t r u t h o u t | Report
Tuesday 30 October 2007
The Bush administration hopes to push through two license-free arms sales treaties before the end of this Senate session. Both would eliminate much of the oversight that governs international weapons trades. The treaties, one with the United Kingdom and one with Australia, exemplify a growing trend of weakening restrictions on arms exports, even as fears of weapons proliferation intensify worldwide.
Under current US licensing guidelines, a company wanting to trade arms with a foreign entity must undergo a rigorous evaluation and report details of the transaction, including specific materials and personnel, to the State Department. Government-authorized licensing specialists then screen each party against watch lists of illegal arms traffickers. Licensees also must sign statements verifying their identities, histories, proofs of purchase and trade partners.
The treaty with the U.K., waiting to be ratified by the Senate, would grant "security clearance" to an "approved community" of companies in the US and the U.K., according to John Rood, assistant secretary of the State Department's international security and nonproliferation bureau, who announced the treaty at a press briefing in July. Approved companies would be permitted to transfer weapons freely between the two countries. The Australian treaty, announced in September, would operate similarly. Rood said he hoped that the U.K. treaty would be ratified by the end of the year. A State Department official said the administration aimed for December ratification of the Australian treaty, as well, according to the October issue of Arms Control News.
The administration did not notify Congress of its negotiations with the U.K. and Australia, and many Congress members did not know about the treaties until they were announced to the public, according to Rachel Stohl, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information.
"The treaties would mean that any weapons transfer to those parties eligible would not have any government or public oversight," Stohl said in an interview. "They would eliminate any accountability that the weapons are being used properly, and would take away any recourse for the US to prevent weapons from ending up in wrong hands."
The State Department holds that shortening - or eliminating - the licensing process would allow the US to build stronger ties with its allies in the "war on terror."
"The United Kingdom, Australia and other coalition partners are critical to US efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and against terror targets internationally," said Stephen D. Mull, the State Department's acting assistant secretary for political military affairs, in testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. "Building the partnership capacity of these nations is now a primary US foreign policy and national security objective. From an export control perspective, we have no higher priority than approving licenses for coalition forces in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Easing arms control mechanisms would also speed up arms transfers, enabling defense companies to sell more weapons in wartime. Current oversight measures are delaying the arms deliveries, and therefore "paradoxically hurting our national security," said John Douglass, president of Aerospace Industries Association of America, in a July statement.
However, according to Stohl, the rush to export arms and relax controls is not necessarily all about security interests; it's a trend that often occurs at the end of an administration. During the last months of President Bush's first term, the State Department pushed for an "export reform" law to loosen arms trade regulations.
"What we're seeing now is a ramping up of that as Bush nears the end of his presidency," Stohl said. "In terms of export policy, there's a close relationship between industry and government. There's a tendency to help those who have scratched your back throughout the administration."
For the Bush administration, industry/government ties are especially strong. Political contributions from the defense sector have skyrocketed since Bush's first campaign, according to data from Open Secrets, a project of the Center for Responsive Politics. The majority of those contributions go to Republican candidates.
The administration has announced a host of major arms sales in the last few months, including export packages of $30 billion to Israel, $13 billion to Egypt and $20 billion to Saudi Arabia and five other Gulf states.
A House report issued in response to the State Department's 2004 "export reform" proposal warns that without a licensing process to screen defense corporations, employees' connections with terrorist groups, criminal organizations and black market traders might slip by unnoticed. In place of state licensors, company executives would be responsible for holding their employees accountable.
Looser export controls would also create enforcement problems, according to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. "Homeland Security officials explained that they generally oppose licensing exemptions because items can be more easily diverted without detection, which complicates potential investigations," the report states. "Justice officials similarly noted that prosecuting export violations under an exemption is difficult because of the challenges in acquiring evidence of criminal intent, given the limited 'paper trail' generated under an exemption."
Even without exemptions, tracking American weapons and enforcing regulations has proven difficult since the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan began. In late August, Pentagon officials announced that Iraqi security force weapons, supplied by the US, had been used in a series of violent crimes in Turkey over the past year.
Moreover, according to the 2004 House report, black-market weapons traders have grown savvier in the past six years. "Gray arms market dealers operating in the interests of rogue governments, criminal organizations and terrorist factions have not disappeared since 9/11, but have become increasingly effective at exploiting weaknesses in export controls by disguising illicit shipments as bona fide exports," the report said.
Yet, export control standards are already slackening. In 2002, President Bush upped the threshold for how large certain defense technology sales must be in order to require a license. Also, the State Department recently established D-Trade, an online automated system that processes license applications.
"Despite the existence of known vulnerabilities, neither department has conducted systematic assessments of its export control system," the GAO report said. "Federal programs need to reexamine their priorities and approaches and determine what corrective actions may be needed to ensure they are fulfilling their missions in the 21st century."
As Bush's presidency draws to a close, Stohl predicts further steps to loosen arms controls, despite the administration's heightened emphasis on combating proliferation in Iran, Iraq and elsewhere. Beyond treaty negotiations, more insidious measures may be on the horizon - reforms that would not require legislative changes. The executive branch could singlehandedly craft a new arms trade policy, or implement procedural changes without consulting Congress.
Defense-related export activity can easily be kept classified. For example, soon after the Australian treaty's announcement, the State Department released a notice stating that Rood had "made a determination" pertaining to the licensing section of the Arms Export Control Act, but that "publication of the determination would be harmful to the national security of the United States."
"There will be a confidential, ongoing review of arms trade policy, and the administration could restructure anything and everything," Stohl said. "In the end, it's the president's prerogative."