May 15, 1997 in Nation/World

Russian Trawler Suspected Of Firing Laser At Helicopter

Dana Priest Washington Post
 

A Russian fishing vessel off the northwest coast of Washington state may have fired a laser beam suspected of injuring a Navy lieutenant and Canadian military pilot flying above the ship trying to determine if it was spying, U.S. officials say.

The April 4 incident in the Strait of Juan de Fuca prompted an inconclusive Coast Guard search of the Russian trawler and a protest to Moscow by State Department officials who admitted Wednesday they still do not know exactly what happened that day.

“We protested this incident forcefully to the Russian government,” said State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns. “I think it’s highly unusual. There’s no question about it.”

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen told reporters the episode remains under investigation, adding there is “still some conflicting evidence.” He said he had not raised the matter in meetings Tuesday with Russia’s defense minister, Igor Rodionov.

On April 4, the USS Ohio, a nuclear missile submarine based in Bremerton, was passing through the strait en route to a 70-day patrol at sea. Nearby was the Kapitan Man, a Russian fishing boat whose unusual number of radar antennas caught the attention of the joint U.S.-Canadian military team that keeps watch over the region.

A Canadian CH-124 helicopter, with two Canadians and U.S. Navy Lt. Jack Daley on board, was dispatched to photograph the trawler to determine if the ship was what they suspected: a spy ship trying to capture an audio fingerprint from the nuclear submarine that would make it possible for the Russians to identify the submarine in the future.

As the helicopter was overhead, Daley and the Canadian pilots suddenly developed problems that later were diagnosed by medical experts to be “consistent with eye problems” associated with laser burns, according to a Pentagon source. They had cuts to the retina, swelling around the eyes, headaches and foggy vision for several days.

One of the helicopter passengers photographed the event. According to the Pentagon source, the photographs show a “red dot on a smokeglass window.”

According to the Washington Times, which first reported the incident Wednesday, 30 photo frames were taken. “Frame No. 16 (showed) definitive evidence of an emanation coming from the bridge area of the merchant vessel,” according to a top secret Pentagon report cited by the Times.

The Coast Guard conducted a routine safety inspection of the vessel the same day. U.S. officials were allowed to search the public areas but not “private quarters” of the Russian ship, according to several sources. Despite being barred from some parts of the ship, “they felt things were not being hidden from them,” a White House official said of the Coast Guard search party. The searchers were allowed to photograph the ship’s logs, for instance. The search turned up nothing.

Military officials assume the laser was a range-finder, not a weapon, used to gauge the distance of a target.

The case remains open and is a mystery because no source of the eye burns has been found, White House officials said.

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