Red Mercury or Red Herring?
27 September 2004
[Re-printed with permission of the author. Mark Almond is Lecturer in Modern History at Oriel College, Oxford.]
Red Mercury or Red Herring?
British Media drop two "dirty bombs" in one day
Introduction: The Terrorist always knocks thrice
Sunday, 26th September, 2004, was a busy day for terror-watchers in Britain
While the British hostage Ken Bigley's fate at the hands of the murderous Abu Mussab al Zaqawi remained unknown and Tony Blair prepared for the opening of the annual Labour Party congress next day with the nightmarish situation in Iraq on delegates' minds, two British media outlets reaching into many millions of homes carried stories calculated to alarm the public. The multi-million-selling tabloid, News of the World, announced that it had foiled a plot by Arab fanatics to unleash a so-called "dirty bomb" in Britain. On Sunday evening, BBC 1 broadcast a so-called docu-drama "Dirty War" portraying the effects of such a radiological explosion in the City of London. Be afraid for the terrorist your enemy goes abroad like a raging lion, seemed to be the theme of the media's Sunday sermonising.
As if to confirm this message, in mid-afternoon on Sunday 24-hour news services reported that an Olympic Airlines flight had been dramatically obliged to interrupt its journey from Athens to New York and land at Stansted airport north of London because of an anonymous telephone threat warning of a bomb on board.
By Monday morning, it was clear that the Olympic plane had been the victim of a false alarm and all but one of its 301 passengers and crew proceeded on their way to New York. Phone hoaxers are the bane of the police and emergency services at all times and the current concern about terrorism has simply added a fresh opportunity to waste their time.
Breaking the News, or Making the News
Four million British tabloid readers woke up on Sunday morning to find the country's biggest selling and most sensational tabloid, the News of the World, proclaiming "Dirty Bomb foiled by News of the World". The journalists of Rupert Murdoch's most lucrative outlet proudly boasted, "We smash terror plot."
Readers may have long been used to Mr Murdoch's employees acting as armchair strategists but fewer may have been aware that his journalists have also usurped the role of the police. The News of the World reported on its "joint operation" with the Metropolitan police: "Three men were arrested at a London hotel after a joint operation between the News of the World and Scotland Yard's elite Anti-Terrorist Branch. A fourth was arrested later." The newspaper identified the terrorist mastermind behind the alleged plot to acquire so-called "red mercury" and manufacture a "dirty bomb" for detonation somewhere (anywhere?) in Britain: "We infiltrated a sinister underworld network believed to be acting for Mr Big in Saudi Arabia-a known al-Qaeda hotbed."
Whatever Mr Big's criminal purpose, the NoW's editorial line was clear, even to the dullest-witted reader: "The bomb plot we expose on our front page today proves one thing. The threat of global terror is real - and deadly. " It invited its readers to "Imagine the carnage if a crude, radio-active bomb was unleashed on the streets of Britain."
In case anyone's powers of imagination were stretched, the same evening the BBC was planning to broadcast its own contribution to fear-mongering on its flagship channel. A drama-documentary entitled "Dirty War" was scheduled for 9pm on 26th September.
The City of London suffers a terrorist attack in this drama based on factual research by BBC Current Affairs. The programme is followed by a studio debate
"Dirty War" or Propaganda War?
Why was "Dirty War" made?
The BBC's extensive website offers answers:
"The Making of Dirty War
Director Dan Percival and writer Lizzie Mickery worked together on the drama Dirty War, a collaboration between BBC Films and Current Affairs.
Sunday, 26 September, 2004
2100 BST, BBC One
But what enticed them to make it? And why make it as a drama and not a documentary?
It all started when the BBC asked Dan to go away and think about what the new generation of terrorism actually meant.
Had we reached a time of anxiety and ignorance similar to the way we were in the 1960s about the threat of thermonuclear war?
At that time, Peter Watkins made a landmark film for the BBC called the 'War Game' that showed the inadequacy of our civil defence measures against a nuclear attack.
It was not shown for 25 years."
This explanation raises more questions than it answers.
