GAO Finds Gap in U.S. Export Controls

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Sensitive dual-use and military technology can be easily and legally purchased within the United States and illegally exported without detection, according to a report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) last month.

Using a fictitious front company and false identities, the GAO was able to purchase dual-use technology such as electronic sensors often used in improvised explosive devices, accelerometers used in "smart" bombs, and gyro chips used for guiding missiles and military aircraft. The GAO was also able to export the technology without detection to a country that it identified only as "a known transshipment point for terrorist organizations and foreign governments attempting to acquire sensitive technology," the GAO's Gregory Kutz said in congressional testimony June 4. Kutz, managing director for forensic audits and investigations, was a witness at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which had requested the GAO probe.

Although items such as the ones the GAO purchased are often subject to export restrictions under the Commerce Control List or the Department of State's U.S. Munitions List, they can be legally obtained from manufacturers and distributors within the United States, often with only a name and a credit card, the report said. According to the report, the items have been and continue to be used against U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Access to that type of sensitive military technology could give terrorists or foreign governments an advantage in a combat situation against the United States, the report said.

Dual-use technology refers to technology that has both conventional and military or proliferation uses. Machinery such as a triggered spark gap, for example, can be used as a high-voltage switch for medical applications and a detonator for a nuclear weapon, the report said.

The report cited officials from several government agencies as saying there is no practical way to prevent such products from leaving the country after they have been purchased by a domestic buyer. The report noted that although regulations are in place to prevent improper use of dual-use and military technology, these regulations focus on controlling exports rather than on securing domestic sales. Currently, there are no legal requirements for the sellers of dual-use or military technology to conduct background checks on prospective domestic customers.

The GAO report highlights "an enormous loophole in the law," Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the oversight subcommittee, said in a statement at the hearing. "The stakes cannot be higher."

According to the report, seven of the 12 types of sensitive dualuse and military items obtained during the investigation have previously been the focus of criminal indictments and convictions for violations of export control laws. Additionally, a 2008 report by the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute revealed attempts by North Korea to procure dual-use technology from foreign sources for use in that country's guided missile program.

Although there are programs in place to educate manufacturers and distributors on common risks associated with the sale of military or dual-use technology, the lack of controls in place to regulate domestic sales limits the effectiveness of such programs, the GAO report said.

The report suggests that restricting domestic sales of dual-use and military items could be key to preventing the illegal export of such technology.

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