Washington - Fighter jet parts and other sensitive US
military gear seized from front companies for Iran have been traced in criminal
cases to a surprising source: the Pentagon.
This photo released by the US Navy shows a pilot and his
F-14B Tomcat silhouetted during a pre-flight inspection on the deck of the
USS George Washington during maneuvers in the Persian Gulf Feb. 2, 1998.
The Pentagon retired the F-14 in Sept. 2006. Federal investigators found
that the US military has sold forbidden equipment at least a half-dozen
times to middlemen for countries, including Iran and China, that exploited
security flaws in the Defense Department's surplus auctions. The sales
included F-14 fighter jet parts and missile components. [AP]
In one case, federal investigators said, contraband purchased in Defense
Department surplus auctions was delivered to Iran, a country President Bush has
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 say
those parts did make it to Iran.
Sensitive military surplus items are supposed to be
demilitarized or "de-milled" -- rendered useless for military purposes -- or, if auctioned, sold
only to buyers who promise to obey US arms embargoes, export controls and
Yet 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 Defense Reutilization and Marketing
Service says on its Web site, 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
In one case, convicted middlemen for Iran bought Tomcat parts
from the Defense 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 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
A Defense Department official, Fred Baillie, said his agency followed
"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 Defense 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 Reutilization 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 produce only about 15 percent 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 defense contractors.
"They helped us load our van," Kutz said. Investigators used a fake identity
to access a surplus Web site 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 Defense 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
It's no secret to defense experts that valuable technology can be found amid
On a visit to a Defense Department surplus site about five years ago, defense
consultant Randall Sweeney literally stumbled upon some that shouldn't have been
up for sale.
"I was walking through a pile of supposedly de-milled electrical items and
found a heat-seeking missile warhead intact," Sweeney said, declining to
identify the surplus location for security reasons. "I carried it over and
showed them. I said, 'This shouldn't be in here.'"
Sweeney, president of Defense and Aerospace International in West Palm Beach,
Fla., sees human error as a big problem. Surplus items are numbered, and an
error of a single digit can make sensitive technology available, he said.
Knowledgeable buyers could easily spot a valuable item, he added: "I'm not the
only sophisticated eye in the world."
Baillie said the Pentagon is working to tighten security. Steps include
setting up property centers to better identify surplus parts and employing
people skilled at spotting sensitive items. If there is uncertainty about an
item, he said, it is destroyed.
Of the 76,000 parts for the F-14, 60 percent are "general hardware" such as
nuts and bolts and can be sold to the public without restriction, Baillie said.
About 10,000 are unique to Tomcats and will be destroyed.
An additional 23,000 parts are valuable for military and commercial use and
are being studied to see whether they can be sold, Baillie said.
Asked why the Pentagon would sell any F-14 parts, given their value to Iran,
Baillie said: "Our first priority truly is national security, and we take that
very seriously. However, we have to balance that with our other requirement to
be good stewards of the taxpayers' money."
Kutz, the government investigator, said surplus F-14
parts shouldn't be sold. He believes Iran already has Tomcat parts from Pentagon
surplus sales: "The key now is, going forward, to shut that down and not let it
The Pentagon's public surplus sales took in $57 million in fiscal 2005. The agency
also moves extra supplies around within the government and gives surplus military gear
such as weapons, armored personnel carriers and aircraft to state and local law enforcement.