NBC News Investigation: Can insurgents buy U.S. military uniforms online?
By Lisa Myers, Rich Gardella and the NBC News Investigative Unit
The Government Accountability Office issued a report today revealing that undercover government investigators have been able to buy sensitive military goods online, including night-vision goggles, body armor and even plane and helicopter parts.
The report also mentioned another item GAO investigators were able to buy online from sellers on eBay -- infrared tabs worn on combat uniforms by U.S. troops.
"Enemies," the report states, "could use [infrared] tabs to pose as a friendly fighter during night combat, creating confusion on the battlefield and putting troops at risk."
The GAO's findings match the surprising results of a recent NBC News investigation. NBC News discovered that combat uniforms and special equipment designed to protect U.S. troops in war zones are widely available for sale, potentially endangering U.S. soldiers' lives.
How to tell your own troops apart from the enemy is an age-old combat challenge.
For U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, small patches of infrared material attached to combat uniforms, often bearing the image of the U.S. flag, have provided an extra level of protection. They help quickly identify friend from foe.
"When you're wearing night vision goggles and you look over at someone, you can see the patch right away," said NBC News military analyst Rick Francona. "These patches [tell you], 'That's a good guy, that's a bad guy."
NBC News will not reveal exactly how the patches work. Military experts told NBC News they are especially critical at night, in distinguishing the good guys from the bad. Overall, the analysts said, they have provided U.S. troops an edge on the battlefield.
Yet, an NBC News investigation found that both the infrared patches and U.S. combat uniforms are widely available for sale -- in military surplus stores across the U.S. and from various vendors on the Internet.
Posing as civilian customers, we visited several retail stores. We easily found some selling both items. At one store, the sales clerk provided an unsolicited description of the patches' significance, explaining how they give U.S. soldiers an advantage:
"It's identify friend or foe," he explained. "This material reflects in such a way, only the U.S. and their allies have it."
NBC News bought two patches for $14.99 each. We could have bought a boxful. We bought combat uniforms with current U.S. military digital camouflage patterns for various prices, approximately $100 or less for a complete set. No questions asked.
Our Internet transactions were just as easy. We were able to buy uniforms and patches from any number of online vendors. Again, no questions asked.The packages arrived quickly.
The NBC staffers doing the buying were U.S. citizens based in Washington, DC. Our purchases aroused no suspicion. But what about an individual outside the U.S.? Could he buy them and have them shipped overseas?
We asked an NBC News staffer with an Arab name based in the Middle East to try. Although some online vendors refuse to ship overseas, it wasn't hard to find some who would. The vendors sent uniform clothing and the patches -- meant to identify U.S. troops on the battlefield -- to our staffer's hotel in Jordan, a country bordering Iraq.
The vendors included catalogs listing other military surplus equipment for sale. And still, no questions.
"This takes away one of the edges we had," said Francona. "They're readily available to anyone who wants to buy them."
"No question, this is a serious violation of security for U.S. combat forces deployed abroad," said retired U.S. Army General Barry McCaffrey, also an NBC News military analyst.
McCaffrey warns that the enemy, wearing U.S. uniforms and patches, could initially pass for U.S. soldiers, perhaps causing American soldiers to hold their fire.
It's happened before. In January 2007, about a dozen insurgents attacked a government compound in Karbala, Iraq, and killed five U.S. soldiers. They got through security in part because they were wearing a convincing disguise -- U.S. military uniforms.
NBC News asked Pentagon officials to comment on our investigation, and to gauge the level of threat posed by the easy commerce in infrared patches.
"The department does not view the sales of military or surplus items properly disposed of in accordance with appropriate policies and regulations as a threat to U.S. forces," one spokeswoman said.
A Defense Department spokesman based in Iraq also downplayed the threat. "The bottom line," he wrote in an email, "is that we understand that there is a continued effort by insurgents to obtain U.S. uniforms, and there are preventative measures and several methods to disseminate this information."
But how is it possible that sensitive items like U.S. combat uniforms and identifying patches apparently can be easily obtained by civilians across the world? The short answer is that commercial sales of these items appear to be legal and unrestricted.
The Defense Department has tried to control the availability of patches and uniforms. In 2006 and 2007, it issued restrictions on their release or sale through Defense Department channels. But the Defense Department restrictions appear to apply only to the military and the government. They do not seem to apply to commercial companies that manufacture or sell the same or nearly identical products. Our search found no U.S. laws or regulations preventing commercial companies or the public from selling or buying commercial versions of U.S. military combat uniforms or the infrared patches.
Before asking our staffer in Jordan to purchase the items, we asked the U.S. Government whether exporting combat uniforms or infrared patches out of the U.S. was illegal. We asked the Department of State and the Department of Commerce, which each manage different export controls. Neither could provide a straight answer. Each department pointed to the other.
The State Department's answer was a qualified "we don't know." Its spokesman told us that in general it "does not license the export of military uniforms." The spokesman also said they could find "no indication" that the infrared patches had "ever undergone...the process through which the Federal Government determines whether the export of an item is to be controlled by the State Department (i.e., that it is covered by the U.S. Munitions List) or controlled by the Commerce Department."
The State Department suggested we ask the Commerce Department. A Commerce Department spokesman told us its experts "tended to think" the items would be controlled by the State Department.
After we bought the items at the store, we emailed the Defense Department official listed as a contact on its published restrictions. We asked, as a private citizen, whether civilians should be able to buy them.
The official's response? We can't control uniforms, but the patches are a controlled item, so "you should remove the patch and destroy it."
Military experts say both the Defense Department and Congress should do much more to keep these sensitive items from falling into the wrong hands. General McCaffrey suggests a federal law restricting commercial sales.
Although civilians can easily obtain as many infrared patches as they want, there are indications that U.S. soldiers in combat zones can't. In letters to the military newspaper Stars and Stripes last October, several soldiers complained they couldn't get enough infrared flag patches.
"I have not asked for a replacement," wrote one soldier based in Iraq. "I doubt my supply sergeant has any flag replacements."
"We have been unable to obtain [extra] flags," wrote another soldier, pointing out that each soldier only gets issued two of them. "We are all trying to figure out ways to keep ours 'in regs'… [We] are forced to set aside one serviceable infrared flag for base wear in order to avoid butt-chewings while visiting the post-exchange and dining facility."
The same soldier noted that some have had to ask their spouses to purchase them for them back at home.
Not having them in good condition is "a risk to our lives," wrote still another in Iraq. "They are the main way our air support can separate us from insurgents."
The GAO and Congress have discussed the infrared patches openly, and how public sales of these items could threaten soldiers' lives. Military experts told NBC News that the public-service benefit in broadcasting a story about the problem outweighed the risk of potentially alerting terrorists or insurgents to the security vulnerability.
"I think our enemies know all about this, said Francona, a retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Colonel. "It's been in the press, we know that the uniforms have fallen into the wrong hands. I think it's important that people know what's going on and they take steps to correct it... I think it's very important that people are aware that this is a problem and I think it's very important that the military correct it."
"I think without an aggressive free press," said McCaffrey, "a lot of these problems never get corrected. The older I live, the more I believe that only through aggressive reporting of failures do we get results out of government in many cases… You've got to flag actions in the ongoing war on terror that haven't been thought through, and that are placing our own people at risk. This is a real service to our deployed forces, including my son who's in combat right now.
Additional reporting by Moufaq Khatib in Amman, Elizabeth Leist in Washington.