The Complex

Why U.S. Troops Don’t Use Pain Rays and Stun Grenades

In the early days of the Iraq War, the U.S. military pumped millions of dollars into non-lethal weapons projects intended to stop people without killing them. There was the "pain ray," designed to force people to move by aiming agonizing millimeter waves at them. There were electroshock weapons such as the Taser, purchased to incapacitate people at close ranges without shooting them. And there were a variety of other non-lethal bullets, grenades, slippery foams, and laser dazzlers acquired to drive away or stop potential combatants without resorting to hot lead sprayed from a rifle. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

A decade later, however, the Joint Nonlethal Weapons Program established by the Pentagon is moving forward with decidedly mixed returns: Its technology was rarely used in the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to a 2009 report by Congress's investigative agency, the Government Accountability Office. Since then, the directorate overseeing non-lethal weapons has improved its planning and organization, the GAO subsequently found, but officials with the organization say they are still fighting an uphill battle to get non-lethal weapons fielded and used.

There is perhaps no greater example of this than the Active Denial System, the directed-energy "pain ray" weapon that turns electricity into a painful ray of millimeter waves targeting people up to 1,000 meters away. The device's existence was first disclosed in 2001, but it was not deployed until it reached troops in Afghanistan in 2010. Even then, it was recalled from the war zone quickly without ever being used in combat amid criticism that using pain rays would yield propaganda victories for the Taliban -- even if the alternative was deadly hot lead fired by U.S. troops.

Brian Long, the Active Denial System's program manager, told Foreign Policy that in the last few years, officials with the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program have "found kind of dichotomy" in the military. On one hand, commanders want to reduce civilian casualties, and want them quickly after they are requested. On the other hand, many units have been unwilling to spend the time training their troops to use them, even for situations where they hypothetically could help.

"What we kind of realized was that despite the fielding, there was a sense that these things weren't really useful," Long said in an interview at Quantico, Va., where the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate is based. "There was a general unfamiliarity with these things."

Another example is the Taser. After the fall of Baghdad in 2003, some U.S. units began carrying the electroshock device as an option to subdue potential adversaries or prisoners. They ultimately were used by the Air Force and Army, but mostly for specific niche missions, like security checkpoint enforcement. The Marine Corps also owned obtained a small amount of Tasers, but did not use them in part due to concerns about how they would be perceived in places like Iraq, a Marine spokesman later said. The Marine Corps did not approve guidelines for their use until 2008, and still has not bought them in large quantities. The non-lethal weapons program says in presentations only that the Marine Corps is "authorized" to buy them if it wants them.

The use of non-lethal weapons also has been hindered by the range of capabilities of what is available. In one example, there are 12-gauge shotgun rounds that are available to dispense rubber bullets and other crowd control measures, said Kevin Swenson, the non-lethal program's acquisition division chief. But the current versions have specific ranges at which they are effective -- or potentially deadly if used too close to targets. The limitations mean that troops in the field must carry multiple rounds for different uses, and think twice before using the rubber version.

"From a fiscal pressure standpoint, what we want to do is get rid of three or four rounds, and replace them with a single round that has a very close [minimum] safe range and a far effective range, increasing that sweet-spot effective range," Swenson said.

Still, the non-lethal weapons program continues to develop a variety of equipment that could one day provide U.S. forces with more alternatives to deadly force. In one example, it's exploring how to improve the technology it uses to stop vehicles. It currently has available a couple of systems that use either spikes to deflate tires or nets that wrap around a car's axles. But the equipment is either heavy, can only be used a single time, or both, officials said. One alternative under development would use directed beams of energy to incapacitate threatening vehicles or vessels, but that it isn't ready for primetime yet.

The military also has gone on the offensive to educate the troops about non-lethal weapons. In one example, it has held a series of demonstrations to show how the gear they have developed can be used. The two major ones in 2013 were held at Twentynine Palms, Calif., and Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton, Va., in September. At Twentynine Palms, Marines used non-lethal weapons to demonstrate how they could a base's perimeter. At Langley-Eustis, the non-lethal program demonstrated how Active-Denial System's pain rays could be used from Army landing craft to target people on one vessel from another, Long said.

