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Phoney Bomb Humor Fools Taliban?

An abandoned Taliban building in Kabul contained an alarming document that apparently described how to make an atomic bomb. But a webmaster recognized it as a 1979 parody.
 
 
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An abandoned Taliban building in Kabul contained an alarming document that apparently described how to make an atomic bomb. But alarm turned to laughter when a webmaster who'd viewed news footage of the document recognized it as a 1979 parody.

"Since last week's column, 'Let's Make a Time Machine', was received so well in the new step-by-step format, this month's column will follow the same format," one section begins.

The article first appeared in the Journal of Irreproducible Results, which has been publishing scientific humor and trivia since the 1950s, and Taliban fighters would find this particular parody no more helpful than any of the magazine's other mock science. It advised would-be bomb builders to obtain high-grade plutonium "at your local weapons supplier ... or perhaps the Junior Achievement in your neighborhood ... Wash your hands with soap and warm water after handling the material, and don't allow your children or pets to play in it or eat it."

"Any left over Plutonium dust is excellent as an insect repellant. You may wish to keep the substance in a lead box if you can find one in your local junk yard, but an old coffee can will do nicely."

Nevertheless, late last week white-haired BBC reporter John Simpson included footage of the document in a report from the building, along with pictures of left-behind weapons, explosives, hand grenades and even box-cutters. Anthony Lloyd, a reporter from the Times of London also appears to have discovered the document, since he refers to its erroneous instructions about using TNT to create a thermo-nuclear device. "The vernacular quickly spun out of my comprehension but there were phrases through the mass of chemical symbols and physics jargon that anyone could understand," Lloyd wrote. Soon the Times report was being included in articles by the Associated Press.

"I started laughing very hard..." says a 30-something computer professional in Connecticut who goes by the name of CyberGeek. After seeing the BBC's report, he'd searched for the document on the Internet, and identified it as a 1979 parody from the Journal of Irreproducible Results. "It's nice to find that your enemies are slightly incompetent..." he said in an interview Saturday. "I'd love to see bin Laden's face when he hears he's been financing terrorists to surf the net for useless info." CyberGeek forwarded his find to a mailing list of computer enthusiasts, where it was picked up by his friend Jason Scott and documented Friday on the popular Web site Rotten.com. Reached Saturday, Scott pointed out another irony of the phoney essay on making bombs.

"[It] seemed to show a number of lines and notes around it -- meaning they were studying it!"

Reached for comment, the editor of the 1979 piece says he's always surprised when one of their articles is taken seriously. "This has happened before and given us a good laugh," remembers Harry J. Lipkin. "I wonder whether the Taliban really took the article seriously?" Marc Abrahams, a later editor at the magazine, sees another lesson. "Absolutely anything, if it's just worded in a mildly plausible way -- so many people are intimidated by anything technical that they just won't read it carefully!"

In a strange twist, the Times report was addressed in a Thursday press conference by Governor Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security. Ridge referred to the discovery of "materials relative to a nuclear threat" and said they were "certainly consistent with [bin Laden] statements that he would like to acquire that capacity."

"It is not to say, it does not confirm that he has the capacity," Ridge told the reporters. "It just says that whether it's bin Laden or some other potential foe of this country, we have to be prepared for all eventualities, including a nuclear threat." But CyberGeek thinks U.S. security officials may know more than they're letting on.

"Last week, I saw Donald Rumsfeld being asked about possible nuclear terrorism, and he seemed to be just a bit too smiley. I bet he and the guys at the Pentagon are having a good laugh."

The BBC stands behind their report. "As far as we are concerned there was no error in the broadcast," emailed Chris Reed, Media Relations Manager at the BBC's corporate press office. "Simpson reported exactly what he saw and did not conclude anything about the veracity of the documents on the floor. He just said that they were there and what they described." Simpson had also reported the discovery of notes on building a missile and the name of a powerful KGB poison, concluding only that the documents "show how dangerous bin Laden's Al Qaeda network aspired to be." His report ended with this disclaimer. "Maybe the really dangerous-sounding documents on nuclear fission and missiles were just fantasy. But we can't yet be absolutely sure."

And the Times of London had also reported the presence of other information in the building. Though they couldn't be reached for a comment, their original article had ended with an inadvertent defense. "This was only what was left behind by frightened men escaping the advance of the Mujahidin. The sensitive material is still with them."

The presence of a parody leaves questions hanging over reports from Kabul, says the humor journal's former editor Marc Abrahams. "It's more evidence -- as if more were needed -- that you might not want to believe everything that you read in the newspapers and see on the TV...." In fact, after assembling a collection of over 100,000 text files, Rotten.com contributor Jason Scott has concluded that the scope of the misunderstanding may stretch even further. "If somebody thought they saw nuclear bomb plans on the Internet, they probably saw this one." And Saturday when CyberGeek spotted CNN scrolling text below their newscasters saying a CNN team in Kabul had found nuclear documents in a Taliban safehouse, his reaction was a sarcastic "Sure they did."

"As [CNN anchor Christiane] Amanpour says, it's likely all public domain info. Also likely that they got at least some of it off of websites created by adolescents."

CyberGeek recognizes the dangers of terrorism. He says a relative had had an appointment at the World Trade Center scheduled for Sept. 12. But he also believes the news media's attention to a harmless parody should serve as a reminder. "When you read something, use a little critical thinking. Do some research on it -- especially for the guys reporting on it.... It's really HARD to make a bomb, you need thousands of skilled people for several years. Chemists, metallurgists, phycisists, engineers. Only a developed country can do it."

But the episode leaves Abrahams -- now an editor at the equally sardonic Annals of Improbable Research -- wondering what humor piece will become the next object of controversy. "I've had a number of people who warn me the Taliban might be out to get me for a piece I wrote a few years ago -- ' Feline Reactions to Bearded Men ' -- which is also all over the Internet ... Is this the Taliban's next area of concern?" Sunday he updated the 1991 confection of pseudo-science with a photograph of a cat being used as a test subject by being held up to a picture of Osama bin Laden. "We caution that these results are still preliminary," the article jokes.

But however it plays out, there remains the predictible reaction when a fake atom bomb recipe from 22 years ago has suddenly risen online to a second notoriety: laughter and relief. "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words downloaded from the Internet will never hurt me," Abraham quips. And Rotten.com's Jason Scott may have crafted the perfect epitaph with his article's New York Post-style headline.

"Taliban Thwarted by Irreproducible Result."

David Cassel is a freelance writer living in Oakland. He is currently writing a book about Internet hoaxes.