An undercover investigation found that it's easy for anyone to buy sensitive U.S. military equipment on the Web, prompting renewed congressional scrutiny.
By Joe Contreras and Ed Caram | Newsweek Web Exclusive
Apr 11, 2008 | Updated: 7:43 p.m. ET Apr 11, 2008
The items read like a laundry list of sensitive military equipment coveted by America's enemies big and small. An antenna waveguide for U.S.-made F-14A Tomcat fighter jets--which Iran's military still flies. U.S. Army combat uniforms with infrared patches for nighttime identification that could be used by Iraqi insurgents seeking to pose as friendly forces under cover of darkness. Night-vision goggles that could be employed by Taliban rebels to spot U.S. soldiers on patrol in eastern Afghanistan.
These items and others were purchased by employees of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) at Web sites like eBay and Craigslist during a 14-month-long undercover investigation that began in January 2007. The GAO disclosed its findings at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Thursday, and some of the lawmakers in attendance expressed deep concern about the revelations. In some instances, the merchandise in question was stolen, and in two specific instances the vendors were an active-duty U.S. Army staff sergeant and a U.S. Air Force reservist trying to make an extra buck on the side at the taxpayers' expense.
"To me, that's basically treason," observed Rep. Christopher Shays, the ranking Republican member on the U.S. House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs. "We still need to focus on the actions [required] to prevent sensitive military equipment from being sold to the public."
This week's proceedings marked the fourth time the subcommittee has examined the general topic of the disposal and resale of equipment no longer needed by the Pentagon. The subject acquired a new urgency early last year after up to a dozen gunmen dressed in American military combat fatigues and armed with U.S. weapons penetrated a government security compound in the Iraqi city of Karbala and killed five U.S. Army troops. Yet five months after that incident occurred, NEWSWEEK reporters purchased several infrared uniform patches used in Iraq at military-supply stores in North Carolina and California without ever being asked to produce Department of Defense identification. And as the GAO probe showed, the rather lax controls over the online sale of military equipment and supplies represent a genuine threat to national security.
Time and time again, GAO investigators posing as members of the general public obtained merchandise originally manufactured for military purposes that was never intended for acquisition by civilians. A dozen such items were purchased over the Internet and shipped to the GAO on a no-questioned-asked basis. Two of the vendors were civilian store owners who allegedly "acted as conduits for defense-related property that was likely stolen from the military," said chief GAO investigator Gregory Kutz.
The GAO also managed to buy night-vision goggles and infrared uniform tabs from a retired Marine colonel and Army captain, respectively. (The latter vendor, Mark Ciaglia of The Supply Captain store in Marlboro, N.Y., denied all wrongdoing and told NEWSWEEK he only recalls selling GAO agents silver glint tape that is commonly found on the lettering of stop signs and police vehicles. Ciaglia has not been charged with any crime, though Kutz told Congress he has referred the case to the Pentagon's Defense Criminal Investigative Service.) Used body-armor vests were sold by an Army staff sergeant stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., and a senior airman with the Air Force Reserve in North Dakota, despite Pentagon regulations that forbid military personnel from selling such items. "Individual theft is a hard thing to stop," said Alan Estevez, principal assistant deputy undersecretary of Defense, at the Thursday hearing. "The [Defense] Department obviously deplores criminal activity especially when committed by a few members, and it supports law-enforcement efforts to prosecute them."
The main venues for these online transactions came in for some criticism in the GAO report. Although both eBay and Craigslist have taken steps to regulate their users and identify items whose sale is prohibited, "there are few safeguards to prevent sensitive and stolen defense-related items from being sold to either domestic or foreign users of these sites," Kutz said. His agents purchased a used helicopter antenna from an eBay seller in Texas who had previously done business with winning bidders based in Cyprus, Malaysia and the Czech Republic, and that particular item could be a useful spare part for Tehran's aging CH-47D Chinook helicopters, according to the GAO. To prevent such potentially compromising deals from occurring in the future, Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster at one point broached the idea of imposing a blanket ban on the online resale of any second-hand military merchandise less than 50 years old. But subcommittee chairman Rep. John Tierney brushed off that suggestion as too sweeping in scope.
The Pentagon realizes it has a serious problem on its hands. The illegal sale and export of military technologies and munitions items have become a top priority of the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, which has aided the successful prosecution and imprisonment of several foreigners, including a Sri Lankan who conspired to illegally export machine guns, surface-to-air missiles and ammunition to the Tamil Tigers guerrilla movement and a covert Chinese government agent who tried to procure 70 Black Hawk helicopter engines. Among the U.S. military equipment most eagerly sought abroad are shoulder-fired anti-aircraft rockets, M-16 and M-4 rifles, aircraft spare parts and unmanned aerial vehicles better known as drones.
Pentagon officials told the subcommittee that accounting and inventory procedures have been improved to ensure better control over military equipment, and under a 2006 program called Operation Total Recall, the U.S. Army has recovered more than 20,000 lost or misplaced items valued at $135 million. But the panel's chairman expresses disappointment with the Pentagon's alleged failure to prepare for the kinds of equipment-monitoring challenges that were bound to surface with large-scale military operations like those in Afghanistan and Iraq. "They're doing a horrible job," said Representative Tierney. "Who didn't anticipate that some day we'd have a mission and that we'd want to track the equipment that's distributed to the troops and [determine] whether or not it was getting illegally into the wrong hands? We seem to be better at trying to close the door after the horses are out of the barn than we do about anticipating things."
The thriving trade in online sales of second-hand U.S. military equipment and supplies is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. As of Friday, for example, one Jonathan Herman in West Hempstead, N.Y., has a "client" willing to sell an F-14 Tomcat wing flap for $800 and an entire cockpit for upward of $15,000. At Thursday's hearing, eBay vice president Tod Cohen said the company "prohibits the sale of military items that have not been disposed of in accordance with Department of Defense regulations." But the online auction giant admits that it is a challenge to enforce all of its policies, when 6 million to 7 million new items get listed every day. And before you go shopping, President Ahmadinejad, Herman says only U.S. citizens need bid on his Tomcat parts.