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Shield America

A lot of everyday products appear rather innocuous to the typical American user. From computers with advanced microprocessors to cell phones and other communication technology, such technologies are taken for granted. Most users just want a fast computer or a cell phone with good reception.

But start thinking about such products in the context of terrorism, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), or an improvised explosive device (IED), and these inconspicuous products take on a whole new meaning. It’s something U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) thinks about all the time, and it established Project Shield America for such concerns.

Essentially, Shield America is part of an effort to stop illegal exporters, unfriendly countries, terrorism suspects, or any other criminal entity from exporting components and outright weapons that could be used or altered as a WMD against U.S. citizens at home or against troops abroad.

Before DHS was created after 9/11, a similar program, called Gemini, was in place, but when the world changed in 2001, DHS created Shield America to pick up where Gemini left off. Previously, several departments had their hand in these issues, including the Department of Commerce and the U.S. Bureau of Industry and Security, but U.S. Customs was primarily charged with investigating and enforcing all of the U.S. export laws, according to Clark Settles, unit chief for counterproliferation investigations at ICE.

“After 9/11, obviously we really beefed that program up and started targeting specific – initially specific – companies involved in high-tech industry for WMD or anything that we thought could hurt our country,” he says. “We kind of prioritized it with the most heinous stuff and worked our way back.”

Shield America is basically a three-level effort at enforcement that includes inspection/interdiction, investigations, and international cooperation.

According to ICE, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) positions inspectors at “high-threat” ports to inspect questionable and suspect shipments. ICE agents then investigate any of this questionable cargo and ensure four particular laws are obeyed, namely the Export Administration Act, Arms Export Control Act, Trading with the Enemy Act, and International Emergency Economic Powers Act. The entire effort also utilizes cooperation among ICE offices worldwide, often with local government support, to ensure successful domestic investigations.

Under the Arms Export Control Act, for example, ICE keeps an eye on “single use” and military applicable materiel.

“In order to be able to export those out of the United States, an exporter or a country has to apply, register with the Department of State, and apply for an export license,” Settles said. “The Department of State makes a determination whether or not we would allow [for example] an F-5 part to go to London … but we may not allow that same F-5 part to go to Iran.”

Ernest Koh was sentenced in the Eastern District of New York to jail after his conviction at trial for obtaining components that can be used in C-130 military transport planes and P-3 Naval aircraft (P-3 Orion pictured), and diverting those parts to Malaysia for ultimate transshipment to Iran. In total, Koh illegally exported roughly $2.6 million in aircraft parts to Iran. U.S. Navy photo.

Items under the Export Administration Act, on the other hand, include material with both a civilian and a military application. This could include items such as parts for a C-130 aircraft but also could include otherwise innocuous items by themselves that could be converted or adapted for use as a WMD or a chemical, nuclear, or biological weapon.

Settles notes that, for example, the vast majority of steel and other components necessary for uranium enrichment are typically harmless on their own. In addition, a lot of chemical/biological items – centrifuges and such – have both medical applications for research but also can be used for developing chemical and biological weapons.

According to ICE, several strategic technology items are targets of terrorists and unfriendly countries, many products of which might seem harmless back at home. These can include modern manufacturing technology that is used to produce a variety of “microelectronics, computers, digital electronic components, and signal-processing systems.”

In addition, any technology used in aircraft and missile development, tracking system components, and, as Settles noted, any items used to build nuclear weapons or other nuclear materials as well as biological and chemical warfare agents are targets, but so is the equipment used to manufacture such materials.

Craig Larrabee, section chief for counterproliferation at ICE, said the key is connecting with industry to discuss these export control laws, which limit their ability to export or just add additional steps to ensure security within a particular transaction.

Arguments supporting Shield America are not difficult to make.

“We talk about how we protect our own warfighters, how we protect our technology from countries that are trying to steal our technology; we also discuss the fact that some of this stuff could be used against our troops. I think particularly in times of war when you have our boys over there in Iraq and Afghanistan, that hits home to these guys,” Larrabee said.

Settles agreed. “We go out there and … a lot of people may not understand how a seemingly innocuous part could end up really hurting somebody that they love, and we try to demonstrate it to them, show them the laws,” he said. “It does one other thing too … it helps us to demonstrate that if that company does anything wrong, that they also knew the laws.”

Education is the cornerstone of these efforts. Since Shield America began, ICE has conducted more than 17,000 industry outreaches to explain to industry how a variety of products and technologies could turn into a threat for families or soldiers overseas.

EN2 Russell Osbun, Riverine Squadron 3, Detachment 2, Regimental Combat Team 5, looks through his night optic device while acting as a gunner aboard a Riverine Patrol Boat on Lake Quadsiyah, in Haditha, Iraq on July 11, 2008. An ICE investigation led to the arrest of Zhao Xin Zhu and John Chu for conspiring to violate the Arms Export Control Act through their efforts to obtain U.S. origin Generation III night vision equipment, military grade power converters and traveling wave tubes used in satellite and radar applications for export to the People’s Republic of China. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Seth Maggard

But it’s a two-way street. Settles and Larrabee both noted numerous occasions where industry individuals have contacted ICE and simply said, “This just doesn’t seem right.”

Long-term contact especially with major defense contractors, has allowed the program to grow and has helped educate all parties about suspicious inquiries that often come from overseas.

