The daily news on methods of US torture and the Bush administration’s legal justifications for its routine use as an instrument of national power can, at times, make it seem that our watchdogs were always on the ball.
Then reality snaps back in place.
So today DD will take readers back to when his eyes were opened to the bad faith and deceptions being thrown our way because it was convenient to the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war on terror.
It was some time around mid-2004 when British researcher Duncan Campbell came to me for some advice with regards to what would become known as the London ricin trial.
In early January of 2003, British anti-terror forces had arrested seven men and allegedly “equipment needed to produce ricin and recipes for ricin, cyanide and several other poisons” at a Wood Green flat in the north of London, according to the BBC.
The British authorities called this Operation Springbourne and it continued to sweep up people said to be connected to a plot aimed at spreading poisons in London. One of the men grabbed in the raids is named Kamel Bourgass. During his arrest he stabs to death a British constable, a crime on which he will be convicted two years later and sent away for life.
Bourgass and four of these men are set in the dock for the London ricin case which was to be followed with another trial dealing with the rest of the alleged conspirators.
Campbell, who was working for the defense, had a stack of poison recipes, gathered from police raids and various other al Qaeda hideouts in Kabul and Kandahar which were part of the evidence to be used in the ricin trial. He sent electronic copies of them to me in Pasadena and we chatted back and forth over their impact and origins. In return, I sent back original materials of US nature from which these poison recipes were drawn.
I had been writing up analyses of ricin recipes found on the web and publishing them through GlobalSecurity.Org. Campbell had read them. And the ricin and other poison recipes were central to the UK government’s case.
The prosecution wished to prove they were exclusive to al Qaeda, thereby establishing a link between the accused and the terrorist organization. But the recipes weren’t exclusive. They originated in the US far right in the late Eighties and had been copied around the world, then translated to Arabic. Along the way they picked up minor differences in transcription and things added by individuals translating them. So the recipes seized in the UK ricin ring raids, all Kamel Bourgass’s, did not originate in al Qaeda hideouts. They were transcribed from Yahoo servers in Palo Alto.
However, before all this had been figured out, I was of the mind that the men in the dock, Algerians, were all going to be sent over. There was still a belief that the charges were probably based on reasonable assumptions. If Colin Powell, for example, had identified the London ricin ring, which he had called the UK poison cell, in his speech before the UN Security Council in September of 2003, there had to be something to it, right?
This was, Powell’s presentation inferred, part of a web of terrorist intrigue stretching from Iraq and al Qaeda into Europe.
Well, a few months went by before the start of the trial and, gradually, things changed.
The evidence I was given was ridiculously trivial: Stupid Internet-cadged recipes for poisons, a ridiculously small number of castor seeds — 22, along with absurd ideas that one could make a cyanide weapon from a couple handfuls of cherry pits.
And I asked Campbell, in essence, what the heck was going on? This couldn’t be serious. It was pathetic and lame. No one with half a mind could consider anything like this as part of a terrorist chain, connected with Iraq, which threatened the UK and United States.
I asked Campbell where the information came from on this poison team and the alleged Wood Green poison lab.
And then he told me about the UK government informant, Mohamed Meguerba, who’d been the source of it on the basis of a confession he’d made while being held in a prison in Algeria. I was eventually told that Meguerba had been tortured into a confession and later recanted it and, so, the UK government was not going to be able to bring him to court to testify.
At that point the prosecution’s case was badly hindered. A lot of the accusations rested upon getting a jury to believe the statements of the informant. And then it was necessary to completely switch strategies.
It was at that point I became disillusioned. It had been shown that you couldn’t believe anything the US government said. That Kamel Bourgass and his recipes for making poison from rotten meat or a handful of castor seeds to have taken the stage as a shadowy player in the hard sell the Bush administration used to drum up enthusiasm for war in Iraq was intellectually bankrupt.
Yesterday, Paul Krugman’s blog at the New York Times republished quote from Jonathan Landay of the McClatchy News service.
“The Bush administration put relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence of cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official and a former Army psychiatrist,” it read.
“Such information would’ve provided a foundation for one of former President George W. Bush’s main arguments for invading Iraq in 2003. No evidence has ever been found of operational ties between Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network and Saddam’s regime.
“The use of abusive interrogation — widely considered torture — as part of Bush’s quest for a rationale to invade Iraq came to light as the Senate issued a major report tracing the origin of the abuses and President Barack Obama opened the door to prosecuting former U.S. officials for approving them.”
With regards to the London ricin case, Meguerba’s recanted confession about a ricin plot was apparently not part of a US operation. It was, however, still conveniently used by the Bush administration.
And there was a second man who’d been pressured into a handy confession, one which also connected with the alleged ricin poison ring.
