15 November 1997: Link to court docket update for Jim Bell
11 November 1997
Thanks to AO
U.S. News Online, November 17, 1997
BY DAVID E. KAPLAN
Jeff Gordon thought he had seen it all. A veteran IRS investigator, Gordon's job since 1988 had been to probe threats and assaults against his fellow agents. There was no shortage in recent years--stabbings, fires, mortar attacks, and big unexploded bombs outside IRS offices in Los Angeles and Reno, Nevada. But in the first months of this year, Gordon found himself working on the strangest case of his career. From an informant, he had learned of a Portland, Ore., man named James Dalton Bell. Bell owed some $30,000 in back taxes and served as a juror in a local "common law court." Dozens of these self-appointed tribunals have issued "fines" and even death sentences against public officials.
Bell was also active in antigovernment forums on the Internet, where he had posted a dark scheme threatening murder of troublesome federal agents. Participants could send encrypted messages to each other, Bell proposed, offering donations to whoever "predicted" how long a targeted official would live. The winner, presumably the assassin, would be rewarded with electronic fund transfers from anonymous donors, he suggested.
Gordon checked further. Bell, it turned out, was an electronics engineer at a nearby circuit board manufacturer. He was also an MIT-educated chemist who had been arrested eight years earlier for making methamphetamine, but pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. According to court records, Bell had once told a friend: "The first thing to remember is: Never make a chemist angry at you."
In February, the IRS docked Bell's wages and seized his 10-year-old car. Inside the vehicle, Gordon found instructions for making bombs and molotov cocktails. There was also far-right literature, a printout listing large amounts of cyanide, and detailed information on fertilizer, a key ingredient in the Oklahoma City bomb. But with no evidence that Bell had hurt anyone, Gordon could not move.
[Jim Bell photo]
A burning stench. Four weeks later, on a Monday morning in March, IRS officials encountered a terrible nose-burning stench as they arrived at their building in Vancouver, the Portland suburb where Bell lived. Investigators traced the smell to a welcome mat dosed with propanethiol. The chemical is used by utilities in minuscule concentrations to give natural gas its noticeable smell. "It's Bell," Gordon told his boss. "I'm sure of it." Bell had attempted twice to buy propanethiol from a chemical-supply company in Milwaukee, Gordon then learned. Worried that the stink bomb was a trial run for something much worse, on April 1, authorities raided Bell's home. They seized five computers and three semiautomatic assault rifles, then opened his garage door. Before them stood dozens of containers filled with chemicals. There were volatile solvents, explosives ingredients, sodium cyanide, nitric acid, and diisopropyl fluorophosphate--one of several ingredients that, if properly mixed, form nerve gas--all in a residential neighborhood. "The level and type of chemicals were extremely unusual," said Leroy Loiselle, who managed the cleanup for the Environmental Protection Agency. "You don't need nitric acid to keep aphids off your flowers."
On Bell's computers, Gordon found two other items: the names and home addresses of over 100 public officials--IRS employees, FBI agents, local police officers--and a 169-page document, The Terrorist's Handbook, with detailed instructions for making chemical weapons and high explosives. Bell's friends told investigators that he had tried using green beans to make botulin toxin, which causes botulism, and that he claimed to have successfully made sarin, the nerve gas used by Japanese cultists in their 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway.
Bell was arrested. In July he pleaded guilty to charges of obstruction of IRS agents and use of a false Social Security number, and also admitted to the stink bomb attack and the cyberassassination scheme. He faces up to eight years in prison and $500,000 in fines. Bell declined to comment, but he contended earlier that he is merely "a chemical hobbyist" and the assassination scheme only an abstract proposal. "I'm a talker, not a doer," he said. The IRS's Jeff Gordon remains wary. According to court records, after his arrest Bell boasted to a friend that police never found his most dangerous chemical weapons. Gordon believes they could include a secret stockpile of sarin.
