Associated Press
July 17, 2004

Marines Get Site to Pull Knockout Gas Info

By MICHAEL P. REGAN; AP Business Writer

A watchdog group has removed documents from its Web site that detail military research into knockout gases similar to the one used in the deadly 2002 Moscow theater siege after the Marine Corps warned they could pose a threat to Defense Department employees.

The group, the Sunshine Project, claims the documents indicate that early 1990s Army research into knockout gases, which was canceled because of the Chemical Weapons Convention, was revived by the Pentagon's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate in the early 2000s.

The Sunshine Project posted an e-mail on its site Thursday from Zachary J. Stewart, a lawyer with the Marine Corps Systems Command, saying the three documents were inadvertently sent to the group after it requested them through the Freedom of Information Act.

Stewart asked that the documents be removed because they "contain sensitive program information as well as personally identifying information that may subject Department of Defense employees to be targeted by hostile groups or organizations," according to the e-mail.

The documents were posted on the group's site in January. It's not clear why the Marines waited until Wednesday to ask that they be removed.

Edward Hammond, director of the U.S. office of the Sunshine Project, said he removed the documents Thursday based on the Marines' contention that DOD employees may be at risk.

Steven Aftergood, who runs the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, said the government could not legally compel the group to do so.

He said similar requests occur a few times a year, but called this one a "comedy of errors," since the documents were apparently sent by mistake and were on the Web for months.

"Once information makes it to the Web for more than 30 seconds, it is permanently in the public domain," he said.

Sanford McLaurin, a spokesman for the Marine Corps Systems Command, issued a statement Friday evening saying, "The Marine Corps is currently coordinating with other DOD agencies to determine what harm, if any, has come from the inadvertent disclosure of the documents." He would not comment further. Stewart and a spokesman for the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate did not reply to requests for comment.

The so-called Advanced Riot Control Agent Device (ARCAD) discussed in the documents is similar to the opiate gas that proved deadly when used in a hostage situation in a Moscow theater in 2002, said Hammond. Most of the 129 hostage deaths in the incident were blamed on the gas.

Hammond received the documents, with titles such as Anti-Personnel Calmative Agents and Anti-Personnel Chemical Immobilizers, after initiating a Freedom of Information Act request in 2001.

According to a statement on the group's site, the calmative agent was developed at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

"The weapons were designed to knock out groups of people, in battle and in other situations, presumably including 'rioting' civilians," the statement says. The Pentagon killed the ARCAD project in 1992 in anticipation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which went into effect in 1997.

However, Hammond says the Pentagon awarded a contract for "Front End Analysis of Chemical Immobilizing Agents" to defense contractor Optimetrics Inc., in 2000 and the project leader was former Aberdeen researcher C. Parker Ferguson, who had pushed the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate to revive the ARCAD program.

Not long after the contract was awarded, according to Hammond, the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate launched a two-year research program titled "Front-End Analysis for Non-Lethal Chemicals" that listed as a potential application "Improved Riot Control Agents for crowd, area denial and clearing facilities."

C. Russell Stout, director of Atlantic region operations at Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Optimetrics, said company employees have attended conferences sponsored by the directorate and Ferguson presented a paper at one. However, he said, Optimetrics has not received any contracts from the directorate.

He said Optimetrics' 2000 funding for the immobilizing agents project was a $75,000 contract from the Army Research Office to investigate ways to mix the synthetic opiate sentanyl in a gas with an antidote to the drug, in order to "disable some folks, but have them recover quickly."

"We did some animal studies to evaluate the effectiveness of some of these sentanyls, to see if there ... might be a reasonable way to use them. Our research was inconclusive," he said. "They didn't fund us to do any more, so I'm assuming that program ended."

On the Net:

Copyright 2004 Associated Press