"Dirty War" is a programme that supports the British government's policy of alarming the public about the threat of a terrorist attack using un-tried technology such as a radio-active "dirty bomb" or, in the BBC's case, a biological weapon - never tested in the open or in an urban setting. In the discussion session afterwards all the panel participants were supporters of the Blair government's line, only demanding more of the same when it came to lavish funding of counter-terrorist training, education and fear-mongering in general. How could it be compared with Peter Watkins's famously anti-Establishment "War Game"?
Watkins was a fierce critic of the government line on nuclear weapons and the practicality of its civil defence measures. He was not asking Harold Wilson to spend more on precautions. His film ridiculed the idea of de-contamination exercises and the whole line peddled in "Dirty War" and the subsequent discussion. It also satirised the reporting techniques of the contemporary media. "Dirty War", by comparison, uses official newsreaders to give authenticity to its version of events rather than to arouse a cynical giggle that if that so-and-so is reading the news about London's own "Ground Zero" that is all the viewer needs to know!
The comparison with Peter Watkins's "War Game" is highly revealing - and misleading. His film was banned because it went against the establishment line and a preview by Ministry of Defence and other government officials led to pressure on the BBC to stop the broadcast. By contrast, the BBC's "fact-based dramas" are made in consultation with and with the approval of government agencies. The post-Hutton BBC has been purged of virtually all dissidents, while the journalists, editors and commissioning editors who promoted the unfounded claims about Iraq's alleged WMD which led to a war with many thousands of dead civilians remain in post and, indeed, more firmly in charge of the news and docu-drama which is increasingly in-distinguishable from it. Watkins, by contrast, used the style of news reporting not as a tribute to what that generation of established news reporters were doing but "to subvert the authority of the very genre I was using. "
As Watkins own website reports, his film was anti-government. He regarded the recently elected Labour government led by Harold Wilson as traitors to their anti-nuclear pledges in the 1964 manifesto and his film intended to shatter any complacency about the survivability of a post-nuclear Britain.
Of course, the War Game was shown on the BBC but only in 1985 as part of the Corporation's anti-Reagan, anti-Cruise missile phase - and in those days Tony Blair still proudly wore his CND badge. Now Mr Blair is all for WMD disarmament with the Tomahawk cruise missiles in lead role - even where there aren't any WMD to disarm.
Invasion of the Body-Snatchers
In effect, the comparison with "War Game" is a classic piece of Blairite spin. Throughout his period in office Mr Blair's key media tactic has been to play the part of the radical (estuary vowels, for instance) while pursuing neo-conservative policies. Presenting "Dirty War" as an anti-government film fits in with the body-snatching technique which Blair's propaganda machine perfected over the previous decade.
The Percival film is presented as subversive, but that appears to be spin too. It is, however, spin taken up by the neo-conservative press. Rupert Murdoch's Times had the official line on Saturday, 25th September: "Barring any last-minute failure of nerves at the BBC, Percival's film Dirty War has already achieved something that Peter Watkins's controversial 1965 drama The War Game didn't - to be broadcast. Watkins's film, about the effects of a hypothetical nuclear attack on Britain, was banned by the BBC's Governors, who feared that it would terrify the populace. It wasn't aired until 20 years later."
Although critical of the government's Iraq policy, the Independent cannot fault an artist. Film directors are always subversive, aren't they? Its report notes, "Percival is bracing himself for more attacks from the authorities when the film is broadcast on BBC1 this Sunday. The writer-director accepts that "the Government's policy will be to condemn the film as irresponsible. Even last November, the Home Office said it was regrettable." He goes on to stress: "The BBC isn't interested in going to war with the Government, but it has a responsibility to question politicians on matters of public safety. The film is designed to put the consequences of this kind of terror higher on the public agenda and to pose general questions about our level of preparedness." Paul Woolwich, the executive producer of the film and a man with many years' experience in the field of current affairs, is also steeling himself for an onslaught from the authorities. When I ask him if the Government is happy that the BBC is making Dirty War, he merely raises his eyebrows and casts a knowing smile in my direction"!
