Export Reform Shouldn’t Mean Less Oversight

by Rachel J. Stohl

As Congress and the administration of President George W. Bush focus on the war in Iraq, the anniversary of Sept. 11 and debate whether to un-surge or not to un-surge, policy-makers and the public might have missed a burgeoning development: renewed efforts to reform the U.S. arms export system.

Such efforts seem to be the hallmark of the last two years of an administration, the time when presidents, concerned about their legacies, work to solidify their imprint on U.S. arms export policy. As always, the “crucial” proposals needed to reform an “outdated” and “lethargic” arms export system are being recommended by the defense industry and its allies.

Over the last few months, you could have easily missed some of these seemingly innocent developments. First, the benign-sounding Coalition for Security and Competitiveness, made up of arms industry lobbying organizations, introduced their new approach to arms export reform. Instead of their previous mantra of “higher fences around fewer items” — attempting to remove many items on the U.S. munitions list, among other proposals — industry’s new pitch is modernization based on the buzzwords “efficiency,” “predictability” and “transparency.”

These groups argue for process changes they claim will help U.S. allies more effectively fight the “war on terror,” ranging from reprogramming funds for the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls to fast-tracking some exports and expanding license-free transfers.

Then, in June, the United States announced it had negotiated a Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty with the United Kingdom. The treaty, announced and negotiated in the dead of night, seemingly bypasses congressional requirements for license-free arms sales. The treaty was a surprise to many in Congress, including key committee staff. Few details and specifics about it have been released.

Less than three months later, the United States and Australia announced a similar treaty, again sidestepping congressional authority. These treaties would allow license-free exports of U.S. defense goods and services to the governments of the United Kingdom and Australia, and between “authorized” partners in those countries.

In early September, the Hudson Institute released a report on export reform, “Turning Obstacles into Opportunities.” The report, based on a December conference whose speakers were primarily current and former administration officials and U.S. and foreign defense industry leaders, discussed the need to improve cooperation and interoperability. Rather than developing recommendations, the Hudson report repackages old and new industry suggestions for overcoming the “cumbersome” U.S. regulations as “opportunities.”

Amid these developments, rumors swirling in Washington hint at the revival of NSPD-19, the top-secret Bush administration evaluation of the arms export system.

In sum, there is a concerted effort to change the U.S. defense export system with little congressional involvement and without a balanced public debate. Traditional checks and balances in arms transfer determinations are in danger of becoming obsolete. License-free transfers are exempt from long-established congressional notification and oversight practices.

Having no formal license procedures removes media and public scrutiny of the arms export process, and the defense industry, which is pursuing financial gain, will be trusted to monitor compliance with U.S. regulations.

Many of the proposed changes sound innocuous, especially if you don’t delve too deeply past the surface, and accept without question that the needs of the defense industry must be balanced with nonproliferation concerns.

Some of the coalition’s recommendations cannot be fully explained, implementation agreements for the U.K. and Australia treaties have yet to be negotiated, and an NSPD revision would be carried out in secrecy and classified upon completion.

The lack of accountability of weapons sold to Iraq, as well as clear evidence that the United States has increased its sales of weapons to allies in the so-called war on terror, regardless of the recipient’s human rights record, demonstrate that the recipients of U.S. weapons require more, not less, oversight.

As Lincoln Bloomfield, former assistant secretary of state, said at the Hudson Institute’s report launch, “simple items can be strategically significant” and “if there’s no license, there’s no paper trail, there’s no compliance.”

Some changes could modernize and streamline this outmoded system, but not if they come at the expense of transparency and oversight or security. Reforms should be done publicly with the foresight to improve national and international security, not quickly and quietly aimed at capping a fading administration’s legacy.

"Export Reform Shouldn't Mean Less Oversight" was first published by Defense News on Oct. 8, 2007 and the text is reproduced above.