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Dear Media Ecologyy Association Folks,

Here is one of those completely vexing issues that could only arise in the
USA.  Is this the price we pay for living in a (supposedly) "Free" society?


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Recipes for Death

September 17, 2002

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

"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

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

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

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.

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