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INTELLIGENCE: Of Dart Guns and Poisons

9 minute read

For nearly nine months the congressional investigations of the Central Intelligence Agency have been conducted behind closed doors and, for the most part, in polite and gentlemanly fashion. Last week the probes were going on in public and turned into explosive affairs: 1) A Senate committee relentlessly exposed evidence that middle-level CIA officials had deliberately ignored then President Richard Nixon’s order to destroy all toxins and other biological weapons in 1970, 2) a House committee pugnaciously threatened to go to court if President Gerald Ford did not turn over top-secret CIA documents.

THE SENATE. In the old Senate caucus room the ten members of the select Senate committee were questioning CIA officials, including Director William Colby and the deputy director for science and technology, Sayre Stevens, about 11 gm. of shellfish toxin and 8 mg. of cobra venom discovered last May in a CIA storeroom (TIME, Sept. 22). No one could claim that the existence of the poisons as such was all that momentous, but the committee wanted to know why the lethal substances had been preserved. Besides, they made fascinating listening. To dramatize the Senators’ concern, Committee Member Walter Mondale at one point displayed a photograph of two containers of the toxin.

Painful Death. By way of background, Colby revealed that the agency in 1952 began a supersecret research program, code-named M.K. Naomi, partly to find countermeasures to chemical and biological weapons that might be used by the Russian KGB. Former CIA Director Richard Helms reported that a KGB agent used poison darts and poison spray to assassinate two Ukrainian liberation leaders in West Germany. The CIA also wanted to find a substitute for the cyanide L-pill, the suicide capsule used in World War II. Cyanide takes up to 15 minutes to work and causes an agonizingly painful death by asphyxiation. Said Colby: “Agents didn’t want to face that kind of fate.”

Working at the U.S. Army’s laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., researchers came up with the shellfish toxin. After receiving the toxin orally or by pinprick, a victim first feels a tingling sensation in the fingers and lips, then dies within ten seconds of painless paralysis. Indeed, according to Colby, U-2 Pilot Francis Gary Powers carried the toxin—contained in the grooves of a tiny drill bit that was concealed in a silver dollar —when he was shot down over Russia in 1960, but chose not to use it.

CIA researchers also came up with an array of James Bond weaponry that could use the shellfish toxin and other poisons as ammunition. To illustrate his testimony, Colby handed a pistol to Committee Chairman Frank Church. Resembling a Colt .45 equipped with a fat telescopic sight, the gun fires a toxin-tipped dart, almost silently and accurately up to 250 ft. Moreover, the dart is so tiny—the width of a human hair and a quarter of an inch long—as to be almost indetectable, and the poison leaves no trace in a victim’s body.

Murder Instrument. Church called the pistol “a murder instrument that’s about as efficient as you can get.” The agency has also developed two other dart-launching pistols, as well as a fountain pen that can fire deadly darts and an automobile engine-head bolt that releases a toxic substance when heated.

Expanding on Colby’s testimony, Charles Senseney, an engineer for the Defense Department, told the Senators that he had devised dart launchers that were disguised as walking canes and umbrellas. In addition, he developed a device that fitted into a fluorescent bulb and spread a biological poison when the light was turned on. Senseney also participated in a joint test by the CIA and Defense Department of the New York City subway system’s vulnerability to a poison-gas attack in either 1966 or 1967. Without the knowledge of New York City officials, the scientists threw containers of a simulated poison on the tracks of two subway lines. Passing trains spread the harmless substance along more than two miles of track within minutes, leading the scientists to conclude that the system was defenseless against that kind of attack.

Colby said that, to his knowledge, none of these weapons and poisons had ever been used. Still, he could not rule out the possibility entirely because the agency maintained few records on the research program to preserve its secrecy from all but a handful of CIA officials. Church committee staffers are investigating reports that the CIA prepared detailed plans to poison Congolese Radical Leader Patrice Lumumba in 1960 and even shipped an undetermined quantity of poison, possibly the shellfish toxin, to the African nation. Richard Bissell, ex-director of covert operations for the CIA, told a reporter last week that the agency had investigated “the feasibility of an action of that kind” but abandoned the idea “for various operational reasons.” He insisted the CIA was not involved in Lumumba’s assassination by Congolese rivals in 1961.