New generation. Characters like James Dalton Bell are giving federal officials fits these days. Bell, they believe, is one of a new generation of tinkerers and technicians, of college-educated extremists threatening to use biological, chemical, or radiological weapons to achieve their goals. Since the Aum cult's Tokyo nerve gas attack, FBI officials say the number of credible threats to use these weapons has jumped from a handful in 1995, to 20 last year, to twice that number this year. Among the incidents was the 1995 mailing of a videotape to Disneyland, showing two hands mixing chemicals and a note threatening an attack on the theme park. Despite a major investigation, the sender was never caught. Just last April someone sent a petri dish labeled anthrax, an animal disease deadly to humans, to the B'nai B'rith headquarters in Washington, D.C. That proved to be a hoax.
But other threats appear to be quite real. Four militia members in Minnesota were convicted recently of planning to assassinate federal agents with a biological toxin. In Ohio in 1995, a white supremacist pleaded guilty to wire fraud in illegally obtaining three vials of bubonic plague bacteria. Investigators have found biochemical agents in the hands of political extremists, extortionists, murderers, and the mentally ill. U.S. News has learned that the FBI has 50 current investigations of individuals suspected of using or planning to use radiological, biological, or chemical agents. Bureau officials say a major attack in the United States no longer seems unlikely. "The consensus of people in the law enforcement and intelligence communities is that it's not a matter of if it's going to happen, it's when," warns Robert Blitzer, head of the FBI's terrorism section. "We are very concerned."
To prepare, federal agencies have scrambled to set up new counterterrorism strike forces (story, Page 32). Behind all this is the very real fear that the world has entered a new stage in terrorism. Widespread technical education and high-tech communications have vastly increased the number of people with knowledge of how to synthesize chemicals and culture bacteria. Books and videos on creating these substances--and turning them into weapons--are now available on the Internet, at gun shows and survivalist fairs, and through the mail.
While its effects would be the most destructive, a nuclear incident is actually the least likely scenario, according to security experts. More likely, they say, would be a biological weapon attack; a chemical attack is the next likely possibility. The impact could range from the poisoning of an individual to sophisticated attempts at mass murder. So far, the majority have been limited efforts by loners or small groups. Most worrisome to officials is the possible involvement of more established, state-sponsored terrorist organizations--such as Hezbollah--with international reach.
While the number of terrorist attacks, both in the United States and abroad, has gone down since the end of the cold war, there is a flip side. Individual acts themselves have grown more deadly, as illustrated by the Oklahoma City and World Trade Center bombings. In its annual terrorism report issued last April, the State Department sees a trend "toward more ruthless attacks on mass civilian targets" and the use of more powerful weapons.
Threshold crossed. Until this decade, biological and chemical weapons were the province of superpowers or renegade states like Iraq and North Korea. But all that changed with Aum Supreme Truth, an obscure sect of New Age fanatics based at the foot of Mount Fuji, 70 miles outside Tokyo. Recent court testimony from sect members shows how the cult's young scientists produced not only anthrax and botulin toxin but also various nerve agents, including the sarin used on Tokyo's subway. Later attacks were planned for New York and Washington, D.C.
Still, it is one thing to produce deadly agents and another to use them effectively. Aum's attack killed only 12 people of the thousands in the subway system, and on seven other occasions, attempted Aum attacks were dogged by equipment failures and human error. "Trying to produce 100,000 casualties is much more difficult than is often stated," observes Jonathan Tucker of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Tucker notes that problems abound with delivery systems, meteorological conditions, and the agents themselves. Still, he warns that even crude weapons can easily cause mass disruption. Aum's nerve gas, for example, was full of impurities, yet it sent thousands to the hospital.
What worries police is growing evidence that others share similar ambitions. In 1993, two years before the Aum attack, Canadian border agents stopped an American electrician named Thomas Lavy and searched his car. They found four guns, 20,000 rounds of ammunition, 13 pounds of gunpowder, neo-Nazi literature, and $80,000 in cash. Lavy also had recipes for biological and chemical weapons and a plastic bag filled with white powder. Had the agents opened the bag, they likely would have died of respiratory failure and paralysis. Tests showed the substance to be ricin, a lethal toxin extracted from the castor bean plant. (Ricin, dabbed on a tiny pellet fired from an umbrella-gun, was used by Soviet agents to murder a Bulgarian in London in 1978.) The poison is 6,000 times more toxic than cyanide, and there is no antidote. Lavy had a quarter pound of the stuff.
