An extraordinary Government Accountability Office sting operation revealed that the U.S. Department of Defense continues to play fast and loose with a program to transfer surplus military weaponry to law enforcement agencies, despite years of controversy over the dangers of militarizing local police departments or allowing weapons to fall into the hands of terrorists.
The GAO, the non-partisan congressional watchdog best known for trenchant audits of government finances and waste, set up a phony law enforcement agency – complete with a bogus website – to see how easy it would be to obtain surplus, military-grade equipment through a law enforcement support program. The fake operation claimed that it did high-level security and counterterrorism work and provided the Department of Defense with an address that led to an empty parking lot.
Within a week, the phony law enforcement operation obtained over 100 items with an estimated value of $1.2 million, including night-vision goggles, simulated M-16A rifles and simulated pipe bombs, according to a GAO report. This was done with virtually no questions asked or any on-site inspection of the faux law enforcement operation.
Although the rifles and pipe bombs were simulated for military combat training operations, they can be easily converted to lethal weapons.
The report, issued last week, sharply criticized the Defense Logistics Agency, which oversees the Law Enforcement Support Office, for shoddy oversight that could enable arms and other military equipment to fall into the wrong hands.
For instance, DLA personnel have not routinely requested and verified the identification of individuals picking up “controlled” property (specific types of military equipment, defined here) or verifying the quantity of approved items prior to transfer. Moreover, the DLA has not conducted a “fraud risk” assessment of the law enforcement support program.
“Without strengthening DLA and LESO program internal controls over the approval and transfer of controlled property to law enforcement agencies ... DLA lacks reasonable assurance that it has the ability to prevent, detect, and respond to potential fraud and minimize associated security risks,” the report stated.
Zina Merritt, director of the GAO’s defense capabilities team, told the Marshall Project that the DLA failed to do any meaningful verification and mostly communicated with the GAO sting operation by email. “It was like getting stuff off of eBay,” Merritt said.
DLA officials say they have already taken some action and are planning additional steps to address the identified weaknesses in the verification process for its surplus controlled property program, according to the report. The Defense Department will also complete an internal fraud assessment by April 2018, according to the GAO.
However, one can only imagine how many unauthorized groups and individuals managed to acquire military equipment before the GAO blew the whistle.
The so-called 1033 LESO Program is a federal initiative dating back to the Clinton administration that transfers surplus military equipment from the Department of Defense to domestic police agencies throughout the country.
While some of the program may have made sense in allowing local law enforcement agencies access to surplus military semi-automatic rifles, armament and crowd control devices, the program also offered tanks and other tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft and vehicles, grenade launchers and firearms and ammunition measuring .50-caliber and larger.
Many were shocked by the response of a highly militarized Ferguson, Missouri, police department to protests during the summer of 2014 that were sparked by the shooting death of a black teenager named Michael Brown. Police responded with riot gear, tear gas and armored vehicles, leaving many demonstrators wounded
The following year, then-President Barack Obama ordered a sharp curtailment of the types of weapons and vehicles that the Pentagon could transfer to local and state police agencies. The new restrictions also included requiring the agencies to present “a clear and persuasive explanation of the need for the controlled equipment.”