As far back as late July, the Sunday Telegraph also had the anti-establishment tag up front in its plug for the BBC's courage in showing a film which just happened to echo government policy. Reporter, Matt Born,drew attention to the autumn schedule's highlights: "The most controversial is certain to be Dirty War, a big budget drama about a devastating "dirty bomb" attack on London. The production, which has taken two years, involves a simulated attack by unspecified Islamic terrorists who detonate radioactive material at Liverpool Street station during the rush hour.
The announcement of the 90-minute programme came on the day the Government unveiled its £8 million campaign to help the public prepare for a terrorist attack. The BBC was keen to stress that its programme would complement, and even surpass, the Government's efforts to inform the public about what to do in the event of a "dirty bomb". It would "subtly" impart tips, such as not to run away for fear of spreading the contamination, not to smoke, bite your nails, or wipe your hands on your face.
Dan Percival, the director, said the programme was likely to prove politically controversial by highlighting shortcomings in Britain's current level of preparedness for an attack. "This is absolutely designed to put higher on the public agenda the consequences of this new type of terrorist," he said.
However, he denied scare-mongering, saying that spy chiefs and politicians had all acknowledged that a terrorist attack of this sort was a matter of when, not if."
Have "spy chiefs and politicians" ever made false claims about weapons of mass destruction? Should anyone have blind faith in MI6 and Downing Street after the inaccuracies of their Iraq dossiers? Apparently, docu-drama makers still live in a pre-Peter Watkins world where the man from Whitehall is always right and never has his own axe to grind. Under its post-Hutton management the BBC is reverting to the sort of toadying to Downing Street last seen under Sir Anthony Eden at the time of Suez.
Whenever unanimity reigns in the media, the public should smell a rat. Even a sincere consensus is always stifling of the diversity which alone offers the truth air to breath. When commercial companies and quasi-academic experts on short-term contracts dependent on private funds get in on the act of public security, doubts about whether the priority is private interest or public well-being are unavoidable.
Watchful hacks or witch-hunt?
When two powerful media empires like those owned by Rupert Murdoch and a BBC run by nominees of Tony Blair set about stirring up fear in the populace, human rights activists should take note. Arrests are made and an enemy identified. In both the News of the World and Dirty War that enemy is Islamic. But as the News of the World makes clear, the Islamic enemy comes in many disguises. One of Mr Big's intermediaries in the "red mercury" sting is obviously far from a naïve fanatic: "I don't want to be seen with a guy with a long beard"!
The News of the World boasts of the long list of convictions - more than 100 - notched up by its star undercover journo-cop, Mazher Mahmood. But not all of his exposes have ended in convictions. Even if Mr Mahmood's reportage has helped put a host of petty criminals behind bars, his most high profile case, the Beckham kidnapping, ended with the acquittal of the five accused after 7 months in custody.
Whereas in normal criminal cases, the accused enjoy substantial legal protections before trial and face a fairly prompt disposal of his or her case by the counts, in terrorist cases in Britain, the accused can be detained, in effect, indefinitely. False accusations, even when made with honest intentions, can, and have led to innocent people being held for long periods under unusually harsh conditions. Britain has derogated from the normal standards required by international obligations under treaty to, for instance, the Council of Europe, as well as from its own Human Rights Act.
An unknown number of people are detained under a variety of terrorism pretexts. Repeatedly, the public has been treated to dramatic news reports and pictures of sudden arrests in otherwise sleepy suburbs. It is mainly young men of vaguely Islamic backgrounds who are hustled off by armed police, usually dressed in chemical warfare suits to emphasise the danger. Little or nothing is heard of the arrested again.
It is almost as though their dramatic detention is the purpose of the police activity. Headlines, not convictions, may well be the strategic purpose of these police raids. The police's political masters face an acute problem of public trust following the revelation that Saddam's Iraq did not posses the WMD which were alleged to be there. In fact, whatever its flaws, Iraq's dossier presented to the UN inspectors in December, 2002, turned out to be vastly more accurate and comprehensive than the mendacious melange of claims put forward by Washington and London to justify the war. Bring the fear of WMD closer to home seems to be the strategy.
