Exclusive: Biden task force looking into how U.S. technology ended up in Iran for attack drones in Ukraine


Multiple officials familiar with the effort told CNN that the Biden administration has created a sprawling task force to investigate how U.S. and Western components, including U.S.-made microelectronics, ended up in Iranian-made products. Drones Russia is launching hundreds of drones into Ukraine.

The United States has imposed strict export control restrictions and sanctions to prevent Iran from obtaining high-end materials, but there is evidence that Iran is seeking a large number of commercially available technologies.

Last month, U.K.-based investigative group Conflict Armaments Research examined several drones shot down in Ukraine and found 82 percent of their components were made by U.S. companies.

Components found in some of the drones included processors made by Texas Instruments, a Dallas-based technology company, and engines made by an Austrian company owned by Canada’s Bombardier Recreational Products, according to the Ukrainian Armed Forces and sources familiar with the U.S. investigation. Both companies have condemned any use of their technology for illegal purposes.

Their apparent inadvertent fall into Iran’s drone manufacturing industry underscores how easily cheap products for civilian use can be adapted for military purposes, often outside the purview of sanctions and export control regimes.

In a statement to CNN, Texas Instruments said, “TI does not sell any products to Russia, Belarus, or Iran. TI complies with applicable laws and regulations in the countries in which we operate and cooperates with law enforcement agencies when necessary and appropriate.” Additionally, we do not support or condone the use of our products in applications for which they were not designed.”

Bombardier Recreational Products said in a statement that it was conducting an investigation into how the engine got into the drone.

The investigation has intensified in recent weeks, officials said, as the United States received intelligence that the Kremlin was preparing to open its own drone-production factory inside Russia as part of a deal with Iran.

Iran has begun transferring drone blueprints and components to Russia to help with production there, CNN reported, significantly expanding the two countries’ military partnership.

Components of a drone used by Russia against Ukraine during a media briefing in Kyiv, Ukraine, December 15, 2022.

Agencies across Washington are involved in the task force, including the Defense, State, Justice, Commerce and Treasury departments, and one official described the investigation as an “all hands together” initiative. A senior administration official said the White House National Security Council is overseeing the effort as part of a larger “holistic approach” to dealing with Iran, from its crackdown on protesters and its nuclear program to its deepening role in the war in Ukraine .

But the issue of drones is particularly urgent because Russia has found a huge number of American-made components in Iranian drones deployed across Ukraine, many of which were built over the past few years to attack civilians and critical infrastructure.

The Conflict Armaments study found that the Iranian drones they inspected in Ukraine in November had “high-end technological capabilities,” including tactical-grade sensors and semiconductors procured outside Iran, suggesting Tehran “has been able to circumvent the current sanctions regime and increase Its weapons have more capability and resilience.”

National Security Council official John Kirby told reporters earlier this month that the United States will sanction three Russian companies involved in acquiring and using Iranian drones and is “assessing further steps we can take in terms of export controls to limit Iran’s access to sensitive technology”

Much of that work falls to the task force, officials said, and one of its first tasks is to notify any U.S. companies whose components are found in drones. Congressional staffers with knowledge of the effort told CNN they want the task force to provide lawmakers with a list of U.S. companies whose equipment has been found in drones to increase accountability by urging the companies to more closely monitor their supply chains .

The task force must also coordinate with foreign allies because the components used in drones are not limited to those made by U.S. companies. The Conflict Armaments study also found that “more than 70 manufacturers from 13 different countries” produced components for the Iranian drones they examined.

In October, CNN obtained a drone that was shot down in the Black Sea near Odessa and captured by Ukrainian forces. It was found to contain Japanese batteries, an Austrian engine and an American processor.

Iranian-made drone, Mohajer-6.

Iran may also be getting near-identical copies of Western components from China, according to a study published last month by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. “China played a larger role in enabling Iran to manufacture and supply drones to the Russian military than previously assessed,” the report found. “It appears that Chinese companies are supplying Iran with knockoffs of Western goods to produce unmanned aircraft.”

The White House believes it is successfully pushing the scale of the problem with the allies. “There is an increasingly broad and deep international consensus on Iran, from the European Union to Canada to Australia and New Zealand, which is led by U.S. diplomacy,” the senior administration official told CNN.

Officials said there was no evidence that any Western company knowingly exported its technology for use in drones, which is part of the reason the task force’s job has been so difficult.

The task force is tasked with tracing the supply chain of the microelectronics industry, which relies heavily on third-party distributors and resellers. Microchips and other small devices in many Iranian and Russian drones are not only cheap and ubiquitous, but also easy to hide.

Components of a drone are seen after Russia attacked a fuel storage facility in Kharkiv, Ukraine, October 6, 2022.

Iran also uses front companies to buy potentially dual-use equipment from the United States and the European Union, such as engines from Austria, which Tehran can then use to build drones, sanctioning several of the companies in September, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.

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

“U.S. companies should be doing more to trace their supply chains,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, former chief technology officer at cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike.

Better tracking of dealers is the first step, he said, but the task is undoubtedly difficult because many of these companies’ products are very commoditized, available in off-the-shelf and online consumer products. Ultimately, killing some Iranian front companies with sanctions and cutting them off from some Western companies will be akin to a “whack-a-mole game,” Alperovitch said, noting they “could easily find another supplier.”

He added that the real “weakness” of U.S. policy when it comes to export controls is enforcement — and the prosecution of specific individuals involved in illicit transactions.

“You can put the company in [sanctioned] The Entity List,” he added, “but it doesn’t mean much if you’re not actually going after the people involved. “

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