Danger in Uniform (Newsweek)
Danger in Uniform
An infrared patch that allows easy nighttime identification of U.S. soldiers is widely available in the United States. That's a big problem.
By Joseph Contreras and Ed Caram
Updated: 12:45 p.m. ET July 5, 2007
July 5, 2007 - The Pentagon has long prided itself on the capability of U.S. combat units to operate under cover of darkness. In a prepared statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee in April 2002, Paul Wolfowitz, then deputy Defense secretary, noted the great strides that the U.S. military had made since the Vietnam War to reduce its vulnerability to nighttime attacks. “We acquired technology such as night-vision goggles that allow us to virtually turn night into day … and we have turned a vulnerability into an advantage,” boasted Wolfowitz. “Today, it is not hyperbole to say we ‘own the night'.”
But that important advantage over enemy forces could be eroded if a key component—infrared identification patches attached to combat fatigues that can be detected at night—were to fall into the wrong hands. NEWSWEEK has learned that 4,800 used combat uniforms bearing “glo-tape” patches were inadvertently sold to 23 U.S. and Canadian clients of an Arizona-based company between August and October of 2006, despite a determination by a Defense Department office in July of that year that the patches had to be removed and destroyed before such uniforms could be put on sale. When the oversight was discovered in October the Pentagon immediately stopped providing uniforms with those patches to the company, Government Liquidation, and ordered the firm to return 1,200 garments containing the infrared patches that were still in its possession. A company spokeswoman says the Pentagon did not notify Government Liquidation of any restrictions on the sale of the glo-tape uniform items prior to October of last year, and a senior Defense Department official stated that the company did not violate any existing clause of the contract it has with the Pentagon during the two months when it was selling those glo-tape uniforms. “We should have acted faster to preclude those 4,800 items from being in a position to be sold,” acknowledged Paul Peters, director of the Pentagon’s Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service. “With hindsight [and given] the time it took to implement the policy, we should have been a little quicker on it.”
The individual patches themselves can still be easily obtained, as NEWSWEEK reporters learned last month when they purchased several patches at military supply stores in Jacksonville, N.C., and Oceanside, Calif., without ever being asked to produce military identification. To date, only 350 of the uniforms that Government Liquidation sold to its clients have been recovered by the Pentagon, leaving 4,500 such garments still at large, according to a Defense Department spokesman.
Founded in 2001 with an exclusive contract to resell the military’s scrap metal and surplus merchandise, Government Liquidation has come under scrutiny from government watchdogs in the past. In 2006, investigators from the Government Accountability Office posing as private citizens acquired from the firm sensitive military equipment whose sale to the public was prohibited. The restricted items included digital microcircuit parts used in F-14 fighter aircraft, ceramic body armor issued to U.S. troops in Iraq and a cesium-technology timing unit that ensures the accuracy of global positioning systems.
The U.S. Army began issuing combat fatigues bearing the glo-tape patches after a friendly fire incident on the fourth day of the Iraq invasion that may have contributed to the deaths of 10 Marines in March 2003. An investigation by the U.S. Air Force later concluded that two of its A-10 attack aircraft had mistakenly fired on Marines operating near the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. Known in military jargon as IFF (Identification Friend or Foe), the infrared patches come in various shapes and sizes that include American flags and one-inch-wide black reflective squares, and they can be detected at night by both ground troops and airborne combat pilots equipped with night-vision goggles.
Some Iraq War veterans are dismayed over the ready availability of the infrared patches and the release of thousands of used uniforms with the patches still attached to them. Under current regulations, IFF patches cannot be exported outside the U.S. without express permission from the State Department. But no law at present forbids civilian surplus stores in the U.S. from stocking and selling the items, a loophole that one Marine corporal finds alarming. “It’s no secret that some people in the United States support the terrorists, and if they were to get these things it would cause some problems over in Iraq,” says Jeremy Terhune, a 26-year-old infantry rifleman from Saugus, Calif., who has served three tours of combat duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. “If you’re moving around in the dark and you see someone with infrared patches, you won’t be as on guard as you would be with somebody without those patches.”
The need for greater control over the distribution of military uniforms took on new urgency in the wake of a brazen insurgent attack in the Iraqi city of Karbala last January. Between nine and 12 gunmen dressed in U.S. military combat fatigues and armed with U.S. weaponry entered a provincial government security compound at dusk on Jan. 20, killed one U.S. Army soldier and abducted four others, who were later executed outside the city. Terhune said he has uncovered caches of U.S. military body armor and camouflage uniforms stashed near riverbeds in the Iraqi countryside, and a U.S. Army sergeant who survived the Jan. 20 attack in Karbala said he has found the Army’s new digital-camouflage uniforms on sale at stores in downtown Baghdad on two occasions. Still, no evidence has yet surfaced that insurgents in Iraq or Afghanistan have acquired the patches themselves or U.S. military uniforms bearing those items. But, citing “overriding national-security concerns,” the Defense Department abruptly halted the resale of all used combat uniforms in February, and in a written response to NEWSWEEK a spokesman for the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency named the infrared patches as one of the “reasons that reinforced the need to take a more proactive approach to controlling these items.”
One of the government-authorized manufacturers of infrared patches remains troubled by the widespread availability of that product and other standard-issue military equipment at retail stores and online auction Web sites. “It’s a controlled item, and we don’t sell them to the general public,” says Mark Ciaglia, a retired U.S. Army officer who owns The Supply Captain, an upstate New York distributor and producer of military gear. “But anybody can walk into any surplus store that’s decently stocked and walk out with all kinds of stuff. The government should do a much better job controlling the uniforms that are out there.” Terhune would like to see a blanket ban placed on the sale of IFF accessories outside the armed forces. “I don’t see why a civilian should need infrared patches,” says Terhune. “They came down as a quick fix for friendly fire, and you only need them if you’re going to Iraq.” In a war that has been killing more than two Americans in uniform every day since hostilities began in 2003, the need to continue owning the night has never been greater.