U.S. defense technologies put at risk by bureaucratic turf wars: GAO

Weapons and other defense-related technologies are in danger of falling into the wrong hands, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.

GAO’s report, titled “Export Controls: Fundamental Re-examination of System Is Needed to Help Protect Critical Technologies,” concluded that poor interagency coordination, inefficiencies in processing licensing applications, and a lack of systematic assessments creates security vulnerabilities in the U.S. export control system of weapons and defense-related technology. The report calls for the executive and legislative branches to reexamine current programs and processes.

Multiple agencies are involved in the control and protection of critical technologies, including the Defense, State, Commerce, Homeland Security, Treasury, Energy and Justice departments. Poor coordination among the agencies involved in export controls has resulted in jurisdictional disputes and enforcement challenges, particularly between State and Commerce. These disputes allow exporters to decide whether to approach Commerce or State for approval, increasing the risk that critical items will be exported without an appropriate review.

The interagency disagreements also create challenges for enforcement agencies in carrying out inspections, investigations and prosecutions. State’s backlog of licensing applications topped 10,000 cases at the end of fiscal 2006.

Finally, neither State nor Commerce has systematically assessed the overall effectiveness of their export control programs nor identified corrective actions that may be needed — despite changes in the national security environment, according to GAO.

GAO identified eight sensitive technology programs that could be affected if improvements are not made in the export control system:

  • The Military Critical Technologies Program run DOD, which identifies and assesses technologies critical for the U.S. military.
  • The Dual-Use Export Control System managed by Commerce (the lead agency), and State, the Central Intelligence Agency, DOD Energy, Homeland Security, and Justice, which regulates export of arms by U.S. companies.
  • The Arms Export Control System managed by State (lead agency), and DOD, Homeland Security and Justice.
  • The Foreign Military Sales Program managed by State and DOD (leads), and Homeland Security.
  • The National Disclosure Policy Process managed by State, DOD and the intelligence community; it determines the release of classified military information, including weapons and military technologies, to foreign governments.
  • The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States managed by the Treasury Department (lead), Commerce, DOD, Homeland Security, Justice, Energy and the director of National Intelligence; it investigates the impact of foreign acquisitions on national security and suspends or prohibits acquisitions that might threaten national security.
  • The National Industrial Security Program managed by DOD; it ensures that contractors, including foreign contractors, safeguard classified information in their possession.
  • The Anti-Tamper Policy managed by DOD, which establishes anti-tamper techniques on weapons systems.

About the Authors

Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.

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Reader Comments

Fri, Jun 12, 2009 Jeffrey A. Williams Texas

When you have policy wonkers that havenever worked in IT security or and other area of security making decisions regardng security that is a perfict storm for manufacturing additional security problems and exposiers.

Thu, Jun 11, 2009 Jeff Riemer Arlington, VA

This problem sounds very analogous to program interdependencies between acquisition programs. Often, because of how the government budgets and/or organizes it creates silos that rarely overlap. This generates disconnects which drive disconnects that only surface after they have caused a problem. We need manage the white space (the gaps) to make progress to address this issue.

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