Tal­iban averts at­tacks with U.S. equip­ment avail­able on­line

The Washington Times Weekly - - National Security - BY ELI LAKE

Some Tal­iban fight­ers have been able to ward off at­tacks by U.S. air­craft by wear­ing spe­cial in­frared patches on their shirts that sig­nal that they are friends rather than foes.

The patches, which can also help sui­cide bombers get close to U.S. tar­gets, are sup­posed to be the prop­erty of the U.S. gov­ern­ment alone, but can be eas­ily pur­chased over the In­ter­net for about $10 each. Also avail­able on­line: night-vi­sion gog­gles and mil­i­tary­grade com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tems like the ones used by the ter­ror­ists who at­tacked the In­dian city of Mum­bai last year.

While steal­ing uni­forms is as old as war­fare it­self, the In­ter­net has made pur­chases of mil­i­tary equip­ment much eas­ier and in­creased the risk to U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some of the patches have been stolen dur­ing raids on U.S. re­sup­ply con­voys in Afghanistan and Pak­istan. But they can also be pur­chased in the United States and sent over­seas with lit­tle de­tec­tion.

In a re­cent in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the U.S. Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice (GAO) bought patches us­ing fake names and a front com­pany with only a valid credit card. The patches re­veal an Amer­i­can flag when looked at with an in­frared light and were de­signed to avoid friendly fire dur­ing night­time bat­tles.

Jonathan Meyer, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of foren­sic au­dits and spe­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tions for the GAO, told The Wash­ing­ton Times, “Based on our con­ver­sa­tions with the Depart­ment of De­fense, ter­ror­ists have used U.S. uni­forms and the in­frared patches to get close to U.S. and al­lied forces on the bat­tle­field and at bases. This is more of a po­ten­tial sui­cide­bomber risk.”

Mr. Meyer helped lead the GAO in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which con- cluded that few reg­u­la­tory con­trols ex­ist for dual-use and mil­i­tary tech­nol­ogy sold do­mes­ti­cally.

Rep. Bart Stu­pak, Michi­gan Demo­crat, who chairs the House En­ergy and Com­merce over­sight and in­ves­ti­ga­tions sub­com­mit­tee, said the in­frared patches are also made in China.

“It is rather sim­ple tech­nol­ogy,” he said. “We not only sell this to do­mes­tic peo­ple here, and they sell them to any­body, but you can get them from China, and the Chi­nese will sell them to oth­ers.

“They have been used by the en­emy in the war. It’s of grave con­cern be­cause you don’t know who is friendly or not,” Mr. Stu­pak added.

Newsweek mag­a­zine first re­ported in 2007 that 4,800 such patches had been sold in­ad­ver­tently in 2006 to 23 U.S. and Cana­dian com­pa­nies by an Ari­zon­abased com­pany, Gov­ern­ment Liq­ui­da­tion. The patches were still sewn onto uni­forms that were sent out.

The GAO was able to pur­chase the patches from a New York-based mil­i­tary-sup­ply dealer, but did not iden­tify the seller’s name.

“An en­emy fighter wear­ing th­ese [in­frared] flags could po­ten­tially pass as a friendly ser­vice mem­ber dur­ing a night com­bat sit­u­a­tion, putting U.S. troops at risk,” the June 4 re­port said. “Nev­er­the­less, th­ese items are com­pletely le­gal to buy and sell within the United States.”

The re­port fol­lowed up on a 2008 GAO study that ex­posed the fact that mil­i­tary-sur­plus items, such as spare parts for fighter jets, could be pur­chased on eBay and Craigslist. That same year, an NBC team also was able to pro­cure the in­frared patches and have them sent to a mail­ing ad­dress in Amman, Jor­dan. Ear­lier, the As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported that F-14 spare parts had found their way to Iran from U.S. sup­pli­ers af­ter the Pen­tagon sold the equip­ment to mil­i­tary whole­salers.

Rep. Brad Sher­man, Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat and chair­man of the House For­eign Af­fairs sub­com­mit­tee that deals with ex­port con­trols, said that it may be time to treat the in­frared patches as a mu­ni­tion that would need to be con­trolled through the Arms Ex­port Con­trol Act.

“If there is an item that has only a mil­i­tary use, like the patches, the fact that they are non­lethal doesn’t mean we should not treat them as mu­ni­tions,” he said. “The term ‘mu­ni­tions’ per­haps should ap­ply to any­thing that does not have a le­git­i­mate civil­ian use.”

How­ever, a re­tired four-star gen­eral, Jack Keane, said the risk had been over­stated.

“Since the beginning of war­fare, peo­ple have been dress­ing up as the en­emy to in­fil­trate,” he said. “We cer­tainly have done this in the past to our en­e­mies, and our en­e­mies have done this to us.”

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