Export Control Reform: Grading the Obama Administration’s Conventional Arms Control Record

By Jeff Abramson

This administration has launched an aggressive and comprehensiveExport Reform: C- review of U.S. export control policy, which is no small task. With multiple bureaucracies playing a role in deciding what U.S. military and dual-use goods and services can be exported, and to whom, past efforts have generally failed to overcome national security concerns and stakeholder inertia. This administration may break the mold, but not in a good way.

Export Control Reform: C-

When first announced in August 2009, there was a sense that the effort could be coordinated with Congress. The White House statement itself was brief:

“Today, the President extended the authority for Department of Commerce-administered export controls. In addition, the President has directed that the NEC/NSC launch a broad-based interagency process for reviewing the overall U.S. export control system, including both the dual-use and defense trade processes. The aim of the review is to consider reforms to the system to enhance the national security, foreign policy, and economic security interests of the United States. The US has one of the most robust export control systems in the world. But, it is rooted in the Cold War era of over 50 years ago and must be updated to address the threats we face today and the changing economic and technological landscape.”

Over time, however, work with Congress has stalled and the administration has decided to first pursue what could be done at the Executive level (in other words, without Congress providing real oversight).

Words used to describe the existing system have also become much more negative, with “bureaucratically labyrinthine” being just one harsh phrase uttered by a senior U.S. official. As pointed out in an earlier post, an administration seeking to raise global arms trade standards closer to U.S. levels through an Arms Trade Treaty would be much better served if it weren’t simultaneously calling our own export control system broken.

In terms of deeper substance, the direction is rather scary, resulting in a C- grade for now. A tiering system is being developed that “erects higher fences” on so-called crown jewels, items “that provide a critical military or intelligence advantage to the United States and are available almost exclusively from the United States, or are weapons of mass destruction or related items.”  Other items that provide less advantage and may be more widely available would fall to lower tiers with fewer trade restrictions (or could drop out of control altogether).

Based on this approach, weapons and dual use goods that are older or more common would presumably be less tightly controlled. Yet these are the weapons that are often sought by terrorists, insurgents, and criminals and used in ways that fuel conflict and destabilize societies.

Critics may say that this is alarmism, but the first completed review of a U.S. Munitions List (USML) category, that for tanks, will likely result in 74% of recently licensed items moving off of the USML and over to the Commerce Control List (CCL) with a “significant” percentage eventually being exported without licenses at all. Comparable changes to controls on firearms, ammunition, and other sensitive munitions could lead to greater diversion of U.S. weapons to conflict zones, where we should instead be working to cut off supply.

An administration tasking note to the Defense Trade Advisory Group, the outside experts who provide advice to the State Department-controlled part of the review process, contemplated something very similar: a transfer of 90 percent of licensed firearms exports off the military list (USML) to the less-restrictive commercial list (CCL).

The administration does deserve credit for taking positive steps to coordinate compliance efforts and to continue upgrading information technologies so agencies can share data and make certain tasks clearer for those seeking licenses. In December, they also released for public comment the first set of proposed rules for revising the lists of controlled goods and corresponding licenses. That comment period ended earlier this week and included an important outside assessment that raised very serious concerns about the administration’s approach.

The devil is most certainly in the details and the C- rating could drop to a D or lower if controls on sensitive munitions are weakened.

The administration’s efforts to improve compliance coordination and information technology are commendable, but if the end result is a very broad decontrol of dangerous weapons and their components, then we could all suffer.


We’re grading the Obama administration all week. ATT and arms trade/sales were rated earlier. Tomorrow’s subject is Landmines.

Grading Guide

A: Global leader pressing for actions to curb arms races and set or reinforce highest international norms.

B: Working to raise or meet global norms. Breaking with past policies where appropriate.

C: Policies under review and may result in moving to meeting global norms, or may result in undermining them.

D: Falling behind global norms. Actions may exacerbate arms races, illicit proliferation or other threats to national and international peace and human security.

F: Actions undermining global norms and likely contributing to arms races or insecurity.


More substantively, a tiering system is being developed that concentrates most [m1] on so-called crown jewels (things related to weapons of mass destruction or very high end conventional weapons technology), ). The most robust controls in the three-tiered system would be reserved for a small sub-set of [quote from White House press release]”. Items placed in tiers two and three would be subjected toand places other items in lower tiers with fewer controls and trade restrictions (or , and the remaining items would be removed from control lists altogether. [ADD 1-2 sentences explaining the criteria proposed by the administration for placing items in the three tiers] could drop them out of control altogether). Based on these criteriaUnfortunately,  weapons and dual use goods that may beare older or more broadly available, and thus lower in the would presumably fall into tiers two or three.  Yet these are the weapons that are often proposed hierarchy, are often the ones that sought and used by terrorists, insurgents and criminals. fuel conflict and destabilize situations.


[m1]Concentrates what? Resources? Controls?

About Jeff Abramson

Deputy Director, Arms Control Association
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