The Dominion Post
Tiger’s terrorist threat in NZ
A former special agent for the United States Department of State Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) has shared how he protected US golfer Tiger Woods from a terrorism threat in New Zealand in 2001.
A cyanide-laced letter threatening a series of suicide attacks on the golf star and others at the 2002 New Zealand Golf Open was posted to the American embassy via New Zealand’s postal service on December 18, 2001, leading police to spend about $500,000 beefing up security for the event.
Robert Starnes was a special agent for the DSS and the first security attache to be permanently posted to New Zealand. He was tasked with security duties for US missions in Wellington, Auckland, Christchurch and Apia.
Starnes, who has written about the experience in his new book, Dictators And Diplomats, A Special Agent’s Memoirs And Musings, said the letter’s author expressed a view that New Zealand’s security for the golf tournament was lax.
The writer also stated that the American golfer represented US suppression and the exploitation of the Islamic people of Southeast Asia. ‘‘The letter claimed suicide attacks could be expected against Tiger Woods and New Zealand citizens via fire bombings, train derailments, and poisoning the tournament’s spectators,’’ he said.
‘‘The author finished the letter by saying, ‘If you don’t believe what I’m saying, go ahead and put the contents of this sugar packet in your coffee’.’’
Cyanide was inside a sugar packet, similar to those available at coffee shops and restaurants.
The author claimed to be ‘‘an enemy of America, the Great Satan, as well as the Israeli regime and claimed allegiance to Islamic Jihad’’.
Woods was playing in the event for his Kiwi caddie, Steve Williams. Golf Digest reported that he was aware of the threat.
‘‘Things like this do happen,’’ the golfer said before leaving for New Zealand. ‘‘You have to go on living your life. It’s unfortunate that people have these types of views and do these types of acts. I’m going to go down there and enjoy myself.’’
Starnes said it wasn’t uncommon for US embassies to get threat letters containing anti-American and anti-Israeli views but the specific mentioning of suicide attacks and acts of violence against Woods and Kiwi citizens elevated concerns for both the New Zealand Government and US.
‘‘At the time US embassies about the world were certainly on a higher state of alert due to the deaths that occurred at the State Department mailroom in Washington DC after some staff opened letters which contained anthrax.’’
Assessments were made on the credibility of the author’s intent, capability and opportunity.
‘‘The envelope containing the sugar had very poor handwriting with misspelled words and no return address. Of course, the enclosed sugar packet elevated my concerns,’’ he said.
Starnes processed the letter as evidence and sent it to the police for testing and investigation.
Soon after, they called him in for an urgent meeting. A scientist made his way to the podium, and said: ‘‘I should be dead now.’’
The substance Starnes had forwarded for police evaluation had tested positive for lab-grade potassium cyanide. ‘‘He went on to say he normally began testing chemicals and substances that he was unaware of by acid base testing. For some unknown reason, he tested the material in the sugar packet with a non-acid based test.
‘‘Had he used acid based testing, it would have resulted in fumes that could have been fatal – the same type of fumes used in gas chambers for the death penalty.’’
The Government asked the US embassy not to go public about the threat letter, but eventually a statement was released about the threat to Woods, the New Zealand Open, and the potassium cyanide sent to the embassy.
Security delivered by police and other agencies at the golfing event was spectacular, he said. ‘‘I spent nearly 30 years in law enforcement ... and I have to say the New Zealand police certainly rank at the top in terms of ability, capability, professionalism and passion for their job.’’
The offender was never identified.