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Psychological Warfare: the Osmium Tetroxide Plot

Never heard of osmium tetroxide? Neither did the experts on chemical warfare at the British Defence Intelligence Branch on 4 April 2004, when news of the deadly substance in terrorist hands hit the news. ABC News cited British sources, and British sources cited ABC News. Here’s how ABC News and The Guardian, respectively, reported it:

Used primarily in laboratories for research, osmium tetroxide is known to attack soft human tissue and could blind or kill anyone who breathed its fumes. According to the New Jersey Department of Health, it is a colorless to pale yellow solid with a strong, unpleasant odor. “It’s a nasty piece of work,” said Dave Siegrist, a bioterrorism expert at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va. “It irritates the eyes, lungs, nose and throat. It leads to an asthma-like death, what we call a ‘dry-land drowning.’ ” Scientists say if, for example, the bomb used in the 1993 World Trade Center attack had produced such fumes, they would have wiped out the first police and rescue workers on the scene.

abcnews.go.com/

The alleged plot – intercepted by GCHQ, possibly with the help of its American equivalent, the National Security Agency – was first revealed early yesterday by America’s ABC News. . . . Terrorist suspects discussed a plan to use a dangerous chemical in a bomb attack which could have harmed many people, sources familiar with the plot said last night. The toxic chemical, osmium tetroxide, a substance which could be used to boost an explosion, was mentioned in conversations intercepted by GCHQ, the government’s electronic eavesdropping centre. In large doses, the substance, which can be obtained on the internet but is mainly used in chemical experiments, can be fatal. Most experts suggested that its most likely use would have been as a booster for a bomb made with more common explosives.

www.theguardian.com/

None of this was true—except, perhaps, that some patsy “suspects” really were rounded up and given the “enhanced” interrogation treatment. “Even though the arrests were made in the United Kingdom, authorities say the operation was being run out of Pakistan by a suspected al Qaeda figure,” ABC News claimed. On 6 April, the BBC, backtracking, reported  that the eight “terrorists” hadn’t even managed to get hold of the deadly osmium tetroxide.

Brian Jones, chemical warfare expert, as former head of the Defence Intelligence Branch, had never heard of osmium tetroxide. When he first heard the news of the plot, he thought that it was a bit of “froth . . . it crossed my mind that this information could have entered the public domain as a result of an ill-conceived attempt to boost the reputation of one or other of the hard-pressed intelligence and security agencies.” However, he soon recovered from this illusion. He lamented that it was “frightening” to reflect that the counter-terrorism agencies “are prepared to see the public misled as a short term expedient to achieve policy goals” (cited in Mark Curtis, Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses).

What were these pressing “policy goals” in the spring of 2004? They involved getting the public behind the bogus “War on Terror,” which in Iraq was going positively rancid with unintended consequences. It was the spring (31 March 2004) when four “independent contractors” were killed by a grenade, set upon by the cheering crowd, and mutilated before being hanged in display from a bridge near Fallujah. It was the spring of the uprising by the Shia South and Sunni in Anbar against the Coalition of the Willing, occupying Iraq disastrously under the authority of the neo-con Paul Bremer, American pro-consul in Iraq, as he was derisively referred to by critics of the war. It was the spring of the first battle of Fallujah, where the “coalition” troops were forced to withdraw.

Something had to be done to redirect the public’s attention from the debacle in Iraq and refocus it on the necessity for an endless War on Terror. So, they invented osmium tetroxide, and let the media run with it. Mark Curtis’ invaluable book on British covert abuses of human rights, cited above, tells us that Stephen Dorrill is the “leading analyst of MI6.” Dorrill argues that

Since 11 September, the intelligence agencies with the aid of gullible journalists, editors, . . . and politicians . . . have constructed a truly global conspiracy theory. . . . The threat from terrorists is real, but, as with the “Soviet threat” throughout the cold war, details are exaggerated and often deliberately fabricated as part of a strategy to achieve domestic and foreign policy goals.

So, when “Russia’s czar” or plain “Russia” are screaming from headlines as coming to fetch you from your bed and carry you to Stalin’s gulag—or even if it dopes its athletes—think “osmium tetroxide.” The Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (army intelligence language school) will even give you the formula.

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Luciana Bohne is co-founder of Film Criticism, a journal of cinema studies, and teaches at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. She can be reached at: lbohne@edinboro.edu

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