In Colin Powell’s slide purporting to show terror networks connected to al Qaeda in Iraq, a central spot is reserved for a man called Detained Al-Qaida Operative.
This was Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi.
The US Senate’s Select Report on Intelligence in Iraq revealed in 2006 that the CIA informed al-Libi that he would be handed over to a foreign government if he didn’t talk. “[Al-Libi] decided he would fabricate any information the interrogators wanted in order to gain better treatment and avoid being handed over to [a foreign government.]”
Nevertheless, according to the Senate report al-Libi was also put in the hands of the foreign government. He was threatened with torture and then beaten up for fifteen minutes, after which he made up stories about al Qaida connections with Iraq, and nuclear and biological weapons programs.
Nevertheless, in January and February of 2003, Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz cited it as one of a number of reasons for escalation to war in Iraq.
“The gravity of the threat we face was underscored in recent days when British police arrested seven suspected terrorists in London and discovered a small quantity of ricin, one of the world’s deadliest poisons, for which no cure exists,” Cheney told the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC. (In reality, no ricin had been discovered, just castor seeds. This information would be suppressed for another three years.)
“Make no mistake, America is at war,” Cheney continued. “And the front lines are our centers of work, of transportation, of commerce, and entertainment … We will also continue our efforts to stop the grave danger presented by Al Qaeda or other terrorists joining with outlaw regimes that have developed weapons of mass destruction to attack their common enemies — the United States and our allies. That is why confronting the threat posed by Iraq is not a distraction from the war on terror. It is absolutely crucial to winning the war on terror.”
And on February 6, Paul Wolfowitz added: “[We] see, for example, close connections between Iraqi intelligence, and even the Iraqi leadership, and this network that is actively working to do attacks with ricin and other deadly toxins. Some of them have been arrested in London. Some have been arrested in Spain and elsewhere in Europe. We’re working on finding as many of them as we can. The problem is, some of them are hiding, probably effectively.”
With regards to the London ricin case as I knew it, these statements were misinformation and fraud.
In September of 2004, the London ricin trial went forward. A gag order was imposed on the English press, one that lasted until the end of the trial in April of 2005.
The UK government’s case had been irrevocably damaged. A jury eventually acquitted everyone but maniacal loner Kamel Bourgass.
Bourgass was locked up for life, also convicted on a charge of conspiring to cause a public nuisance with poisons.
“Does torture work?” is the question one now sees almost everyday. Yes, yes it does, reply various officials and Bush administration main men. It has kept us safe.
My take is that, yes, torture did work. It worked to provided convenient fictions which were in turn used to justify war with Iraq.
The result of the ricin trial — acquittals and the realization among large portions of the English public that the original story had been all wrong, that there was not an extensive terror network of poisoners who had been trained by al Qaeda and were connected to Iraq — was the start of the British public becoming disillusioned with George W. Bush’s war. It led to an assumption that the fix was in.
In April of 2005, the American press more or less declined to cover the story. I had offered it to the New York Times. No one was interested.
The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus covered part of it badly. In the process, he had to interview me and growled that I had put the newspaper in a difficult situation. Oh, DD had put the mighty WaPo in a difficult situation because I had found out the London ricin ring was bogus.
“Discovery that the initial ricin finding was a ‘false positive’ was made ‘well before the outbreak of the war in Iraq,’ on March 19, 2003, [George Smith] said,” wrote Pincus.
Great job, that.
“A much-touted ricin-plot terrorism case in the United Kingdom ended in a muddled verdict today, raising new questions among U.S. officials about the ability of British authorities to secure convictions against major terrorist suspects,” reported famous Newsweek investigative journalists Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball on April 15, 2005.
However, was this news that the Bush administration had been twisting information for its own aims?
“The mixed outcome dismayed U.S. counterterror specialists who were convinced that [Kamel Bourgass] and his four codefendants were in fact acting as part of a broader international terror plot,” continued Isikoff and Hosenball. “It also gives new urgency to the U.S. terror indictment brought against three other British suspects this week on charges relating to their surveillance of financial buildings in New York, Washington and Newark.”
And then Isikoff and Hosenball quoted the war on terror’s well-known professional witness, Even Kohlmann, to cast the impression that a Brit jury had gone rogue and the justice system had failed.
From the Newsweek piece: ” ‘This is very disturbing,’ says Evan Kohlmann, a U.S. government consultant on international terror cases, about the acquittals in the ricin-plot case. ‘These are dangerous people who are followers of Abu Hamza,’ the radical imam of London’s notorious Finsbury Mosque, which was a favored gathering place for Al Qaeda-linked extremists.’ ”
The US press couldn’t bring itself to report all the nasty fine details. Instead, in 2005 it was still time to run with the rubbish story about a fantasy plot from the war on terror, one which turned out to have been the product of a healthy dose of maltreatment.