Open Forum

Me and Johnny Sutton

For the past seven months, I’ve been writing Johnny Sutton, U.S. Attorney for the Central District of Texas, with some hot leads. Very hot leads. I have identified at least five terror cells operating in the United States with the intent to produce biological and chemical weapons. Already armed to the teeth with conventional bullets and bombs, they are expanding their options by genetically engineering destructive bugs and testing toxic chemicals with the explicit intent of using their creations as weapons. One group has developed a gas canister, fired from a mortar, capable of delivering several pounds of aerosolized chemical or biological agent(s) from a mile and a half away. It works like this: a dull thud in the distance, a few seconds later a pop overhead. An aerosol cloud quickly forms, and the biochemical agent wafts in the breeze, blows into windows, gets sucked into air conditioners, and settles on skin and in the lungs. I have pictures of this being tested, less than two years ago, at a secret facility in Washington state. I can pinpoint these activities on a map and identify many of the precise agents, including fentanyl–the narcotic that killed at least 118 innocent people in the Moscow theater hostage crisis. I can name most of the principle architects of these weapons. One of these cells is right here in Texas in Sutton’s own district, at a facility just outside San Antonio. The others are dotted across the country in Virginia, South Carolina, Idaho, Pennsylvania–even our nation’s capital.

Johnny Sutton knows about this because I have provided him with ample evidence, documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, as well as copies of the relevant U.S. and international law. Making chemical and biological weapons is, quite obviously, extremely illegal. The Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989 was passed unanimously by both houses of Congress, and signed into law by George Bush, Sr. The law is a strong one, and has been repeatedly updated to account for technological changes and the increasing threat posed by the expansion of biotechnological knowledge. Enforcement of the Act and of our chemical weapons law is a top priority not only for the U.S. Department of Justice, but also for Congress, which elevated the penalty for making bioweapons from a mere life sentence to the federal death penalty, in the wake of last year’s anthrax scare.

My Austin-based non-profit organization, the Sunshine Project, works to rid the world of all forms of biological and chemical weapons. With our German office in Hamburg, we mainly work internationally, in intergovernmental negotiations, encouraging governments to do the right things. We also act as a watchdog at home, conducting dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests each year. We are not neutral. Like other reasonable people, we’d like to see weapons-of-mass-destruction terrorists prosecuted, although we’d rather avoid the application of that ultimate sanction approved by Congress last year. That’s why we’re helping Sutton, who is charged with enforcing federal law in Central Texas. As the United States prepares to invade Iraq to rid that country of chemical and biological weapons–and while the FBI’s anthrax investigation remains stalled–can you imagine a bigger bust for the aspiring Bush-appointed U.S. attorney than to swoop in and bring these chemical and biological miscreants before the bench? Nobody has ever been tried, much less convicted, under the Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989. A perp walk with these guys would be the stuff of international headlines and Johnny Sutton could write his own ticket to the upper echelons of the Department of Justice.

But he hasn’t answered my letters. I don’t know for sure, but I am beginning to suspect that it might have something to do with the identities of these particular weaponeers. Saddam Hussein’s secret service? Not exactly. Osama bin Laden’s chemical corps? Wrong again.

The guys playing with fentanyl and mortars, for example, are a cabal consisting of the Pentagon’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate in Quantico, Virginia; U.S. Army outfits in Maryland and New Jersey; and a small host of defense contractors.

Fentanyl is just one item in their arsenal, which includes–among other substances–Valium and an interesting weapons candidate called cholecystokinin. Much of what is known about this biochemical, which is naturally produced in the brain, comes from studies of victims of post-traumatic stress syndrome and anxiety disorders. Among these people, virtually 100 percent experience an uncontrollable panic attack when a laboratory-produced version is administered to them in unnaturally large quantities. Even among people with no such disorders, seven out of ten are reduced to a quivering lump of flesh. In other words, were this nasty little neurotransmitter to be accurately released during say, a Superbowl game with 100,000 fans, it is reasonable to assume that a significant majority of the stadium would almost immediately descend into irrationality: self-doubt, terror, unexplainable hysteria or, more plainly, insanity. As with the victims of the Moscow theater attack, it’s not clear if or when they would come back.

Another of the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate’s many disturbing hobbies is the development of electromagnetic weapons, so called “people zappers,” such as a truck-mounted “microwave oven” that instantaneously heats protestors’ skin to 120 degrees. Are we having fun yet? Consider a related proposal from the Pentagon’s intrepid researchers. Delving through the scientific literature, military contractors at Pennsylvania State University’s Institute for Emerging Defense Technologies (run by the Directorate’s former commander), discovered that a new anesthetic drug increases patients’ sensitivity to electrical shock. In other words, it makes it hurt more. The only medical application for the drug, sold under the brand name Precedex, is to help sedate severely injured persons on artificial respirators, usually in or near emergency rooms. The Penn State proposal: Use Precedex for military purposes by dosing people with it. For those groggy few who can remain standing after being dosed with Precedex, follow up with the “people zapper.” At this point, the remaining protestors, their minds half-blown by drugs, will be reduced to–you guessed it–quivering lumps of flesh due to their drug-enhanced sensitivity to electromagnetic weapons.

These kinds of weapons could be very convenient if you’re engaged in street combat in, say, Baghdad. Indeed, any gas weapon is tempting when sticking your head around the corner runs the risk of having it blown off.

