Created by the National Defense Authorization Act 1997, the 1033 Program has since provided over US$6 billion in excess military equipment to over 8,600 police forces. Some commonly requested items include cold weather clothing, sandbags, medical supplies, sleeping bags, flashlights and electrical wiring — however, assault rifles, aircraft, boats and armored vehicles have also been obtained.
The process by which law enforcement agencies apply for surplus military equipment is simple, very simple. In fact, it's so simple the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) was able to — successfully — using a fake website for a fictional police department, in the space of a single week.
Documenting the sting, the GAO stated said the bogus cop shop was able to obtain US$1.2 million worth of military gear, including night-vision goggles, M-16 rifles, and pipe bomb material from the program, with zero verification — most communication was done via email, and the department's stated address (a vacant dirt lot) was never visited by Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) officials.
The GAO likened procuring the high tech killing apparatuses to purchasing goods on eBay.
While the weaponry was merely "simulated" — used for training purposes — researchers found the rifles and pipe bombs could easily have been turned "potentially lethal" by modification via commercially available items. Zina Merritt, GAO Director, said DLA's internal control processes were "really broken."
"When [our] investigators went to the location, they were able to get the items without presenting proper identification. They were [also got more items than] we bid for. We also found that [the DLA] doesn't have a framework in order to do fraud mitigation at all stages of the program. Essentially, that puts any organization at risk of this happening again," she concluded.
The GAO's investigation has its roots in the 2014 fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The slaying provoked unprecedented unrest, which local law enforcement sought to pacify with armored trucks, sniper rifles, tear gas, and other weapons usually seen in theaters of war.
That authorities had access to such kit shocked many observers. It was subsequently determined by independent researchers that much of the equipment came from the obscure 1033 Program — and then-President Barack Obama subsequently issued an executive order prohibiting the military from giving away certain equipment, and established strict oversight and training requirements for law enforcement agencies that wanted it.
Furthermore, in 2016 Congress ordered an official investigation into the program. While the study did not turn up any instances of the program's outright abuse by local law enforcement agencies, but did find one agency that had applied illegitimately as a federal entity and was approved for te equipment. As a result, GAO launched their investigation.
While the US Department of Defense has said it will take action to address "identified weaknesses" in the program, others have expressed grave concerns about its existence in the first place.
"There just aren't many everyday policing uses for military equipment like this. The question is why can real law enforcement agencies get some of this stuff, let alone fake ones?" said Madhuri Grewal, Senior Counsel for the Constitution Project.