WASHINGTON — Two years ago, Marines in Iraq asked for an emergency order of 200 nonlethal lasers to keep innocent Iraqis from being killed when they fail to stop at U.S. military checkpoints.
When the lasers hadn't arrived by last fall, a frustrated lieutenant colonel named Marty Lapierre dipped into a special fund and requisitioned 28 of the devices, which temporarily blind — and therefore stop or redirect — unwelcome drivers.
But those handheld lasers, called the CHP Laser Dazzler, didn't make it to the troops, either.
Just before Christmas, Marine generals told Lapierre and Marine science adviser Franz Gayl to shelve the lasers because they were unsafe — even though the Army and Special Forces were using them.
Instead, in March, Marine brass shipped a competing laser called the GBD-III, or Green Beam, which is made by B.E. Meyers & Co. in Redmond.
Gayl and some Marine officers said the Dazzler, with its wider beam, is much better for the Marines' purposes.
E-mails from Lapierre and others question why it took nearly two years to get lasers to Marines in Iraq, and why the Pentagon second-guessed field commanders and rejected the device they wanted.
The e-mails were obtained by The Seattle Times and Public Broadcast System's "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," which helped with this story.
The laser dispute is part of a larger controversy surrounding the emergency procurement of equipment for ground forces in Iraq.
Congress is looking into problems and delays in deploying several defensive systems, including a vehicle that's more resistant to roadside bombs, better body armor and a device to counter rocket-propelled grenades.
When Marines wrote an emergency "Urgent Need Statement" asking for Dazzlers in May 2005, they thought they'd found a simple solution to a difficult problem.
"Marine Forces have recently experienced a string of lethal encounters and casualties" in Al Anbar province, they wrote. They wanted to stop Iraqi civilians at checkpoints without shooting them.
At the time, some troops were testing the Dazzler. In Redmond, B.E. Meyers was working to adapt one of its existing military lasers for use at checkpoints.
The Dazzler and the Green Beam operate in similar ways: They shine a green laser beam to temporarily blind a target. If a car is racing toward a checkpoint, troops briefly flash the laser at the windshield.
The Dazzler, which costs about $8,000, is made by LE Systems in Connecticut.
B.E. Meyers, which sells the Green Beam for about $10,000, also supplies night-vision optics, long-range surveillance devices and other equipment for military and industrial uses.
Both firms say their lasers are safe when used properly.
International treaties warn that nonlethal lasers can cause permanent eye damage if the beam is too strong or focuses on the target too long.
Much of the dispute over the lasers surrounds questions of safety — and which standards should be followed.
The Army and Special Forces have used the Dazzler since at least last year. But the Navy and Marines have their own requirements.
"I don't care about SOCOM [Special Forces], don't care about the Army," said Raymond Grundy, a Marine combat-development expert who recommended the Green Beam over the Dazzler.
The Marine Laser Safety Review Board approved the Green Beam in February 2006. In November 2006, B.E. Meyers received a $3.55 million contract to provide Green Beam lasers to the military.
The review board didn't evaluate the Dazzler until February this year — and then that laser was denied largely for safety reasons.
Officials from B.E. Meyers declined to comment about the laser dispute.
No one has suggested the company did anything inappropriate in securing the government contract.
Titus Casazza, president of LE Systems, said Marine reviewers didn't give the Dazzler a fair shake.
For example, the final report of the Laser Safety Review Board says the Dazzler cannot gauge the distance to potential targets.
Casazza said such range-finding capability was not demanded of the Green Beam. A Marine officer confirmed that the Green Beam does not have a range finder.
In an angry e-mail in February, Lt. Gen. James Mattis, who commands the First Marine Expeditionary Force based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., called the review board "a bunch of smug, safe, stay-at-home" second-guessers. He added that some issues the board raised were "claptrap."
"I've seen independent reports and other data that seems reasonable that CHP [the Dazzler] is a superior capability," said Lt. Col. Thaddeus Jankowski, with the Marines Central Command in Tampa, Fla.
Gayl, the science adviser and a retired Marine major, said unbiased tests show the Dazzler is more powerful and safer than the Green Beam. He recently spent six months in Iraq to examine the needs of troops in the field.
"I've seen it [the Dazzler] demonstrated and looked at the safety tests in detail," Gayl said, citing reports from the Army, Air Force and Marines.
Grundy, the combat-development expert, said the review board worried about the safety of any strong lasers pointed at people and endorsed the Green Beam "reluctantly."
Marines officials in Quantico, Va., the Pentagon, Camp Pendleton, and the services' Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate near Washington, D.C., say the procurement process worked: The troops got a safe, effective nonlethal laser.
The 2008 federal budget contains $7 million for B.E. Meyers to improve its Green Beam laser. The money was added to the budget by Reps. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn; Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island; Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens; and Adam Smith, D-Tacoma.
The congressmen's staffers noted that their bosses became involved only after Meyers had won the Marine contract.
Marine officials say they'd like a larger pool of laser suppliers and are in contact with the Dazzler's maker.
Still, in an e-mail in January, Lt. Col. Jankowski took issue with the time it took to get laser into the field.
"If we had sole-sourced [the Dazzler] in Oct. 2005, and delivered by Jan. 2006, how many innocent IZ [Iraqis] would not have been needlessly killed?" he asked.
One reason it took a year to get the Green Beam to troops after its approval in February is that Marines in Iraq didn't want it. They wanted the Dazzler, said Col. Roger Oltman, a Marine combat-development officer in Quantico.
The Marine command prevailed after warning that money for checkpoint lasers would vanish and troops would end up with nothing.
Marine officers agreed new equipment should get to the field faster. But the safety of the troops as well as Iraqis is paramount, they said.
"Our Marines are already putting their lives on the line," said Col. Kirk Hymes, who oversees key lasers programs. "I don't want them putting their eyes on the line, too."
The PBS "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," which is reporting on disputes over military equipment in Iraq, obtained some of the Marine Corps e-mails used to report this story. Alicia Mundy: 202-662-7457 or firstname.lastname@example.org