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A Honduran Military Police officer patrols the slums of Tegucigalpa, in November 2017. [ORLANDO SIERRA/Getty]

The Business of Guns

Oversight of International Gun Sales Is in Shambles

According to two government reports, officials are approving sales without adequate information about how the guns may be used, and are failing to notify Congress of large-scale deals.

The State Department routinely approves firearms exports despite a lack of information about where the guns might end up, and regularly fails to notify Congress of large gun sales as required by law, according to an audit performed by the Department of State Office of the Inspector General.

The audit, released in February, found that State Department officials approved 20 of 21 firearms export applications filed between December 2017 and August 2018, despite many of them missing required information. In five cases, the missing information was so significant that it should have prompted officials to return the proposal to its applicant for correction.  Auditors also learned that the State Department neglected to notify Congress of 17 export deals valued at over $1 million.

Christina Arabia, who analyzes the international arms trade for the Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank, said the State Department report shows that the firearm export review process is characterized by “a lot of incompetence, failures in training, and failures to follow procedure.”

The failures may be due to personnel shortfalls and lack of training. The inspector general found that the State Department office that scrutinizes gun deals had recently lost 28 percent of its workforce. Tina Kaidanow, the acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, told the auditors she thought the reductions had damaged “both the quantity and quality of the application review.”

Experts say the regulatory failures increase the risk that America could arm corrupt regimes, criminal networks, and terrorists who target the U.S. military overseas. They worry that the Trump administration will further undermine oversight of foreign gun deals. Under a rule change finalized in February by the Trump administration, the Commerce Department will review applications to export semiautomatic and nonautomatic firearms as well as ammunition and gun parts.

In a March report, the Government Accountability Office suggested that Commerce lacks the meagre capabilities found at State to keep guns out of the wrong hands. In the Western Hemisphere, for example, where the United States sells more guns than anywhere besides Europe and Eurasia, the Commerce Department has no officers dedicated to the program that will soon scrutinize gun exports, and has no plans to hire more.

“It is shocking in that the State Department is still trying to move oversight of semiautomatic firearms and nonautomatic firearm sales to Commerce despite the fact that they’re so awful at fulfilling their basic responsibilities right now,” she added.

Under current law, American companies that sell guns internationally have to apply to the State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls for a license for each deal. Officers in the DDTC are supposed to check each application for signs the weapons might be trafficked or sold to certain prohibited customers. In addition, the officers weigh a wide variety of other questions, including: Could the customer use the weapons in human rights abuses? Does the sale enhance national security? If the American company doesn’t sell the guns, could a Russian or Chinese rival swoop in?

The State Department is supposed to notify Congress if it approves sales of firearms worth $1 million or more, or major weapon systems like vehicles or missiles worth $14 million or more. Lawmakers can delay or reject an application if they have concerns.

In one case reviewed, the State Department neglected to alert Congress of a sizable sale of assault rifles to the Philippines less than a year after legislators quashed a similar export package to the same country.

In October 2016, Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, denied a sale of 26,000 assault rifles to the Philippines. Cardin noted that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs had resulted in 2,300 extrajudicial executions. Days later, Duterte called Democrats who had opposed the deal “fools” and “monkeys.”

Then in July 2017, the Philippines applied to buy 400,000 AR-15 rifles, two million 30-round magazines, 586 million rounds of ammunition, and 426,448 cleaning and maintenance kits. According to the OIG report, the State Department did not notify Congress before rubber stamping the deal.

Officials with the State Department told auditors it approved the application without telling Congress because the computer the officer used to review the application had “dropped” the last zero from the dollar value of the deal, an error neither the officer or the auditors could replicate.

A State Department spokesman said the department had since created a new end-use training program, a database of officers who have performed the checks, and is in the process of creating a refresher course.

The deal was terminated in November of that year, but only once the American Embassy staff in Manila told superiors they could not locate the Florida-based gun dealer who was selling the guns to the Philippines. The report said the unnamed dealer “disappeared.” The report doesn’t say if any guns were shipped before the termination, and the State Department has no mechanism for clawing back gun sales approved in error.

The March GAO report suggests that the Commerce Department could make similar mistakes when it takes over oversight of gun exports. The GAO found that State and Commerce hadn’t yet figured out how they would share “watch lists” of suspicious or prohibited customers. Commerce doesn’t typically require additional checks on end users of exports that it currently oversees. When Commerce does perform end user checks on other exports it currently reviews, 90 percent of the time the checks occur after the good have already been shipped. (State typically checks suspicious sales before shipment). The department doesn’t require exporters to disclose if they offered political contributions, gifts, commissions, or fees as part of sale.

Furthermore, Commerce does not have any relevant staff assigned to review firearm sales to the Western Hemisphere, Afghanistan, Burma, Laos, Afghanistan, or anywhere in Africa, aside from Egypt. The department told the GAO it has no plans to assign personnel to cover firearm sales to these countries. Instead, it will provide oversight with staff who either visit the countries temporarily or do not have experience reviewing arms deals.

In an emailed response, a State Department spokesman said the department agreed with the GAO that “the Department should work with the Department of Commerce to develop a process to share State’s internal watch list with Commerce to enhance oversight. In fact, the Department is already engaging in the process of coordinating approval of required agreements to allow transfer of this information to the Department of Commerce.”

The Department of Commerce did not directly answer our questions for this story, but a spokesperson emailed a link to an FAQ.