At the hearing, Richard Helms recalled orally ordering the destruction of the CIA stockpile of shellfish toxin and venom, and an end to the M.K. Naomi program which by then had cost about $3 million. Asked why the poisons were saved, Colby replied: “I think that it was done by people who were so completely enmeshed in the subject and the difficulty of production [100 Ibs. of shellfish produces 1 gm. of toxin] that they simply couldn’t bear to see the stuff destroyed.” But Nathan Gordon, the stooped and bushy-browed ex-CIA chemist who was in charge of the toxin and cobra venom in 1970, maintained that he had never received an order to destroy them. That order apparently should have been relayed to him from Helms by Sidney Gottlieb, a chemist, who was then director of the agency’s technical services. The committee has subpoenaed him to testify, but he has warned that he may invoke his constitutional right against self-incrimination and refuse to answer questions.

Agency Defenders. Eventually, Gordon transferred the venom and toxin from Fort Detrick to the CIA storeroom in Washington, which held other toxic substances that were considered exempt from the presidential order because they were not intended for use as general weapons of war (see box). Helms called the episode “an aberration —something that happened once, to my knowledge.” That assessment doubtless would be shared by many of the agency’s defenders, who believe the CIA is being unfairly hounded, partly for political reasons. But committee members thought otherwise. Said Church: “We have found out that ambiguity seems to plague the CIA.” As a result, after ending its investigation, probably late in December, the committee will most likely recommend ways to tighten controls within the CIA as well as measures to increase congressional surveillance of the agency (see ESSAY following page).

THE HOUSE. The fragile relations between the House committee and the White House blew apart in a fierce fight over who has the right to release sensitive documents. Officials from the Pentagon and the CIA had asked the committee to delete four seemingly innocuous words (“and greater communications security”) before making public a top-secret document on Egypt’s military preparations for the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The officials argued that disclosure of the phrase would reveal to Egypt and the Soviet Union that the U.S. had mastered their codes and communications arrangements. But the committee reasoned that the codes undoubtedly had since been changed and insisted on making the words public.

In a further challenge to the Administration, the committee subpoenaed top-secret records on the performance of U.S. intelligence agencies during the Communists’ Tet offensive in South Viet Nam in 1968.

Angry, Ford ordered that Administration witnesses not testify at the committee’s hearings. In addition, White House officials excised material they judged sensitive from the subpoenaed documents and delivered the remaining portions to the committee with a letter stipulating that they remain secret. Unanimously backed by his committee, feisty Chairman Otis Pike of New York rejected the deal and threatened to ask a federal court to order Ford to comply fully with the subpoena. Said Democrat Pike: “We have released nothing that jeopardizes national security in any way. The bottom line is that the Congress has the right to receive classified information without any strings attached.”

Thus the stage was set for a potentially serious constitutional confrontation, reminiscent of the fight over Nixon’s refusal to give his Watergate tapes and documents to the House Judiciary Committee in 1974. But a compromise still seemed possible. In exchange for yielding the documents, the committee offered to give the Administration 24 hours notice before releasing any more secret materials. That would give the Administration time enough to voice its objections, if any. But without a compromise, warned Illinois’ Robert McClory, the committee’s ranking Republican, “we’re going ahead with our hearings, and if [Administration witnesses] don’t come, then it’s going to be worse for them.”

No Rebuttal. That was indeed the case at last week’s hearing; no Administration witness showed up to rebut the testimony of ex-CIA Officer Samuel A. Adams, an analyst of Viet Cong strength for the agency in 1965-67. He charged that the CIA conspired with the military and other U.S. intelligence agencies to hide the Communists’ true military strength from the American public in 1967 for political reasons and ended up misjudging the potential scope and ferocity of the Tet assault. Adams said that while U.S. officials were claiming that Communist forces in South Viet Nam totaled about 300,000, the actual figure was about twice as high.

According to Pike, the intelligence community’s “mania for secrecy” was also partly responsible for the Yom Kippur War catching the U.S. by surprise in 1973. He said that U.S. intelligence agencies refused to let Pentagon and State Department officials see intercepted communications between the Soviets and Egyptians that “should have alerted us that a war was about to break out.”

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