Secrets for Sale

Wired, among others, are covering a new GAO report about the availability of sensitive military equipment on eBay and other websites. Having looked through the report, I have a few quibbles to pick with it…

The government, and especially the military, is a vast, gargantuan, and above all astonishingly bureaucratic body. Rarely does any of its many, many tentacles, er, hands, know what the other is doing. Oversight happens, but on a broad scale – micro-management from afar just isn’t practical.

For all the stuff the government “found” and purchased on eBay, they seem unable – or unwilling – to say how they came up for sale. While they describe a lot of the items as stolen, or probably stolen – allegations that should come as no surprise to anyone who’s even halfway familiar with the World’s Largest Pawnshop – it seems like they are, hysterical rhetoric aside, kind of short on proof.

Every week, the military sells thousands, even millions of dollars worth of equipment and material at auctions. There, anything from long-obsolete antiques to current-issue equipment in fully serviceable condition are sold for, quite literally, pennies on the dollar. Whether that stuff should be sold is another question entirely, but it is, and while there is undoubtedly some stuff on eBay that’s stolen from Uncle Sam, I know with considerable certainty that a lot of it was purchased, quite legitimately and above-board, directly from the government.

Back in the late ’90s, I supplemented my day-job income by dealing in electronics surplus from the U.S. military. In the glory days of the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office, or DRMO, ‘Special Sales’, you could get all sorts of amazing stuff for pennies on the dollar, and they’d ship it to you for a flat fee of around $50 – $50 per auction, if I remember correctly, not per lot won – and it didn’t matter if it was a single computer, or twelve pallets of test equipment, $50 got it delivered to your door or loading dock.

I sold some of that equipment on eBay, sure – but my number one customer for military surplus electronics? Uncle Sam. It’s a sadly glorious bit of capitalism, really – the government spends your tax dollars to buy something, decides it no longer needs it, sells it for perhaps one-half of one percent of its original purchase price – then generally less than six months later buys the exact same item for maybe twenty percent of its original purchase price.

You know what used to be available at those Special Sales? Everything. Need a sensor assembly or guidance package from a Sidewinder missile? No problem. Throttle assemblies for F-18 jets? Cockpit displays from C-130s? Sure, one pallet or two? Current-issue (at the time, I think it was the M-40) gas masks? How many cases would you like?

Should some of that stuff have been sold? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But it was, and a lot of it is doubtless still trading through the surplus market to this day. I know I, personally, purchased one brand-new piece of equipment on eBay several years ago which, as far as I can tell, requires – or required, back when it was in use – a security clearance to possess, use, or operate, and which almost certainly shouldn’t have been made available for sale. (For $10, no less.) That item apparently came onto the market at the bankruptcy auction of a fairly small defense contractor some time previously, something I can neither prove nor disprove. (And I doubt anyone else can, either – even Uncle Sam.) But I question whether the General Accountability Office looked into whether any of the items they bought online could have been legitimately acquired as surplus…

It’s easy to blame the availability of questionable items on the marketplace on thieves; I just wonder whether the problem perhaps lies at the government end. From looking at the report, it sure doesn’t sound like the right hand knows what the left is doing most of the time.

Oh, and the F-14 Tomcat antenna the GAO warns about, claiming the only potential customer is Iran? I’ll bet good money that the antenna in question is incompatible with the newer radios Iran has refitted its Tomcat fleet with, or for a newer system than was ever made available to them back in the late ’70s/early ’80s. In other words, a complete non-issue. Besides, for crying out loud – it’s an antenna. No electronics, no moving parts. Even a backwards, third-world country, such as we like to pretend Iran is, can produce such a simple thing. And, let’s face it, so can Russia, or China – and the latter can almost certainly do it for less money than it would take to ship them from the U.S. to Iran through an intermediary…

Published in: Geekiness, General, Security | on April 10th, 2008| Comments Off on Secrets for Sale

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