Defense Trade:

Arms Export Control Vulnerabilities and Inefficiencies in the Post-9/11 Security Environment

GAO-05-468R: Published: Apr 7, 2005. Publicly Released: Apr 7, 2005.

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In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks and the subsequent global war on terror, the nature of threats facing this country has changed, and as a result, policies and structures from previous decades need to be rethought. One area for reexamination in this changed security environment is the arms export control system. The State Department oversees this system to ensure that arms exports are consistent with U.S. national security and foreign policy goals. As such, the State Department is responsible for authorizing arms exports, which is generally done through export licensing, and for monitoring exporter compliance with governing laws and regulations. In so doing, the department needs to balance complex and competing interests. Specifically, the State Department must limit the possibility that exports will erode the U.S. military's technological advantage and prevent U.S. arms from falling into the wrong hands. At the same time, the department needs to allow legitimate defense trade with allies to occur. At a Congressional request, we are providing highlights from our most recent report on the arms export control system and observations regarding weaknesses and inefficiencies in the system based on our larger body of export control work.

The State Department has not made significant changes to the arms export control system since the September 2001 terror attacks. State Department officials maintain that such changes are not needed. However, their position is not based on systematic evaluations of the effectiveness of controls. Over the years, we have identified weaknesses in the arms export control system and made corrective recommendations, a number of which the departments involved have not yet implemented. Weaknesses include disagreements and poor coordination over whether certain items are controlled by the State Department, as well as limitations in the government's ability to ensure that exports not needing prior government approval comply with export laws and regulations. These weaknesses are compounded by challenges facing the enforcement community, including constrained budgets and limited resources. Taken together, these weaknesses and challenges create vulnerabilities in the arms export control system and undermine assurances that the system is protecting U.S. interests. To facilitate arms exports to allies, the State Department has sought over the last several years to reduce processing times for license applications. The department undertook efforts, such as reallocating staff and implementing initiatives, to streamline and expedite the processing of export license applications. However, the State Department's median processing times for arms export cases--after declining since fiscal year 1999--began increasing in fiscal year 2003. Further, the department's streamlining initiatives have generally not met established goals and have not been widely used by exporters.

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