Daily Archives: December 14, 2007

US military in denial over ‘pain ray’

US military vehicle equipped with the Active Denial System (Photo: US Department of Defense)

Guardian | Dec 13, 2007

Concern over the safety of a crowd control system in tests sparks fears about its use in operational situations

by David Hambling

Crowd control always presents a problem for the military and police. How do you keep people away from a site without direct physical confrontation, when someone is almost sure to get hurt? Tear gas has variable effects and depends on wind; rubber bullets have killed. But what about a system that inflicts pain at a distance, without contact?

That’s the idea behind the Active Denial System now being tested by the US military. It is designed to cause excruciating pain without injury by projecting a beam of energy about two metres across. Victims describe the sensation as like a giant hairdryer on maximum heat, and no human can withstand it for more than a few seconds. It’s certainly effective, but the report of how a test subject received second-degree burns raises doubts over how harmless it is.

The system, informally known as the “pain ray”, works by producing a beam of short-wavelength microwaves that only penetrate about 0.4mm into the skin, rapidly heating the epidermis. Tests have shown that the beam will not cause cancer, infertility or damaged eyeballs. Heating skin to 55C causes intolerable pain, but no injury – any higher could be hazardous.

The US Air Force says over-exposure shouldn’t occur: “While the intensity of the beam varies with range, the safety margin and effects calculations have taken the maximum beam intensity into account. The repel effect will be virtually identical at short or long ranges until the effects dissipate beyond the system’s effective range.” Dr Juergen Altmann, physicist with the Bochum Verification project, isn’t convinced. His calculations suggest a dangerously narrow safety margin.

Safety concerns

In April, the system underwent field testing to determine its effectiveness in different situations. A report on a testing accident was obtained recently by Wired journalist Sharon Weinberger using the Freedom of Information Act. In one scenario the beam was to be used to prevent “Red Force” players from setting up an improvised explosive device “at a very far distance”. (The maximum range is classified, but thought to be about 750 metres.)

Earlier that day it had been used successfully at 75% power level and three-second duration. According to the report: “ADS Operator P4 set power to 100% for four-second duration, so as to be effective at the longer range.” A problem prevented the test from taking place – the system’s magnet requires supercooling and can be temperamental in hot weather. The commander decided to move on to the next scenario, which would test the beam by driving away Red Forces attempting to carry out surveillance at much closer range.

Unfortunately, the crew forgot to change the settings. When the system was fired, “Red Forces Role Player P3 immediately knew that he had received a stronger than usual shot from the ADS; he gave the quit signal and left the field.” The quit signal, raising one hand, has been used throughout Active Denial trials to indicate that a subject wishes to end testing.

The description of the injuries has been censored from the report: all we can see is that they are covered by 11 numbered points. An Air Force statement says: “the injury was classified as a second degree burn,” a type characterised by blistering. Local newspapers reported that the airman suffered burns on both legs and spent two days in the Joseph M Still Burn Centre in Augusta, Georgia. The official report puts the injury cost at $17,748.

Clearly the safeguards do not prevent operator error. “This document confirms my analysis that the intensity and dose to the target subjects is left to the discretion of the operator,” says Dr Altmann. “Not only can he or she re-trigger on the same person without giving appropriate cooling time, but also the strength of the beam and duration can be changed during action. Both lead to the possibility of second- and third-degree burn injury, which becomes life-threatening if more than 20% to 50% of body surface is affected.”

Classified information

Steve Wright of Leeds Metropolitan University expresses similar concerns. “If this means that these parameters do not have automatic safety overrides in place, there is the option of using this weapon to facilitate maiming injuries or punitive incapacitation – and this was at four seconds. We do not know what injuries would emerge for longer than this because US authorities have seen fit to heavily censor the biomedical information from the public record.”

If the system were used in Iraq, Wright believes safety considerations might be overlooked. “In the fear-filled conditions of a live and hostile confrontation, the natural temptation would be to turn the weapon up to full power to be certain that people taken down by it stayed down.”