In 1995, a man named Larry Wayne Harris was arrested after he obtained vials of the bacteria that cause bubonic plague (Page 28). Harris is an Ohio microbiologist and recent member of the white supremacist Aryan Nations. He says his friends will strike at government officials with biochemical weapons, if provoked. "If they arrest a bunch of our guys, they get a test tube in the mail," he told U.S. News. And, he says, far worse could come. "How many cities are you willing to lose before you back off?" he asks. "At what point do you say: `If these guys want to go off to the Northwest and have five states declared to be their own free and independent country, let them do it'?" Authorities take Harris's comments seriously.
The recipes for such poison cocktails are available from underground publishers and on the Internet. One popularizer is an Arkansan named Kurt Saxon. Through books and videotapes, Saxon has been putting out ricin recipes for at least nine years. Convinced that the U.S. will be invaded and that the federal government can't be trusted to defend the country, he has fashioned various homemade explosives and poisons, including cyanide grenades and ricin applicators. In one segment of a $19.95 video, Saxon performs like a sinister Julia Child, blending salt water and solvents with castor beans. ("Pour in about 4 ounces of acetone," he says, "and shake it up nice.") "Uncle Fester," another near-legendary figure in the chem-bio underground, has authored such family classics as Silent Death, Improvised Explosives, and a guide to methamphetamine and LSD manufacture. Fester claims degrees in chemistry and biology, and his Silent Death describes how to produce poison gas, botulin and shellfish toxins, and ricin.
Similarly, entire manuals for making homemade explosives--TNT, plastic, napalm--can be downloaded from the Net, as well as plans for building triggers, fuses, and timers. At least 11 online vendors offer books with recipes on biological or chemical weapons, including Silent Death and Kurt Saxon's The Poor Man's James Bond. All are based in the United States. Adding to the problem, many of the chemicals used to make nerve gas and other agents have perfectly legitimate uses and are readily available. "The genie has always been out of the bottle," says one intelligence analyst. "People are just discovering it."
The genie is also loose in the Middle East. According to intelligence sources, notebooks and computer files recently seized from Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Islamic militia, contain information on how to produce chemical agents. Hezbollah has also taken delivery of protective gear, including gas masks and bodysuits, and obtained Katyusha rockets able to deliver chemical warheads to Israel from their base in Lebanon. Hezbollah's interests are shared by at least one other Islamic terrorist, Ramzi Yusef, a trained engineer and reputed mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Yusef's organization researched making sarin and reportedly planned to assassinate President Clinton in the Philippines with phosgene gas. The trade center bombers also packed cyanide into the charge that rocked the building; the chemical apparently evaporated in the explosion.
Some analysts believe there have been other, unnoticed, attacks in the United States. "It's almost certain there have been uses of biological agents that have gone undetected," says Seth Carus, a proliferation expert at the National Defense University. "Most cases are known because they came to the attention of law enforcement through informants, not because of medical authorities." Health officials, for example, were mystified by a mass outbreak of salmonella poisoning in Oregon in 1984. The cause--an attack by a nearby religious sect--went undetected until the cult's demise a year later.
Exotic poisons are attracting not only terrorists but also murderers and extortionists. Several recent trials have featured ricin as a murder weapon. Product tamperers, too, are increasingly turning to biological agents. Says Lori Ericson of Kroll Information Services: "We're seeing E. coli, cholera, salmonella, HIV." In one British case, microbiologist Michael Just threatened to contaminate the products of five food companies with dysentery-causing bacteria. To make his point, he sent the firms test tubes filled with the pathogen.
Society can likely tolerate the occasional murderer or extortionist wielding biological or chemical weapons. The greater challenge undoubtedly will come from those with broader grievances, from terrorists steeped in extremism and political hatred. Perhaps scariest of all are the criminally insane, who may bring technical ability, but little judgment, to their homemade laboratories. Last April, authorities raided the house of one Thomas Leahy in Janesville, Wis. Leahy, who takes medication for schizophrenia, was obsessed with creating "killer viruses" to stop his enemies, both real and imagined, according to police. He pleaded guilty to possessing ricin, but a search of his home also found animal viruses and vaccines, staph bacteria culture, fungicides, insecticides, hypodermic needles, and gas masks. As Leahy reportedly told his wife, you can "never have too many poisons."
