WASHINGTON — Thefts and illegal exports of advanced military night-vision gear are rising sharply, and U.S. officials say some of the devices have reached enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq, where they could erode the edge 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-Qaeda 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," says 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 devices used by U.S. troops account for more cases than other technology, says 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. "Night-vision goggles of some generation have been found" on foes and in weapons caches, Beardall says, but details are "very sensitive." 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 says.
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. Besides the two dozen cases prosecuted since late 2006, the newspaper also identified at least eight more under investigation.
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-Qaeda 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.