Altmann agrees that foreign use could be more dangerous. “In tests with their own personnel the US military are certainly relatively cautious,” he says. “It is not difficult to imagine, on the other hand, what can happen in an occupied country.”

Moreover, reports from previous tests show that reflections of the beam can cause hotspots more than twice as strong as the main beam. Software designed to check mobile phone signal strength has been used to predict where these might appear, but it is not part of the system.

Proponents argue that it is better to risk causing a few minor burns than to use live ammunition, often the only alternative. Opponents are worried that if Active Denial is deployed, it could be the start of a new form of high-tech oppression. “One day the manufacturer will sell it, perhaps to security forces of allies with less sensitive tendencies,” says Wright. “Can one imagine this weapon being turned on democratic forces in Pakistan, for example, and the authorities using restraint?”

California town up in arms over Blackwater training camp

AFP | Dec 12, 2007

LOS ANGELES (AFP) — A tiny town in southern California is up in arms over an attempt by under-fire private security firm Blackwater to build a massive training center on its doorstep, official records showed Wednesday.

Residents of Potrero early Wednesday voted to replace five local planners who expressed support for Blackwater’s proposed 824-acre (333 ha) facility at a disused poultry farm in the town, roughly 42 miles (67 kilometers) east of San Diego.

Local media reported that residents of Potrero — which has a population of around 800 — were opposed to the center on the grounds that it would increase noise and disturbance. Concerns had also been raised that Blackwater may somehow become involved in policing the nearby US-Mexico border.

The San Diego County Registrar of Voters said on Wednesday residents had voted to replace the five members of a planning group that had supported the bid. A final decision on Blackwater’s training center will be taken by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

Blackwater has faced severe criticism following an incident in Baghdad in September in which 17 Iraqis were killed after guards employed by the firm opened fire in a crowded neighborhood.

The Iraqi government described the shooting as a crime but the company maintains its staff only began shooting after coming under attack as they protected a convoy.

Blackwater in Baghdad: “It was a horror movie”


Exclusive testimony from witnesses and victims provides the most in-depth, harrowing account to date of the U.S. security firm’s deadly rampage in Iraq.

Salon.com | Dec. 14, 2007

By Jennifer Daskal

For Khalaf, a 38-year-old Iraqi, Sept. 16 started like many other sunny summer workdays. He donned his police uniform — a white shirt, navy trousers and hat — and headed to Baghdad’s busy Nissour Square. By 7 a.m. he was out in the street, directing the flow of traffic coming from the multi-laned Yarmouk access road into the square. When he spotted four large all-terrain vehicles with guns mounted on top, he did what he always did. He stopped traffic and cleared the area for what he knew, from the tell-tale sign of the two accompanying helicopters, to be a security firm’s convoy.

At first, this seemed completely normal for the totally abnormal world of Baghdad in September 2007. “Convoys are common,” explained Khalaf. But this convoy made an unexpected U-turn, drove the wrong way around the one-way square, stopped in the middle of it and started shooting. Fifteen minutes later, 17 Iraqi civilians were dead, dozens more wounded, and a white sedan that had been engulfed in flames contained two bodies charred beyond recognition.

“It was a horror movie,” said Khalaf, describing the aftermath of the now notorious Blackwater shootings.

I interviewed Khalaf on Nov. 30, in a small conference room inside a hotel in Istanbul, Turkey. In one of the most in-depth collection of testimonials to date regarding Blackwater, Khalaf was among five witnesses and victims flown from Baghdad to meet with Susan Burke, William O’Neil and their team of lawyers and investigators. The team is suing Blackwater on behalf of the victims of the Sept. 16 shooting.

That lethal incident was a watershed moment that brought intense scrutiny to the problems caused by private contractors, which have effectively operated with impunity as they’ve brought violence and widespread ill will to U.S. operations in Iraq.

