Public Release:  Non-lethal weapons kept secret

New Scientist

BUGS that eat roads and buildings. Biocatalysts that break down fuel and plastics. Devices that stealthily corrode aluminium and other metals. These are just a few of the non-lethal weapons that the US has tried to develop, or is trying to develop.

But quite how close such weapons are to reality we may never know. The US National Academy of Sciences is refusing to release dozens of reports proposing or describing their development, even though the documents are supposed to be public records.

The academy is justifying its unprecedented reticence by citing security concerns after 11 September. But campaigners think the real reason is that the research violates both USlaw and international treaties on chemical and biological weapons.

The documents in question were collected last year by a panel of academic and industry scientists set up by the NAS to evaluate recent non-lethal weapons research for the Pentagon's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program. The US took an increased interest in non-lethals after its disastrous peacekeeping mission in Somalia in 1993, when rioting civilians killed American soldiers.

The panel, whose report is due out later this year, collected 147 reports and proposals from researchers, many of them funded by the JNLWP. One group at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, for example, proposes using intense electromagnetic fields to produce effects "ranging from the disruption of short-term memory to total loss of control of voluntary bodily functions". Others propose directed energy weapons.

In March, as is usual with non-classified studies by the NAS, they were deposited with the academy's Public Access Records Office, and their titles were released (see below). "These documents are supposed to be public," says Ed Hammond of the Sunshine Project, a group campaigning against biological weapons. When he asked the records office to see 77 of the documents, it agreed to hand them over.

"But two days later the NAS pulled the documents," says Hammond. "Kevin Hale, the NAS security officer, told me it was because someone had expressed concern." Who did so isn't clear. The pressure for the clampdown doesn't appear to have come from the JNLWP itself, because last week it sent Hammond eight documents he had requested, including three on the NAS list.

New Scientist couldn't get hold of Hale. "We are still formulating our response to the Sunshine people," is all an assistant would say. But the few reports that Hammond did obtain make interesting reading.

More than a year ago, New Scientist revealed that senior officials in the JNLWP want to rewrite the chemical and biological weapons treaties to give themselves more freedom to develop non-lethal weapons (16 December 2000, p 4). The reports make it clear that research that violates the treaties has been under way since the 1990s.

One 1998 funding application from the Office of Naval Research proposes creating genetically engineered microorganisms that would corrode roads and runways, and produce "targeted deterioration of metal parts, coatings and lubricants of weapons, vehicles and support equipment, as well as fuels".

The plan was to isolate genes for enzymes that attack materials such as Kevlar, asphalt, cement, paints or lubricants, and put them into microbes that churn them out in large quantities. The bugs were to be engineered to self-destruct after wreaking havoc.

It is not clear how many of these ideas have actually been realised. But the group has already patented a microorganism that would decompose polyurethane, "a common component of paint for ships and aircraft", including stealth anti-radar coatings.

Another 1998 proposal, from a biotech lab at Brooks Air Force Base near San Antonio in Texas, was to refine "anti-material biocatalysts" already under development. One of these involved a bacterial derivative that breaks down organic molecules such as fuels and plastic.

The proposal claims that such substances are exempt from biological warfare restrictions. But that isn't true, argues Mark Wheelis of University of California, Davis. The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1972 prohibits the "development, production, stockpiling or acquisition of biological agents or toxins" other than for peaceful purposes. What's more, last year the US itself introduced a law banning the possession of bioweapons, including microbes designed to attack materials.

The withheld documents also include proposals to use stink bombs, sedatives and opium derivatives as weapons, which Wheelis thinks would contravene the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1992. This prohibits "any chemical which... can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm".

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Author: Debora MacKenzie

New Scientist issue: 11th May 2002

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