WASHINGTON – The U.S. government is taking aim to stop the illegal sale overseas of seemingly innocent items — such as medical supplies, electronic gadgets and home computers — that can be converted into weapons of terror.
FOX News has learned that federal officials will be putting together task forces, housed in the Justice Department, to monitor and clamp down on these types of transactions with rogue states and individual groups suspected of links to terror.
"The concept of terrorists, criminals or rogue nations obtaining weapons and other restricted technology is chilling," Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Julie Myers said Thursday. Myers oversees illegal export investigations as head of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The United States has strict laws governing the export of such items — known as dual-use materials — but government officials often have complained that the laws are not being enforced, in part because federal agencies are not communicating enough among themselves.
Officials at the Justice Department and elsewhere believe the task forces, once fully operational, will end much of the confusion surrounding the enforcement.
The counter-proliferation task forces will be established in jurisdictions overseen by each U.S. attorney's office. They will be similar to the joint terrorism task forces that were founded shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, and the attention given to these new law enforcement groups will be just as intense and focused as that given to the JTTFs, sources said.
It is not clear if there will be 93 task forces — one for each U.S. attorney. They likely would be stood up one at a time, starting first with major metropolitan and trade regions. The task forces, unlike JTTFs, which are administered by the FBI, will be led by the U.S. attorneys, a separate division of the Justice Department.
While these new task forces would be devoted to tracking down and stopping illegal shipments of weapons, weapons systems and parts — including the oft-mentioned trade in F-14 fighter parts, which federal officials are trying to keep out of Iranian hands — the greater concern is over materials known for their dual-use capability.
Those, as outlined in several federal cases filed in the last year, often have the potential to be more dangerous than actual weapons.
For example, one item officials will target is described as a "nuclear detonator." The actual item is primarily a medical instrument used to break up kidney stones, but can be fashioned into a detonator for nuclear weapons.
Officials at the Justice's National Security and Criminal Divisions, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other Homeland Security Department components, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are also helping to coordinate operations
A recent Pentagon report says there was a 43 percent increase in 2005 in what it described as suspicious foreign contacts with U.S-based defense companies. Another report last year by U.S. intelligence officials found that a record 108 nations were trying to buy or otherwise obtain U.S. technology that is restricted for sale. It did not list which nations or specify whether some of them were U.S. allies.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department has had a number of recent cases revolving around illegal smuggling to foreign countries
— Last week, two Utah men were arrested for allegedly trying to sell parts over the Internet for F-4 and F-14 fighter jets — which are only flown by Iran.
— Week before last, two engineers were indicted in San Jose, Calif., on charges of stealing computer chip designs intended for the Chinese military.
— Pittsburgh company SparesGlobal, Inc., was sentenced last week for lying about exporting equipment used in nuclear reactors and ballistic missiles in 2003 that ended up in Pakistan.
— A man in California pleaded guilty in August to trying to smuggle 100,000 Uzi submachine guns and night vision goggles to Iranian government officials.
— Two men pleaded guilty in California on the same day, Aug. 1, to exporting military-use technology to China, including, in one case, computer code to help train fighter pilots.
FOX News Ian McCaleb and The Associated Press contributed to this report.