Despite the setbacks, there is a long-term home for non-lethal weapons in the military, said retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who led U.S. operations in the Middle East before retiring in 2000. He is credited with seeking and deploying with a variety of non-lethal weapons to Somalia in 1995, after U.S. troops in his chain of command complained in 1993 that they had few alternatives to lethal force.

"The troops were expressing frustration that we only had our M-16s, and often times are missions don't require that," Zinni told Foreign Policy. "They were actually looking to jerry-rig some things to use, almost like cattle prods. But we said, 'We don't need a CNN image of us zapping someone to keep away from our trucks.' So we went back to the services as we were out there and asked if there was anything in our inventory that could be used for this."

Other than pepper spray, little was available at the time, Zinni said. But Zinni's interest and deployment in 1995 spurred congressional interest, which required the Pentagon to develop a non-lethal weapons program in 1996. Zinni said he rejects the argument that introducing nonlethal weapons makes life confusing for the troops. With good leadership, he said, they can be used to reduce civilian casualties -- even if there is initial propaganda victories for opposing forces.

"We always had those conversations about, 'How do you let people know you're doing this?'" Zinni said. "But, I think the greatest learning experience for [people] is that after they're used, they're still alive and walking around and no one has shot them or anything. I think in the long run, that will work itself out."

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National Security

Transvestites, ‘Erotic Massages,’ and Metadata: DEA’s Colombia Scandal Deepens

A special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration attempted to solicit sex as many as 50 times using a government-issued cell phone. Another sent text messages to a transvestite prostitute he found on a Web site. And a third had a very curious definition of the word "sex."

Those are some of the eye-popping details found in a previously unreleased report from the Justice Department inspector general, obtained by Foreign Policy under the Freedom of Information Act. It shows that three DEA special agents in Colombia solicited sex from prostitutes on numerous occasions, arranged for encounters using their government-issued cell phones, and brought women back to their government-furnished apartments, putting themselves at risk for blackmail or coercion and jeopardizing national security information. The men were implicated by their cell phone call histories and contacts, which showed numerous communications with prostitutes. And when the agents were confronted with the evidence, they tried to conceal the extent of their activities, with two agents going so far as to erase numbers and other data in their cell phones before handing them over to investigators.

The incident stems from a raucous night in Cartagena, Colombia, in April 2012, when nine Secret Service agents providing security for President Obama's visit during the Summit of the Americas were found to have paid or solicited prostitutes. Two of the DEA agents arranged for a supervisor in the Secret Service's intelligence division, which investigates threats against the president, to receive an "erotic massage," which included oral sex, from a prostitute in one of the DEA agent's apartment.

The Secret Service prostitution scandal made national headlines and became fodder for late night talk show hosts, causing tremendous embarrassment for the White House and overshadowing any discussion of foreign policy during Obama's visit. But less has been reported about the DEA agents and their extensive history of solicitation in Colombia, where prostitutes are known to be used as spies by drug cartels. Those details are contained in the inspector general report.

Investigators were tipped to the DEA agents' behavior when the Secret Service supervisor stepped forward and admitted he'd been with a woman who was paid for an erotic massage. In interviews with the Justice Department inspector general's office, the agents, whose names are redacted in the report, initially denied any knowledge of DEA personnel being involved with prostitutes. But then investigators combed through the agents' government-issued cell phones and, looking at their call histories, found the men had been in touch with prostitutes on numerous occasions, and in different cities in Colombia.

One agent had attempted to solicit sex as many as 50 times. Another had contacted a prostitute he found on a Web site, who advertised herself as a "chica trans con apartamento privado," or a "transvestite girl with private apartment." The agent said he exchanged text messages with the prostitute and negotiated to pay 200,000 Colombian pesos for an encounter while he was on assignment in Medellin, but the two ended up not meeting. The agent admitted to deleting 37 contacts from his cell phone after he was told to surrender it to investigators. Some of his contacts were later linked to prostitutes or sex Web sites.

