WASHINGTON — The Navy, formally responding to questions raised by the alleged penetration of its supply system by agents for Iran, said Wednesday that it will evaluate possible new safeguards, but it bluntly rejected a congressional call for a freeze on computerized orders of sensitive equipment.
"A freeze . . . is totally unacceptable," a Navy spokesman declared, and "would have a catastrophic impact on ship and aircraft readiness and rapidly jeopardize the Navy's ability to meet national security commitments."
Authorities in San Diego disclosed Monday that Navy personnel were among members of an international ring that allegedly tapped into the military's huge inventory of weapons and equipment to divert spare parts for F-14 fighter planes to Iran.
In response, California Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego) has urged an immediate freeze on "sensitive equipment controlled through computer inventories until a thorough audit can be done." Bates, noting the Navy's rejection of his proposal Wednesday, declared, "We are in a Catch-22."
He added: "They say a freeze would hurt national security, but I think national security is jeopardized now by the ability of others to tap into our supply system. We cannot continue with this vulnerability. They need to come up with some means to ensure that (diversion) does not occur. At least a selective freeze to take some of the sensitive parts off (the computer system) makes sense to me."
At the Pentagon, Capt. Brent Baker, the Navy's assistant chief of information, declined to discuss specifics of any additional safeguards on grounds that "the investigation is ongoing."
"Obviously, when final details of how the thefts took place are available, they will be subject to extensive evaluation," Baker said. "If we have to take corrective action, we will figure out what to do" after that evaluation is completed.
The case, which is centered in San Diego, is the first instance in which agents for a foreign government are alleged to have obtained direct access to the military's inventory of more than 4 million items. Six people have been arrested in connection with that ring.
In response to questions by The Times about whether the system could be compromised by computer "hackers"--such as the seven New Jersey teen-agers charged this week with using their home computers to gain secret data from credit card and telephone companies--Baker appeared to stop short of flatly ruling out the possibility.
However, he said, "An outside hacker would not only be faced with difficulty in entering the system but would have to overcome the complex series of logistical codes" that would be required to actually obtain the equipment. Navy sources said investigators have found no evidence that the supply system has been subject to "outside computer penetration."
Baker said the supply system has a series of "codes, forms, formats, rules and procedures" that must be followed in requisitions.
"Safeguards employed include manual screening of requirements to verify their accuracy prior to submission to logistics centers for issue," he said. "All high-dollar-value spares" from aircraft carriers are "on a strictly manual basis," he added, although he said he was unable to further define "high dollar value."
Authorities have said the equipment diverted to Iran included parts shipped to three West Coast aircraft carriers--the Ranger and Kitty Hawk, both based in San Diego, and the Carl Vinson, based near San Francisco. Each carrier stocks an average of 50,000 aviation spare parts for the estimated 90 planes assigned to each ship, a Navy spokesman said.