I’m calling bullshit on this one…

Now here’s a rather interesting little coincidence…

Over at Obsolete, my esteemed blogging colleague Septicisle has produced yet another delicious and characteristically thorough debunking of another extremely dodgy piece of propaganda and disinformation brought to you by the Super, Soaraway, Bullshitting Sun….

Imagine for a moment you’re some sort of security asset. You have a major story: 40 militants linked to al-Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb (formerly the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) have apparently died of the plague. Either they were the victims of diseases inherent to living in the middle of nowhere in Africa, where outbreaks of plague are still reasonably regular, or, more frighteningly, they were possibly experimenting with weaponising plague, and were struck down themselves in the process. Whatever the truth, it’s still a reasonably big story. Who then do you leak this to? A well-respected newspaper, such as the Times, Telegraph or Guardian? Or, on the other hand, the Sun?

Silly question, really. As you might expect, the report splashed on today’s Sun front page reeks to high heaven. All the signs that it’s either propaganda or complete nonsense are apparent: firstly, that it’s been handed to the newspaper over the weekend, to go in the paper on the slowest and generally least busy news day of the week, Monday. Second, it seems to be based on a single source. Third, it’s a story which is completely impossible to verify:

Now here is a funny thing. Only last night I was mooching through the dimmer recesses of the Daily Mail – the ‘Science and Technology’ section – looking for something amusing to rip the piss out of (Yeah, I know.. shooting fish in a barrel, but its a good way to keep your hand in) when I happened across this…

Bugs of war! From killer hornets to murderous fleas, a new book reveals how insects can be weapons of mass destruction

Now imagine the scene. It is shortly before 9am on a crowded platform on the London Underground and an ordinary looking woman is reaching inside her plastic shopping bag for a can of fizzy drink.

Without attracting the slightest attention from her fellow passengers, the woman quietly strips off the length of masking tape that covers the can’s opening and puts the can underneath the seat she’s been sitting on – before jumping onto the train that is just about to leave.

Then, as the doors close, she watches as the 500 hungry and infected fleas she’s been keeping inside the can begin to swarm onto the platform.

The woman can only guess how many of the hundreds of people on the Tube that morning will have red lumps on them later in the day – but she knows only too well that most of them will be wracked by fever soon afterwards.

Only a few hundred people may die from the effects of the bubonic plague carried by the fleas inside that perfectly ordinary can, but there’s no doubt that millions more will panic – exactly as this terrorist had planned. A case of bio-terrorism by insect.

This is fiction – for the moment at least – but the terrifying truth is that it could happen all too easily, as Natural Sciences Professor Jeffrey Lockwood predicts in a new book, Six-Legged Soldiers, which analyses the use of insects as weapons of war.

The original plan was to give this piece the standard ‘bad science’ treatment as the article contains a delightful example of crappy science reporting a little further on relating the West Nile Virus…

But the disease that insects could spread would not have to be bubonic plague. Terrorists could, with devastating effect, also choose to use infected mosquitoes to spread the even more virulent West Nile virus.

An outbreak of West Nile virus which began in New York City in 1999 rapidly spread to 47 states in North America, killing 654 people and leaving almost 7,000 ill.

At the time, there were even unproved suggestions in the American intelligence community that the outbreak was a case of bio-terrorism and that the disease had been let loose deliberately by the Iraqi government.

Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that shortly before the New York outbreak, the Mail published an exclusive account by Mikhael Ramadan – who acted as one of Saddam Hussein’s ‘doubles’ – which suggested the dictator had bragged that his secret laboratories had developed a strain of the West Nile virus ‘capable of destroying 97 per cent of all life in an urban environment’.

Most of which is bullshit, of course, but for the sake of good form I’ll note that the 1999 New York outbreak took two years to spread beyond two States in the the North East United States, four years to reach the West Coast and has never spread to 47 US states. there are actually five US states where there has never, yet, been a verified case of West Nile Virus.

