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Senators want probe of NetApp, Blue Coat devices' ties to Syria

The two Sunnyvale, Calif.-based companies may have illegally sold Internet-monitoring devices to Syria in violation of a U.S. embargo, three senators suggest in a letter to the Obama administration.

Anti-government protesters in Syria, where the death toll has exceeded 3,000, according to U.N. estimates.
Anti-regime protesters in Syria, where the death toll after a crackdown has exceeded 3,000, according to U.N. estimates. CBS News

Three U.S. senators are asking Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to investigate recent reports that Internet-monitoring gear made by two California-based companies has found its way to Syria.

In a letter (PDF) made public today, the senators ask Clinton to investigate reports that devices made by NetApp and Blue Coat Systems were sold to Syria in a possible violation of U.S. law. The companies are both publicly traded and located in Sunnyvale, Calif., about an hour's drive south of San Francisco.

"We are deeply concerned about the reported sale of Internet monitoring and censorship technology to Syria," says the letter from Sens. Bob Casey (D-Penn.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), and Christopher Coons (D-Del.). "In addition, we are troubled by the fact that such equipment has reportedly been purchased from American companies, and it may be aiding the Syrian regime's ongoing crackdown on peaceful protesters and human rights activists."

Syria's bloody crackdown on dissenters has escalated recently, with five people being killed by government forces yesterday, according to an AFP report. Another 40 were reportedly killed today by troops backed by tanks and armored vehicles, and the European Union has responded with additional sanctions. Even Jordan's King Abdullah has called on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down.

An article in The Washington Post last month reported that gear made by Blue Coat, which sells networking hardware, was being used in Syria to "censor the Internet and conduct surveillance of its citizens."

Complicating matters is that, thanks to U.S. sanctions, it would be illegal for U.S. companies to sell directly to Syria. The law prohibits "the transfer of goods or technology with the knowledge or intent that these goods or technology will be shipped, transferred, or transmitted to an unauthorized recipient."

For its part, Blue Coat has said it does not sell to the Syrian government. (Of course, the hardware could end up in Syria through any number of resellers or intermediaries in Europe or the Middle East.)

A Bloomberg report from November 3 said that an Italian company, Area SpA, has been "busy equipping President Bashar al-Assad's regime with the power to intercept, scan and catalog virtually every e-mail that flows through the country." The report said Area SpA had used NetApp devices without the manufacturer's knowledge.

Neither company immediately responded to a request for comment from CNET. NetApp's market capitalization is about $16 billion, and Blue Coat's is about $650 million.

The senators' letter, also addressed to Commerce Secretary John Bryson, asks the administration to "immediately review the possibility of suspending all U.S. government contracts with NetApp" until their investigation is complete.

Update: 11:50 p.m. PT: NetApp sent over a link to an earlier statement on the topic, as did Blue Coat.