You would think that the military would be careful about how it disposes of old or outdated equipment. And you may be wrong. Or are we blaming the victim of theft?

Rep. Chris Shays (R-Connecticut) pressed a Department of Defense official for answers on how military items are making their way into the marketplace, only to discover that there is a theft problem and officials don’t really know what the scope of that problem might be. Meanwhile, you can shop online for the following items.

From CNN:

  • Two F-14 fighter jet components. The United States has retired its fleet of F-14s. Only Iran is currently using them.
  • Night vision goggles specially made to military specifications that allow the user to identify U.S. troops at night.
  • Army combat uniforms. The military has prohibited the sale of uniforms to non-military personnel since January 2007, when Iraqi Insurgents used U.S. military uniforms to sneak into a base in Karbala and kill five U.S. service members.
  • Special “enhanced” body armor vests used by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and not available to the general public.

How true is the story? General Accounting Office (GAO) officials have been purchasing this equipment from eBay and Craigslist since January 2007 through March 2008. They received what they paid for, with no questions asked by the sellers.

From The Associated Press:

The Defense Department regards much of the stolen equipment to be on the U.S. Munitions List, meaning there are restrictions on their overseas sales, the Government Accountability Office said Thursday.The equipment could land in international brokers’ hands or be transferred overseas, said the GAO, Congress’ investigative arm.

“Many of the sensitive items we purchased could have been used directly against our troops and allies, or reverse engineered to develop counter measures or equivalent technologies,” investigators said in their report.

Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster defended the sales, claiming that they happened locally with items delivered in person. According to Buckmaster, that reduces the chance that those items went overseas. Hmm. UPS, anyone?

From PC World:

Buckmaster also suggested that online auction and classified sites donate all their profits from the sale of military equipment to charity, although Craigslist has not made any money that way. If other sites commit to giving away 100 percent of their profits from the sale of sensitive or stolen military equipment, Craigslist will make a “sizeable donation” to charity as well, he said.

Craigslist users are often confused about what items are appropriate to sell and what ones aren’t, Buckmaster added. He suggested the U.S. Congress pass a law banning the sale of recent military equipment. “With clear and concise guidelines available, very few of our users will violate them, and those few who do will very quickly find themselves … flagged off of our site,” he said.

I find it difficult to believe that new guidelines will improve the situation much. As it is, the items being offered for sale are either stolen or retained by military personnel inappropriately after active duty. This means that my tax dollars and yours are purchasing these items that could potentially be used against our own troops. But Craigslist needs guidelines in order to keep these items off its site.

The Army started a program in 2006 to account for all of its inventories. Rep. John Tierney (D-Massachusetts), chairman of the subcommittee, said he was startled that “it took the Army and Department of Defense six years to get the system in place that probably should have been in place by 2001.”

So how do we manage a problem like this? The Army is doing what it can, but what else can they be doing? Theft is going to be a problem, even with tighter controls. But what can be done about online retailers that allow these things to be sold? Is it really a case of Congress passing a new law? Or do online sale sites need to be more responsible?