Oh, and using data from the US CDC, who know a thing or two about this kind of thing, there is no arrangement of the data on the number of cases and deaths for any years between 1999 and 2008 that will give you 7,000 cases and 654 deaths, a fact that is easily confirmed using nothing more complicated than Wikipedia.

Add to that the fact that sole source for Saddam angle is a pseudonymous former ‘double’ who was, at the time of the first terrorism angle story, busily trying to flog a book about his experiences as (allegedly) Saddam’s double – and Cryptome has a nice investigative piece from the New Yorker which covers most of the relevant angles and background, including this, which you’ll no doubt find rather illuminating.

Hoping to speak with Mikhael Ramadan myself, I called his publisher, a tiny outfit called GreeNZone Publishing, which has an office in the south of England. One of the firm’s three directors, James Bartholomew, answered the telephone. “We don’t know Mikhael Ramadan’s whereabouts,” he said. “We believe he was in Canada for a while. We have five employees here, and none of our people has ever met him. We were introduced to him through a third party. There was a woman, an American-Iraqi nurse, involved in bringing him forward. There was a verification meeting with him that took place in the fall of last year, in Canada, I guess. All of our communication with him has been by E-mail. His E-mail address is now defunct. His manuscript was physically delivered to us by a courier outfit. We tried to get him to change his mind and come forward for television interviews. We had inquiries from NBC and CBS. What is that show, ’60 Minutes’? — they were trying to find him. The book has sold well for a company our size. We want to pay him, but we can’t find him.”

“Is the book fiction?”

“We’ve taken his book as true, based on the evidence we have. But we don’t know how much of it is true.”

“What’s the evidence?”

“I can’t say. It would put him in danger,” Mr. Bartholomew said. “True or not, it was a good story. We saw it as a commercial proposition. We weren’t trying to educate the world.”

Oh, as as for the claims about Saddam’s special strain of West Nile Virus, try this…

An Army expert on bioweapons told me that the military has known for some time that Soviet biologists working for the U.S.S.R.’s biowarfare program had evaluated the West Nile virus for use as a biological weapon. “The Russians did this kind of crap back in the seventies — they’re admitting it to us now,” he said. The Soviet scientists were interested in West Nile because it can be put into mosquitoes and the mosquitoes can be released into a city, where they will bite people. “They abandoned it because it didn’t work very well,” he said. “How many containers of West Nile-infested insects do you need to release in Queens to make it worth a shot?”

So, the Soviet Union couldn’t get a viable bioweapon out of West Nile Virus, but Iraq could…? Bullshit.

However, all that is now besides the point because there is something just that bit too fishy in The Sun running a front page splash on an unverifiable claim about an alleged Al Qaeda bioweapons blowback incident for a single source, all of which is based on the same biological agent and transmission vector that is featured in highly speculative futurology book which just happens to get a mention in the Daily Mail on the same day.

And you’ll not that the author of the book,Jeffrey Lockwood, admits that its contents are not just speculative but, at this moment in time, entirely a work of fiction.

As, it seems extremely likely, is the Sun’s entire story, although whether its in-house bullshit or a sign that they’re buying in copy of from Glen Jenvey is anyone’s guess.

Me, I can’t wait for the next installment in which we’ll discover that Al Qaeda have stolen a top secret Soviet project to transform lifeless planets into Eden-like paradises for human colonisation, which the plan to use a weapon by detonating it on Earth, where it will wipe out all current life and replace it with its own biological matrix.

Where do they get their ideas?

  • curious

    Slightly off topic but I’ve often wondered why mosquitos or other blood sucking insects don’t transmit Aids? Anybody any ideas?

  • @curious – Google is your friend

  • douglas clark

    Excellent article Unity.

    A minor point of interest. Is it not a tad unlikely that a person living in England would refer to ‘autumn’ as the ‘fall’?

    Of course it could have been translated.

  • Good piece and of course the Sun is making it up – but you know, I’m not sure it’s so outlandish that bio-weapons research that was too hard for the USSR in the 70s might be easily possible now. There have been advances in the past 30 years…