Export-Control Murkiness

U.S. Secrecy Spurs Talk of Looser Standards

By Matt Schroeder, Federation of American Scientists
and Rachel Stohl, Center for Defense Information

Published January 6, 2003 in Defense News


During a speech delivered at the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency's annual conference in October, Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state, announced plans by President George W. Bush's administration to conduct a comprehensive review of U.S. policy on defense trade controls.

The six-month review, which Bush authorized in a National Security Presidential Directive, will be completed by an interagency panel comprising representatives from the departments of Commerce, State and Defense, under the auspices of the National Security Council. Topics include defense trade licensing, technology transfer policies, and maintaining the defense industrial base.

Despite potential implications for national security, publicly available information on the process and parameters of the policy review are in short supply. The review has attracted little attention from the media, even the trade journals, and few government officials in the know are talking.

Efforts to obtain information on the review process through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) also have been of little use. The directive originated in the National Security Council, which is not obligated to honor FOIA requests, and therefore chances of receiving a copy are virtually nil.

This opacity has fueled speculation that the review process is a vehicle for implementing many of the so-called reforms advanced by advocates of defense trade liberalization. For several years, the Defense Department and industry have worked together to push reforms of the export control system that actually loosen restrictions on weapon sales.

Among the most brazen examples is the ongoing campaign waged by industry and Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., to remove the CH-47 Chinook military transport helicopter from the U.S. Munitions List. As Defense News Staff Writer Jason Sherman points out, Weldon's interest is clearly political; a dearth of orders for the CH-47 is forcing the Boeing plant in his district to eliminate at least 1,000 jobs by 2004 ("U.S. May Ease Utility Copter Export Rules," April 8-14).

Removing the CH-47 from the U.S. Munitions List would allow Boeing to sell to China, which has expressed an interest in purchasing the helicopter but is currently prohibited from receiving U.S. defense articles because of an arms embargo that has been in effect since the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Advocates of the sale are quick to point out that Chinooks sold to China would be demilitarized. Promises to sell a demilitarized version are likely to provide little consolation to the Taiwanese, however.

According to Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, a defense consulting firm, China still could find many uses for a "demilitarized" Chinook, including ferrying troops and equipment across the Taiwan Strait.

Proposed changes like the one above illustrate just how far industry and its government allies will go to make a sale. Until now, however, they have relied on laws and procedures to achieve their goals rather than administrative edict. The current review seems to bypass the oversight power of Congress and the purview of the public.

According to a White House fact sheet on the review, among its purposes is to "maintain America's technological and war fighting advantages over its potential adversaries, while facilitating friends' and allies' efforts to increase capability and interoperability."

The explanation of this verbiage can largely be summarized as putting more money in the pockets of the U.S. defense industry as quickly as possible. The list of areas targeted for such reform appears to be based on economic, rather than security, justifications.

Proposed modifications to the Militarily Critical Technologies List, the Arms Export Control Act and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations would, in effect, allow the United States to sell more military goods and services without needing to go through licensing procedures.

In short, the directive appears to be yet another attempt by the Defense Department and industry to sell as many U.S. weapons as quickly as possible. The May 2000 Defense Trade Security Initiative, "intended to expedite the export licensing process to improve industrial competitiveness," did not go far enough or fast enough for industry or the Defense Department.

Now, with little transparency, the Bush administration is poised to complete, in the words of one congressional staffer, the most sweeping change to U.S. arms export policy in more than 50 years. Certainly that kind of reform deserves at least modest public debate.


FAS Home | ASMP Home | Search | About ASMP
Publications | Sales Data | Issues | Resources