WASHINGTON, Jan 16: The US military has sold forbidden equipment at least a half-dozen times to middlemen for countries— including Iran and China – who exploited security flaws in the Defence Department’s surplus auctions. The sales include fighter jet parts and missile components.

In one case, federal investigators said, the contraband made it to Iran, a country President George W. Bush branded part of an “axis of evil”.

In that instance, a Pakistani arms broker convicted of exporting US missile parts to Iran resumed business after his release from prison. He purchased Chinook helicopter engine parts for Iran from a US company that had bought them in a Pentagon surplus sale. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, speaking on condition of anonymity, say those parts made it to Iran.

The surplus sales can operate like a supermarket for arms dealers.

“Right Item, Right Time, Right Place, Right Price, Every Time. Best Value Solutions for America’s Warfighters,” the Defence Reutilisation and Marketing Service says on its website, calling itself “the place to obtain original US Government surplus property.”

Federal investigators are increasingly anxious that Iran is within easy reach of a top priority on its shopping list: parts for the precious fleet of F-14 “Tomcat” fighter jets the United States let Iran buy in the 1970s when it was an ally.

In one case, convicted middlemen for Iran bought Tomcat parts from the Defence Department’s surplus division. Customs agents confiscated them and returned them to the Pentagon, which sold them again— customs evidence tags still attached— to another buyer, a suspected broker for Iran.

That incident appalled even an expert on weaknesses in Pentagon surplus security controls.

“That would be evidence of a significant breakdown, in my view, in controls and processes,” said Greg Kutz, the Government Accountability Office’s head of special investigations. “It shouldn’t happen the first time, let alone the second time.”

A Defence Department official, Fred Baillie, said his agency followed procedures.

“The fact that those individuals chose to violate the law and the fact that the customs people caught them really indicates that the process is working,” said Baillie, the Defence Logistics Agency’s executive director of distribution. “Customs is supposed to check all exports to make sure that all the appropriate certifications and licenses had been granted.”

The Pentagon recently retired its Tomcats and is shipping tens of thousands of spare parts to its surplus office— the Defense Reutilisation and Marketing Service — where they could be sold in public auctions. Iran is the only other country flying F-14s.

“It stands to reason Iran will be even more aggressive in seeking F-14 parts,” said Stephen Bogni, head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s arms export investigations. Iran can only produce about 15 per cent of the parts itself, he said.

The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, found it alarmingly easy to acquire sensitive surplus. Last year, its agents bought $1.1 million worth — including rocket launchers, body armor and surveillance antennas — by driving onto a base and posing as defence contractors.

“They helped us load our van,” Kutz said. Investigators used a fake identity to access a surplus website operated by a Pentagon contractor and bought still more, including a dozen microcircuits used on F-14 fighters.

The undercover buyers received phone calls from the Defence Department asking why they had no Social Security number or credit history, but they deflected the questions by presenting a phony utility bill and claiming to be an identity theft victim.—AP

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