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ICG Risk Blog - [ Making Ricin or identifying SWIFT transfers: the fallacy of withholding modestly available open source information ]

Making Ricin or identifying SWIFT transfers: the fallacy of withholding modestly available open source information


As an open source analyst, I have followed the opprobrium leveled against the New York Times, but not against the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times or the Washington Post, for its SWIFT route tracing article. I feel that the Times was reasonable in its actions and that much of the response from the administration and Congress is either political theater or ignorance, perhaps both.

At a technical level, the best exchange was between former CIA Deputy Director, Bobby Inman, and the editor of The New York Times, Bill Keller. Inman, a person that I believe generally gets it right but in this case is an example of an inside-the-ring classified viewpoint, was critical of the Times for what he termed a "sources and methods" revelation in which "People only change the way they communicate when they are explicitly alerted that they are being listened to" and that "the immediate reaction from many of our friendly collaborators will once again being, the U.S. can't keep any secrets."

Keller replied that the "story cited more than 20 sources, and it was put together over the course of several months. It wasn't handed to us and uncritically replicated in the pages of The New York Times" and that he believed that there wasn't "anything about sources and methods in this story that would be news to anybody, except, perhaps, readers of the newspaper and members of Congress." Keller added that the Times "looked in excruciating detail at claims that this was not something that terrorists knew, that this would somehow be useful to terrorists [and] the fact is [you] can find more useful detail about what the Treasury is doing in the Treasury's own public briefings."

I differ with Inman's counter to Keller, "Of which -- to which the terrorists probably don't have access. But if it's the front page of The New York Times, they will. And this presumption that people automatically know or probably know is at the heart of the problem."

Indeed it is. My experience is that those inside, those whose information arrives from classified or official channels, and those without a supple touch on what exists in open source, can reasonably think the Times and other papers to have revealed something. For those who have lived in both a classified and unclassified environment as I have tend to the viewpoint that Times did little wrong.

I was reminded of a mid-2004 self-censoring that I did on the actual preparation of Ricin, a poison utterly fatal when taken intravenously. As one and all of the generally accepted popular texts had it wrong, I did not further publicize the detailed preparation data as it was anecdotal to unclass federal research on asymmetrical chemical weapons production (low cost, low signature, under the radar, in-country production). See Manufacturing efficiency gives rise to a new arms race: convergence of legitimate pharma-chemical, illicit drug, and CW/BW agent and Expect a rise in terrorism from US nationals: single-issue , left wing ideological, and cyber.

None of the major wannabe sites such as Mujahideen Poisons Handbook, Temple of the Screaming Electron (TOTSE), The Poisoner's Handbook, The Complete Poor Man's James Bond and Silent Death mention chromatographic separation as a means of preparation; George Smith did a devastatingly biting analysis of the glib acceptance by many of these bogus recipes.

I need not have been concerned as a search over the weekend (July 2006) showed that George Smith had already laid out both the failed and successful means of Ricin production in February, 2004 - even as the popular and high street press continued - and still continues - to prattle mistakes from survivalist works that migrated into Arabic al Qaeda translations and back into English.

Backing up to mid-2004, I had found two themes for supposed production of Ricin. The first category of Internet recipe for Ricin extraction involves:

  • Variations of the addition of water and lye or a solvent like acetone to castor seeds before or after maceration and a subsequent filtration through paper.
  • These steps are not a purification or extraction and do not significantly change the composition of castor bean mash or oilcake.
  • Proteins are also denatured by strong base, such as lye, elevated temperatures, and distillation.

The other Internet recipe for Ricin is the US patent 3,060,165, now redacted at USPTO but available from the European Patent office and other sites:

  • Intent was to produce a product for use in a biological weapon.
  • As published, contains fundamental errors in the application of biochemical methods of protein purification (denaturing over preserving)
  • Could extract a coarse mixture of proteins and other macromolecules from castor seeds, of which Ricin would be one component.

After reading critical assessments of "what it isn't" or "how it can't," and not being a biochemist myself, I posed the question: How is a protein isolated? As it is a naturally occurring compound, it is isolated rather than manufactured. Submitting that simple search question showed that chromatographic separation was key.

Chromatographic techniques in protein separation are many, including:

  • Affinity Chromatography
  • Ion Exchange Chromatography
  • Size Exclusion Chromatography

Proteins are commonly fractionated by column chromatography where a mixture of proteins in solution is passed through a column containing a solid matrix. Certain proteins may attach to the column depending upon the properties of the column and the composition of the protein. Proteins are washed through the column elution buffer. Different proteins will elute (come off the column) at different times. This is all dependent upon the column, elution buffer and the properties of the individual proteins in the mixture.