Nonetheless, there is something very odd about the recurrent terrorism scares staged by the Anglo-American media, namely, the absence of actual acts of terrorism in either America or Britain since 9-11. At least in Orwell's 1984 missiles periodically hit Airstrip One, giving some plausibility to Big Brother's claim that his people were under constant threat and constant vigilance was therefore their duty.
For all of Mr. Blair's countless spine-chilling claims that Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists are plotting attacks on the United Kingdom there has been not one conviction of anyone accused of plotting, let alone carrying out such an attack. The success of the police ands other security forces ought to be a subject of congratulation but, as in America where no further acts of terrorism followed 9-11, the British establishment is peculiarly reluctant to give credit to its police for their efficiency in countering terrorist plots, nor, even more oddly, do the British and American governments seem anxious to claim the credit for these successes for themselves. Instead a relentless round of colour-coded terror-warnings and amateur-dramaticals officially designated "post-terror simulation exercises" seem designed to make publics on both sides of the Atlantic believe their governments and security services are incapable of protecting them.
Whatever may be happening in Afghanistan, in the tribal areas of Pakistan, even in occupied Iraq, in Western Europe and North America the "war on terror" has the quality of a phoney war. Fear used to be the terrorist's preferred weapon, but now it is our own governments who seem bent on putting the fear of "Mr. Big" into their peoples. (The police admitted that they found neither radioactive nor explosive materials when they arrested the four men identified by the News of the World.)
In reality, the unprecedented manhunts since September, 2001, have proved remarkably unproductive in terms of convictions. Even as ordinary people have been subject to blood-curdling warnings to prepare for doomsday which, by its nature, they can do nothing to forestall, police and prosecutors have a meagre record of actually finding and convicting plotters in the two countries which ought to be targets Numbers One and Two of the Al Qaeda terror network.
Fear Inc. - incorporated in the Middle East or in the West?
This is why the media obsession with "dirty weapons" like the alleged "red mercury" supposedly sought by "Mr Big" of Saudi Arabia is so misleading. Terrorists have struck, for instance, in Madrid and Bali using low-tech explosives and detonators - but with terribly deadly effect. Why should they seek untested and in the case of "red mercury" probably non-existent weapons whose supply chain renders them vulnerable to intelligence or journalistic stings?
The hunt for Red Mercury has been on since 1991. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, rumours abounded that nuclear materials, including the fabled "red mercury", were on sale on the black market in the post-Soviet arms bazaars. But none has ever surfaced. Like the fearsome WMD that Saddam Hussein was supposed to be feverishly "re-constituting" after 1998, red mercury turns out to be a red herring. But like the Iraqi WMD myth it serves a useful purpose.
Red Mercury frightens people. Its very name mixes mystery and menace. Simple to remember yet vaguely scientific in a way which demands faith from ill-educated people who know nothing about nuclear or weapons technology.
The post-"Dirty War" discussion on BBC1 on Sunday night allowed no scepticism about the plausibility of a dirty bomb to be aired. For instance, even if relatively highly-radioactive material could be placed inside a van containing a conventional explosive device, this would be a very ineffective means of dispersing radioactivity. Nuclear weapons were generally designed as air-burst bombs because that would spread blast and radioactivity much more effectively than a ground blast - with, of course, the effectiveness of a ground blast, thermo-nuclear device almost infinitely greater than a truck bomb with nuclear materials wrapped around a semtex or other conventional explosive core.
The only dissent in the "Dirty War" discussion was so comically off-target as to suggest that the studio audience was made up of actors somewhat more plausible in their roles than the players in the preceding film. One spitting image of Warren Mitchell's Alf Garnett demanded to know what was being done for ordinary people in Acacia Avenue (!) and was reassured by the consultant doctor that the plebs would be looked after as well as politicians. Another lady in full hijab and flowing Islamic robes was on hand to suggest that the film had been biased against Muslims only to be reassured that one of the most sympathetic characters in "Dirty War" had been an elderly Pakistani lady-informer!
No-one raised, or was allowed to raise, either scientific doubts about the plausibility of the scenario or to suggest that bureaucratic and entrepreneurial empire building might lie behind a lot of the campaign to instil fear in the public. Money is being made out of "homeland security" consultancies, equipment providers and by counter-terrorist crystal-ball gazers. No sceptic about the wisdom or ethics of this privatisation of mass hysteria about terrorism. Fear Incorporated is harvesting the profits of terror.
