Pentagon Sales A WMD Risk?

The Defense Department did not properly monitor Internet sales of equipment that could be used to make chemical and biological weapons, congressional investigators say.

As a result, says the General Accounting Office report being released Tuesday, there is little assurance that excess chemical and biological equipment has not already been obtained by dangerous people.

The House Government Reform subcommittee on national security has a hearing Tuesday to examine the findings, which outline weaknesses in Pentagon controls over surplus biological and chemical lab equipment and protective clothing.

"The cheap, virtually unregulated availability of low-cost biological laboratory equipment poses a risk to national security," Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., the subcommittee chairman, said Monday night. "The Department of Defense should not be a discount shopping outlet for would-be-bioterrorists."

At the subcommittee's request, GAO bought surplus items though a shell corporation, acquiring operating lab equipment and other items at less than one-tenth of the original cost to the Pentagon, the report says. The GAO also was able to buy protective suits and other items, despite a department policy that prohibits public sale of the items, according to the GAO.

Some protective suits bought by the GAO had previously been determined defective, yet they were still circulating in the surplus supply chain, with some issued to state and local law enforcement units, the report says.

The military sells a broad range of items on the surplus market. A current list of upcoming auctions includes motor vehicles, laser cutting machines, measurement devices, medical equipment and communications shelters. In the 2002 fiscal year, the Pentagon's Defense Reutilization and Marketing Agency sold $1.2 billion of goods, which helps defray the cost of defense programs to taxpayers.

"Offensive and defensive weapons and associated material are demilitarized prior to sale or as a condition of sale," according to the DRMA Web site.