— A crackdown on illegal exports of
military technology led to a 32 percent increase in the number of arrests and criminal prosecutions in 2008, the U.S. Justice Department reports.

More than 145 U.S. and foreign businessmen and a few scientists, professors and even some students were charged with or found guilty of illegally transferring weapons, weapon parts, military technology and technical knowledge overseas, Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said. That compares with 110 prosecuted in 2007.

Illegal exports range from rocket technology intended for
to fighter jet and helicopter parts sold to
. And “there was a huge number of cases of firearms going to
,” apparently for use by drug cartels, Boyd said.

Prosecutions increased in part because the Justice Department and six other federal agencies established task forces across the nation to target illegal military exports.

But they also increased because the worldwide demand for
military technology is growing, and so are attempts to fill the demand, Boyd said.

On Oct. 28, for example, the Justice Department obtained indictments against two
importers and a
New York
technology firm owner for trying to export to
controlled carbon-fiber material that is used in aircraft, rockets, spacecraft and the uranium enrichment process.

The intended recipient was the China Academy of Space Technology, court documents said.

“On a daily basis, foreign states as well as criminal and terrorist groups seek arms, technology, and other materials” to improve their military capabilities, the Justice Department said in a statement. “With
producing the most advanced technology in the world, it has become a primary target of these illicit technology acquisition efforts.” Government agencies, defense companies and research institutions “are routinely targeted as sources of these materials.”

Most of the efforts are initiated by foreign countries or companies seeking
technology, rather than
citizens or companies seeking out illegal foreign buyers, Boyd said. In the yearlong period that ended Sept. 30,
emerged as the main customer for illegal military exports.
was No. 2. About 43 percent of the 2008 prosecutions involved individuals or companies trying to send technology or weapons to those two countries, the Justice Department reported.

Illegal exports sought for
included missile guidance systems, components for improvised explosive devices, aircraft parts and night-vision equipment.

parts for its aging F-14 fighters, Hawk anti-aircraft missiles and other U.S.-built weapons in an arsenal left over from the 1970s, when
was an ally, Boyd said.

But virtually all
exports to
– military and nonmilitary – are restricted by
policy and United Nations sanctions.

“The only place to get parts is here – illegally,” Boyd said.

Individuals and companies have been caught trying to illegally provide
rocket launch data and technology for the space shuttle, missiles, warships and UAVs. Other illegal exports to
included thermal imaging systems and night-vision gear, the Justice Department reported.

The current crackdown on illegal exports follows efforts several years ago by the State Department to “sensitize” law enforcement agencies about the seriousness of the problem, said Greg Suchan, a former chief of the department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.

The cases tend to be complex, so the State Department, which grants or denies export licenses, offered its expertise to encourage prosecutors to go after violators, he said.

The State Department also worked to convince enforcement authorities that it is important to keep adversaries from acquiring even relatively low-tech military items, Suchan said.

“People would say, ‘Why are you spending so much time on junk?’” he said, referring to old and unsophisticated technology.

“You have to understand, there are people out there – antagonistic powers – who want the junk we might be inclined to dismiss because it lacks technological elegance,” he said.

, with its vintage American weapons, is a good example.

The Iranian military needs decades-old
technology, and “if they could get it anyplace else, they wouldn’t be working so hard to get it here,” Suchan said.

Even as it works harder to stop illegal exports, the
government should not back away from efforts to reform defense export regulations, Suchan said.

Under prodding from defense industry organizations and lobbyists, the Bush administration has worked to speed the export licensing process and negotiated treaties with
to make export licenses unnecessary in certain circumstances.

Reforms should continue and the U.S. Senate should ratify the treaties, he said.

Among the recent prosecutions, some cases resulted after
companies grew suspicious of potential buyers and notified law enforcement authorities, Boyd said. In other instances, foreign buyers have been snared when they approached undercover law enforcement agents.

Justice officials said the efforts by some foreign governments to illegally obtain
technology remain aggressive. Some countries have established front companies in the
United States
to acquire military items. Others target
companies directly or hire other
or foreign firms to acquire technology for them.

Still others recruit students, professors and scientists to provide the technology they want. “We continue to see an increase in this illegal activity,” Boyd said.