Gates calls for overhaul of export licensing controls

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the administration will seek legislation to create single licensing and enforcement agencies.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the administration will seek legislation to create single licensing and enforcement agencies. (Susan Walsh/associated Press)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Tuesday that the government's Cold War-era system of licensing the export of weapons and other high-tech goods was actually harming national security by blocking arms sales to allies and giving an advantage to foreign manufacturers.

He called on Congress to create a single licensing agency to replace what he called a "byzantine amalgam" of bureaucracies from the Commerce, State and Defense departments that regulate the export of a wide range of products with potential military applications, including satellites, night-vision goggles and even certain kinds of nuts and bolts.

"Not too long ago, a British C-17 spent hours disabled on the ground in Australia -- not because the needed part was unavailable, but because U.S. law required the Australians to seek U.S. permission before doing the repair," Gates said in a speech to Business Executives for National Security, a private-sector group that advises the Defense Department. "These are two of our very strongest allies for God's sake!" A C-17 is a U.S-made military transport aircraft.

Gates said the Obama administration would for the first time draw up a single list of products that require government permission to export and would streamline the review process for applications. In addition, he said the administration would seek legislation to create a single licensing agency, as well as a single enforcement agency to ensure that exporters don't route their goods to blacklisted governments or terrorist groups.

Defense contractors and industry groups applauded Gates's plan, saying it was long overdue. "I think it's actually unprecedented that we have this top-down commitment to an issue that is often pushed to the periphery," said Marion Blakey, president and chief executive of the Aerospace Industries Association.

Gates said the Obama administration hoped that Congress would pass legislation by the end of the year to authorize the reforms -- a timetable that analysts described as highly ambitious.

Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he shared Gates's goal of "more effective controls that better address today's -- and tomorrow's -- security threats." In a statement, he said he was preparing a bill to modernize export controls on "dual-use" technology that can be used for civilian or military purposes, but did not commit to Gates's specific proposals.

Although some leaders in Congress have agreed that the current export-control system needs fixing, there is less appetite for the creation of a new federal bureaucracy.

"I do think there is at least some receptivity on the Hill," said James M. Ludes, executive director of the American Security Project, a bipartisan public policy group that has studied U.S. export controls. But for members of Congress, "it's not clear that the need is for real restructuring, or if the current system just needs some tinkering."

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