GAO: Military gear for sale on Web poses security risk

A team of undercover GAO agents found parts for the fighter plane, body armor, night vision goggles and other military items for sale to the highest bidder on eBay, and other Web sites.

Need F-14 components? Try eBay. A team of undercover GAO agents found parts for the fighter plane as well as body armor, night vision goggles and other military items for sale to the highest bidder on eBay, and other Web sites that allow person-to-person sales, the congressional auditing agency announced today.

Comment on this article in The Forum.Between January 2007 and March, agents using only credit cards, mailing addresses and false names easily bought the items, many of which were stolen from the U.S. military, Gregory Kutz, GAO managing director for forensic audits and special investigations, told a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee. Though the Web-based companies did not break the law and many military items can be purchased legally, the sales suggest foreign states, criminals and terrorists can easily buy sensitive American military equipment, investigators and lawmakers said. The items GAO bought are on a list of munitions that are illegal to sell overseas without Defense Department approval, Kutz said.

"It doesn't take a lot of imagination to understand the troubling nature of some of these items being sold online, said House Oversight and Government Reform National Security Subcommittee Chairman John Tierney, D-Mass.

Tierney noted GAO bought Army combat uniforms on eBay a few months after insurgents dressed in U.S. military garb killed five U.S. service members in Karbala, Iraq, in January 2007. Iran, believed to be the only country still flying F-14 Tomcats, was the intended recipient of $750,000 worth of F-14 parts that a Florida man was arrested for trying to export in 2003, Kutz said. States including China and Russia are part of a robust foreign market for U.S. military equipment, Defense Department Deputy Inspector General for Inspections Charles Beardall testified.

GAO's investigation follows undercover investigations in 2002 and 2003 that showed the Defense Department was improperly selling excess sensitive military equipment, such as chemical protective suits, online. Kutz said that while the department has curtailed such sales, GAO's recent investigation shows U.S. military equipment could be sent overseas through middlemen using the Internet.

Tod Cohen, vice president for government relations at eBay, said the company bars the sale of military ordnance and "essentially prohibits" selling military items not properly disposed of under Defense Department rules. The company has a fraud-investigations team that cooperates extensively with government agencies to block sales of military equipment on its site. And it uses detection tools to flag suspicious listings, Cohen added. But with up to 7 million items listed daily, "it is a challenge to enforce our policies," he said. Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster said his company, which offers free classified advertisements in 450 localities, was improperly described by GAO as global marketplace, though he acknowledged some users do sell to people overseas. Buckmaster and Cohen argued any legislation restricting sales of military items should be simple and not limited to online vendors.

"The key is . . . clear rules," Cohen said. With a hodgepodge of rules applying to sales of different military equipment, Tierney said Congress should very seriously consider a ban on sale of sensitive items.