- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Senior Obama administration national security and trade officials will meet Wednesday with key congressional leaders to seek support for a major overhaul of U.S. export controls, aimed at loosening the restrictions with an eye to economic gains.

The breakfast meeting with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and White House National Security Adviser James L. Jones will include Brent Scowcroft, a former national security adviser who led a recent government-sponsored study that called for ending Cold War-era national security controls on U.S. exports of defense and civilian-military, dual-use technology and products.

The administration officials will argue for reforms, asserting that streamlining defense trade controls will fix a broken system and improve U.S. economic competitiveness. Trade security officials and specialists fear that loosening defense trade controls will bolster the arsenals of China, Iran and other states.

The administration officials, including Commerce Secretary Gary F. Locke and Ellen O. Tauscher, undersecretary of state for international security, will meet with senior House and Senate leaders as well as the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate foreign affairs, armed services and banking committees to discuss the Obama administration’s plan for revamping the trade controls.

According to congressional and administration officials, the administration’s new plan is drawn from the 2009 study by a panel of experts under the direction of Mr. Scowcroft. The study, which was done for the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, initially had Mr. Gates as the panel leader before he moved to the Pentagon in 2006.

The 1979 Export Administration Act, which must be extended annually by the president, is the current law on export controls and will be the focus of reforms, the officials said. A new, more business-friendly law will be sought by the administration, said the officials close to the issue who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

A White House spokesman had no immediate comment, but Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said the Defense Department had no plans to play its customary role of blocking new export-control rules, wanting instead to start at Year Zero and develop a whole new regulatory regime.

“The Defense Department has traditionally been an impediment to meaningful changes in our export controls, but Secretary Gates is committed to working with the White House, State, Commerce and the Congress to make wholesale changes to the rules and regulations governing technology exports,” he said. “Tinkering with our antiquated, bureaucratic, overly cumbersome system is not enough to maintain our competitiveness in the global economy and also help our friends and allies buy the equipment they need to contribute to global security.”

He said Mr. Gates “strongly supports the administration’s effort to completely reform our export-control regime, starting ideally with a blank sheet of paper.”

Another expected policy change to be discussed at the meeting is to move some authority for issuing export licenses from the State Department to the Pentagon, raising concerns that the office in charge of weapons procurement from defense contractors will be influenced by the business community when making decisions on sensitive exports.

Currently, controls over defense and military exports are spread out among several agencies, mainly at the Commerce and State departments with review by the Pentagon.

The members-only breakfast was organized by the State Department and is designed to get the lawmakers’ views on the reforms.

The proposed reforms come as theft and illegal purchases of defense technology are increasing. According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) statistics, in fiscal years 2007 and 2008, ICE conducted more than 2,350 criminal investigations involving weapons-law or technology-transfer violations, many of which led to arrests and convictions for illegal exports or attempted exports to China, Iran, Russia and other countries.

Mr. Scowcroft declined to comment on the upcoming Capitol Hill meeting, but said in an interview that his study on export controls highlights current problems.

“We’re not saying we ought to abandon controls,” he said, noting that defense items that need to be protected should be “controlled and controlled vigorously.”

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