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Thursday, December 21, 2006

GAO: Export Control of Sensitive Technologies Complicated

The enforcement of U.S. export control laws regulations regulating the sale of sensitive computer, software and other technology is inherently complex, involving multiple agencies with varying roles, responsibilities, and authorities, according to a government watchdog agency.

Each year, billions of dollars in dual-use items—items that have both commercial and military applications—as well as defense items are exported from the United States. To protect U.S. interests, the U.S. government controls the export of these items. A key function in the U.S. export control system is enforcement, which aims to prevent or deter the illegal export of controlled items.

Agencies within the departments of Commerce, Homeland Security, Justice, and State that are responsible for export control enforcement conduct a variety of activities, including inspecting items to be exported, investigating potential export control violations, and pursuing and imposing appropriate penalties and fines against violators. These agencies' enforcement authorities are granted through a complex set of laws and regulations, which give concurrent jurisdiction to multiple agencies to conduct investigations, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress.

"Enforcement agencies face several challenges in enforcing export control laws and regulations," the report says. "For example, agencies have had difficulty coordinating investigations and agreeing on how to proceed on cases. Coordination and cooperation often hinge on the relationships individual investigators across agencies have developed. Other challenges include obtaining timely and complete information to determine whether violations have occurred and enforcement actions should be pursued, and the difficulty in balancing multiple priorities and leveraging finite human resources."

Each enforcement agency has a database to capture information on its enforcement activities, GAO says. However, outcomes of criminal cases are not systematically shared with State and Commerce, the principal export control agencies.

"State and Commerce may deny license applications or export privileges of indicted or convicted export violators. Without information on the outcomes of criminal cases, export control agencies cannot gain a complete picture of an individual or a company seeking export licenses or discover trends in illegal export activities," GAO says.

GAO recommends that the enforcement agencies take several actions aimed at improving coordination and remedying other weaknesses in export control enforcement. The departments generally agreed with the need for coordination but noted some differences in possible approaches. They also indicated certain actions are under way to address some of GAO's recommendations.

GAO identified several recent cases of export control enforcement, including polygraph machines sent to China, U.S. fighter jet components to Iran and military helicopter engines and night vision systems to China.

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