Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Extraordinary Case Of The Indestructible ST Timer

One characteristic feature of conspiracy theories in general is their durability even in the face of clear evidence demonstrating the lack of substance behind them. For a very good example of this from the London bombings, take a look at this article from the Guardian . In reality, we don’t need the example of London to demonstrate the point; the conspiracy theories about the Madrid bombings show very well how an unfounded accusation can spread and become part of the debate about the bombings.

A few months ago, on my other blog, I wrote a post about an article that had been published in El Mundo. The article concerned the discovery of an “ST” timer during the search of a workshop being rented by one of those on trial for the bombings. This story originally attracted my attention because I noticed it on a blog being written in English by a supporter of the conspiracy theories. As presented on this other blog, the story was that the timer found had actually been made by ETA, and it was therefore a clear proof of ETA involvement in the Madrid bombings. On reading the original story from El Mundo, I found no facts demonstrating that ETA had made the timer, and I was struck by the fact that the device in question had what was clearly a model number - ST 17 MEC 24 H INT/160 . Now either ETA had their own timer factory with a significant range of products, and perhaps a catalogue or website advertising them, or we were dealing with a timer that had been industrially manufactured.

On questioning the post, the writer of the blog assured me that she knew the story was true because El Mundo’s director Pedro J Ramirez had stated it to be so on the radio program of his good friend Federico Jiménez Losantos. Call me a sceptic if you like, but this wasn’t really convincing enough and after a further exchange the blog’s author discovered a document from the Spanish Parliament where the Minister of the Interior had listed the industrially made ST timers as being one of several types used by ETA in the past. So the idea that the device was made by ETA was not supported by any evidence except the extremely unreliable word of Pedro J Ramirez.

The original newspaper article appears with a photograph of a timer recovered from an ETA commando in the past. The timer has a label on it with the words “Segurtasen Temporizadorea” in Basque. Ramirez argued, again without providing any evidence, that the ST timer was so called because it was the short version of the Basque description of the timer found. Now, put the words “ST” and “timer” into Google and see the long list of search results you get. Congratulations, you have just become an investigative reporter, perhaps not the very best in the world, but already a good bit better than anyone on the payroll of El Mundo.

The timer they didn't find.

You might think that would be the end of the matter, the story had been published and Ramirez had embellished it with the additional details needed to establish the connection to ETA. It should have been just another of the bogus connections that the conspiracy theorists have tried to create between ETA and the Madrid bombings. Over the next few months I got the occasional hit from someone who was obviously doing an Internet search on the model number of the timer, but apart from that the story barely surfaced; even on the web pages of conspiracy theory supporters.

However, I did not count on a defence lawyer for two of the accused in the trial adopting elements of the conspiracy theories as part of the defence being presented. It turns out that this lawyer, representing Jamal Zougam and Basel Ghalyoun, decided to include the photograph of the ETA timer in a written submission to the court. Along with the photograph is a text which links this timer to the one discovered by the police investigating the train bombings, alongside claims that only ETA would ever use such a timer. The newspaper El País picked up on this and ran a story on the inclusion by this lawyer of conspiracy theory material, and in the process demonstrated the clear industrial origin of the timer in question.

My original post on this issue was actually the first thing I wrote about the conspiracy theories; I never suspected at the time that 8 months later I would be returning to the same topic on a blog entirely dedicated to the subject of the Madrid bombings. The unpredictable consequences of blogging. What this story demonstrates is a sad reality that the conspiracy theorists are very much aware of; that an often repeated lie refuses to die. For them, anything that demonstrates even the most tenuous connection to ETA acquires an almost mystical significance that resists any effort to present the facts behind the issue. I'm not convinced that we have heard the last of the ST timer.


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