Anti-terror budget is sky-high Questions are raised about where funds go

October 18, 1998|By Jeff Stein

IT BEGAN as a rumor, and then it became a fact. The fact became an alarm. And the alarm became a touchstone for a multimillion-dollar federal program that has ricocheted out of control.

Kenneth Starr's investigation of Bill Clinton? No, it's the federal budget for countering a doomsday attack by terrorists armed with chemical and biological weapons.

The rumor in this case was that terrorists had put sodium cyanide into the February 1993 World Trade Center bomb that killed six people, injured more than 1,000, blasted a seven-story-deep hole beneath the twin skyscrapers and created panic in the streets of lower Manhattan. The blast would have turned the sodium cyanide into hydrogen cyanide, a poisonous cloud that could have instantly killed hundreds of thousands more people - had the cyanide been added.

But, according to a thorough, unpublished study of the incident by the Monterey Institute, an arms-control think tank, there is "no evidence" to support the long-swirling assertion about the cyanide. It first surfaced in the solemn pronouncement of a respected federal judge, made its way into scores of newspaper articles and was mentioned by leading senators in their support of anti-terrorist initiatives that have amounted to billions of dollars - many of those dollars unaccounted for, according to a recent investigation by congressional auditors.

The blast at the World Trade Center, along with a Japanese cult's sarin nerve-agent assault on the Tokyo subway two years later, galvanized federal efforts to prepare for all kinds of domestic terror attacks. But the unfounded rumor of cyanide in the bomb at the World Trade Center clearly fueled congressional alarm and funding for a wide array of federal anti-terrorism programs, many of which have been questioned for possibly being useless.

John Parachini, a Monterey Institute fellow, made available a copy of his study after word of his findings began circulating among 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 wrote.

Parachini traced the origins of the cyanide gas story to the first trial of the 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 T. 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 that 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."

The judge might have been "sure it was in the bomb," but the defendants were never charged under anti-terrorism statutes that make the possession of potential chemical and biological weapons a federal crime, Parachini noted.

The rumor that the bombers included a chemical component in their weapon began when the FBI raided 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 in photography and can cost less than three dollars 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, which can be effective as a chemical weapon after they are converted to hydrogen cyanide gas by a blast.

Nevertheless, the federal prosecutor in the initial World Trade Center trial raised the specter of a chemical bomb when questioning a senior FBI chemist, Steven Burmeister, about the consequences of mixing sodium cyanide with other chemicals present in the bomb. Burmeister testified, "If you breathe that gas, I'm afraid you've breathed your last breath."

Despite this "chilling testimony," "Burmeister never suggested during the trial that his investigation had led him to believe that the bomb actually contained sodium cyanide," Parachini wrote.

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 bolstered the notion that the defendants had made - or tried to make - a chemical bomb.

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