Wednesday, January 17, 2007

DRMS hubbub and export control reform

I'm a little shocked at the (temporary) attention being paid to Iranian attempts to purchase spare parts for their Shah-era F-14 Tomcats. The Associate Press story that supposed broke this revelation points an implied finger at the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service, and the Department of Defense by extension, of knowingly selling military goods to our "enemies."

This shouldn't come as a surprise to those of us who deal with export controls on a regular basis. It is not the job of DRMS or its vendors to vet thoroughly the legitimacy of their buyer's credentials. As long as buyers present proof that they are a U.S. person (corporeal or legal) or a permanent resident, DRMS has no resources to verify it.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), along with the State Department, are responsible for enforcing the International Trafficking in Arms Regulations (ITAR), not the DOD.

Iranians may be able to present fake IDs when purchasing surplussed material from the military, but they also have to sign an end-user certificate legally binding them from taking it out the country. When they try to, as demonstrated in the AP story, they go to jail.

As Clif at the Export Law Blog points out, the real issue is not when the DOD sells kit, but when it fails to do its job (emphasis added):

Anyone familiar with the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service (DRMS) and its commercial partner Government Liquidation LLC will not find it surprising in the least that surplus F-14 parts sold by them are winding up in Iranian hands. All USML surplus parts are required to be sold with an End User Certificate that informs the buyer of export restrictions. Certain sensitive USML surplus parts are required to be demilitarized or “demilled” before sale. In more than a few instances the processing personnel at DRMS fail to do either.

This brings us to the issue of export control reform. Representative Christopher Shays (R-CT) is quoted in the AP article calling the whole affair "huge breakdown." He also took things a step further:

"The military should not sell or give away any sensitive military equipment. If we no longer need it, it needs to be destroyed - totally destroyed," said Shays, until this month the chairman of a House panel on national security. "The Department of Defense should not be supplying sensitive military equipment to our adversaries, our enemies, terrorists."

Personally, I disagree. It is incumbent upon the Department of Defense to recoup some of its costs by selling obsolescent gear. Sure, there will be instances where one of our "enemies" will get their hands on "sensitive" items that haven't been properly demilitarized, but the cost of such rare instances are definitely outweighed by the financial benefits yielded by the surplussing process.

The view is a little different in Congress. Export controls are frequently a source of cheap political points for both parties. Peacenik legislators on the left like tough export controls because they are peaceniks. They despise the trafficking in arms because it leads to war and jump on any chance to restrict the U.S.'s role in the arms market.

Hawk legislators on the right also love export controls because they are paranoid about the capabilities of our "enemies." The U.S. has an undeniable technological edge in the military world and they want to keep it that way by keep as tight a grip as possible on U.S. military technology. Plus, many Republican legislators are close to lobbyists from the protectionist end of the defense industry, such as the U.S. Business and Industry Council.

Presidents from either party tend to resist tightening export controls because it tends to get in the way of security assistance programs. Export controls are often seen as the unpopular cousin to multilateral nonproliferation regimes by the upper echelons of the executive though. This allows Congress to push through just enough legislation to make legislators feel good about themselves, but not enough to make the system practical or effective.

I won't get into the details this time around, but I'll say that even though the DOD is the largest arms dealer in the world, it has little involvement in the export controls world. In fact, the day-to-day conflict between the government's military cooperation programs and export control system has evolved into the bureaucratic equivalent of loveless, aristocratic marriage. Each department has long since given up on attempts to maneuver for bureaucratic advantage and now tries to limit programmatic contact with its partners as much as possible.

As the GAO and CRS have noted, export controls are in dire need of reform.

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