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Published: Saturday, 2/7/2004

Ricin made Iraq dangerous

ANALYSIS has confirmed that the white powder found in a letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist contained the deadly poison ricin. In January 2003, British police found traces of ricin in an apartment used by Algerians who were linked to the al-Qaida cell run by Abu Musab Zarqawi, who was operating out of Baghdad at the time. Iraq was working to weaponize ricin up until the U.S. invasion last March, David Kay's investigators in the Iraq Survey Group found.

Coincidence? Perhaps.

Ricin is made from the waste produced when castor beans are processed into castor oil. It is technically a chemical weapon, because ricin is not "alive," as an anthrax spore is. A dose as small as 500 micrograms - which can fit on the head of a pin - can be fatal. There is no antidote for it.

Because ricin is not contagious, and because it is harder to spread in aerosol form than anthrax is, ricin is a better assassination weapon than a weapon of mass terror. But ricin is attractive to terrorists because it is easier to make and safer to transport than biological agents are, and all but impossible to detect. The measure we take to protect the mail from anthrax - irradiation - is useless against ricin.

If ways could be found to make ricin in aerosol form more deadly, and to disperse it more widely, it could be a superb terror weapon. This, presumably, is what the Iraqi scientists were working on.

I could store in my garage enough ricin or anthrax to kill every person in the United States. It's important to keep this in mind as we ponder the significance of the failure of the Iraq Survey Group to find large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Though we in the West have a moral objection to chemical weapons, the primary reason why they haven't been used much in war is because they aren't very effective against protected troops. And since chemical weapons deteriorate over time, it doesn't make much sense to maintain large stockpiles of them.

What is important about battlefield chemicals is to retain the capacity to produce them. David Kay made it clear that Saddam's regime had the capacity.

If all Iraq had been producing were battlefield chemicals, large stockpiles of them wouldn't be much more dangerous to us than large stockpiles of muskets and crossbows. The great danger to us would be if Saddam's scientists were producing terror weapons. And for these, large stockpiles are not necessary.

It wouldn't be hard to disperse the contents of my garage throughout a state the size of California, and it would be all but impossible for investigators to find them unless they knew precisely where to look. And since biological agents, like chemical agents, deteriorate over time, having stockpiles is less important than having the capacity to produce more, and more deadly weapons.

Iraq had the capacity to produce more, David Kay made clear. "What everyone has skated over, both in the chemical and biological area, is what we indeed have found," Kay told CNN last fall. "We found a vast network of undeclared labs engaged in prohibited activity in both of those areas."

Though he didn't find the stockpiles he had expected to find, Mr. Kay concluded Iraq was more dangerous than he had realized, precisely because of the types of WMD Iraq was working on, and the ease of access terrorists had to it. We shouldn't let domestic politics blind us to the real threat Saddam's WMD programs posed.



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