President to tout steps on export overhaul

President Obama on Tuesday will tout the steps his administration has taken to overhaul the nation’s export control system, which many view as an outdated relic of the Cold War.

Obama’s pre-recorded remarks to the Department of Commerce’s conference on export controls and policy will come one year after he ordered a broad review of America’s export control regime.

The president has called for reforms that would prioritize restrictions on key technologies and items that pose serious threats to national security. Obama has said an updated export control system will boost economic growth and create jobs.

Members of the Cabinet, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, are orchestrating the reform effort. Gates laid out the administration’s plan in April.

“The United States is thought to have one of the most stringent export regimes in the world. But stringent is not the same as effective,” Gates said in an address to the Business Executives for National Security. 

“It makes little sense to use the same lengthy process to control the export of every latch, wire and lug nut for a piece of equipment like the F-16 when we have already approved the export of the whole aircraft,” Gates added

Obama on Tuesday is expected to touch on the administration’s new criteria for selecting items that need to be placed on export control lists. He is also announcing a consolidated policy to ensure the export control lists at the State and Commerce departments are consistent and in harmony

State and Commerce are charged with issuing licenses to companies that want to export items that could have commercial and military purposes and, as a result, might be considered sensitive to national security.

The two agencies are often locked in turf battles over what should be licensed for export. Critics say the process is muddled by overly arcane criteria that often overlap and create confusion for those applying for licenses.

The system has not been updated in decades. Critics complain the system places unnecessary restrictions on goods that are widely available in the commercial market, even as other, more dangerous technologies are sold without limit.

National Security Adviser James Jones said in a speech on Capitol Hill earlier this summer that the administration ultimately wants to create a new and independent agency that will merge all export licensing activities under a board of directors that report to the president.

The new agency’s board of directors would be comprised of the Cabinet officials of the departments with oversight of export controls. Those Cabinet members include the secretaries of the departments of Defense, State, Commerce, Treasury and Homeland Security.

Obama will also announce Tuesday that he plans to sign an executive order that will create an enforcement center where all the agencies in charge of export issues can coordinate their policing activities, according to several sources who asked not to be quoted by name.

The president is also expected to announce that the agencies involved in export control issues will switch to a single IT system.

The White House is making several critical changes at the executive branch level, but the most difficult step would be to win congressional backing for the overhaul. The administration will need legislation to create the single licensing agency and the enforcement coordination agency.

While the White House has yet to send legislative proposals to Congress, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, led by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), has already put together its own draft legislation to overhaul the outdated system. The House panel, however, would only mark up an overhaul bill this fall if the window opened for a full House vote on it.