With experience learned from a similar lawsuit filed two years ago against U.S. contractors implicated in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison scandal, Burke O’Neil is perhaps the only law firm in the nation that could so quickly gather eyewitness and victim accounts, make the right legal arguments and begin the process of holding Blackwater to account.

Sadly, this lawsuit may be the only way that the victims and their families receive remotely adequate compensation for their losses.

Khalaf recounted the events of that day to a hushed room of lawyers with laptops. He watched, he said, as the Blackwater convoy made the U-turn toward the street where he stood directing traffic. As the convoy stopped, Khalaf watched as a large man with a mustache standing atop the third car fired several shots in the air. Khalaf turned back toward the Yarmouk road to see what might have spurred the shooting and heard a woman yell, “My son! My son!” He ran three cars back to a white sedan to find a woman holding a young man slumped over and covered with blood.

The man was Ahmed, a 20-year-old medical student at the top of his class, and the woman his mother, Mohasin, a successful dermatologist and mother of three.

“I tried to help the young man, but his mother was holding him so tight,” said Khalaf. “I raised my left arm high in the air to try to signal to the convoy to stop the shooting,” he said, thinking that it would respond to such a gesture by a police officer. He described how he crouched by the car, his right arm reaching inside, his head out and left arm up in the air, signaling to the convoy, his gun secure in its holster. Then the mother was shot dead before his eyes.

The shooting then turned heavier, Khalaf said, his eyes red-brimmed and serious. He hid behind the police traffic booth, but shots came directly at him, hitting the adjacent traffic light and booth’s door, and he fled back across Yarmouk road to safety behind a hill. Along with a few hundred others, he stayed there as the chaos unfolded, watching as the helicopters circling above the street started shooting at those below.

Fifteen minutes later, the four-car convoy continued around the square and drove away. Amid the wreckage, colorful clouds billowed into the air from the convoy’s parting gift — multicolored smoke bombs.

In remarks prepared for delivery before a congressional hearing in October, Blackwater chairman Erik Prince claimed company guards “returned fire at threatening targets,” including “men with AK-47s firing on the convoy” and “approaching vehicles that appeared to be suicide car bombers.” Prince’s prepared testimony also asserted that one of the vehicles had been disabled by the “enemy fire” and had to be towed. And he contended that the helicopters never fired on those below. (These remarks were never actually delivered; the Department of Justice launched an investigation the day before the hearing and asked the committee not to discuss the details of the Sept. 16 incident. Prince’s remarks were subsequently reported in the Washington Post.)

But the accounts of Khalaf and others contradict each of Prince’s assertions. Khalaf, who was there before the shooting began, said he never saw anyone fire on or approach the convoy. He watched as all four cars drove away as the 15-minute shooting spree ended, and huddled in fear as the helicopters began firing. He thought the helicopters would start spraying those who were hiding behind the hill for safety from the street-level threat.

Khalaf’s observations are backed up by official accounts, including leaked FBI findings, which concluded that at least 14 of the 17 shooting deaths were unjustified, and statements by military officials disputing Blackwater’s claim that its guards had been fired upon or under any sort of attack. The Iraq government’s own investigation found no evidence that the guards had been provoked or attacked, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s spokesperson called the shootings “deliberate murder.”

Full Story

US ‘tapping cell phones in Indonesia’

RINF | Dec 14, 2007

US agents in Jakarta have been eavesdropping on Indonesian citizens’ phone conversations and reading their text messages, a report says.

According to the report by investigative journalist Allan Nairn, US intelligence officers in Jakarta are secretly tapping the cell phones and reading the SMS text messages of Indonesian civilians.

Some of the Americans involved in the spy operation work out of the Jakarta headquarters of Detachment 88, a US-trained and funded paramilitary unit which is part of Kopassus, the Indonesian army’s Special Forces.

Detachment 88 was recently involved in the arrest of a West Papuan human rights lawyer who had sent a text message critical of the Indonesian military and the Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The lawyer, Iwangin Sabar Olif, was charged with ‘incitement and insulting the head of state.’

