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Whistleblower Says Officials Stockpiled Munitions, Sought 'Heat Ray' Device Before Clearing Crowds in Lafayette Park

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Whistleblower Says Officials Stockpiled Munitions, Sought 'Heat Ray' Device Before Clearing Crowds in Lafayette Park

2020-09-19 10:41:46

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Tear gas being used on protesters (Image source: Screenshot)


There were many things said regarding the decision to clear the peaceful protesters at Lafayette Park in front of the White House on June 1. Some compared it to a war zone with the National Guard being brought in. A whistleblower said it wasn't the same, and in fact, it was worse, as a device was sought that was deemed too unpredictable to use in a war zone.

One week after the death of George Floyd at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, federal officials were stockpiling ammunition and seeking devices that could emit disturbing sounds and make people within range feel as if their skin was on fire, according to D.C. National Guard Maj. Adam D. DeMarco.

He told lawmakers that defense officials searched for an unpredictable crowd-control device and authorized the transfer of about 7,000 rounds of ammunition to the D.C. Armory as protests against police use of force and racial injustice broke out in Washington.

DeMarco shared this sworn testimony to lawmakers on a few different days this summer in an investigation into the use of force that day in Lafayette Park. It was shared with The Washington Post this week.

Federal forces flooded the street in front of the White House with tear gas, launched stun grenades, and set off smoke bombs. They used shields and batons to shove demonstrators. When they were criticized for an extreme response, the Trump administration argued that the force was necessary, as they were responding to violent protesters armed with fireworks who were setting fires and throwing water bottles and rocks at police.

Shortly after that, Donald Trump walked through the street to an evangelical church, Bible in hand, along with some of his aides and officials. He stood in front of the church then, holding the Bible, for a photo op. He was criticized for clearing the park solely for this photo op.

DeMarco's account contradicts the claims of violent protesters, that tear gas was never used, and that the protesters were warned ahead of time, a legal requirement before crowds are moved by authorities.

DeMarco was the senior-most D.C. National Guard officer at the scene that day and was a liaison between the National Guard and U.S. Park Police. He spoke to lawmakers as a whistleblower.

U.S. Park Police Chief Gregory Monahan testified that protesters were given clear warnings to disperse using a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD). DeMarco disputes this, saying there was no such device at the scene.

Just before noon on the day in question, the top Defense Department military police officer in the Washington region emailed officers in the D.C. National Guard. It asked whether the unit had an LRAD or a weapon called the Active Denial System, that was designed to make people in range feel as if their skin is burning.

Col. Robert Phillips, with the Defense Department's Joint Forces Headquarters-National Capital Region, said in a statement this week that the officer sent the email in question "as a matter of due diligence and prudent military planning" to find out what capacity agencies had "across the full spectrum of non-lethal systems." He said, "JFHQ-NCR does not possess these systems, did not request such systems, and no further action was taken" after the email was sent.

The Active Denial System is sometimes called a "heat ray." It was developed for the purpose of dispersing large crowds almost two decades go but was not used because of concerns about effectiveness, safety, and ethics.

 The Pentagon was reluctant to use the ADS in Iraq. The New York Times reported in late 2018 that the Trump administration had weighed using it on migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border until then-Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen refused to allow it because of humanitarian concerns.

A gyrotron in the device creates heat by pushing energy through a magnetic field, a process similar to a microwave. It creates millimeter waves that are meant to penetrate 1/64th of an inch into the skin, far enough to hurt but not leave burns. However, second-degree burns were left in a 2007 military test after changes to the power settings.

Much was spent developing and testing the device, with thousands of military volunteers being subjected to it. Yet, when it was first requested during combat in the Iraq War, military leaders refused to use it. It was shipped in 2010 to Afghanistan but was recalled and never used.

The lead military police officer in the National Capital Region wrote in an email, with DeMarco included as a recipient, that the ADS "can provide our troops a capacity they currently do not have, the ability to reach out and engage potential adversaries at distances well beyond small arms range, and in a safe, effective, and nonlethal manner."

"The ADS can immediately compel an individual to cease threatening behavior or depart through application of a directed energy beam that provides a sensation of intense heat on the surface of the skin," continued the email. "The effect is overwhelming, causing an immediate repel response by the targeted individual."

Ultimately, federal police were unable to get an ADS or LRAD during the day in Lafayette Park, according to the Defense Department official.

Without an LRAD, DeMarco said Park Police officers used handheld megaphones to give dispersal issues. Police are required to give demonstrators repeated, clear warnings of officers' intentions and allow adequate time and avenues for them to disperse peacefully.

DeMarco testified that he was standing about 30 yards from the announcements being given but could barely make out the order. He does not believe the crowd, who was even further away and chanting, heard the warnings.

Protesters, journalists, and humanitarian aid volunteers at the site have all said they never heard a warning before police began to react forcefully to push them back. They advanced on foot and horseback and pushed them back as clouds from explosions sent smoke and chemicals into the air. Officers fired rubber pellets into groups even as they were retreating.

Monahan has said his agency cleared the area ahead of the D.C. mayor's 7 p.m. curfew because of violence by the protesters. He also said that Park Police followed protocol by issuing three warnings using an LRAD, though DeMarco testified they didn't have one.

DeMarco told lawmakers he felt compelled to speak up because he found the events that day in Lafayette Square "deeply disturbing."

"That anyone in the Department of Defense referred to American citizens exercising their First Amendment rights as 'potential adversaries" and even contemplated the use of an ADS on the streets of our nation's capital is deeply disturbing and calls for further investigation," said David Laufman, Demarco's attorney.

His client also testified that a stash of M4 carbine assault rifles was transferred from Fort Belvoir to the D.C. Armory on that day in Lafayette Square, and more transfers arrived in subsequent days. By mid-June, about 7,000 rounds of 5.56mm and 7.62mm ammunition rounds had been transferred to the D.C. Armory.

DeMarco said he served in a combat zone assessing various threats and did not feel threatened by the protesters in Lafayette Park and did not "assess them to be violent." 

"From my observation, these demonstrators — our fellow American citizens — were engaged in the peaceful expression of their First Amendment rights," he said. "Yet, they were subjected to an unprovoked escalation and excessive use of force."

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