Lawmakers look into sale of military equipment online

A government investigation finds sensitive military items for sale online

Government auditors were able to buy military-grade equipment, including night-vision goggles, body armor and parts for fighter jets, from online sites such as eBay and Craigslist during a recently completed undercover investigation, a representative of the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) told lawmakers this week.

Members of the US House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee's national security subcommittee expressed particular alarm about the online availability of high-power night-vision goggles, currently used by US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of parts for F-14 fighter jets, flown by the Iranian air force. In many cases, those items are stolen from the US military, the GAO said.

Sales of night-vision goggles and US military uniforms could endanger troops in Iraq, said Representative Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican. "We go out at night in Iraq ... with special forces," he said. "We go out at night instead of the daytime because we have that advantage. If we lose that advantage, we're going to have many of our soldiers killed."

In recent years, there have been "hundreds" of cases involving the sale of sensitive military equipment to countries such as Iran and China, said Greg Kutz, GAO's managing director of forensic audits and special investigations, which began an investigation into online sales of military equipment in mid-2007. GAO investigators purchased a dozen sensitive military items online, including body armor and parts for an F-14 radar warning system, during the investigation.

Multiple sellers of military equipment have been charged with crimes in recent years, Kutz said.

Representatives of eBay and Craigslist said they cooperate with federal investigations into the sale of military-grade equipment, and they take down illegal listings when they find them. But with about 113 million listings happening at any one time, it's tough to find every sensitive military item being sold, said Tod Cohen, eBay's deputy general counsel and vice president of government relations.

"With such high volumes, we must work closely with regulatory and law enforcement to police against abuses," Cohen said.

Most Craigslist sales happened locally, with the items delivered in person, making it difficult for military items sold there to wind up overseas, said Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster. "International sales are extremely rare," he said.

Buckmaster also suggested that online auction and classified sites donate all their profits from the sale of military equipment to charity, although Craigslist has not made any money that way. If other sites commit to giving away 100 percent of their profits from the sale of sensitive or stolen military equipment, Craigslist will make a "sizeable donation" to charity as well, he said.

Craigslist users are often confused about what items are appropriate to sell and what ones aren't, Buckmaster added. He suggested the US Congress pass a law banning the sale of recent military equipment. "With clear and concise guidelines available, very few of our users will violate them, and those few who do will very quickly find themselves ... flagged off of our site," he said.

But lawmakers noted that much of the sensitive military equipment being sold online appears to be stolen. Shays asked if the U.S. military wasn't properly managing its inventory, including parts from retired equipment such as F-14 jets. The US government sold F-14s to Iran in the 1970s, when Iran was a US ally. The US military retired its last F-14s earlier this decade.

"Should we know [it's stolen] before something is on eBay?" Shays said. "Do we have a serious theft problem, or do we not even have the ability to know we have a serious theft problem?"

GAO's Kutz said he believes there are "fundamental property management issues" in the US military.

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