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Exclusive: Biden’s task force investigates how US technology ended up in Iranian attack drones used against Ukraine

Exclusive: Biden’s task force investigates how US technology ended up in Iranian attack drones used against Ukraine

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The Biden administration has created an expansive task force to investigate how American and Western components, including US-made microelectronics, ended up in Iranian-made drones that Russia firing hundreds in Ukrainemultiple officials familiar with the effort told CNN.

The US has imposed strict export control restrictions and sanctions to prevent Iran from obtaining high-end materials, but evidence has emerged to suggest that Iran is finding an abundance of commercially available technology.

Last month, UK-based investigative organization Conflict Armament Research explore several drones which was taken down in Ukraine and found that 82% of their components were manufactured by US-based companies.

Among the components found in some of the drones were processors made by Dallas-based technology company Texas Instruments, according to a Ukrainian armed forces investigation and a source familiar with the U.S. investigation, and an engine made by an Austrian firm owned by Canada’s Bombardier Recreational Products . Both companies have condemned any use of their technology for illegal purposes.

Their apparently inadvertent injection into Iran’s drone industry highlights how cheap products intended for civilian use can easily be repurposed for military purposes and often fall just outside the bounds of sanctions and export control regimes.

Texas Instruments said in a statement to CNN that “TI does not sell any products in Russia, Belarus or Iran. TI complies with applicable laws and regulations in the countries in which it operates and cooperates with law enforcement organizations when necessary and appropriate. Furthermore, we do not support or endorse the use of our products in applications for which they are not intended. ”

Bombardier Leisure Productsit said in a statement that an investigation is being launched into how the engines ended up in the drones.

The probe has intensified in recent weeks amid intelligence received from the US that the Kremlin is preparing to open its own drone manufacturing factory in Russia as part of a deal with Iran, officials said.

Iran has already begun transferring blueprints and components for the drones to Russia to help with production there.CNN reportedin a dramatic expansion of the countries’ military partnership.

Agencies from across Washington are participating in the task force, including the defense, state, justice, commerce and treasury departments, with one official describing the investigation as an “all hands on deck” initiative. The effort is being watched by the White House National Security Council as part of an even larger, “holistic approach” to dealing with Iran, a senior administration official said, from its crackdown on protesters and its nuclear program to its deepening role in the war in Ukraine .

But the drone issue is particularly urgent given the vast amount of US-made components, many made in the past few years, that have been found in Iranian drones that Russia has deployed in Ukraine against civilians and critical infrastructure.

Conflict Armament Research found that Iranian drones it examined in Ukraine in November had “higher-end technological capabilities,” including tactical sensors and semiconductors supplied outside Iran, indicating that Tehran “has been able to circumvent the current regimes of sanctions and has added more capabilities and resilience to its weapons.

National Security Council official John Kirby told reporters earlier this month that the U.S. would sanction three Russian companies involved in the acquisition and use of Iranian drones and was “evaluating what further steps we can take in terms of control on exports to limit Iran’s access to sensitive technologies.”

Much of that work fell to the task force, officials said, and among its first tasks was to notify all U.S. companies whose components were found in the drones. Congressional officials briefed on the effort told CNN they hope the task force will provide lawmakers with a list of U.S. companies whose equipment has been found on drones in an effort to force greater accountability, urging companies to monitor more closely your supply chains.

The task force must also coordinate with foreign allies, since the components used in the drones are not limited to those made by American companies. Conflict Armament Research also found that “more than 70 manufacturers based in 13 different countries and territories” produced the components in the Iranian drones it examined.

In October,CNN gained access of a drone that was shot down in the Black Sea near Odessa and seized by Ukrainian forces. It was found to contain Japanese batteries, an Austrian engine and American processors.

Iranian-made drone, Mohajer-6.

Iran may also acquire near-exact replicas of Western components from China, according to a published studylast month by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. “China is playing a larger role than previously appreciated in allowing Iran to manufacture and supply drones to Russian forces,” the report said. “Chinese companies appear to be supplying Iran with copies of Western goods for the production of combat drones.”

The White House believes it is successfully amplifying the problem with allies. The senior administration official told CNN that there is “a growing broad and deep international consensus on Iran, from the EU to Canada to Australia and New Zealand, that is being driven by American diplomacy.”

There is no evidence that any of the Western companies are knowingly exporting their technology to be used in the drones, and that is partly why the task force’s work is so difficult, officials said.

The task force has its work in tracing supply chains for the microelectronics industry, which relies heavily on distributors and third-party distributors. The microchips and other small devices found in so many of the Iranian and Russian drones are not only cheap and widely available, but also easy to hide.

Parts of a drone after a Russian strike on fuel depots in Kharkiv, Ukraine, October 6, 2022.

Iran also uses front companies to buy equipment from the US and the EU that can have dual use, such as Austrian engines, which Tehran can then use to build drones. according to the Ministry of Financewhich sanctioned several of these companies in September.

That makes monitoring the supply chain a challenge, although experts say U.S. and European companies could do a lot more to track where their products are going.

“American companies need to do a lot more to track their supply chains,” said Dmitry Alperovich, former chief technology officer of cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike.

Keeping better track of distributors is a first step, he said, but the task is undoubtedly difficult because so many of these companies’ products are so commercialized and available off-the-shelf and online for civilian use. Ultimately, neutering some Iranian shell companies with sanctions and cutting off their supplies from some Western companies would be akin to a “game of mole,” Alperovitch said, noting that they “could easily find another supplier.”

He added that the real “weak part” of US policy when it comes to export controls is the enforcement and prosecution of specific individuals involved in the illegal transactions.

“We need to increase the resources to implement our sanctions to achieve the desired effect,” Alperovic said.

“You can put companies on [sanctioned] list of objects,” he added, “but if you don’t actually go after the people involved, it doesn’t mean much.”

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