The War on Terror may not frighten the Enemy but the People should be afraid
Franklin Roosevelt famously reassured the American people that they had "nothing to fear but fear itself." His twenty-first century successor and Mr Blair seem to relish making their people's flesh creep. Instead of being the terrorists' weapon of choice, instilling fear seems to be Mr Blair's last line of defence in a tarnished political career. But is it one worthy of any democratic leader?
Meanwhile, a tame and frankly cynical media plays up the fear factor under the guise of providing public information. The hysteria being spread may well provoke arrests even lynchings as the public is repeatedly assured of the grim reality of a terrorist, Islamic threat on our soil which no court has yet convicted any defendant of participating in. Even witch crazes had procedures to convict old women and other odd bods to give a colour of plausibility to their frenzied seeking out of enemies.
9-11 looks increasingly like a terrible freak incident rather than the opening shot in a sustained and planned terrorist campaign in America or Britain. A few common sense security procedures at airports could have stopped the four tragic hi-jackings and their implementation since seems to have thwarted or frightened off any would-be successors to the infamous 19 hijackers in September, 2001 - if any more were on US soil. But, keeping people in fear rather than reassured by the success of the security forces plays to primitive instincts in human beings. Knowing how to play on these fears is the instinctive gift of cynical politicians of all ages and types.
Truly a dirty war is going on, but who is using underhand methods against whom and for what purposes is still kept a secret from the people.
 See http://www.newsoftheworld.co.uk/.
 See http://www.newsoftheworld.co.uk/story_pages/news/news1.shtml Bold in original.
 See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/default.stm 26th September, 2004
 See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/dirty_war/3654566.stm.
 For Watkins own extensive account of the censorship of "War Game" and the hostility to it in papers now backing Blaire's scare-mongering, see http://www.mnsi.net/~pwatkins/warGame.htm.
 See "Explosive Viewing" at The Times -online (25th September, 2004)
 See James Rampton, "When the Enemy Wants to Play Dirty" @ http://news.independent.co.uk/ low_res/story.jsp?story=564265&host=3&dir=61&dir=61&host=3
 See Matt Born, " BBC1 chief refuses to change the channel" (27th July, 2004) @ http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2004/07/28/nbbc28.xml
 For instance, in the post -"Dirty War" discussion programme "Dr Sally Leivesley of Newrisk Limited" was on hand to respond to viewers' concerns.
 [See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/2957922.stm quoting the NotW's figures for convictions. Mr Mahmood claims a more precise figure: "I've got 98 criminal convictions as a result of my work, so I must be doing something right." See http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/uk/3690886.stm.
 Apart from the mysterious anthrax attacks which petered out before Christmas, 2001, as media discussions of the obvious source for the material - the U.S. government's own bio-weapons laboratory at Fort Derrick, Maryland, got uncomfortably close to distracting the public from terrorist masterminds allegedly lurking in caves in Afghanistan.
 See Edward Alden, "Awkward questions grow as another US terror case collapses" in The Financial Times (24th September, 2004). It is striking that the original so-called "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla was extracted from the US legal system despite his citizenship and "determined" by President Bush to be an "enemy combatant" to be held sine die in a naval brig.
 For the failure to find any "red mercury" despite many stings, see Aleksandar Vasovic, "Ukraine Says It Seized 'Red Mercury' in The Guardian (17th May 17, 2004), who noted "Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, black marketeers have been peddling substances they call red mercury, apparently passing it off to buyers as a highly radioactive compound that purportedly was developed in Soviet nuclear facilities and could be used in powerful weapons. Samples that have turned up in Europe have proved to be bogus, however, and many scientists and law enforcement officials say the substance does not exist or is far less potentially dangerous than it has been made out to be."
 Any Google search for "homeland security" and tenders shows the goodies on offer and the motley crew of ex-police, spies, civil servants and downright hucksters circling the tax-payers' pot of gold.
- end Almond essay -