Government Turns to Arms Makers to Fight Smuggling
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Each year, an unknown number of weapons and weapons parts are illegally smuggled out of the United States. They could be fighter jet engines going to Iran, night-vision goggles to China, or nuclear triggering devices to Pakistan. Agents at the Department of Homeland Security are trying to stem the smuggling by working more closely with U.S. arms manufacturers. But they admit many weapons are probably still getting through.
NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER reporting:
It's December 2004 on the island of Saipan in the Western Pacific, and federal agents are coming in for the sting. As children play nearby, an undercover agent with his translator, meets in a park with Abbas Tavakolian, an Iranian who wants to buy three F-14 fighter jets. He thinks the agent is an arms supplier. Unfortunately for Tavakolian, the agent is wired, producing a recording aired here for the first time.
(Soundbite of man speaking a foreign language)
FESSLER: Tavakolian is nervous. Through the translator, he tells the agent to be careful when talking about the deal.
Mr. ABBAS TAVAKOLIAN (Illegal Iranian Arms Dealer): (Through Translator) Now on, we will refer to the item as either equipment or machine.
Unidentified Man (Undercover Agent): Okay.
Mr. TAVAKOLIAN: We will not refer to it as F-14.
Unidentified Man: Okay.
Mr. TAVAKOLIAN: Neither in personal, nor phone conversation, or otherwise.
FESSLER: Like most arms dealers, though, Tavakolian is also a businessman looking for a good deal.
Mr. TAVAKOLIAN: (Through Translator) He does not want an outrageous or a blackmarket price. He wants the price to be reasonable.
Unidentified Man: Okay. Tell him I'll do my best. I...
FESSLER: Hours later, Tavakolian is arrested and charged with export violations. He later pleaded guilty and is now in jail. This case is considered a big success by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE. For years, the agency has been trying to encourage U.S. firms to help stop the illegal flow of weapons and items that can be used to make weapons. In this case, the lead came from a contractor suspicious about an email from Tavakolian's father-in-law, who wanted to buy parts for F-14 and F-4 fighter jets.
Mr. STEVE ARUDA (Former Chief, Arms and Strategic Technologies Investigations, ICE): The Missouri-based defense contractor had been visited by ICE, and they knew who to call.
FESSLER: Steven Aruda, until recently, headed Arms and Strategic Technologies Investigations at ICE. He says since 2001, agents have made almost 13,000 visits to businesses under a program called Shield America.
Mr. ARUDA: Industry is our first sort of line of defense. When someone is looking for technology or military equipment, they're not going to come into an ICE office and ask us. They're going to go to the manufacturer, or to a supplier, or to a distributor of the type of equipment that they're looking for.
FESSLER: No one knows that more than Mark Holland. He oversees trade compliance at General Electric's aircraft engine plant in Lynn, Massachusetts. This facility assembles some highly sought after equipment, including engines for Black Hawk helicopters.
Mr. ARUDA: How are you again? Nice to see you.
Ms. MARYANN FRANCISCHELLI(Special Agent, ICE): Nice to see you. How are you?
FESSLER: Today, Holland has invited ICE agents Maryann Francischelli and Bill Argue to talk to GE colleagues about what they could do to help. Frances Shelly tells the workers some of the red flags to look out for. It's part of the standard Shield America pitch. But this is the first time a news organization has been allowed inside.
Ms. FRANCISCHELLI: Some of the things to keep in mind when you do get potential requests for quotes is payment. Payment is a big thing. How they want to pay, payment well in excess of the market value. As you know, China has got the Black Hawk helicopter. They're looking for replacement parts, which they haven't been able to get for 20 odd years or so. So, there's a huge market in China for your product.
FESSLER: But that would violate a U.S. embargo. Francischelli also says beware of buyers who want to pay cash, or who aren't interested in a service agreement. The other agent, Bill Argue, notes that a lot of inquiries come via email, some so blatantly illegal that the urge is just to delete them.
Mr. WILLIAM ARGUE (Special Agent, ICE): You might think it's just junk email and ignore it. But if that guy in China, or that guy in North Korea, or that guy in Iran, if he's not able to get whatever product it is, he's going to say well, guess what? I can't get that product from GE. How else can I get it? Cause I need it.
FESSLER: Argue says the buyer will turn to a competitor, a subcontractor, or someone who can divert the sale through a third country.
Mr. ARGUE: The most important thing is please forward those inquiries on to us, and we'll follow up on it.
FESSLER: Argue says that later that not all businesses want to cooperate. Some worry that helping the government will eat up too much time. But the best leads come from companies. In 2001, for example, a South Korean man, name Kwonhwan Park, tried to buy four Black Hawk helicopter engines for what he said was the Malaysian military. He had all the proper paperwork. But GE's Mark Holland knew that Malaysia only owned two Black Hawks, and he alerted ICE. After a two-year investigation, Park was arrested and pleaded guilty. It appears the engines were really headed for China.
Holland admits that cooperating with the government is good business for GE, but it's also personal.
Mr. HOLLAND: I know a lot of different people who are in the military. They are in these different countries. And some of these engines, or weapons, or military munitions items could be used on our own troops.
FESSLER: And that's a big concern. One of the main destinations for illegal sales is Iran. Ironically, because it has a fleet of military jets supplied by the U.S. before a 1995 embargo. Now, it's desperate for parts.
Rachel Stohl, at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, says what ICE is doing is very important. But she also thinks it addresses only part of a much bigger problem, and that a broader strategy is needed. Stohl notes that the United States is the world's largest arms supplier, and that it's providing more and more weapons to countries, such as India and Pakistan, in exchange for their help in the war on terror.
Ms. RACHEL STOHL (Senior Analyst, Center for Defense Information): And I think that's a pretty dangerous or short-sighted policy that the United States is undertaking, because it's very difficult. Once you light a weapon out of your possession, it's very difficult to ensure that it's used properly and it ends up where you want it to.
FESSLER: Stohl says that the State Department and the Defense Department have programs to check where weapons end up, but they can only monitor a small percentage of the tens of thousands exported each year. And while Shield America is touted as a way to keep weapons out of the hands of terrorists, Stohl says that most terrorists use small arms and light weapons.
Ms. STOHL: Unfortunately, those weapons are ubiquitous. You can find them on the black market, on the gray market, in arms bazaars, in people's homes. Those weapons are widely available anywhere around the world.
Ms. FRANCISCHELLI: Thank you very much. And don't, take the brochures and please don't ever hesitate to call.
FESSLER: Back at GE, ICE agent Francischelli admits that she and her colleagues are probably just scratching the surface. ICE opened more than 2,500 investigations last year, with 101 arrests and 89 convictions. But no one really knows who got away.
Ms. FRANCISCHELLI: And I tend to think, in this job, you catch people that are the dumb ones. Dumb ones, a little luck, and some investigative skills.
FESSLER: Still, she and her colleagues say stopping even one illegal sale can be a major accomplishment. You never know which weapon is going to be turned against U.S. interest to devastating effect.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.