from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2005, Issue No. 77
August 8, 2005


"Terrorists Turn to the Web as Base of Operations," a Washington Post headline declared in a front-page, above-the-fold story on August 7.

"Among other things, al Qaeda and its offshoots are building a massive and dynamic online library of training materials," the Post reported, and offered sample documents from this library on its own web site.

But contrary to the Post story line, the cited library materials suggest a startling lack of technical competence. Unfortunately, the Post did not critically examine the materials that it presented.

The Post story's uncertain grasp of the underlying science was signalled early on when it twice mistakenly referred to a virus as the cause of pneumonic plague. Pneumonic plague is caused by a bacterium, Yersinia pestis, not by a virus.

A page excerpted by the Post online from "The Mujahideen Poisons Handbook" purported to explain how to manufacture "betaluminium poison."

But there is no such thing as betaluminium poison. (The word appears to be a corruption of "botulinum"). Nor would the proffered production method -- combining fresh horse manure, meat, grain and water in a sealed jar -- yield much more than a stinky mess.

"The first time I saw [the Mujahideen Poisons Handbook]," said chemist George Smith of, "I thought it must be a hoax."

"Careful examination of the document shows that it is crammed with errors, seemingly the work of someone with little discernible sense, profoundly ignorant of the nature of simple compounds and incompetent in even minor [laboratory] procedures," Dr. Smith wrote in National Security Notes in March 2004:

In short, the Mujahideen Poisons Handbook that was excerpted on the Washington Post web site indicates something nearly the opposite of what the Post article on terrorist use of the internet claimed to show.

"The 'Poisons Handbook' is an example of someone professing to know what he is doing on poisons who profoundly and obviously does not know what he is doing," Dr. Smith said.

If the Poisons Handbook is indeed representative of the "massive and dynamic online library of training materials" offered by jihadists, then that is good news for public safety and security.

The Washington Post, the best of newspapers, is far from alone in succumbing to, and propagating, exaggerated threat assessments. There seems to be a powerful temptation to believe that terrorists are everywhere and, aided by "the internet," capable of everything. It is a temptation that needs to be confronted and thought through.


A forthcoming book by former CIA operations officer Gary Berntsen that claims the U.S. knowingly allowed Osama bin Laden to escape from Tora Bora during the war in Afghanistan is held up in the CIA prepublication review process, and is now the subject of litigation by the author.

"Berntsen says he had definitive intelligence that bin Laden was holed up at Tora Bora... and could have been caught," according to an article in Newsweek this week.

"Although Plaintiff [Berntsen] properly and fully abided by the pre-publication review requirements imposed by his secrecy agreement, Defendant [CIA] has responded in a manner that has violated his First Amendment rights," a lawsuit filed by Berntsen claims.

"[CIA] has frustrated the publication of the book by failing to timely deliver his draft manuscript and by asserting unsupportable classification decisions. Such conduct violates the rights of free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States."

See a copy of the Berntsen complaint here:

"Gary Bernsten is a take-no-prisoners kind of guy and has certainly seized the high ground," said a U.S. Government official familiar with the case. "More power to him."


A 1981 CIA inspection report described the origins and development of the prepublication review process for manuscripts authored by CIA employees and former employees.

It candidly noted the perception of unfairness and bias in the handling of manuscripts depending on whether they favored or criticized the Agency.

"To some, it would appear the government had far less reason to prosecute [former CIA officer] Frank Snepp [author of the Vietnam memoir 'Decent Interval'] for his breach of contract than it does to pursue [former DCI William] Colby," who released the text of his memoir to his French publisher prior to its review and approval by the CIA.

See the draft 1981 CIA inspection report on the Publication Review Board here (thanks to MJR):

For a more recent account, see "Secrets, Free Speech, and Fig Leaves" by John Hollister Hedley, Studies in Intelligence, Spring 1998:


An exceptionally rich collection of government documents on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including translations of Japanese diplomatic cable traffic, has been compiled and edited by William Burr of the National Security Archive.

See "The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II: A Collection of Primary Sources," August 5:


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

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