Military arms still 'vulnerable' to insider theft, GAO report says Stolen Marine munitions include plastic explosive, grenades, machine guns

October 23, 1997|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As federal investigators in North Carolina sift through stolen Marine munitions that include dozens of hand grenades and more than 40 pounds of plastic explosive, a government report released yesterday said such weapons "continue to be vulnerable" to insider theft in the military.

Weapons and explosives that filled five 27-foot trucks were seized last week by federal agents in North Carolina and Virginia. The haul included more than 100 machine guns and at least 50 crates of small-arms ammunition, said investigators who, speaking on condition of anonymity, offered the most detailed accounting of the seizures.

"It's a big deal, but it's what we expected, based on our investigation," said Larry Bonney, an FBI supervisory senior agent in Wilmington, N.C. Bonney, who would not confirm the specific items seized, said the weapons were being "hoarded and stashed" for sale at gun shows and elsewhere.

Six Marines -- a captain and five sergeants -- and eight civilians were arrested last week as part of an investigation into possible theft and illegal sale of weapons. The probe began in March 1996 when a Marine at the Camp Lejeune, N.C., Marine base noticed that ordnance was missing. The Marine approached federal investigators, who set up a sting operation.

Investigators are trying to determine whether there is any link between the arms thefts and militia or extremist groups.

Meanwhile, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, released a report completed before the latest weapons seizures that said greater inventory and handling controls are needed to prevent loss or theft.

"They're vulnerable from the standpoint you have large quantities at a wide number of locations and you're dependent on people following the internal controls," said David R. Warren, director of defense management issues at the GAO.

Warren said GAO personnel found that controls can be lax when grenades and the plastic explosive called C-4 are in transit or used in training exercises. For example, his GAO investigators found instances in which the person who signed out ordnance was the same one who reported that it was either expended or returned. More people should be involved in the chain of responsibility as a further check, he said.

A baseball-size piece of C-4 can destroy a car and shatter windows in a neighborhood. Less than a pound of Semtex, which is similar to C-4, was used to bring down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, the GAO said.

Warren said the GAO is talking with the Senate about follow-up investigation in light of the Camp Lejeune thefts.

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen ordered all the services last week to review security and accountability for small arms and ammunition, and to report back within 30 days.

Yesterday, Sen. John Glenn, the Ohio Democrat who requested the GAO review, reacted to the report, saying: "I am particularly concerned that GAO reports missiles, grenades, C-4 and TNT are still vulnerable to insider theft. Insider theft is exactly what we saw happen at Camp Lejeune, and it should not occur there or at any other base."

Before last week's seizures, undercover agents were able to buy 150 pounds of C-4 explosive, a .50-caliber machine gun, 40 smaller machine guns, a 60 mm mortar, 100 grenades and an unspecified number of Claymore mines from Marine or civilian suspects, investigators said.

Last week, federal agents seized the weapons from locations around Boone, N.C., and in Abingdon, Va. Agents seized the ordnance from homes, storage areas and a van, some of them owned by one of the civilian suspects, Gary R. Pruess. Pruess, 35, operates the North Carolina Military Museum in Blowing Rock, N.C., and pleaded guilty in 1996 to unlawfully transferring firearms and weapons. He served a year in prison.

The Marines that were arrested worked in ordnance disposal and thus had access to grenades and C-4, investigators have said.

Bonney, the FBI supervisory senior agent, said investigators are following leads provided by the arrested Marines and civilians. More arrests are expected, he said. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is tracking the origin of the weapons, which is expected to take several weeks, Bonney said.

Pub Date: 10/23/97

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