An attempt was made to poison a key American adviser involved in the bidding for a multibillion dollar mining contract in Afghanistan by replacing beer in a bottle with sulfuric acid.
The little-reported incident occurred in June 2007 but takes on new interest with the publication by the Wikileaks website of an intelligence warning in February 2007 that Pakistan’s ISI spy agency was planning to poison soldiers' alcoholic drinks.
James Yeager, an American geologist who advised Afghanistan's Ministry of Mines, tells the Monitor he returned to his residence in Kabul to find it had been burgled. The intruder took money from a drawer and left behind a bottle of Corona beer.
The Corona bottle sat on his counter for the next two weeks Yeager says, because Corona is one of his least favorite beers. He finally opened it during a going away party as the other drinks began to run low.
“I pulled it out and when I popped it there was no fizz and the cap was loose,” says Yeager. “Because this one didn’t have fizz you wonder if it went rancid or not, and I just kind of sniffed it and I went ‘Oh, that doesn’t smell like beer.’ ”
Yeager, a geochemist familiar with acids, realized it smelled like sulfuric acid – otherwise known as battery acid. He called a friend over who had the same reaction to the smell. Yeager poured the “beer” into the toilet and it foamed and fizzed, leaving “no question” in his mind it was sulfuric acid.
Among the 90,000 documents made public by Wikileaks is an intelligence report claiming that Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and insurgents were plotting a similar type of tampering.
“A local Authority reported that ISI and insurgents are going to buy alcoholic drinks from markets [in order to] mix them with poison and use them for poisoning” Afghan and international troops, reads the report in the Wikileaks trove.
Media outlets including the Guardian in Britain highlighted the supposed plan as “highly implausible” and used it to caution that much of the Wikileaks’ intelligence data dump may be “low grade” and unreliable.
Experts told of the actual poisoning attempt of the American adviser say that it doesn’t change the advice to the public to take the Wikileaks reports with a big grain of salt – but it does highlight the need for professionals to sift through the Wikileaks material to give a realistic judgment on the threats.
“There’s a need for a greater examination and categorization of these 90,000 reports. I’m sure a lot of these reports are of low reliability,” says B. Raman, former head of counterintelligence for India’s spy agency, the Research and Analysis Wing.
Yeager says he doesn’t know who was behind the poisoning attempt. He’s glad no one got hurt, but ultimately he treats the incident lightly.
“I work internationally a lot and it’s just one of those things... It’s entertaining. You just go on,” he says with a laugh. He says at the time he thought, “Who cares I’m going home.”
Yeager served as an adviser to the Ministry of Mines during the international bidding for rights to mine Afghanistan’s Aynak copper deposit. The Chinese eventually won the $2.9 billion contract.
Before leaving in 2007, Yeager urged the Karzai administration to reexamine the bids. Two years later, he released a report criticizing the tender process, saying that the ministry did not operate transparently and that Chinese firms do not have to play by the same anti-bribery rules as American firms.
Alcohol is officially banned in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but it can be distributed in foreigners-only venues and is easily obtained on the black market.
Pakistani security analyst Rifaat Hussein notes that food and drink tampering plots are not unheard of in the region. He referenced a recent case where the US Embassy in Pakistan warned American citizens against using a catering company due to an alleged association with Faizal Shahzad, the New York Times Square bomber.
“I think we should not dismiss [the Wikileaks report] just because it is emanating from Afghan sources who may have a vested interest in trying to discredit the Pakistani intelligence services,” says Dr. Hussein.