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, has been proved wrong, a senior British official said yesterday.
At the time, authorities said the apartment housed a terrorist "poison cell," based principally on the discovery of a mortar and pestle bearing traces of what was identified as ricin. Authorities also found 22 castor beans, whose seeds contain ricin; bottles of acetone, which can be used in producing the poison; and handwritten notes in Arabic with a formula for ricin.
Yesterday, however, evidence that ricin was not on the mortar and pestle surfaced after the end of the London trial, conducted under British secrecy law, of five people who had been arrested in connection with the Jan. 5, 2003, raid on the apartment. The British official commented on the finding on the condition of anonymity before learning that a ban on discussing the case had been withdrawn.
Evidence introduced during the trial included a document from a senior scientist at Porton Down, the British government's biochemical research facility, saying tests showed that "the material from the pestle and mortar did not detect the presence of ricin," according to George Smith, a scientist and senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, who served as an expert for some defendants in the trial.
Discovery that the initial ricin finding was a "false positive" was made "well before the outbreak of the war in Iraq," on March 19, 2003, Smith said.
Within days of the apartment raid, British authorities spoke of concerns about possible ricin attacks. Public speculation followed, both there and in the United States, about links between the arrested men and Abu Musab Zarqawi, whom U.S. intelligence had tried to identify as linked to al Qaeda, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and a camp in northern Iraq where ricin was made.
Vice President Cheney, speaking of Hussein and his terrorist allies, told a Chamber of Commerce audience on Jan. 10, "The gravity of the threat we face was underscored in recent days when British police arrested . . . suspected terrorists in London and discovered a small quantity of ricin, one of the world's deadliest poisons."
A week later at the White House, then-press secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters, "When you read about people in London being arrested for possession of ricin, there clearly remain people in the world who want to inflict as much harm as they can on the Western world and on others."
In his Feb. 5 speech to the U.N. Security Council, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell put up a slide that linked a "U.K. poison cell" to Zarqawi.
After U.S. troops seized the northern Iraq camp linked to Zarqawi, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN's "Late Edition" on March 30: "We think that's probably where the ricin that was found in London came [from]. . . . At least the operatives and maybe some of the formulas came from this site."
Yesterday, it was disclosed that the only person convicted of poison conspiracy was Kamel Bourgass, 31, an Algerian who had lived in the apartment and was already in jail for murdering a British constable. Four others were cleared of conspiracy.
Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.