GAO Warns of Possible University Export Control Violations

A new Government Accountability Office study (pdf) warns darkly that the Departments of State and Commerce are not doing enough to police university research to ensure that export control violations are not occurring on campus.

State and Commerce “have not fully assessed the potential for transfers of export-controlled information to foreign nationals in the course of U.S. university research,” the GAO study said. The study urged closer attention to available data on foreign students at U.S. universities.

The negative tone of the report is somewhat surprising since the GAO investigation did not identify a single export control violation, nor did it discover any misinterpretation or misapplication of existing law committed by university researchers.

But the study may reopen a fierce debate that seemed to be nearly settled regarding “deemed exports,” referring to the transfer of export-controlled information to foreign persons residing in the United States. A strict interpretation of “deemed export” controls could cause massive disruption of university research, many academic scientists argued in the last two years. In May 2006, the Department of Commerce withdrew a proposed rule on the subject in response to widespread academic criticism.

Buried deep in the new report, the GAO did note the significant fact that “government and industry contracting officials are increasingly inserting restrictive language in contracts for research that universities consider to be fundamental [including] language that prohibits the contractor from releasing information, even unclassified information, outside of the contractor’s organization.” (Page 10).

Such pre-publication restrictions are obviously inconsistent with the university environment. Regrettably, the GAO report did not pursue this issue or recommend the more discriminating use of disclosure restrictions by contracting agencies.

See “Export Controls: Agencies Should Assess Vulnerabilities and Improve Guidance for Protecting Export-Controlled Information at Universities,” Government Accountability Office report GAO-07-70, December 2006.

See also a companion report on “Export Controls: Agencies Should Assess Vulnerabilities and Improve Guidance for Protecting Export-Controlled Information at Companies,” Government Accountability Office report GAO-07-69, December 2006.

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