Federal Government Redefines Rocket-Propelled Grenade as “Weapon of Mass Destruction”

Thursday, April 04, 2013

When the George W. Bush administration erroneously insisted that Iraq possessed illegal “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD) during its relentless march to war in 2002-2003, it was referring to nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons that could kill thousands of people at once, not to arms carried and fired by a single soldier on the battlefield. Nevertheless, U.S. Army veteran Eric Harroun is being prosecuted by the federal government for use of WMDs because he allegedly fired a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) last year while fighting in Syria alongside the rebels trying to oust dictator Bashar al-Assad.


A shoulder-fired, anti-tank weapon that fires rockets equipped with an explosive warhead, an RPG actually causes rather limited destruction, usually to a single tank or other armored vehicle. The U.S. military does not think RPGs are WMDs, which it defines as “any weapon or device that is intended, or has the capability, to cause death or serious bodily injury to a significant number of people through the release, dissemination, or impact of (a) toxic or poisonous chemicals or their precursors, (b) a disease organism, or (c) radiation or radioactivity.”


Nevertheless, Harroun will get nowhere if he argues that an RPG is not a WMD. That is because a different section of the U.S. Code that forbids the use of WMDs by U.S. nationals outside the U.S. also includes “any explosive, incendiary, or poison gas—(i) bomb, (ii) grenade, (iii) rocket having a propellant charge of more than four ounces, (iv) missile having an explosive or incendiary charge of more than one-quarter ounce, (v) mine, or (vi) [similar] device.”


Since 2007, the FBI has used a definition of WMDs that is virtually identical to this broad definition.


Despite the fact that the weapons swept into the definition of WMDs manifestly do not cause “mass destruction,” the fact that Congress wrote such a broad definition is conclusive from a purely legal point of view. It is really just a name game. Just as Congress could re-define “french fries” as “freedom fries” to express its ire at France's refusal to participate in the invasion of Iraq, so too can Congress re-define an RPG as a WMD.


Harroun, who apparently posted images and video of himself firing an RPG on his Facebook page and elsewhere, faces a prison sentence that could be as brief as a few years or as long as life.

-Matt Bewig


To Learn More:

Let’s All Stop Saying “Weapons of Mass Destruction” Forever (by Spencer Ackerman, Wired)

The U.S. Has a Case Against Its Army Vet for Using a “WMD” Against Assad in Syria (by Philip Bump, The Atlantic)

The Jihadist from Phoenix (by Greg Tepper and Ilan Ben Zion, Foreign Policy) (paywall)


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