PHILADELPHIA – The L3 Thermal Eye Renegade 320 is a rifle scope designed to help American troops detect an enemy combatant a half-mile away in the dark.
For $12,000, it’s also just an online click away.
That’s why U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were suspicious when they got a tip in 2010 that a Philadelphia man had bought that scope and other military-grade night-vision items.
There are no battlefields in Bustleton.
The investigation that sprung from that tip entered its final phase Friday when a Philadelphia judge opened a sentencing hearing for a Belarusian national accused of illegally exporting at least 100 of the devices.
Prosecutors said Siarhei Baltutski was the ringleader of an international arms network that recruited U.S. straw buyers, including Belarusians living as legal permanent residents in Philadelphia. They say he paid at least $700,000 for about 100 banned items, though they say they suspect both numbers could be higher.
Baltutski allegedly put the items up for resale on the black market, but agents cannot say for sure who bought them.
“We know that similar devices have ended up in the hands of insurgents fighting U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Assistant U.S. Attorneys Robert Livermore and Jerome Maiatico wrote in a memo to Judge Paul Diamond. They asked Diamond to imprison Baltutski for more than a dozen years.
The case spotlighted the struggles of federal agents trying to disrupt the illegal flow of military-grade equipment in an era when so many transactions occur anonymously and electronically.
Though night-vision goggles, thermal imaging cameras and similar high-tech devices are manufactured for American troops — and many carry four- and five-figure price tags — vendors are allowed to market and sell them commercially in the U.S. if buyers pledge to keep them here.
Policing the sales can be difficult. Baltutski and his straw buyers bought half their items on eBay.
In the most recent fiscal year, Homeland Security Investigations, an ICE division, reported launching more than 1,800 counter-proliferation investigations, arresting 517 people, logging 399 convictions, and recovering millions of dollars of illegally smuggled items.
Retired Army Col. Kevin McDonnell, who commanded Special Operations forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, told Diamond the United States was unmatched when it comes to night-combat capabilities. But if such devices get out, he said, enemies will learn to match or counter the technology and put GIs in danger.
“It gives the enemy such a significant advantage,” McDonnell testified.
Baltutski, 41, described in court filings as a small businessman from Minsk, was nabbed by Philadelphia-based ICE agents as he stepped off a plane at New York’s JFK Airport in 2012. On Friday he said nothing as he sat silently in court.
He pleaded guilty in January to conspiracy charges, but his lawyer, Nicholas Wooldridge, challenged the breadth of the conspiracy and even its purpose.
Wooldridge argued Friday that Baltutksi merely wanted the equipment to hunt wild pigs at night in his homeland. He gave the judge a photo of the defendant after a memorable shoot: Baltutski standing over a dead boar, decked out in hunter’s garb and clutching a rifle with a night-vision scope.
Diamond was dubious. “In my view it would seem this was like purchasing an atom bomb to kill a gnat,” he said, noting that Baltutski bought scores of items. “It just doesn’t add up.”
But after four hours’ testimony and arguments, Diamond agreed to postpone the proceeding till later this fall so Wooldridge can call an expert to testify on use of the devices by hunters.