British Anthrax Alert Was
On Duty-Free Spirits
By Philip Webster
Richard Ford
Michael Evans
And Stewart Tendler
The London Times
BRITISH intelligence has uncovered evidence of a plot by Saddam Hussein to flood the West with anthrax in bottles disguised as duty-free goods if military strikes are launched against Iraq.
An "all-ports warning" has been issued by the Home Office on the Prime Minister's orders, even though there is no sign that the plot has been implemented. Downing Street said that although the matter was being taken seriously, "we do not believe there is cause for alarm".
The apparent threat was contained in a confidential document sent to Customs and Excise, Special Branch, police, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence. No comparable countrywide warning about a feared biological attack has been issued before.
The Times understands that a source with access to intelligence in Baghdad gave the alert before Christmas. Some information about the threatened plot was sent to senior customs officials and police officers last Wednesday, but the all-ports warning was not circulated until yesterday. That said: "Iraq may launch a chemical and biological attack using materials disguised as harmless fluids. Could officers therefore be alert for any items which may contain harmful substances. Particular attention should be given to containers of any size holding liquids with specific characteristics."
Details of the intelligence report were sent to President Clinton and other members of Nato, and Tony Blair is believed to have discussed the threat in private conversation with fellow European leaders.
The document shows that the Iraqis were apparently prepared to smuggle large quantities of anthrax into hostile countries inside bottles containing spirits, cosmetics perfume sprays and cigarette lighters. The warning did not identify particular brands or say where the bottles would have been sold or impregnated.
The Home Office warning would have included an assessment of the risk carried out by the intelligence services. It is believed the assessment was that while there was a potential threat, it was considered to be a low probability. And Mike O'Brien, a Home Office minister, was keen to play down the threat. He said: "Periodically we have information that there are threats and we step up vigilance when that occurs. We don't want to get people particularly scared at the moment."
The Home Office, MI5, police and emergency services have well-rehearsed contingency plans for dealing with terrorist attacks involving nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. These were exercised before the 1991 Gulf War and were re-examined during the recent crisis with Iraq over United Nations arms inspections.
Then, the Government advised all service personnel sent to the Gulf to have a series of anthrax vaccines. George Robertson, the Defence Secretary, volunteered to set an example and has had his first vaccination.
Anthrax is the most deadly toxic substance in Saddam's armoury. A "spoonful" of the spores could kill 100,000 people if distributed effectively - for example through aerosols or crop-spraying equipment - and anyone ingesting the spores would die within five days.
The potency of the disease was shown by a Ministry of Defence experiment on a remote Scottish island in 1942. Spores were released next to sheep tethered to the uninhabited land of Gruinard, and the animals monitored as they died. But even after the sheep had been destroyed and the heather burnt, it was found that the spores had penetrated the soil and the island remained a forbidden toxic zone for nearly half a century.

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