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Company Trying to Get Under Soldiers' Skin

The Examiner
by David Francis and Bill Myers

WASHINGTON - A microchip company with powerful political connections is lobbying the Pentagon for the right to implant chips under the skins of the nearly 1.4 million U.S. military personnel.

VeriChip Corp., which is based in Florida and planning to offer its stock to the public soon, has been one of the most aggressive marketers of radio frequency identification chips. Company officials have touted the chips as versatile, able to be used in a variety of situations such as helping track illegal immigrants or giving doctors immediate access to patient’s medical records.

Now the company is “in discussions” with the Pentagon, spokeswoman Nicole Philbin said. She added that VeriChip wants to insert the chips under the skin of the right arms of U.S. servicemen and servicewomen. The idea is to be able to scan an arm and obtain that person’s identity and medical history.

“The potential for this technology doesn’t just stop at the civilian level,” Philbin said.

VeriChip hopes that the chips will replace the metal dog tags that have been worn by U.S. military personnel since 1906.

The company has political muscle in the form of Tommy Thompson. A former secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Thompson is a partner at the lobbying law firm of Akin Gump and is a director of VeriChip.

Thompson said he’s sure that the chip is safe and that no one — not even military personnel, who are required by law to follow orders — will be forced to accept an implant against his or her will. He has also promised to have a chip implanted in himself.

But reached for comment Friday, he wouldn’t say when he was going to have the implant.

“I’m extremely busy and I’m waiting until my hospitals and doctors are able to run some screens,” he said.

The technology is not foreign to the Pentagon. The Department of Defense spent $100 million on similar chips that track supplies and has also attached microchips to dog tags.

But the idea of implanting the chips in live bodies has some veterans’ groups and privacy advocates worried.

“It needs further study,” said Joe Davis, a retired Air Force major and a spokesman for the D.C. office of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Liz McIntyre, author of a book critical of the chips, said that VeriChip is “a huge threat” to public privacy.

“They’re circling like vultures for any opportunity to get into our flesh,” McIntyre said. “They’ll start with people who can’t say no, like the elderly, sex offenders, immigrants and the military. Then they’ll come knocking on our doors.”

The chip also is drawing attention from Congress.

“If that is what the Defense Department has in mind for our troops in Iraq, there are many questions that need answers,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in an e-mail to The Examiner.

“What checks and balances, safeguards and congressional oversight would there be?” Leahy wrote. “What less-invasive alternatives are there? What information would be entered on the chips, and could it endanger our soldiers or be intercepted by the enemy?”

The company is not so sure about the technology, either. According to company documents, radio frequencies in ambulances and helicopters could disrupt the chips’ transmissions.

In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, VeriChip also said it was unsure whether the chip would dislodge and move through a person’s body. It could also cause infections and “adverse tissue reactions,” the SEC filing states.

But Philbin downplayed the danger of the chips.

“It’s the size of a grain of rice,” she said. “It’s like getting a shot of penicillin.”