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.


Jeff Stein
October 8, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

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.

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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 According to a thorough, as yet unpublished study of the incident by an arms-control think tank at the Monterey Institute for International Studies, there is no evidence to support the long-swirling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."

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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.

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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.

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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.''

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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.'"


Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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