U.S. Suspects Opiate in Gas Used in
JUDITH MILLER and WILLIAM J. BROAD
© New York Times, October 29, 2002
American officials said
yesterday that they suspected the Russian security police who raided a
Moscow theater early Saturday might have used an aerosol version of a
powerful, fast-acting opiate called Fentanyl to knock out Chechen extremists
and prevent them from killing the 750 hostages they were holding.
The gas killed all but one of
the 117 hostages in the Russian assault to retake the theater.
The senior administration
officials said their suspicions were tentative, because Russian authorities
had refused to provide American officials in Moscow with information about
the drug used in the assault. Nor has the United States been able to test
the gas or take samples from hostages exposed to it, they said.
But a senior American official
did say intelligence sources had indicated that the Russians probably used
an aerosol form of Fentanyl, "or a derivative that has a narcotic effect,"
by itself or in combination with another compound, in their desperate bid to
free the hostages.
In interviews yesterday, senior
American authorities and private experts said the agent used by the Russians
was probably similar to one of a small arsenal of nonlethal weapons that the
United States is quietly studying for use by soldiers and police officers
against terrorists. Scientists said the United States had conducted research
on Fentanyl, a well-known drug with many medical applications, as a human
incapacitant for nearly a decade.
One former intelligence official
theorized that the agent was developed by the Soviet Union's chemical and
biological warfare program. He said Soviet scientists worked hard on
"bio-regulators," agents that could alter mass behavior, and even put entire
cities to sleep.
In the 1980's, the official
said, American intelligence suspected that the Soviets had used chemical
agents to incapacitate Afghan soldiers instantly, but could never verify
Reports yesterday from Moscow
about the gray gas that was pumped into the Moscow theater bear out the
assertions of American medical experts that Fentanyl is dangerous to
children under 12. Survivors and relatives of victims said that at least 10
of the dead were children.
One senior law enforcement
official said the use of an incapacitating agent to free hostages was
unprecedented. "I'm aware of no hostage situation anywhere in the world
where such an agent has been used," the official said.
But a senior administration
official said that if the drug used in the incident was Fentanyl, that would
probably not constitute a violation of a 1997 treaty banning the use of
lethal chemical weapons. Many experts, both Russian and American, argue that
the treaty permits the use of nonlethal chemicals for law enforcement and
riot control purposes.
Richard A. Boucher, the State
Department spokesman, said that at least four Americans were believed to
have been in the theater, and that one of them had died.
Officials said the United
States, through its embassy in Moscow, was pressing Russia to be forthcoming
about the agent.
Russian officials are "being
very Soviet," said Elisa Harris, a chemical weapons expert at the University
of Maryland who served on the Clinton administration's National Security
Council. "They are reverting to form and being very secretive. It is in
their interest to dispel concerns about their activities and disclose the
nature of the compound they used."
Alan P. Zelicoff, an expert on
unconventional weapons at the Sandia National Laboratory, described Fentanyl
as an "inhalable opiate" that is a "short acting, rather potent, narcotic."
He said it was now used for treating chronic pain. "The clinical utility of
this drug is that it acts very quickly," he said.
Another American scientist said
the compound was often used as a veterinary anesthetic, injected into
animals to put them to sleep. Later, it was abused as a recreational drug.
Meanwhile, according to private
experts, the incapacitating agents under investigation by the American
government include sedatives that inhibit the central nervous system and
derivatives of such drugs as Prozac and Valium, and the weapons under
development to disperse the agents include an 81-millimeter mortar with a
range of nearly two miles.
The work is described in
dozens of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the
Sunshine Project, a private group in Austin, Tex., that opposes the work.
"It's the U.S. equivalent of the Russian program that developed the gas that
was used there," said Edward Hammond, the project's director.
Marine Corps Capt. Shawn
Turner, a spokesman for the Pentagon's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate,
denied that it was conducting research on nonlethal chemical weapons. He
refused to be specific but did concede that other American groups were
pursuing the topic.
The military has long sought weapons,
including chemical incapacitating agents, to make war more "humane." The
American military did much research on them during the cold war, but judged
the results unsatisfactory and scrapped the effort. As of 1997, according to
"Medical Aspects of Chemical and Biological Warfare," a top military text,
"incapacitating munitions are no longer in our armamentarium."
Since then, said Mr. Hammond
of the Sunshine Project, government documents show that Washington has begun
a new effort to master nonlethal chemicals. The current budget for them at
the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, he said, is $1.6 million. By 2005,
he added, the funding is to rise to $3.2 million.
Some of the research, he
said, is sponsored by the Department of Justice, including work on an
aerosolized mixture of tranquilizing drugs and pepper spray, a commonly used
Mr. Hammond said the overall
research focuses on so-called "calmatives," a military term for
mind-altering or sleep-inducing chemical agents. Other agents mentioned in
the documents as potentially useful, he said, are convulsants, or drugs that
induce cramps, and pharmaceuticals that failed development trials because of
harmful side effects.
A main contractor in the work
is the Institute for Emerging Defense Technologies at Pennsylvania State
University. Andrew Mazzara, the institute's director, said that nonlethal
weapons "are used for peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, noncombatant
evacuation, hostage rescue, and domestic law enforcement and corrections
An October 2000 report by the
Penn State researchers reviewed the medical literature and advances and
concluded that "the development and use of nonlethal calmative techniques is
achievable and desirable."
The report's cover showed
Fentanyl. "It's like heroin times 1,000," Mr. Hammond said. The report's
text said Fentanyl might be used in combination with droperidol, an
Many of the effects that
Russian health officials have attributed to the gas — including slowed
breathing and heartbeat — are typical of opiates. More revealing, however,
is the antidote that Russian doctors were told to use on gas victims:
Naloxone, a prescription drug used primarily to restore breathing to victims
of heroin overdose.
Law enforcement officials in
the United States, and chemical weaponry experts, said that in general the
American police have a fairly limited set of chemical tools — primarily
old-fashioned tear gas and an increasingly popular choice, pepper spray. The
latter, they said, has become far more sophisticated and can now be
delivered in a large-scale aerosol delivered from a shotgun-like device. It
can temporarily blind and incapacitate at a distance.
A spokesman for the Houston
Police Department, John Leggio, said that since the Sept. 11 attacks, the
department had gone through extensive training and chemical education
programs — both in tactics and in responding to an attack.
"We've become versed in the
different tactics available for use in a worst case scenario," he said. "We
maintain a dialogue with the Army and the part of the federal government
that has this kind of weaponry, and we would ask for assistance should those
Hugh McGowan, who retired
earlier this year after 13 years as the commanding officer of the New York
City Police Department's hostage negotiation team, said the problem with
almost all of the various chemicals was dosage control. A dose that puts one
person to sleep, he said, could put another in a coma.
"If somebody could come up
with a wonderful drug or gas that we could use, it would solve a lot
problems," he said. "But they haven't."
Mr. McGowan said that other
than tear gas, he wasn't aware of any chemical agent that the New York City
police could, or would, turn to in a hostage situation.
But he added, "We never faced
a situation such as the Russians did."
CCLE Neuroethics Project