May 15, 2008 in Nation/World

Theft, exports of night-vision gear on the rise

Peter Eisler USA Today
 

WASHINGTON – Thefts and illegal exports of advanced military night-vision gear are rising sharply, and U.S. officials say some of the equipment has reached enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq, where it can erode the advantage U.S. troops have in after-dark combat.

The government has prosecuted more than two dozen businesses and individuals over the past 18 months for stealing night-vision gear or skirting prohibitions on foreign sales, according to a USA Today review of federal documents and public records.

In at least five cases, prosecutors linked shipments to terrorist groups, such as al-Qaida and Hezbollah. A few others were headed to Iran and Taliban forces in Afghanistan, court records show; several were destined for China and Japan.

“It’s extremely serious – you’re talking about adversaries of the United States getting equipment that we make to give our soldiers an advantage in the field,” said Charles Beardall, the Pentagon’s deputy inspector general for investigations.

The Pentagon joined the departments of Justice, Homeland Security, Commerce and State last year in a crackdown on illegal exports of combat-use military items and sensitive civilian goods with military uses. Night-vision goggles, scopes and cameras used by U.S. troops account for more cases than any other technology, said Steven Pelak, Justice’s export enforcement coordinator.

Pelak and Beardall say some night-vision gear has reached enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan, but won’t discuss how much.

The implications are serious because U.S. troops often launch riskier missions after dark to exploit their night-vision advantage.

“If you look at cases where groups like the Taliban are trying to get this stuff, that’s how they want to use it, for night operations to kill our troops,” Pelak said.

Lower-grade night-vision devices are sold commercially, but military versions are far more sensitive and can include features that identify U.S. troops by infrared tabs on their uniforms. Sales and exports of that equipment are restricted by law.

Since 2001, the government has charged more than 40 individuals or businesses with theft or illegal exports of night-vision technology, based on a USA Today review of public records and reports from Justice, Commerce and the Pentagon.

In one case, Syed Hashmi, a U.S. citizen, awaits trial on charges that he obtained night-vision goggles and other military devices for associates who moved the equipment to al-Qaida affiliates for use against U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

In another case, Shahrazad Mir Gholikhan, an Iranian, was sentenced this month to 29 months in prison for her role in a plot to send 3,000 night-vision systems to Iran, which the United States accuses of supplying Iraqi insurgents.

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