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Last Updated

15 Nov 2002

Source:  New York Times, September 17, 2002.


Recipes for Death


On my desk is a set of self-help books that I've been buying at gun shows and on the Internet. If you want to kill a few thousand people, these are the books to consult.

And if we want to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks using bio- or chemical weapons, we have a target closer to home than Iraq: these books and the presses that publish them. If these presses were in Baghdad, the Pentagon would be itching to blow them up.

Right now I'm leafing through "Assorted Nasties," which has detailed instructions on how to make sarin, VX gas and even mustard gas.

Then there's "Silent Death," with 30 pages about manufacturing nerve gases like sarin, tabun and soman. The book also contains a helpful description of the best ways to disseminate gases so as "to lay waste to a metropolitan area."

"For those who have whole armies to conquer singlehandedly," the introduction suggests, "I'm sure the section on the production and use of nerve gases will interest you."

Then there's a three-volume set of books, "Scientific Principles of Improvised Warfare," which offers details on where to find anthrax spores and how to cultivate them and turn them into an aerosol.

"If you can make Jell-O," the book promises, "you can wipe out cities. Enjoy!"

Fortunately, it's not that easy. But still, do we as a nation really want to permit books that facilitate terrorism and mass murder? As Justice Arthur Goldberg declared in a 1963 Supreme Court case, the Constitution "is not a suicide pact."

A main barrier to the use of chemical or biological weapons has been knowledge. It's hard to weaponize sarin or anthrax, and so the I.R.A., the Basque separatist group E.T.A., the Tamil Tigers and even Al Qaeda (not to mention people like the Unabomber) have relied on conventional weapons and explosives.

But the information needed to produce lethal cocktails is beginning to spread, partly because these books are getting better. For example, the Japanese group Aum Shinrikyo tried to kill people with anthrax but never got hold of the proper spores. If it were trying today, it could consult one of these books and learn where to obtain deadly spores.

"I do think that there is forbidden knowledge, and for me the 'cookbooks' fall into that class of information," said Dr. Ronald M. Atlas, the president of the American Society for Microbiology. "I do not want to see them out there for potential use by terrorists."

In fairness, much of the information in the gun-show books is "garbage," notes Milton Leitenberg, an expert on weapons of mass destruction at the University of Maryland. Another bio-warfare specialist, Raymond Zilinskas of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, also notes that bio- and chemical weapons are very hard to get right although he adds that the "cookbook" recipes are getting better.

All three experts reluctantly favor curbs on information about bio-, chemical and nuclear weapons.

Whether such curbs are constitutional is uncharted legal territory. But in 1979 a U.S. District Court temporarily blocked The Progressive from publishing an article about the hydrogen bomb because of the risks to national security.

In the 1990's the Senate several times passed measures that would have banned weapons cookbooks. But because of concerns about constitutionality, the final version that became law in 1999 was neutered. It allows prosecution only if the publisher intends for the information to be used to break federal laws. That is usually an impossible test to meet.

We rightly complain about weapons proliferation by China and Russia. But we also need to confront the consequences of our own information proliferation. Our small presses could end up helping terrorists much more than Saddam ever has.

I'm a journalist, steeped in First Amendment absolutism, and book-burning grates on my soul. But then again, so does war. As we prepare to go to battle to reduce our vulnerability to weapons of mass destruction, it seems appropriate for us in addition to consider other distasteful steps that can also make us safer.

We have a window now, while terrorists still have difficulty obtaining reliable recipes for bio- and chemical weapons. If we continue to allow these cookbooks to improve, buttressed by helpful articles in professional journals, then over the next 10 years we may empower terrorists to kill us on an unimaginable scale.