With Olympics Approaching US Reconsiders Sonic Blasters for China

With the Olympics fast approaching, the US is suddenly concerned about American-made products being used against human rights demonstrators. Of particular concern is a sonic blaster that so far has not been considered a weapon.

By Daniel Pepper


The LRAD can do serious damage to one's eardrums. But is it a weapon?
American Technology Corp.

The LRAD can do serious damage to one's eardrums. But is it a weapon?

A nightmare scenario for the US that could play out on the streets of Beijing during the Olympic Games this August looks something like this: Masses of pro-democracy protesters gather to demonstrate against Beijing's disregard for human rights in Tibet. To break up the crowd, the Chinese, for once, do not charge in with rolling tanks or swinging bayonets. Instead, they turn on their Long Range Acoustic Devices and blast the crowds with ear-splitting noise, sending the crowd into a panic. A tag on the side of the devices reads: "Made in USA."

That fear may now be leading to action. According to a group which monitors the global arms trade, the US Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security is currently undertaking a review of security devices that American companies are allowed to export to China. The list of restricted devices, known as the Commerce Control List, may be expanded, and extreme noisemaking devices such as the LRAD could very well be added.

The Long-Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), manufactured by American Technology Corp., is a vehicle-mounted, circular dish that sends out concentrated, 150 decibel [dB] high-energy acoustic waves that are painfully loud -- louder than the loudest rock concerts, louder still than a jet engine or a gun blast. The wave is focused within a 15 to 30 degree spread, allowing the LRAD to be aimed at a specific target, like a marauding gang of looters -- or a crowd of peaceful protestors.

“The characterization as a ‘warning device’ is right most of the time. However, when it is being used to drive people back by acoustic pain then one should call it a weapon. It’s a gray area,” Dr. Jürgen Altmann, a physicist at Technische Universität in Dortmund, Germany, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Altmann has been studying acoustic weapons systems for over 10 years.

No Weapons for China

The distinction between warning and weapon matters. Ever since the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy activists in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the US has banned American manufacturers from exporting certain military, crime control or detection equipment to China. The European Union has similar restrictions.

But the American Technology Corp. (ATC) says the device is designed to "influence behavior and determine intent." Robert Putnam, in charge of media and investor relations with the San Diego, California-based company, says it is “a directed sounds communications system, not a weapon.” He says the LRAD was developed after the October, 2000 attack on the USS Cole during a refuelling stop in Yemen.

The LRAD was on display last month at the Asia Pacific China Police Expo 2008 in Beijing. ATC was there with their Asian distributors, the Asia-Pacific Xuanxhao Group. Neither would comment on how many LRADs, if any, have been sold or distributed across China, but ATC's most recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission claims: "During fiscal 2007, we expanded our international marketing activities and shipped LRAD orders to Australia, Singapore, Korea and China."

Currently the LRAD is deployed around the world, from military vehicles in Iraq (used by the Marines in Fallujah), to a number of police departments in the US. It was used to ward off pirates in 2005 by a cruise ship sailing near the coast of Somalia. And was used to disperse pro-democracy demonstrators in Tbilisi last November, where Human Rights Watch said it precipitated panic among the crowd.

ATC’s Robert Putnam argues that, “since LRAD is a communications system, we are not subject to export control lists.” But the Commerce Department may soon decide to see things differently.

Ethical Dilemmas

The Commerce Department review is motivated, in part, by concerns that US-manufactured security equipment -- from closed-circuit television to vehicles -- will be abused by the Chinese police and security forces in repressing internal dissent and peaceful protests, particularly during the Olympic Games.

“It’s a test of the workings of US arms control regulations in terms of second generation arms technology control,” says a European non-lethal arms control expert who works in China, and did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals by the Chinese authorities.

New technologies such as the LRAD pose difficult ethical dilemmas. A non-lethal technology may be preferable to police violence, but given the fact that LRAD devices can cause permanent hearing damage and extreme pain, many think they should be classified as weapons. Whether the regulations are tightened or not, the current review will likely set a precedent for future technologies that have both police and military purposes, ranging from futuristic immobilizing sticky foam and energy rays and malodourants. More prosaic technologies include sophisticated surveillance cameras and biometric sensors that could be used in state repression.

Even if the LRAD makes it past the review, the device could face trouble from groups such as the World Organization for Human Rights USA, a Washington-based advocacy group. Theresa Harris, the organization’s executive director, says their organization has already weighed in and requested the commerce department to implement broad changes.

“We believe that the Commerce Department is failing to prevent grave human rights abuses," she told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "The US Government is obligated under international law and federal statutes to prevent US companies from exporting the tools of torture to police and security agencies that have a documented record of human rights violations.”

Whether the LRAD or any other high-tech devices are added to the list of items prohibited from being sold to China will not make the most crucial difference, says Harris. The important thing is getting enforcement mechanisms in place. To that end, there are a number of laws that foreigners can use to prosecute American companies in US courts, if a US product is instrumental in perpetuating violations of human rights abroad.

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