After they'd been caught, the agents tried to argue that they hadn't engaged in prostitution, because their relations with women consisted only of massages and "manual stimulation of their genitals by another person for their sexual gratification," which they said didn't qualify as sex, investigators wrote in the report. What's more, "all three subjects resisted the characterization of their engaging in sexual encounters in exchange for a form of payment as prostitution," which investigators said defied "common sense and legal definitions."

Prostitution is not illegal in Cartagena, but U.S. government personnel were prohibited from soliciting prostitutes under a long-standing policy. DEA supervisors provided no evidence that their briefings to new agents included information about the prostitution ban, investigators found. The supervisors said they had no knowledge of the three agents or any others paying for sexual services.

Aside from bringing embarrassment to the agency and misusing government property, the inspector general  "strongly believes" that relationships with prostitutes placed [the agents] at risk for blackmail and other potential breaches of national security." DEA special agents work on some of the most sensitive investigations of cartels and other organized crime groups and have access to top secret intelligence, including wiretap information. Information stored on their phones or in their apartments could provide clues about ongoing investigations. At least one of the agents was married, putting him at particular risk for blackmail.

That agent admitted to investigators that he had deleted contacts and records of calls from his phone prior to handing it over to investigators. Initially, he claimed that he'd been trying to delete some private emails of an "adult nature" between him and his wife, but that he'd "totally screwed up the phone" and accidentally erased more information than he'd intended, investigators found.

Upon forensic analysis of the phone, investigators learned that the agent had actually deleted all of its contents as well as the phone's memory chip, in what they described as a "security wipe." They also determined the the agent would have had to take several steps to delete the data, including responding to prompts that warned him he was about to permanently erase content. When confronted with this information, investigators said the agent offered no credible explanation for why he erased the entirety of the phone's contents instead of just some emails to his wife. They said that had they been able to review the phone numbers in his call history and his contacts, they likely would have found numbers linked to prostitutes, just like on the other agents' phones.

Investigators accused the agent of obstruction, because the phone data could have provided incriminating evidence against him or the other agents. The inspector general provided its findings to federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia, who declined to bring charges. The current employment status of the agents is unknown. A spokesperson for the DEA could not be reached for comment, but historically, the agency does not provide details on personnel matters.

One of the agent's also admitted to dating a woman who lived in another city, but whom he saw when she visited Cartagena. He said he financially supported the woman and her children, giving them the equivalent of $200 a month, but that he didn't know much about her background, whether she was a prostitute, or even where she stayed in Cartagena. Yet, investigators found the woman's name in the agent's cell phone, as well as her Colombian national identification number. Investigators said the agent's claims to have known little about a woman he claimed to date and to whom he was giving money weren't credible.

Investigators stopped short of accusing the three DEA agents of lying, calling their denials of involvement with prostitutes or knowledge about others arranging for sex a "lack of candor while under oath." But investigators were clearly perturbed that the men tried to cover up their indiscretions, how they split hairs over the whether certain erotic acts counted as sex, and that their stories shifted throughout questioning. The investigators singled out in particular an agent who changed his story of what happened the night of the Secret Service scandal multiple times. Eventually, the DEA agent claimed that he couldn't remember certain details about what happened in the apartment because he'd been drinking. The investigators accused the agent, whose phone showed "numerous" contacts with prostitutes, of trying to prevent investigators from "learning the full scope of his misconduct."

The Secret Service prostitution scandal revealed a permissive culture among agents towards adultery and paying women for sex. The slogan "wheels up, rings off" was used frequently on overseas trips, and agents had an unwritten pact not to disclose their dalliances to each other's wives and girlfriends. The actions of the DEA agents show that prostitution was similarly condoned and that supervisors, if not overtly aware of what their agents were up to, didn't go out of their way to tell them to avoid prostitutes, either.

Read the report here:

Dept. of Justice, Office of the Inspector General Report on DEA in Cartagena