When you see an absence of the use of bases such as lye or the application of heat or distillation (all of which denature Ricin), but do see chromatographic separation, you know that the preparer likely knows how to produce a sufficiently pure Ricin product.

Not having the time for further research during the original investigation, I had self-censored under the concern that I might be revealing something not otherwise readily available. In retrospect, any biochemist would have known it as a matter of fact. Reviewing my 2004 notes, George Smith has written how Ricin was not made and was also a biochemist. I had independently learned that chromatographic separation was the means of isolation. A single search string on "chromatographic," "ricin," and "George Smith" revealed Smith's February 2004 article:

A common wisdom is that recipes for the isolation of ricin are for anyone's taking on the Internet. It is oft repeated, sometimes with the more recent and very curious statement that ricin is "distilled" from castor beans. Ricin is not a distillate, it is a protein.

National Security Notes has seen no indication "recipes for ricin" downloaded from the Internet are good for much of anything that isn't already done during the agricultural and industrial processing of castor beans. The most linked to "recipe" is a simply an armchair chemist's crude saponification of the oil component of crushed castor beans and an uncomplicated drying procedure.

Scientific purification of ricin down to an electrophoretically uniform protein can be performed by affinity chromatography. This is never mentioned in alleged Internet "recipes for ricin." Citations pointing to expert peer-reviewed papers on the isolation and characterization of ricin are not difficult to come by if a person knows where to look and knows what they are doing. Yet, none are present in Internet "recipes for ricin."

Why? Is it because such recipes are provided by run-of-the-mill phonies who wish to appear menacing and knowledgeable about dangerous things which they actually know nothing about. Or is it all a clever disinformation campaign?

The moral of this story, and one that has been proved frequently in our open source investigations, is that information on many sensitive topics is more often than not available in cleartext but that the incurious or the uninformed assume that it is only known to preparers inside a classified environment. I find that exceedingly dangerous as it too often lulls decision makers into the assumption that such information is not available to asymmetrical attackers. I have found speed and rapid decision cycle time to trump false secrecy every time. We ignore the skill and diligence of our adversaries at our peril.

New York Times Draws Criticism Over Decision to Reveal Intelligence Program
Executive editor of the New York Times Bill Keller and former director of the National Security Agency Admiral Bobby Inman debate the newspaper's publication of the Bush administration's surveillance of banking records and the process in deciding what is fit to print.
July 5, 2006

House Assails Media Report on Tracking of Finances
New York Times
June 30, 2006

Bank Data Is Sifted by U.S. in Secret to Block Terror
New York Times
June 23, 2006

THE MUBTAKKAR OF DEATH: Accurate assessment or more government and news media exaggeration?
by George Smith
Dick Destiny
June 18, 2006

by George Smith
Dick Destiny
June 13, 2006

Comments on the CRS Report "Small-Scale Terrorist Attacks Using Chemical and Biological Agents"
by George Smith, Ph.D., Senior Fellow

Excerpts from a letter sent by Milton Leitenberg of the University of Maryland to the authors of a May 2004 Congressional Research Service report on Small-scale Terrorist Attacks Using Chemical and Biological Agents: An Assessment Framework and Preliminary Comparisons
Milton Leitenberg
University of Maryland

Small-scale Terrorist Attacks Using Chemical and Biological Agents: An Assessment Framework and Preliminary Comparisons
Dana A. Shea and Frank Gottron
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Congressional Research Service
CRS RL32391
May 20, 2004

Security Notes from All Over: USPTO
by Bruce Schneier
Crypto-Gram Newsletter
March 15, 2004

THE RECIPE FOR RICIN, Part II: The legend flourishes from the Dept. of Justice to the Senate Intelligence Committee
National Security Notes
04 March 2004

THE RECIPE FOR RICIN: Examining the legend
National Security Notes
February 20, 2004

THE FASCINATION WITH RICIN: Common details overlooked
National Security Notes
February 6, 2004

Investigators: Anyone Can Get The Recipe For A Bio-Terror Weapon More Deadly Than Cyanide
Jim Hoffer
February 6, 2003
scrolled off
retrieved on Jul 19, 2005 08:57:13 GMT

Ricin Found in London: An al-Qa`ida Connection?
by Jeffrey M. Bale, Ph.D., Anjali Bhattacharjee, Eric Croddy, Richard Pilch, MD
Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS)
Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program
January 23, 2003

Gordon Housworth

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