for those tests showing there was no chance of mass poisoning, Porton Down took ten grams of castor beans, ground them down and rinsed them with acetone in accordance with the Bourgass recipe found at the flat, then tested the result for toxicity in a cell culture assay (more details at GlobalSecurity.org). It found that the process had destroyed 90 per cent of the ricin contained in the beans. The Bourgass recipe called for five grams of beans; Porton concluded this would produce sufficient ricin to kill if injected, but would only be likely to cause nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain if eaten.
According to claims made by Mohammed Meguerba, the informant currently detained by Algerian security, Bourgass intended to deliver the poison by smearing it on car door handles, while the Sunday Telegraph's latest version upgrades this to "hand rails and lavatories" on the Heathrow Express. Porton documents produced for the trial however state: "There is no reliable scientific evidence available... that suggests that ricin toxin can be absorbed across intact skin" and: "There is no evidence... that by dissolving the ricin toxin in the solvent DMSO (dimethyl sulphoxide) or lemon juice, this would produce a contact hazard."
In summary, according to the Government's own research scientists ricin is ineffective as a poison that could be absorbed through the skin, not massively effective taken by mouth, but can have a lethal effect if injected, as happened in the case of Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident assassinated in 1978. Whatever Bourgass may have believed, there is absolutely no justification for any security or government source to be claiming there was or is a danger of a 'British 911' from his direction. But a British PII? That's possibly another matter.