White House touts headway in export reform

Top Obama administration officials claimed progress Tuesday in a landmark update of Cold War-era export control regulations, saying the policy shift now under way would slash obsolete bureaucracy while preserving national security standards.

The undertaking at the State, Commerce and Defense departments is meant to streamline rules that require companies to apply for federal permission to export tens of thousands of items that are on federal control lists.

Business groups have assailed the system, rooted in the 1960s, as archaic, contending it needlessly protects nuts, bolts and other seemingly benign items that could be used to build weapons.

The agencies are slogging through more than 20 categories of munitions, gradually moving less significant military items that don’t warrant the tight controls of the State Department’s U.S. Munitions List to a more flexible list at the Commerce Department.

Ultimately, the two lists would be merged and overseen by a new export control agency that would be charged with licensing exports and enforcing the new regulations.

To date, the administration has enacted new regulations for eight of 21 categories of munitions, Deputy National Security Adviser for International Economics Caroline Atkinson said during remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“We’ve made huge strides in the past year in moving from planning to implementation,” said Atkinson, a deputy assistant to President Obama.

The completed categories represent $75 billion worth of exports now under license. Final regulations for an additional five categories — including explosives and missile materials — have been finalized and will take effect this summer. By then, rules governing roughly 80 percent of items on the munitions list will be in place.

That process is on track to be completed this year, Atkinson said.

“Export control reform remains a priority for the president,” she said.

The final phase of the project, establishing a new agency to oversee the new system, will require congressional action.

However some in Congress, as well as some former federal officials, have questioned whether the new regulations would ease the flow of goods with military uses and could allow American technology to fall into the wrong hands.

Acting Assistant Secretary of State Tom Kelly, who heads the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, pushed back at the suggestion that the new policy would weaken national security.

“What it won’t do is alter the primacy of foreign policy” in export decisions, said Kelly, who stressed that any item no longer controlled by the U.S. Munitions list would still be controlled by the less stringent commerce control list.

“We’re very confident we’re on the right track,” he said.