Wednesday, April 6, 2005

The State Department is continuing to loosen strategic trade controls even as U.S. adversaries are increasing efforts to illegally obtain weapons and related technology, according to a congressional report to be made public today.

The report, by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), faults the State Department for failing to examine whether its ongoing efforts to streamline export controls has increased the danger that foreign terrorists or U.S. adversaries, such as Iran, will obtain embargoed weapons and technology.

The GAO report was requested by Rep. Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican and chairman of the House International Relations Committee, who said it shows several worrisome trends.

“The report points to a number of unwelcome trends and raises troubling questions, foremost among them is why the State Department continues to pursue policies and procedures designed before 9/11 to ‘streamline’ or relax arms-export controls — even as these policies raise serious concerns among U.S. law-enforcement agencies,” he said.

Mr. Hyde said the security environment today is more complex than before the September 11 terrorist attacks and has made it more difficult to prevent unauthorized transfers of U.S. weapons and technology.

He also said the GAO report shows the “growing inefficiency in the time required to process arms transfers to friends and allies.”

“Regrettably, this trend appears to hold true even in the case of urgent licenses needed to support coalition operations in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said.

According to the report, State Department officials told GAO investigators that the arms-export control system does not need to be changed or reviewed in light of the war on terror. The department said the pre-September 11 initiative of the Clinton administration to loosen arms technology exports should continue.

The GAO, however, said that since the 2001 terrorist attacks, law-enforcement agencies have opened more than 2,500 criminal probes related to illegal arms exports, arrested more than 230 exporters accused of illegal transactions and seized more than 2,200 munitions shipments worth a total of $300 million.

The GAO says U.S. companies reported 23 possible violations of export laws related to the Pentagon’s Joint Strike Fighter Program. One involved the disclosure of radar-evading stealth and counterstealth technology, and another involved a foreign company releasing controlled U.S. technology to another foreign country.

The report said officials from the Homeland Security and Justice departments oppose State Department plans to exempt export licensing requirements for weapons sales because doing so increases the risk that exported arms will be illegally diverted.

The State Department defended its handling of defense trade controls. Christopher Burnham, the department’s chief financial officer, said: “There is no reason to believe that any U.S. defense items have been used in terrorist attacks, or that our enemies have used them against U.S. military forces, or those of our coalition partners.”

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