- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2004

The discovery of ricin in Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s office is a blinding reminder of the shadowed forces and unconventional threats facing the nation in its war against terrorism. None of the men and women exposed to the ricin have shown symptoms of poisoning. There is reason to hope that the assault will not claim a single victim, thanks at least in part to the relatively quick, coordinated response of security officials.

Senate leadership deserves credit for its determination to continue with legislative business under unexpected fire and great inconvenience, unlike last time, when the great anthrax scare sent Congress scurrying for a way out of town.

Although ricin is easy and fairly inexpensive to manufacture, it is not easily transmitted from one person to another. The toxin is not a living thing, so those exposed are not contagious. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers it to be a “moderate” threat, and while it can be an agent of some disruption, terrorism experts consider it more an agent of assassination than one of mass destruction.

Ricin is deadly if inhaled, injected or swallowed. It acts quickly and lethally, stopping the production of proteins inside cells. Outward signs include stomach ache, vomiting and fever, which lead to respiratory or organ failure. There is neither antidote nor cure for ricin poisoning, and death typically follows within 36 to 72 hours.

Numerous foreign and domestic terrorist and terrorism-sponsoring organizations have been connected to ricin. In the mid-1990s, several members of the anti-government militia the Minnesota Patriots Council were found guilty of trying to poison law-enforcement officers with ricin. Before the first Gulf War, Iraq told U.N. Special Commission inspectors that it field-tested ricin-laden artillery shells. That ricin might have come from the Fallujah III Castor Oil Production Plant, which was rebuilt after it was heavily damaged during Operation Desert Fox. Al Qaeda is also thought to have acquired ricin. Traces of it were found in al Qaeda-occupied caves in Afghanistan and in the house of a group of Ansar al-Islam operatives arrested in London a year ago.

The Senate incident is the third attempted attack on Washington with ricin in four months. In October, postal workers in Greenville, S.C., discovered a ricin-contaminated envelope addressed to the Department of Transportation, and the Secret Service intercepted a ricin-laden letter aimed at the White House in November. No connection has been made between those letters and the substance found in Mr. Frist’s office. Nor has any link been formed between the recent ricin attacks and the anthrax assaults during the fall of 2001.

Regardless of who or what is responsible for this event, it is another notice that the days when nation-states exchanged formalities before engaging in hostilities have long passed. Constant vigilance and continuous preparedness are required to counter the always-imminent threat of terrorism.

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