With Douglas Pasternak and Gordon Witkin
BY DAVID E. KAPLAN
In 1995, Bill Clinton signed a presidential directive stating that the nation has "no higher priority" than stopping terrorists who have weapons of mass destruction. Congress responded with new laws and allocated more than a billion dollars in support. The result has been an extraordinary proliferation of counterterrorism programs, making this one of the few areas of rapid growth in the federal budget. But in the rush to respond, say critics, government agencies have failed to coordinate their efforts, and no one is even tracking how much taxpayer money is being spent.
According to a September report by the General Accounting Office, more than 40 federal agencies have roles in combating terrorism. All of them appear eager to gobble up the new funding. Among the big winners is the Pentagon, which is getting $52 million to train local officials to cope with chemical, nuclear, and biological attacks. Other agencies have set up units inspired by NEST, the U.S. Department of Energy's Nuclear Emergency Search Team, begun in the 1970s to thwart nuclear extortionists. The FBI has added DEST, its new Domestic Emergency Support Team, and the State Department now runs FEST, the Foreign Emergency Support Team. The Public Health Service is busily planning MMSTs, or Metropolitan Medical Strike Teams, for 100 cities. And on Energy Department drawing boards are plans for BEST, a Biological Emergency Search Team, and CEST, its chemical counterpart. (Critics contend that the Energy Department lacks both expertise and a mandate to deal with biological and chemical weapons, but that has not stopped it from seeking funds.) And if an emergency is big enough, one can always call in the Marines, who have formed their own $10 million Chemical Biological Incident Response Force.
More shoe leather. Among the biggest beneficiaries is the FBI, which has seen its counterterrorism budget nearly triple to $243 million since 1994. Bureau officials vow to "double the shoe leather" of agents working on chemical and biological terrorism and are outfitting their elite Hostage Rescue Team with $3.3 million worth of gas masks and protection suits. The bureau also wants to build a multimillion-dollar Level 3 biolab, a tightly sealed facility that would permit work with many of the world's deadliest pathogens. Some experts note that the Army and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention already have more than a dozen Level 3 labs; the bureau says it can best conduct forensic investigations in its own facility.
The private sector is cashing in as well. Contractors are arranging much of the Pentagon's $52 million local training program, while millions more are available for research and development. "It's the latest gravy train for consultants," says Larry Johnson, a terrorism consultant.
Even the toughest critics acknowledge that many of the new programs are needed. For example, they agree that the training of local emergency workers to deal with a chemical or biological attack is long overdue. The problem, they say, is that the various programs have grown so quickly that coordination and oversight have yet to catch up. A classified study this year for the CIA and Energy Department calls for a national response program to deal with terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, directed by the White House. "The system is not well organized at all," says former CIA head James Woolsey, one of the study group's co-chairs.
One sign of the lack of oversight can be seen at the Office of Management and Budget, the White House agency charged with managing the federal budget. An OMB guide lists over 600 areas of specialization by the agency's staff, including entries for Micronesia and marine mammals. Yet nowhere is there an analyst tracking the budget for counterterrorism, a national security priority. "It's not something we have a hard number for," says an OMB analyst.
The rapid expansion of programs--likely to cost billions of dollars overall--has left some observers dismayed. "It was not our intent to create this thing," says John Sopko, who as deputy chief counsel to Sen. Sam Nunn played a key role in drafting legislation to respond to the new terrorism. "We did not want a massive entitlement program for counterterrorism."
U.S. Department of State's Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism: Patterns of Global Terrorism
U.S. Department of State's Counter-Terrorism Rewards Program
FBI's program for Awareness of National Security Issues and Response
The CDC's National Center for Environmental Health and Injury Control reports on chemical weapons and defines certian infectious conditions such as anthrax and botulism (use the table of contents to find specific poisons and diseases).
Alan Barbour's Forensic Toxicology Links