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Politicians fret over military gear resold on eBay, Craigslist

Government investigators say it's easy to purchase night-vision goggles, F-14 antennas, Army uniforms and the like online. Now Congress is considering new laws aimed at stopping that.

At a U.S. House of Representatives hearing, about a dozen military-issue items procured on eBay and Craigslist by "undercover" government investigators were on display.
Anne Broache/CNET

WASHINGTON--Night-vision cameras and camouflage gear are probably available at your local Wal-Mart. But congressional leaders on Thursday voiced dismay at reports that "sensitive" military-issue equipment is being resold, potentially to terrorists, at Web sites like eBay and Craigslist and suggested new laws are necessary to ban that practice.

Among the dozen items that mostly "undercover" government investigators purchased during a yearlong investigation of those two leading sites were F-14 fighter jet antennas (only Iran currently operates F-14s, the committee noted), night vision goggles, infrared tape worn by troops to "differentiate friend from foe," a complete military-issue Army combat uniform, body armor, and "Meals, Ready to Eat" (MREs). (Click here for the entire Government Accountability Office report (PDF).)

Right now, it's not necessarily illegal to sell those goods, either online or offline, although the military does have regulations restricting how some of them are disposed.

"It doesn't take a whole lot of imagination to understand the troubling nature of some of these items being sold online," said Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), chairman of a House of Representatives national security subcommittee that called for the investigation.

Tierney cited an episode about a year ago when insurgents dressed in American combat uniforms raided a security post in Iraq and killed five American soldiers, although it's not clear how they obtained those uniforms.

Moreover, the committee leaders bristled at the thought of seeing taxpayer-funded equipment resold for a profit, when it could be used by troops in combat.

By calling Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster and eBay government relations chief Tod Cohen to Washington for the hearing, the subcommittee seemed to be preparing to place those executives in the hot seat. But the tone of that questioning was actually quite cordial. At the end of the panel, Tierney even praised the companies for "trying very hard" to keep sensitive military goods off their sites and acknowledged the rules of the road aren't the most clear.

Both Buckmaster and Cohen said they both supported the idea of developing clear rules outlining what is and isn't legal to sell, although Cohen emphasized that any new rules must apply not only online but offline as well. Buckmaster, for his part, suggested in response to a question that perhaps a law could be "passed banning sale of any U.S. military-issued item that's, say, less than 50 years old."

Tierney said he could understand why the sites would feel "constrained" telling their users they can't sell such goods when it's not explicitly illegal to do so. "It's sort of amazing to me we haven't had a law banning sales" of those items, he remarked.

Rather than the Internet companies, Defense Department officials endured much of the heat from politicians. Tierney began by accusing the officials of failing to be be cooperative about coming to testify before his committee. He repeatedly suggested they don't have adequate control over their inventory, highlighting particular concerns over military uniforms being sold online.

These night-vision goggles and "ready to eat" meals were bought online as part of a government investigation. Politicians are considering new laws to limit resale of such goods, which they fear could get into the hands of terrorists and others who want to cause harm. Anne Broache/CNET

Alan Estevez, a deputy under secretary of defense, said that at a "macro level," he thinks the military's policies are working well, with only a minority of its members breaking its internal equipment rules. Besides, it's currently legal to sell body armor and night-vision goggles, although there are some restrictions on exporting them, Estevez said. Nor is it illegal to sell military uniforms, which soldiers buy from American companies, often out of their own pockets, he noted.

"I certainly agree having someone dress up as a U.S. military member is something we need to control from a force protection issue," Estevez said. "But a uniform in and of itself does not gain access to any facility."

Sarah Finnecum, director of the U.S. Army's supply and maintenance directorate, said soldiers are responsible for turning in gear they're issued--such as body armor vests and night-vision goggles--when they're no longer using it and to compensate the government for its cost if they don't. But as for their "personal items of clothing," she said she thought it would be "very hard to tell (soldiers) that you can't resell that item when they've purchased it with their own resources."

eBay, Craigslist weigh in
Controversy over reselling military equipment is hardly new. In recent years, the same subcommittee determined that the Defense Department itself was selling top-grade chemical protective suits and items that could be used to make a biological warfare laboratory to the public. Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), the subcommittee's ranking member, said he was concerned that the military doesn't have a good enough system in place for keeping tabs on its inventory.

Charles Beardall, the Department of Defense's deputy inspector general for investigations, said his agency has been actively investigating such sales since the early 1990s, and such investigations compose 20 percent of its caseload.

But Gregory Kutz, who led the GAO's investigation, said he was troubled to find how "easy" it is now for anyone procure such equipment online, and he suggested e-commerce sites should be doing more to stop it.

"eBay prohibits sales of used cosmetics, while latest in military body armor is available to anybody with a credit card," he told the panel. "Our sodliers deserve better than to have their own technology used against them on the battlefield."

Most of the equipment the GAO purchased was stolen, Kutz said. One eBay seller--a U.S. Army soldier based in South Korea--is serving a three-and-a-half year prison sentence after the GAO turned him over to the Army for selling mass quantities of meals-ready-to-eat illegally.

eBay's Cohen said he believes his company has "the most proactive tools" to flag and prevent such sales of any major ecommerce company, with more than 2,000 employees working around the world to prevent "all forms of illegal behavior" on its sites.

The company maintains a policy that prohibits sales of 60 items, including weapons and many classes of military items, and it works regularly with law enforcement and military investigators to develop keyword filters designed to detect listings that violate its policy, Cohen said. Last year, for instance, eBay reviewed more than 4,000 listings flagged by its body armor filters and removed about one fourth of them, determining the remaining flagged listings were false positives.

Craigslist's Buckmaster also defended his company's procedures, saying that because tens of millions of site viewers have the option to flag listings for deletion, his company actually has a stronger anti-fraud police force than any Web site "on Earth." He also noted that his 25-person company has no incentive to let sales of questionable goods remain on its site because it earns "absolutely nothing" in commission or otherwise from their sales.

Buckmaster went a step further, challenging Web sites that profit off of sales of military goods to donate 100 percent of any revenue related to those sales to a charity, "preferably one that provides aid to our military veterans."