VIDEO: NBC's Pete Williams reports.
Oct. 13 — Illegal arms shipments usually go through several countries before reaching their destination. Click “Play Video” to watch Pete Williams' report for “NBC Nightly News.”
By Pete Williams Justice correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/12/2003 10:19:35 PM ET 2003-12-13T03:19:35
EXCLUSIVE

Federal agents have turned up evidence that U.S. companies may have illegally sold sensitive equipment that wound up helping Iraq’s military, said U.S. officials, who told NBC News that criminal charges were likely.

In a six-month investigation, teams of immigration agents tracking what was left of Iraq’s military have found signs not of Iraqi violations but of something entirely different — weapons components that appeared to have been made in the United States, which would be illegal to sell to Baghdad.

“We’ve gotten approximately 14 good leads on U.S. companies that may have been involved in illegal transactions of material that wound up in Iraq,” Michael Garcia, director of the Homeland Security Department’s new Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said in an interview.

Specialists said weapons smuggling was notoriously difficult to investigate because agents can seldom trace a sale all the way to the final buyer. It took three years, for example, to build a case against a California liquor dealer, Fadi Boutros, who was eventually convicted in 1999 of trying to buy military-grade night-vision goggles for Iraq.

In addition, arms shipments usually go through several countries before reaching their destination, complicating the paper trail for investigators.

Since the United States launched its war to disarm Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in March, teams of U.S. inspectors — like the U.N. teams before them — have found no clear evidence to back U.S. and British claims Saddam had secret caches of weapons of mass destruction.

Leaving a paper trail
But Iraq appears to have offered huge sums of cash and circulated shopping lists seeking components of such weapons, especially missile guidance parts, giving ICE agents in Iraq a rare look at the end of the paper trail.

“Saddam had a dedicated shopping spree going on, in Eastern Europe primarily, to buy missile parts and other things that he wasn’t permitted to get under the U.N. embargo,” Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control in Washington, said in an interview.

David Conboy, assistant director of strategic investigations for the immigration bureau, said the companies’ motivation was simple.

“In all these cases, one of the common features is their greed, is their drive to make a dollar at the expense of the national security of the United States,” Conboy said in an interview.

In a recent report, David Kay, head of a separate U.S.-led team that has been searching for evidence of Saddam’s weapons in postwar Iraq, said he had found no stocks of such arms. But he, too, said there was “evidence of Saddam’s continued ambition to acquire nuclear weapons” and other weapons of mass destruction.

The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog said Monday that it was imperative that U.N. inspectors return to Iraq to finish verifying whether it had such weapons before the war.

MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson contributed to this report.

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