Feds test weapons that can temporarily blind people

By Mimi Hall and Eric Moreno

WASHINGTON, D.C. The Homeland Security Department is aiming to arm federal agents with a weapon that emits a dazzling strobe capable of subduing criminals, terrorists and even unruly airline passengers.

It's the latest government effort to develop a non-lethal weapon in this case, a powerful beam of light that temporarily blinds anyone who looks into it.

"The light could be used to make a bad guy turn away or shut his eyes, giving authorities enough time to tackle the suspect and apply the cuffs, all while sparing the lives of passersby, hostages or airline passengers," according to a description of the device from the Homeland Security Department's science and technology division.

Program manager Gerald Kirwin says Homeland Security has invested $1 million for testing of the LED (light-emitting diode) Incapacitator. It is being developed by a Torrance, Calif., company, Intelligent Optical Systems, and it will be tested on volunteers at Pennsylvania State University's Institute of Non-Lethal Defense Technologies this fall.

If all goes well, the Homeland Security Department says, it "could be in the hands of thousands of policemen, border agents and National Guardsmen" by 2010.

Kirwin says it also would be used by air marshals, border patrol agents, other officers with the Transportation Security Administration and customs officers.

The device works by temporarily blinding and disorienting a person, says Bob Lieberman, president of Intelligent Optical. Once aimed at someone's eyes, a series of light pulses and colors can be triggered and the subject's eyes can't adjust quickly enough to see.

"It's like someone shooting off a flashbulb in your face every few seconds," Lieberman says. "Because of the wavelengths and frequencies we use, there are psychophysical effects -- a real disorientation. The reaction can range through vertigo to nausea."

That's why The Register, an irreverent online publication that covers the information technology industry, dubbed it the "puke-ray."

What the flashlight-size device doesn't do is use lasers or permanently blind people.

"We're taking great care to make sure the intensities we're using fall within eye-safe limit," Lieberman says.

But some immigration and human rights groups say they're still concerned, particularly with the idea that the devices might be used on illegal immigrants.

"It gives me pause, particularly in regards to Mexico. Mexico is a very important economic partner of ours," says Deborah Notkin, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

"I would imagine that Mexico wouldn't be particularly happy with us using a device that would be more appropriate for criminals, not just for people trying to get across the border who are looking for better opportunities."

Peter Herby, head of the mines-arms unit's legal division at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, says he's not familiar with Homeland Security's new weapon. But he says many of the same issues are likely to crop up as with more dangerous, laser-based blinding weapons -- called "dazzlers" because they blind people with intense light.

Among the issues: If the devices are mass-produced and fairly inexpensive, they're likely to be sold on the black market.

"Once they're in the hands of bad guys," Herby asks, "are the police going to have to wear protective gear to prevent them(selves) from being dazzled?

Copyright 2007 USA TODAY

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