THE case has a familiar ring. It involves a United States ally and American military technology let slip illegally to a third-world regime.
Israel and Patriot missile secrets diverted to China?
No: Japan Aviation Electronics (JAE) and F-4 fighter parts sent to Iran.
In a little-noticed case that illustrates the difficulty of plugging leaks of American defense equipment, JAE, largely owned by the Japanese electronics behemoth NEC, pled guilty in United States district court last month to a complex smuggling scheme.
Under terms of the plea agreement, JAE paid the US State Department a $5 million administrative penalty. It also anted up a $10 million criminal fine for breaking the US Arms Export Control Act.
That payment "is three times larger than any criminal fine ever previously imposed and collected in an export violation case," said Jay Stephens, US attorney for the District of Columbia, in a statement.
The year in which the JAE diversion took place was 1986, when the continuing struggle of the Iran-Iraq war had taken a heavy toll on Iran's largely US-built air force.
The planes - among them F-4 Phantom jets and sophisticated F-14 fighters - had been sold to Iran when it was a US ally under the Shah. Now they were breaking down and, with a US embargo on sales to Iran, F-4 and F-14 parts were perhaps the most valuable illicit items in the world.
Enter JAE. Under a license agreement that had been approved by the US government, the Japanese company made F-4 Phantom navigation system parts. The F-4, no longer in use by the US military, is still a work horse for Japan's Self Defense Force.
UNDER American law JAE couldn't resell its F-4 components to third nations. But it did so anyway. Between February and September 1986, according to US court documents, JAE sold 127 F-4 gyroscopes and 1 accelerometer, "with knowledge that the components would be illegally exported from Japan to Iran through Iranian diplomatic channels."
Criminal charges against specific JAE officials are still pending. The plea bargain lifts a blanket US government suspension against JAE which had prevented it from receiving US-licensed technology, though the firm can't obtain a State Department export license for another year.
It should be made clear that the JAE diversion involved only private individuals. In no way was the Japanese government involved.
Yet the case shows one of the many ways US military technology can end up in unintended hands.
It is far from the only recent US military export scandal. Last year, reports revealed that Iraq had obtained US-made Hughes Aircraft night vision devices through a Dutch firm, Delft Instruments N.V.
It is against this background that the State Department inspector general has compiled a report that in its unclassified version charges an unnamed US ally with "a systematic and growing pattern" of unauthorized peddling of US weapons technology.
The country in question has been widely identified in news reports and by US officials as Israel.
The technology cited includes air-to-air missiles and sophisticated electronics such as jamming devices.
Patriot missile equipment, however, apparently isn't among the items of technology in question.
After widespread reports of intelligence information to the contrary, a team of US experts last week visited Israel and found no evidence that Israeli Patriots had been tampered with, or sold to an outside buyer.
"We plan no further action on this question with Israel and consider the matter closed," said State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler last week.