Sources have also told Nairn that US intelligence is providing covert intelligence aid to Kopassus.
The information on the US surveillance program is provided by three sources, including an individual who has worked frequently with the Indonesian security forces.

Detachment 88 has been mentored by veteran CIA and State Department official Cofer Black, who was one of the architects of the US invasion of Afghanistan.

At present Black is one of the lead officials at the notorious Blackwater security agency which provides mercenaries to protect US diplomatic and other missions in Iraq. The company is the focus of much scrutiny because of a long record of indiscriminate killings of Iraqi civilians.

US House votes to outlaw CIA waterboarding

Reuters | Dec 13, 2007

By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON, Dec 13 (Reuters) – Defying a White House veto threat, the U.S. House of Representatives voted on Thursday to outlaw harsh interrogation methods, such as simulated drowning, that the CIA has used against suspected terrorists.

On a largely party line vote of 222-199, the Democratic-led House approved a measure to require intelligence agents to comply with the Army Field Manual, which bans torture in compliance with the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war.

The measure, part of a sweeping intelligence bill, passed amid a congressional probe into the recent disclosure that the CIA destroyed videotapes of al Qaeda suspects undergoing waterboarding, a simulated drowning.

Many countries, U.S. lawmakers and human rights groups have accused the United States of torturing terror suspects since the Sept. 11 attacks.

President George W. Bush says the United States does not torture, but the administration will not disclose what interrogation methods it has approved for the CIA.

In threatening to veto the House-passed measure, which now awaits Senate action, the White House argued it would prevent the United States from conducting “lawful interrogations of senior al Qaeda terrorists.”

House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer countered that the current administration had blurred the line “between legitimate, sanctioned interrogation tactics and torture.”

“There is no doubt our international reputation has suffered and been stained as a result,” Hoyer told colleagues.

Backers of harsh interrogation say it is needed to pry vital information out of enemy combatants. But critics say torture is inhumane and such information is often unreliable.

The CIA has told lawmakers they stopped waterboarding a few years ago, aides say.

The overall intelligence authorization bill that contains the interrogation provision faces another fight in the closely-divided, Democratic-led Senate.

The Army Field Manual provides 19 approved interrogation methods. They include isolating prisoners, allowing American interrogators to pose as representing another country and the “good-cop, bad-cop” interviewing technique.

. . .

Pelosi knew about waterboarding

Santa Clara County supervisors pass resolution banning torture flights

Mercury News | Dec 13, 2007

By Leslie Griffy

Santa Clara County threw its support behind a proposed law that would ban a San Jose-based company from planning and scheduling flights for the CIA – flights that critics charge end in torture.

The Board of Supervisors voted 4 to 1 Tuesday to support legislation in the House of Representatives that would make it illegal to transfer people from the United States for detention in countries were torture is a common practice. Supervisor Don Gage was the solo no vote on the resolution.

Jeppesen Dataplan Inc., which has offices in downtown San Jose, helped the CIA get fly-over and landing permits for flights that took detainees to countries like Morocco and Egypt where torture is common, according to a lawsuit filed in May by the American Civil Liberties Union. The company is said to have also helped plan itineraries and lodging for the crews on the so-called “extraordinary rendition” flights.

Under the legislation proposed by Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey, such flights would be illegal.

“This resolution emphasizes the Board’s firm support for ending the occurrence of extraordinary rendition flights,” Supervisor Pete McHugh said.

Waterboarding approved at the top, ex-agent says

AP | Dec 12, 2007

Washington — A former CIA agent who was part of an interrogation team went public with his account yesterday, saying the waterboarding of a top al-Qaeda figure was approved at the top levels of the U.S. government.

John Kiriakou, a leader of the team that captured top terrorist suspect Abu Zubaydah, said waterboarding worked – it forced Abu Zubaydah to talk in less than 35 seconds.

Waterboarding is a harsh interrogation technique that involves strapping down a prisoner, covering his mouth with plastic or cloth and pouring water over his face. The prisoner quickly begins to inhale water, causing the sensation of drowning.