U.S. acts to block sale of parts, technology

Task forces try to keep U.S.-made components out of hostile hands

October 11, 2007|By Josh Meyer | Josh Meyer,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Moving to close what officials say is a gaping hole in the U.S. national security safety net, the Justice Department will announce today the creation of special task forces to prevent unfriendly nations such as Iran from illegally obtaining U.S.-made parts and technology for their military and fledgling nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs.

The National Counter-Proliferation Initiative aims to crack down on the black market networks that U.S. officials believe have flourished for decades and continue to clandestinely provide American hardware and software to numerous nations and possibly terrorist organizations as well.

Many of those nations are aggressively using middlemen, front companies and black marketers to scoop up U.S.-made components that they cannot buy directly because of various trade restrictions.

The products include component parts for nuclear weapons systems, guidance systems for rockets and missiles and base ingredients for chemical and biological weapons.

The problem was underscored in two cases nearly four years ago, when Israeli-born trafficker Asher Karni was caught illegally shipping suspected U.S. nuclear components to Pakistan for its atomic bomb arsenal and Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan was caught selling his country's nuclear parts and technology to Iran, Libya, North Korea and perhaps other rogue nations.

Since then, the United States has had some successes in stanching the flood of U.S. parts and technology being routed to hostile nations by middlemen in third countries. That has included a series of enforcement actions against traffickers believed to be selling U.S.-made jet fighter parts to Iran, which is blocked by various American embargoes from buying them.

But the enforcement effort has been hampered by turf battles between federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies and a lack of involvement by seasoned federal prosecutors who know how to pursue such time-consuming international cases, according to senior U.S. officials involved in the effort and other experts.

The Government Accountability Office has been issuing stinging reports about the lack of coordination and information sharing among U.S. agencies since at least 1982, concluding last year that continuing dysfunctionality has severely hampered efforts to bring criminal cases against traffickers.

In a December report, the independent government watchdog agency said that although more than 40 individuals or companies were convicted of more than 100 criminal violations of export control laws in 2005 alone, many of the long-standing "weaknesses and vulnerabilities" it had uncovered years earlier remained unaddressed.

Experts, including many current and former law enforcement and regulatory officials, said there are so many gaps in the enforcement system that the extent of the problem remains largely unknown. The new task forces, modeled on a pilot project in New York City, are expected to address some of those problems by having specially trained prosecutors coordinate "export violation" investigations within their districts and ensure that they are a top priority, senior Justice Department officials said in interviews.

Josh Meyer writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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