BIS Needs to Improve University Outreach Efforts, GAO Says
The Commerce Department and other government agencies can better tailor their outreach efforts to universities to mitigate export control risks in academia, the Government Accountability Office said in a report last week. Although Commerce, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI all conduct outreach with colleges to prevent illegal deemed exports and other sensitive technology transfers, they can do a better job identifying and analyzing export control “risk factors,” GAO said, and use their “limited resources” to make their outreach more efficient.
The agencies, specifically Commerce, haven’t “fully assessed universities’ risk of sensitive technology transfers to inform their outreach priorities,” GAO said. The office specifically pointed to the Bureau of Industry and Security, which hasn’t “identified any risk factors to guide its outreach priorities.”
Several BIS officials, including assistant secretary for export administration Thea Kendler, have recently spoken with university compliance officers, including at the annual University Export Control Conference in May (see 2205050019 and 2205050022). Kendler told university officials that BIS wants to work closer with them to help them better understand export regulations and improve their compliance efforts.
But BIS’s field officers are often left to rely on “limited information to determine outreach priorities” when determining which schools to visit for export control “awareness” training, GAO said. The agency’s field offices also lack “analytical tools or personnel needed for systematic analyses that could inform outreach prioritization,” the report said. “Without such information, [BIS] lacks a complete understanding of risks affecting the security of sensitive research at universities and may not effectively target limited outreach resources.”
A BIS spokesperson declined to comment. In response to a draft version of the report, Commerce told GAO in February that it “consistently reviews and updates our strategy for prioritizing outreach on export controls.” The agency said it will “continue to identify and share targets with the field, inclusive of U.S. universities.”
Other agencies, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, have developed a “ranked list of universities at risk for sensitive technology transfers,” GAO said, but the list is based on a “single risk factor,” and ICE hasn't shared the list with all its field offices. The FBI shared information with all of its field offices to guide their outreach, the report said, but also based the list on just one risk factor, which “may not accurately reflect universities’ risk for sensitive technology transfers.”
In a May response to the report, DHS said the “limitation in current export controls” acts as a “barrier” to enforcement. “For example, most university research is not subject to export controls, which means foreign persons may legally access research that could be sensitive and contrary to national security interests of the United States,” DHS said. “Despite these obstacles, ICE remains committed to using its legal authority to investigate” illegal technology transfers.
BIS officials told GAO they conduct a “significant portion” of their outreach alongside the FBI and rely on their priorities. Some officials also said agents working in the field, as opposed to BIS headquarters, “are best positioned to understand the threats that universities in their geographic area face and to prioritize them accordingly.”
BIS officials at the agency’s headquarters said they expect field offices to prioritize their own outreach efforts based on “specific leads.” A field office may, for example, receive a tip that a nearby university has a radiation laboratory being targeted by “foreign adversaries,” GAO said, and field agents will then visit with university officials about the threat. The agents then may conduct outreach with universities that have similar laboratories, GAO said, and are expected to treat other outreach visits that are “not based on a specific threat” as a “lower priority.”
Although these field offices are expected to prioritize their own outreach, officials in three of the five field offices that GAO interviewed said they “lacked analytical tools and personnel” to review data and “conduct more systematic analyses that could inform their outreach prioritization efforts.”
Officials in one BIS field office told GAO that they would like to review data on certain federally funded projects to better target their outreach at universities receiving the funding and using it to study sensitive technologies. But that would require “at least one analyst to sift through the large amount of available data, and field offices lack the resources to complete such work,” the report said. Field agents also can’t access some of the same databases as officials in headquarters, the report said, including classified systems used to share intelligence.
BIS officials at headquarters said they are aware of the resource shortage for field agents and have thought about increasing the “analytical capabilities” of the field offices, the report said. The agency even tried assigning an analyst to a field office on a trial basis a few years ago. BIS also said it plans to expand the offices’ access to classified systems, the report said, which will help decrease their reliance on headquarters for leads.
But in the interim, BIS headquarters is “better positioned” to provide those analytical capabilities to the field offices, officials told GAO. “By conducting risk assessments at headquarters, where officials have greater access to data and analytical resources, [BIS] could gain a more complete understanding of universities’ risk of sensitive technology transfers, including unauthorized deemed exports,” GAO said. “Moreover, sharing the results of any efforts to identify relevant risk factors and at-risk universities with [GAO] field offices could help inform their prioritization of outreach to universities at greater risk for sensitive technology transfers and enhance the agency’s efforts to target limited resources more effectively.”