Defense Dept.'s Deadly Garage Sale
Government Auction of Biological and Chemical Weapons-Making
Materials Might Have Been Pipeline for Terror
by Bill Berkowitz
November 8, 2003
It wasn't very long ago that you could have bought enough equipment to set up a mini-biological weapons lab for you or your special friend without cavorting with the mafia, street criminals, wannabe terrorists, or any other nefarious characters. You didn't have to leave your home, mess with traffic, find a parking place and haul the stuff back home. "Believe It or Not" -- as Robert Leroy Ripley was wont to say -- for only a few grand you could have bought the weapons-making equipment at an online public auction run by the U.S. government in partnership with Government Liquidation, LLC.
"The U.S. government -- in particular, the Defense Department -- appears to be a much larger proliferator of biological weapons materials than axis-of-evil alumnus Iraq," Vince Crawley of Army Times recently reported. According to Crawley, "Undercover investigators with the nonpartisan General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, say they were able to use phony names and a fictitious company to buy government-surplus lab equipment well suited for creating biological warfare agents."
If you are concerned that the equipment -- some of it as new and untouched as the day it was produced -- might fall into the wrong hands, you should be. The GAO's undercover squad appears to have been occasionally "outbid by private companies and individuals, many of whom then resell the equipment overseas to people in such countries such as the Philippines, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates."
In early October, the House Government Reform Committee, which directed the GAO to investigate the situation, held hearings about the undercover purchases. The Committee heard from GAO investigators who testified that they had spent $4,100 "on lab equipment, most of it in good working condition, that originally cost U.S. taxpayers $46,960." That's about 10 cents on the dollar. The equipment included "a biological safety cabinet and a bacteriological incubator."
"The cheap, virtually unregulated availability of low-cost biological laboratory equipment poses a risk to national security," subcommittee chairman Christopher Shays, R-Conn., told CBS News. "The Department of Defense should not be a discount shopping outlet for would-be-bioterrorists."
According to a report by Radio Netherlands' Hans de Vreij, the "so-called incubator" is "an apparatus used for multiplying bacteria and viruses." In addition, "evaporators, capable of turning nasty substances such as anthrax and deadly fungi into easily deployable powdered form," were also acquired.
"At the same hearing," Army Times' Crawley reports, the Defense Department Inspector General released a report describing security lapses at U.S. laboratories handling sensitive biological materials. Inspectors found unguarded biological agents and a lab that was unaware it still had salmonella on its premises." At one facility, inspectors "found a biological lab inside a lightly guarded trailer, complete with wheels and hitch, all ready to be towed away by any would-be thieves." U.S. inspectors who have been unsuccessfully searching for weapons of mass destruction and mobile biological labs would have salivated over this find.
"I think that what we have here is a classic case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing at the Pentagon," Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Washington, DC-based Arms Control Association, told me in a telephone interview.
If you or your partner isn't biologically or chemically inclined, there's lots of other neat stuff for sale at the Government Liquidation site -- "Your Direct Source For Government Surplus." A recent visit found thousands of items including: Industrial, Marine and Vehicular equipment; Electronic Test and Audio Equipment; an Education/Training Robot, which includes Interactive Optical (Video Camera), Audio/Visual Suite, Videotape (VHS), Audio Cassette, Amplifier, Graphic Equalizer, Monitor, Motorized head/arms and Wheeled Mobility System; Communication Shelters; Night Vision Equipment; and the lists go on and on. What we don't know, Kimball pointed out, is whether these other items "could also be used wrongly by domestic or international terrorists."
Government Liquidation, LLC (GL), a subsidiary of the Washington, DC-headquartered Liquidity Services, Inc. is "the exclusive partner of the U.S. Department of Defense for the sale of surplus property," according to its Web site. At its subsidiary, uksurplus.com, the company claims to be "the direct source for UK Military surplus aircraft, ship and armored vehicle parts and equipment."
How do you get in on the action? To register for an account you'll need to provide standard information: your name, address, company name and your title, an email address, business phone, state and/or country of residence. You will also be asked to respond to the following questions: How did you hear about us?; Do you purchase for resale or end-use?; How many employees does your company have?; What kind of inventory are you interested in?; and Which geographic region are you interested in?
One of the more unsettling revelations at the House Committee hearing reported by Army Times is that GAO undercover shoppers "were able to buy U.S. military chemical protective suits and gear -- including unexpired suits in their original packaging -- even though supply shortages have been reported for some active-duty units."
Radio Netherlands' de Vreij reported that the Dutch government claimed that "the items in question" are "on a list of strategic goods that require a specific export license." Many of these items are also listed by the Australia Group, an informal collaborative effort to do away with chemical and biological weapons (CBW). According to its Web site, "The principal objective of participants in the Australia Group is... to ensure, through licensing measures on the export of certain chemicals, biological agents, and dual-use chemical and biological manufacturing facilities and equipment, that exports of these items from their countries do not contribute to the spread of CBW."
The rules of the Australia Group, while not legally binding, apply to all nations, including the United States. "Uncontrolled Internet sales to customers in Egypt and the Philippines, fake or not, should therefore never have occurred," writes de Vreij.
According to CNN.com, the Defense Department's Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service stopped the sale of such items in mid-September "while the practice is reviewed." Although media attention to this potential WMD pipeline clearly embarrassed the Pentagon, the problem of dealing with the proliferation of biological and chemical weapons is "multi-faceted," said the Arms Control Association's Kimball, "and should be addressed in a more comprehensive way" than merely shutting down a Web site that sells surplus equipment."
There needs to be "the creation of a verification system so that countries aren't allowed to build up its biological weapons program, which we don't have," Kimball said. “We need to ensure that equipment used to make biological weapons is carefully controlled, and we need to develop new mechanisms to encourage the biotech industry to become much more responsible in regulating itself on new strains of pathogens being created."
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.