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Craigslist and eBay: Terrorist arms bazaars of DEATH

Federal beancounters launch Operation Barrelscrape

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Analysis American government investigators believe that eBay and Craigslist are becoming international arms bazaars, facilitating the sale of "sensitive and stolen US military items" to the agents of sinister foreign powers - or even (gasp) terrorists. However, they have produced very little evidence to back this up.

In a newly-released report (pdf) entitled Undercover Purchases on eBay and Craigslist Reveal a Market for Sensitive and Stolen U.S. Military Items, the beancounters of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) lay out the shocking facts. It turns out that GAO agents operating "undercover" (on the internet) in recent months were able to purchase the following items on the named webmarts:

  • An Army Combat Uniform (ACU) and uniform accessories that could be used by a terrorist to pose as a US service member.
  • Body armor vests and... plates that are currently used by our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan... terrorist organizations or other countries could use reverse engineering on this body armor to develop countermeasures, equivalent technology, or both. Body armor could also be used domestically by a violent felon to commit crime.
  • Night vision goggles... Although night vision goggles are commercially available to the public, the milspec tube in the pair of goggles we purchased on eBay is a sensitive component that allows US service members on the battlefield to identify friendly fighters wearing infrared (IR) tabs. We also purchased IR tabs...
  • Nuclear biological chemical [protective] gear... that could be reverse engineered to develop countermeasures or produce equivalent technology.

So far, so bullshit. The US government does make efforts to restrict sales of the very latest nightvision kit and body armour to US customers - or in some cases, to military and cops only - but it's merely a delaying action. What was cutting-edge gear five or ten years ago is now unrestricted access; today's military-grade gear in these classes is anyone's tomorrow. Felons already wear body armour quite capable of defeating the pistol rounds typically fired by armed police (or, more commonly, the villains' business competitors). Terrorist snipers have long had access to specialist weapons and ammo able to defeat the heaviest body armour - and this kit is often from America.

Sure, US troops use IR-reflective tags to identify themselves to one another at night - but this is a technology with dozens of civilian applications. It's used in VR game controllers, for goodness' sake.

Gasmasks and NBC suits? Available in army surplus stores worldwide. As for the idea that one might panic about military-surplus uniforms being on sale... well.

Indeed, so thin were the pickings that the GAO undercover operatives had to list some frankly rather embarrassing finds.

  • We also investigated sales of military meals, ready-to-eat (MRE) and found a robust market for stolen military MREs on eBay and Craigslist. Both civilians and service members sold us numerous cases of new/unused military MREs despite the fact that they were marked “US Government Property, Commercial Resale Is Unlawful.”

Come on. This is petty theft at best. (Indeed, if the dreaded MREs are really ending up in terrorist hands, this could be a blow for democracy. US troops have often found their MREs so disgusting that they will swap most of their personal equipment for other nations' relatively palatable combat rations.)

The only items of any significance whatever were some spare parts for helicopters and aircraft. This has long been something of an issue in the States, largely because the Iranian armed forces still have a lot of kit originally supplied to the Shah's regime. In particular, the Iranians are believed still to have some airworthy (if perhaps not very combat-worthy) F-14 "Tomcat" fighters (of the type formerly used by the US Navy, most famously by Tom Cruise in Top Gun). Iran also has a number of US-designed Chinook heavy-lift choppers, Hercules transport planes etc.

As a result, Iranian buyers have been trying to get hold of F-14, Chinook and other aircraft parts under US embargo for decades with varying degrees of success. (For a while they were in clover, when Oliver North's Iran-Contra scheme was in operation.) But the GAO probe seems to indicate that in fact the trade has been fairly effectively suppressed. After weeks of trawling, they could find nothing for sale but two lonely antenna assemblies, one for F-14s and one useable in a range of helicopters including the Chinook.

In the past, rogue US colonels used to sell missiles and aircraft parts directly to Iran by the ton. Up until last year, the US military's surplus-sales arm was still flogging off F-14 bits to anyone who fancied them - often enough, people acting for the Iranian government. Entire Chinooks have been manufactured in Italy under licence, and sold both from there and the US (along with parts) to at least 20 nations for both military and civilian use. Hercules transports have been just as widely distributed.

But now, all the GAO's elite undercover investigators can find is a couple of antennae? Either a) they weren't trying very hard, b) they don't really know what they're talking about, or c) eBay and Craigslist aren't actually terrorist weapons markets in any meaningful sense. Or all of the above.

In an equally valid bit of cutting edge "undercover" arms-bazaar investigation, the Reg defence desk has in the past five minutes located sensitive military parts for sale on eBay UK which could easily fall into the hands of a sinister foreign power and be used to boost military capability.

Look: a part for a Rolls-Royce Avon jet engine, as used in the Canberra bomber - which was only retired from RAF service in 2006, the very same year as the F-14 stood down in the US Navy. And - my god - the Canberra was supplied to the Venezuelan air force, among others, which is nowadays directed by sinister dictator Hugo Chavez! And the traitor selling it says "overseas bidders welcome"!*

Etc, etc. Yawn.

The GAO probably ought to stick to looking at cost overruns and the like, rather than this sort of foolish scaremongering. ®

Bootnote

*Note for those with irony detectors switched off: The Canberra was a flying antique, introduced in 1950. The Venezuelans did fly it a long time ago, but don't any more; you'd have to be barmy to keep operating Canberras into the 21st century. Like the RAF, god bless them, who are prone to keep operating lovely old vintage planes long past the point where they're any use.

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