Senate panel blasts problems with export control process

Multiagency process for sending sensitive technology abroad is cumbersome and risky, say lawmakers and witnesses.

The process by which the government seeks to control the export of sensitive military or dual-use technology was described as a relic, cumbersome, vulnerable and broken by outside experts and the ranking member of a Senate subcommittee Thursday.

Officials from the three departments involved in the process acknowledged inherent tensions between the system's multiple purposes and difficulties keeping up with a rapidly growing demand.

But the officials from the Commerce, Defense and State departments said they are making progress in correcting the problems that have plagued the export control process for decades.

The sharpest criticism came from witnesses representing exporters and a foreign policy consulting group, all of whom had prior government experience, and from GAO, which repeated previous findings that a lack of resources and coordination in the three departments "has created vulnerabilities" for national security.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Government Management Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, said the process "struggles against the challenges of a globalized world," occasionally allowing technology to fall into the wrong hands or obstruct U.S. commerce.

"It is difficult for our national security, foreign policy and economic interests to be met if they are weighed down by an inefficient export control system," he said.

Akaka said he wanted to consider changes that included revising the international arrangements to control weapons proliferation, "addressing the weaknesses" in the U.S. interagency process, considering alternative bureaucratic structures and ensuring there are enough qualified officers to handle the explosion in the number of export license requests.

He mentioned a proposal to merge the multiagency licensing process into a single joint entity, an idea that found no favor among the three departments' representatives.

Government Management Subcommittee ranking member George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said the export control process "is a relic" that is unable to keep dangerous technology away from potential adversaries while it impedes exports.

He pressed the agency officials on their plans to improve the system and was particularly interested in how the State Department intended to implement the substantial improvements President Bush has ordered without increased funding.

Stephen Mull, acting assistant secretary for political-military affairs, said the improvement would be "self financed." Mull would not provide details on the financing proposal because it had not been approved by OMB. But he indicated it would rely on user fees for those applying for export licenses.

The aerospace industry, which led an effort that resulted in the president's Jan. 22 directive to improve the export licensing process, has objected to a user fee to finance what it sees as an inherently government responsibility.

Mull, along with Matthew Borman, deputy assistant secretary of commerce, and Beth McCormick, acting director of the Pentagon's Defense Technology Security Administration, all cited the rapid growth in export license applications, but said their departments had improved their processing time.

The State Department, which has been the primary road block, has reduced its backlog from more than 10,000 applications last year to about 3,500, and in most cases was meeting the president's mandate of decisions within 60 days, Mull said.

Mull urged the Senate to approve treaties with England and Australia that would allow nearly all exports of normally controlled items without a license. That would reduce the licensing workload substantially, he said.