INTELLIGENCE: Of Dart Guns and Poisons

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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.

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