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 widely circulated 1979 parody. The document first appeared in the Journal of Irreproducible Results, which has been publishing scientific humour and trivia since the 1950s. 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 leftover plutonium dust is excellent as an insect repellent. You may wish to keep the substance in a lead box, but an old coffee can will do nicely."
Late last week BBC reporter John Simpson included footage of the document in a report, along with pictures of left-behind weapons including explosives, hand grenades and 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 thermonuclear device. Soon afterwards, 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 the Journal of Irreproducible Results parody published in 1979.
"I'd love to see bin Laden's face when he hears he's been financing terrorists to surf the Net for useless info," he says.
CyberGeek forwarded his find to a mailing list of computer enthusiasts, where it was picked up by Jason Scott, who put it on the popular Web site Rotten.com.
When reached, Scott points out another feature of the document found in Afghanistan. "(It) seemed to show a number of lines and notes around it -- (as if) they were studying it!"
Reached for comment, the editor of the 1979 piece, Harry J. Lipkin, says, "I wonder whether the Taliban really took the article seriously."
In a strange twist, the Times report was addressed at a press conference last week by ex-Pennsylvania 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's) 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 reporters. "It just says that whether it's bin Laden or some other potential foe, we have to be prepared for all eventualities, including a nuclear threat."
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 the guys at the Pentagon are having a good laugh."
The BBC stands behind its report. "As far as we are concerned, there was no error in the broadcast," e-mailed Chris Reed, media relations manager at the BBC's corporate press office. "Simpson did not conclude anything about the veracity of the documents. 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.
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."