from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2005, Issue No. 35
April 14, 2005


Almost any explosive device or weapon may be considered a "weapon of mass destruction" according to the Department of Justice.

The Department announced on Tuesday that three British nationals had been indicted in New York for conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction, among other charges.

At a press briefing on the indictment, an alert reporter asked Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey exactly which "weapons of mass destruction" the individuals had conspired to use.

"Is there any implication in the use of that term that there was a biological or a chemical or a radiological element to the plan?" the reporter inquired.

"We have not alleged that," Mr. Comey replied.

But, he added, "a weapon of mass destruction in our world goes beyond that and includes improvised explosive devices." See (thanks to S):

This is an unconventional use of the term "weapon of mass destruction" that further relaxes its already expansive definition, which encompasses everything from thermonuclear explosives to willful releases of toxic chemicals.

If improvised explosive devices also count as WMD, then not only did Saddam Hussein possess abundant quantities of WMD, but two years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, so do the Iraqi insurgents who are using them to kill American soldiers almost every day.

On closer inspection, however, Mr. Comey's all-encompassing usage appears to have a basis in statute.

According to 18 U.S.C. 2332a, which is cited in the latest indictment, a "weapon of mass destruction" includes "any destructive device." That in turn is defined in 18 U.S.C. 921 to include almost any type of weapon that is not "generally recognized as particularly suitable for sporting purposes."


With the removal of a British government gag order yesterday, more details became public about the so-called "UK poison cell" that had been charged with conspiracy to use ricin in a terrorist plot (Secrecy News, 04/11/05).

One member of the "cell" who had previously been convicted of murder was also found guilty of conspiracy involving the use of poison. The others were acquitted. Key elements of the case -- including an alleged discovery of ricin -- were found to be in error.

"The claim that traces of the deadly poison ricin had been found in the London apartment of alleged al Qaeda operatives, first broadcast around the world in early January 2003" -- and then echoed by Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Powell, and others -- "has been proved wrong, a senior British official said yesterday," the Washington Post reported today.

See "London Ricin Finding Called a False Positive" by Walter Pincus, April 14:

George Smith of updated his account of the case to rebut a persistent prosecution claim (quoted credulously in the New York Times today) that methods of producing ricin and other toxins described in documents seized by the police "are scientifically viable and potentially deadly."

"This is far from the case but since most are unfamiliar with the poison recipes in question, it is a claim that often goes unchallenged," Smith wrote. See:

Secrecy News (04/11/05) mistakenly identified Dr. Smith as an expert witness in the UK trial. Although he consulted for the defense team, he did not testify.


In his Senate confirmation hearing to be the first Director of National Intelligence, Ambassador John Negroponte made the strange assertion that government secrecy is declining.

In response to a question from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Negroponte said "the trend in my lifetime has been to reduce the level of classification" (noted by the Washington Post and quoted by The New Republic).

One may strain to find an element of truth in this remark. In the course of Mr. Negroponte's more than six decade lifetime, many things that had been highly classified have been downgraded to a lower level of classification or declassified altogether -- the workings of the atomic bomb, high-resolution satellite imagery, the aggregate intelligence budgets for 1997 and 1998, etc.

Even so, Amb. Negroponte's statement reveals a disappointing lack of awareness of the steady expansion of classification activity over the past several years, and its adverse impact on government performance.

In intelligence agencies in particular, classification policy has become "dysfunctional," Porter Goss, the current Director of Central Intelligence, told the 9-11 Commission in 2003.

More broadly, "The federal government set a new record for keeping secrets in 2004, during which government employees chose to classify information a record 15.6 million times," according to an analysis by the public interest coalition See:


Some recent reports from the Congressional Research Service include:

"Journalist's Privilege to Withhold Information in Judicial and Other Proceedings: State Shield Statutes," March 8, 2005, via the State Department's Foreign Press Center:

"Federal Research and Development Funding: FY2006," March 8, 2005:

"Social Security Reform," updated March 23, 2005:

"The Middle East Peace Talks," updated April 12, 2005:


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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