Marketing new chemical weapons

By Neil Davison | June 29, 2009

In April 2007, 26 people from the U.S. Justice Department, local law enforcement, the military, academia, and civil society came together at the behest of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research arm of the Justice Department, to consider the issue of “nonlethal” weapons development. Based on the findings of this meeting, Penn State University won a $250,000 contract to conduct further research into new incapacitating chemical weapons–for example, sedatives, anaesthetics, morphine-like analgesic chemical agents, and certain brain-signalling bioregulators–for police use in the United States and “operationalize” these weapons.

To market these weapons as somehow separate from the chemical and biological weapons that are banned by international treaties, they are being given new, obfuscating names. In this intentional narrative, chemical weapons become “calmatives” or “advanced riot control agents.” And they are promoted as part of a group of so-called “nonlethal” weapons. Worse yet, the semantic confusions go farther. These weapons aren’t really weapons at all but “capabilities,” “technologies,” and “techniques.” Similarly, other weapons under this umbrella lose their descriptive edge: laser weapons become “optical distractors,” acoustic weapons become “acoustic hailing devices,” and electrical weapons become “electromuscular incapacitation devices.”

This marketing language is pervasive. In a 2000 Penn State report that inspired the 2007 NIJ meeting, the word “weapon” isn’t used once even though the report is a complete exploration of the potential range for new chemical and biochemical technologies. The 2007 NIJ meeting, convened under the title “Community Acceptance Panel–Riot Control Agents,” discussed incapacitating chemical weapons as a potential subset of riot control agents, echoing suggestions in a 1959 U.S. Defense Science Board report that they should be described as “reinforced tear gas” or “super tear gas” in order to avoid public opposition and circumnavigate legal restrictions.

In 1990, the U.S. Army rebranded their Incapacitating Chemical Program, which focused on the weaponization of fentanyl-related opioid chemicals, renaming it the Riot Control Program. A plan for a new chemical grenade emerged from this work. They called it the “advanced riot control agent device,” but the fentanyl payload remained the same. The reason for this rebranding? The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which outlawed the use of any toxic chemical as a weapon, was entering the latter stages of negotiation.

The CWC makes an exception for the use of riot control agents, such as tear gas, which it permits for use in “law enforcement including domestic riot control,” defining these agents as any chemicals that “can produce rapidly in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure.”

Anaesthetics, sedatives, and morphine-like analgesic chemical agents don’t fit this description. Nor do brain-signalling bioregulators. This was illustrated starkly in 2002 when a fentanyl-related chemical was used to end the siege of a Moscow theater, killing 129 of more than 800 hostages. But with the soft terminology of “nonlethal” weapons, these chemical and biochemical weapons are being included in the same category as tear gas and pepper spray.

These semantic strategies are intimately and dangerously linked to efforts to push the legal boundaries of what is acceptable under the CWC. Not only have weapon developers and promoters sought to squeeze incapacitating agents into the riot control agent category, but they have sought to widen the use of riot control agents to warfare, which is clearly prohibited by the CWC.

U.S. military officials have gone so far as to say that research and development of incapacitating chemical weapons will continue “as long as it is cost-productive to do so.” Furthermore, these officials suggest that if there are technologies that the Defense Department is banned from pursuing, they will subcontract the work to the Justice or Energy departments. Meanwhile, Defense is busy working on a variety of chemical delivery systems, including airburst munitions and long-range 155-millimeter mortar rounds, but no one will say what they’re going to put in them.

In answering criticisms of these weapon programs, proponents may repeat the mantra that advances in science and technology, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry, will deliver the breakthroughs necessary to create the harmless sleeping gas of fictional James Bond portrayals. However, this is currently beyond the realm of scientific, technical, or operational possibility. Thus, scientists, doctors, and the pharmaceutical industry should resist this parasitic relationship, which seeks to coopt progress in drug development for anaesthesia and treatment of mental illness and subvert it for use in new chemical or biochemical weapons to control, manipulate, and incapacitate. The British Medical Association has already stated that it will resist this process and that others should follow suit.

Even if future technical advances were to enable the development of new chemical weapons that don’t risk significant deaths in operational conditions, the wider public must ask itself whether the police and militaries of the future (not to mention the criminals, terrorists, torturers, and dictators) should have access to chemical weapons to manipulate human cognition, perception, emotion, motivation, performance, and consciousness.

The 2007 NIJ meeting was seemingly held in an international security vacuum. While those in the defense and security communities warn of emerging external threats from rationally engineered agents that target specific biological processes to cause incapacitation, impairment, or death, they are missing the elephant in the room. (See, for example, “Biotechnology: Impacts of Biological Warfare and Biodefense” and “Globalization, Biosecurity, and the Future of the Life Sciences”.) Specifically, states that highlight external threats posed by countries or non-state actors seeking chemical and biological weapons for terrorism or mass destruction need to look at the proliferation threats within, which proceed unchecked.

If the world wants to avoid a renaissance of chemical and biological weapons, it’s time for policy makers to come to grips with this issue before it’s too late. It’s a glaring contradiction: Chemical weapons are promoted as counterterrorism weapons on one hand, while the grave external threat to international security from the proliferation of the very same class of weapons is simultaneously espoused. The two are separated by a gulf in public relations–“nonlethal” weapons versus weapons of mass destruction. The international community, particularly countries such as the United States, Russia, and the Czech Republic that are developing these weapons, should recognize that the societal costs of pursuing new incapacitating chemical weapons are far greater than any perceived operational benefits for policing or counterterrorism and put a halt to them immediately.

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Topics: Opinion

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