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David Remes on Ricin and other Matters

Benjamin Wittes
Saturday, August 20, 2011, 2:57 AM
Stepping out of his persona as a Guantanamo habeas lawyer, David Remes writes in with the following comments in response to my recent post on fears that Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula is working on refining ricin:
Last Saturday, the Times ran a front-page story, “Qaeda Trying to Harness Toxin for Bombs, U.S.

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Stepping out of his persona as a Guantanamo habeas lawyer, David Remes writes in with the following comments in response to my recent post on fears that Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula is working on refining ricin:
Last Saturday, the Times ran a front-page story, “Qaeda Trying to Harness Toxin for Bombs, U.S. Officials Fear.” The gist of the story was that AQAP in Yemen is plotting to attack us using ricin, a highly toxic substance. One source actually referred to ricin as a WMD. There was also a claim that AQAP is trying to acquire ricin abroad, recalling yellowcake claims of days of yore. The scenario is neither original nor imaginative, but there it is.
Your take-away from this story: “Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula is working on a ricin attack.” My take-away: “US plants AQAP scare story to rationalize escalation of US military action in Yemen.” Then, Thursday, the Times ran another front-page Al Qaeda story, “Islamist Threat With Qaeda Link Grows in Nigeria.” In unusually melodramatic language, the Times said:
A shadowy Islamist insurgency that has haunted northern Nigeria . . . appears to be branching out and collaborating with Al Qaeda's affiliates. . . . Beyond the immediate devastation, the fear is that extremists bent on jihad are spreading their reach across the continent and planting roots in a major, Western-allied state that had not been seen as a hotbed of global terrorism.
Was this an attempt by the government to rationalize US military action in yet another African country? Maybe. Then I remembered that this is Washington, and when the government plants stories, the timing is rarely accidental. So why would the government plant these stories now? After all, this is August. Congress is in recess, and everyone else is drowsing or away. As Andrew Card famously told the Times, explaining why the Bush administration waited until September to begin its efforts to build public support for a war in Iraq: “From a marketing point of view, you don't roll out new products in August.” I believe the Yemen and Nigeria stories are early shots in a DoD campaign, which we’ll see intensify in coming weeks and months, to avert defense budget reductions beyond those OMB has already requested for federal agencies. OMB has requested that agencies cut 5 percent from their fiscal 2011 appropriations as they prepare their requests for fiscal 2013. DoD faces threats of spending reductions on several fronts. Notwithstanding that it’s August, DoD has begun its campaign to preempt those threats none too soon. First, there’s the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, known as the Super Committee, created by the recently enacted Budget Control Act of 2011. The committee’s charge is to find $1.5 trillion in spending cuts. Its first meeting is scheduled to take place in mid-September, which helps explain why the drumbeat of DoD scare stories has already begun. As National Defense, a publication of the National Defense Industry Association, recently put it, “Panic already has set in across federal agencies and their contractors.” For a good summary of the issue, see the article by NDIA's head, “Budget Control Act of 2011 Forces Real Cuts to Defense, and Difficult Choices.” Second, if the Super Committee deadlocks, DoD would face drastic spending reductions. National Defense explains: “For the Pentagon, the most dreaded outcome is deadlock. If the panel fails to agree to a comprehensive plan of spending cuts and revenues that reduces the national debt by $1.2 trillion, there will be across-the-board budget reductions, and half would come from defense. These automatic ‘sequester’ cuts would be implemented beginning in 2013.” The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments succinctly states the consequences for DoD: “The trigger would return the base defense budget to its FY 2007 level of funding in FY 2013, adjusting for inflation, and would hold it near that level for the following eight years.” Third, under the debt ceiling legislation, DoD is already facing $350 billion in budget cuts over the next decade. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned that such cuts, under the legislation or otherwise, “would do real damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our military’s ability to protect the nation.” Fourth and fifth, DoD spending has yet to be authorized or appropriated for FY 2011 or FY 2012. In the face of these challenges to DoD spending, the Yemen and Nigeria stories send a stark message: “Be afraid, be very afraid. Al Qaeda is everywhere, and they're behind everything. Weakening the military through ill-advised budget cuts could not come at a worse time.” One might respond that the AQAP ricin and Nigerian stories aren’t necessarily hype simply because they come when DoD is facing serious budget challenges. Point taken. Can one prove that DoD is trying to scare Congress out of cutting the defense budget? No. But given the stakes for DoD, and the time-honored Washington tradition of timing stories to influence policy, it’s fair to question how genuine the ricin threat really is. Even the officials interviewed for the story acknowledge factors that undermine the plausibility of the threat. To justify their concerns, the officials fall back on AQAP's “proven ability to devise plots.” The Nigeria story is speculative and inferential. Our experiences with Iraq and other fabricated crises teach that one must be wary when the government sounds the alarm, and ever skeptical of the government’s stated reasons. Any take-away should consider the possibility of hidden motives and agendas. Look for more apocalyptic national security stories in coming weeks, as the budget debates unfold. DoD is just warming up.
Count me skeptical of David's explanation here. For one thing, the story about AQAP's interest in ricin is not a creature of August in Washington. As the Times story notes, the alleged ricin plot first came to the attention of the two reporters when they were working on a just-released book:
The intelligence reports indicating ricin plots by Al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate were first uncovered during reporting for a book, “Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda.” It will be published next week by Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt & Company.
The timing of the story, therefore, seems to me likely to have more to do with publicity in connection with the book release than it does with Pentagon scare tactics. Moreover, non-Pentagon folks have been talking about this problem from even before the Super-Committee was set up. For example, the Times story also contains the following paragraph:
“The potential threat of weapons of mass destruction, likely in a simpler form than what people might imagine but still a form that would have a significant psychological impact, from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, is very, very real,” Michael E. Leiter, who retired recently as director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said at a security conference last month. “It’s not hard to develop ricin.”
So I'm not convinced that this is an effort to gin up fears by way of protecting the Pentagon budget from auto-cuts. That said, David is certainly right that there is great concern in DoD about the possible impact of the trigger mechanism on defense. And he's right as well that skepticism towards unverified government claims about threats is always warranted.

Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.

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