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“If there is an item that has only a military use, like the patches, the fact that they are nonlethal doesn’t mean we should not treat them as munitions,” he said. “The term ‘munitions’ perhaps should apply to anything that does not have a legitimate civilian use.”

However, a retired four-star general, Jack Keane, said the risk had been overstated.

“Since the beginning of warfare, people have been dressing up as the enemy to infiltrate,” he said. “We certainly have done this in the past to our enemies, and our enemies have done this to us.”

Mr. Keane, who played a key role in developing the counterinsurgency strategy for Iraq, added, “There are other safeguards in addition to [these patches]. A visual identification and other identification is in the soldier’s possession. There are multiple things that are being checked. When it comes to the tactical situation, infrared certainly helps identify where we are, but there is also a dialogue that is taking place describing the situation.”

But “it would seem to me that something we are using to help identify ourselves should not be available to the general public, and it should be something that is only acquired through military channels,” Mr. Keane said.

Lt. Col. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said the military was reviewing the GAO report.

“The Department of Defense takes force protection very seriously. As a matter of course, we are concerned any time sensitive equipment has the potential to fall into enemy hands,” he said.

Other items acquired from U.S. companies by the GAO included a “triggered spark gap,” a specialized medical component the size of a spool of thread that is also a necessary component for detonating a nuclear weapon. The investigators were also able to purchase an oscilloscope and an accelerometer, important gauges for measuring elements of nuclear explosions.

David Albright, president for the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank, said the triggered spark gap “can be used in a nuclear weapon to fire high explosives and compress the nuclear core.” He added that this sensitive item, whose medical use is to dissolve kidney stones, has shown up in the nuclear programs of Pakistan, North Korea and Iran.

The GAO concluded that “sensitive dual-use and military technology can be easily and legally purchased from manufacturers and distributors within the United States and illegally exported without detection.”

At issue is a loophole in the U.S. arms-export control regime. Many kinds of dual-use items would require licensing and an end-user certificate - specifying the ultimate purchaser - if sold to a buyer overseas. But no such safeguards exist if the buyer is in the United States. It is also relatively easy to send sensitive equipment purchased in the U.S. to foreign countries through the mail.

Ed Timperlake, a former senior technology official in the Defense Department and an expert on what is known as “defense critical assets,” said the loophole for domestic sales of sensitive technology is a counterintelligence risk.

“There are a lot of Chinese espionage agents and others grabbing anything they can, anything they can find. And with our free market they can find a lot,” he said.

Mr. Timperlake added, “The GAO report is fair, and everyone I worked with knew their mission had life-and-death consequences, especially for troops in combat. The issue really comes down to more resources” for the FBI and other agencies.

A former U.S. undersecretary of commerce for industry and security, Mario Mancuso, said he did not find it surprising “that many of these items can be easily sold in the U.S.”

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