“The other part is you know there’s always going to be somebody in the U.S. that’s doing things wrong,” Settles said. “If we have a company in the U.S. that is ignoring export control laws and giving themselves an unfair advantage over other industry, then certainly we want to know about that too.”

According to Larrabee and Settles both, industry is more than willing to cooperate to ensure they do their part.

“Industry spends millions and millions of dollars developing this technology, and our patents and everything else make a lot of difference here in the U.S., but in those foreign countries, they don’t care what kind of paperwork you have,” Larrabee said. “They’re going to duplicate that, and once it’s duplicated by a foreign government or a foreign entity, [they] can do it for pennies on the dollar.”

As a result, the market value of some quite sophisticated material is compromised, therefore damaging an individual company’s ability to make a profit on its own research and development.

“We make some very impressive items here in the United States,” Larrabee said. “We have technology that other countries are still seeking, and sometimes that may be our standard-use widget that goes into our cell phone towers, but other countries may want it for their military radar systems – there’s all kinds of situations like that.”

The cooperation among manufacturers and Shield America is quite evident. In recent years, several instances have proved the effectiveness of the program, and the result likely has saved the lives of Americans at home and abroad.

For example, in March 2003 – just prior to the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom – two defense corporations settled with the State Department for $32 million after charges that indicated the corporations shared illegal satellite technology with China, according to information provided by ICE.

Qing Li was sentenced in the Southern District of California to 12 months and one day in custody, followed by three years of supervised released, and ordered to pay a fine for conspiracy to smuggle military-grade accelerometers from the United States to the Peoples’ Republic of China for what her co-conspirator described as a “special” scientific agency in China. This accelerometer has military applications in “smart” bombs and missile development and in calibrating the g-forces of nuclear and chemical explosions. Photo courtesy of ICE.

The following year, China again entered the picture when the president of a Florida company – a naturalized U.S. citizen – along with a Chinese individual pleaded guilty to “making false statements” connected to the illegal export of “low-noise amplifier chips,” which are crucial components for the Hellfire missile.

In February 2005, a Colombian man was sentenced to 25 years in prison for a plan that would have sent 4,000 grenades, 1,800 assault rifles, and dozens of grenade launchers and machine guns to a Colombian terrorist group.

And in July 2005, an Iranian man pleaded guilty after attempting to export F-4 and F-14 components to Iran. The plot began with an attempt to get 100 gunnery systems to export to Iran. But additional information obtained by ICE revealed he planned to attempt to send an assembled F-14 fighter jet to Iran.

At its heart, however, Shield America is not in the business of discouraging exports. It is a protection mechanism to ensure the know-how and technical superiority that go into making products in the United States do not enter the hands of adversaries who are intent – on several fronts – to stifle, steal, and impede the technological progress that touches everything in the country, from cellular phone and computer technology to those pieces of equipment used every day by soldiers, airmen, and Marines stationed overseas.

“It’s kind of a twofold thing: We … educate so we can stop the unintentional exports – illegal exports,” Larrabee says. “The second part of it is really to get the cooperation [with industry] because the bad guys overseas don’t call ICE to find out.  … [Industry are the] ones who get called.”

One thing Shield America continues to emphasize is that it’s not just defense contractors who are targets. Any individual in the private sector, military, or technological field performing “research, development, production, or sales,” according to ICE, “are potential acquisition targets”

Two tools that Shield America recommends can go a long way toward preventing the wrong technology or item getting in the wrong hands.

First, ICE recommends industry individuals implement an Export Management System (EMS). This includes developing a policy statement indicating “commitment to export control,” and identifying individuals responsible for it. It also includes a strict training regimen for employees, record-keeping compliant with export regulations, periodic performance reviews of the system, a process to address any violation, and strict reporting policy to U.S. customs.

In addition, Shield America also outlines possible indications of illegal export attempts, including customers working on a cash-only basis, customers willing to pay well beyond market value, and “end-use” documentation that is incomplete or the final indicated recipient is another export company or entity, separate from the purchaser.

Other red flags include a customer unfamiliar with business itself or who is simply unfamiliar with a given product, a customer using unusual shipping routes, or a package that is improperly marked for its contents.

With these guidelines and a lot of cooperation from industry, the process tends to run more smoothly, but it’s still a matter of ICE and industry being vigilant.

“We’re talking about items leaving the country that are going to be used by foreign adversaries,” Larrabee said. “I think today is as good a reminder every day because our guys are on the ground in other countries – that’s really a reality of it.”

Industry and individuals must decide whether they want weapons and technology ending up in the hands of insurgents and if they want to diminish the country’s military superiority. In many cases, they must also decide if they want to risk going to jail.

“Most industry understand that; we’re talking everything from microchips to firearms,” Larrabee added. “The program is set up to adapt to the times, [and] our agents are set up to adapt to the times, adapt to threats, and target industries as the threats come about.”

It’s a matter of discovering new threats and addressing them. According to Larrabee, one of the strengths of the program is that it’s adaptable to change based on technology. The challenge is making sure even the most innocuous items are checked beforehand to ensure there’s no underlying threat.

“Most of these things are lawful to possess, own, and sell within the United States,” Settles said. “It’s only [dangerous] when you export them.”

This article was first published in The Year in Homeland Security: 2009 Edition.