Who else would be subjected to the Pentagon’s new weapons? According to the same report, the likely candidates include “hungry refugees that are excited over the distribution of food,” “a prison setting,” an “agitated population,” and in “hostage situations.”

We learned a good bit about the military properties of ‘non-lethal’ gases in Vietnam, where U.S. forces used tear gas extensively in urban and enclosed spaces, like tunnels. Our purpose was to flush Viet Cong out of hiding in order to shoot them. Much like the more recent Russian performance in Moscow, where as many as 50 Chechen separatists were killed with a bullet to the head–after the gas rendered them unconscious and unable to resist.

Unfortunately, the whole idea of “non-lethal” weapons is a cultural myth, currently much in vogue among certain sections of the Pentagon. Historically, “non-lethal” biochemical weapons have been used to enhance the effects of other weapons, beginning in the First World War, when both Germany and its French and British enemies resorted to chemical warfare. They started with smoke, escalated to irritants (like tear gas), and then plunged into lethal mustard gas, stopping along the way to explore items like chloropicrin (called Agent PS in military circles), a chemical with legitimate uses in agriculture, but malicious ones for militaries. Used in World War I, PS gas had the “beneficial” effect of penetrating gas masks. This caused vomiting victims to remove their protective gear, whereupon PS was followed by a healthy dose of deadly mustard. Its use in war has been prohibited since the 1925 Geneva Protocol. In 1992, the Chemical Weapons Convention tightly regulated its production and sale for non-weapons purposes. The Bush Departments of State and Commerce have recently moved to relax export restrictions on chloropicrin–and the more familiar pepper gas–claiming that they have no significant military value.

The Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate is unabashedly enthusiastic about biochemical weapons. Its research director, Susan LeVine, tells us that “We need something besides tear gas, like calmatives, anesthetic agents, that would put people to sleep or in a good mood.” (“Calmative” is Cold War terminology for military hallucinogens.) Her boss, Marine Col. George Fenton, says, “I would like a magic dust that would put everyone to sleep, combatants and non-combatants.”

Meanwhile, the Armstrong Laboratory at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio is exploring genetically engineered weapons to destroy materials. That is, microbes that are designed to eat items such as plastics, rubber, and fuel supplies. Never mind what the biotech bugs would eat next. Armstrong’s bioweaponeers have proffered their goods to the Marine Corps, offering the bugs to attack a “user defined” target, a sort of bioweapons a la carte menu from which the Pentagon brass can choose. The U.S. Special Forces, based in South Carolina, are hot on bioweapons as well. After the World Trade Center attacks and the anthrax letters, America’s elite trained killers co-sponsored “Scientists Helping America,” a flag-draped conference held earlier this year in Washington and designed to induce U.S. scientists to show their patriotism by developing new weapons. The Special Forces want a lot of new toys, among them biological weapons to destroy materials. They’ve asked for new proposals and the Sunshine Project has asked to see those proposals. The Pentagon has refused to release them, perhaps because anti-material biological weapons are explicitly illegal under the Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act, a law that applies to each and every one of us, including generals and colonels in South Carolina. Soliciting or conspiring to obtain such weapons is a crime, one that the Special Forces appear to have already committed.

Dr. Sutton knows all this and more. There really is no legal question that these cases violate current U.S. and international law. I can’t blame him for feeling a little uneasy about turning the FBI loose on the Pentagon, or the prospect of the Department of Justice charging the Department of Defense with violating major federal criminal law. It’s not even clear how such a prosecution would work, but that’s what the law requires. If we were to ever see a “perp walk” in these cases, it would look more like the Pentagon daily press briefing than the images from Guantanamo Bay.

If Sutton initiated an investigation of the cases raised by the Sunshine Project, he would discover that when it comes to developing chemical and biological weapons, the U.S. government is hardly an innocent bystander. Behind closed doors in bilateral military meetings, the normally obsequious United Kingdom has been raising these issues, warning the United States that it is getting into dangerous territory and that British troops may not participate in operations in which these weapons might be used. An account of the meetings where the British protested was obtained by the Sunshine Project under the Freedom of Information Act and, to the chagrin of the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, posted on our website.

Our laws against chemical and biological weapons are good ones. On paper, we have one of the best legal regimes in the world, especially against biological weapons–if only we would use it against all violators. The United States could show the world that it is even-handed and equally serious about stopping illegal chemical and biological weapons whether in Baghdad or Baltimore. Unfortunately, we’re delivering the opposite message.

While Johnny Sutton has responded with a resounding nada, Congress may be springing into action. Prompted by information from the Sunshine Project, in September a House Subcommittee charged with U.S. weapons treaty compliance called the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate’s Commander in for a little chat about his biochemical weapons plans. The subcommittee is headed by Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays. Ohioan Dennis Kucinich is its ranking Democrat. Apparently unsatisfied with the Colonel’s explanations, subcommittee members recently moved to involve the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative branch of Congress. GAO is currently looking into the Directorate’s dalliances with illegal biochemical weapons. Texas Congressman Lloyd Doggett, while not a member of the subcommittee, has offered to help ferret out additional information on the Directorate’s activities.

But Congress isn’t responsible for prosecuting the Pentagon for biological and chemical weapons crimes already committed. That job belongs to Johnny Sutton. Months ago, I alerted him to the facts; I’m still waiting for a response. With every hard-fought Freedom of Information Act response, my case against the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate gets stronger. I want him to know that I’m not going away.

Edward Hammond is Director of the Austin office of the Sunshine Project (

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Published at 12:00 am CST