The Commerce Dept. Needs Better Oversight of its Law Enforcement Unit, IG Found
The unit handles investigations and enforcement actions on violations related to export laws and regulations, and the bureau that houses it has become “even more important amid Russia’s war and rising U.S.-China tensions,” one analyst observed.
A small law enforcement unit housed in the Commerce Department that investigates export violations in furtherance of U.S. national security and interests could have better oversight policies and procedures for its sworn officers, including in relation to firearms, according to a federal watchdog.
The department’s Bureau of Industry and Security, which has just over 380 employees, works to promote and protect U.S. national security and foreign policy and economic interests, such as through ensuring effective export controls. It “has become even more important amid Russia’s war and rising U.S.-China tensions,” despite some resource constraints, Emily Benson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote last month.
The Office of Export Enforcement, the largest office in the bureau, handles investigations and enforcement actions on violations related to export laws and regulations. It was part of recent Justice Department actions regarding a scheme to illegally export defense articles to Turkey and another ploy to help the Russian military and intelligence agencies avoid sanctions.
The export office, which has sworn federal law enforcement officers across the country, “performs oversight of its law enforcement functions through annual self-assessments and inspections of field offices, semiannual case file reviews, and semiannual reviews of [the office’s] electronic case file system,” said a report from the Commerce Department inspector general on January 9. However, “we found that [the office] had not fully documented all oversight processes within the [office’s special agent manual]. We also identified deviations from the standard practices described by [the office] that were not formalized as policy.”
Next, the IG looked at 23 self-assessments and inspections conducted in fiscal years 2019 and 2021 and found that monitoring of each's results “was not adequate to ensure they were complete and accurate,” said the report. “Incomplete inspections and self-assessments may not prompt all necessary corrective actions to be taken by field offices—possibly resulting in the field office not complying with [bureau] policies and even leading to issues with employment if significant deficiencies or noncompliance by special agents are not identified and corrected.”
The watchdog also found that the bureau does not completely fulfill its Lautenberg Amendment obligations, which prohibits anyone convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor crime from possessing a firearm. Specifically, special agents only certify before their employment that they haven't been convicted of such crime, but not annually thereafter as required and noted in the job description.
“[The export office] management stated it was not aware that the position description for special agents required annual Lautenberg Amendment certifications and reliance on self- reporting after hiring was sufficient,” said the report. Not carrying out such requirements “could lead to special agents carrying weapons when they are ineligible to and, thereby, posing a threat to the public and themselves.”
Related to firearms, the watchdog found that the office has sufficient policies and procedures in place for law enforcement officers’ training, “but oversight of firearms qualifications and training needs improvement.”
The watchdog calculated, based on its random, statistical sampling of special agents, that at least nine of the 130 total special agents didn’t complete their required training and firearm qualifications and they “found that numerous firearm qualification forms provided contained errors, omissions, or other information that could have been identified or corrected with an improved monitoring process.”
Another part of the IG’s review was to determine if the Bureau of Industry and Security has the legal basis and authority for its functions. The IG said it does, but stated in a footnote that the review did not address whether the bureau's actual practices are in accordance with its authorities.
The IG issued seven recommendations for reform and while the bureau did not state if it agreed with the findings, it outlined planned or completed actions to address them.