Foreign Relations & International Law

Disappearing Transparency in U.S. Arms Sales

Christina Arabia
Monday, July 15, 2019, 3:23 PM

In the nearly two decades since 9/11, the United States has increasingly relied on security assistance programs to train, advise and equip foreign military and police forces in an effort to fight threats before they reach the United States.

U.S Army Security Assistance Command Source: Flickr

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In the nearly two decades since 9/11, the United States has increasingly relied on security assistance programs to train, advise and equip foreign military and police forces in an effort to fight threats before they reach the United States. These programs, mainly funded by the State Department and implemented by the Defense Department, have continued to expand in scope, cost and global reach under the assumption that the enhanced capabilities of foreign partners would benefit U.S. national security. Between fiscal years 2001 and 2018, the United States spent about $310 billion through security assistance and delivered more than $330 billion in U.S.-made weapons. But despite such staggering sums, there is little evidence that such programs have made the U.S. any safer.

According to a 2016 RAND Corp. report, the rapid and piecemeal expansion of Defense Department-funded security aid programs—referred to as “security cooperation” or “building partner capacity” by the Pentagon—led to redundancies, limitations, gaps and incoherent strategy. Problematic in their own right, these issues also hindered Congress from providing effective oversight. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the aftermath of the attack that killed four U.S. troops in Niger in October 2017, when it was revealed that a number of senators were completely unaware that the Defense Department had been conducting security cooperation with Nigerien counterterrorism units.

What’s more, there is evidence that U.S. security assistance programs are fraught with problems that, in some cases, have increased the threats that the assistance was intended to combat—undermining U.S. goals in the process. In many countries, American weapons have been used to commit serious human rights violations, increasing anti-American sentiment around the world. They have contributed to the wasting of tens of billions of dollars worth of taxpayer money as foreign governments use U.S. weapons improperly or divert them to U.S. adversaries. These setbacks have prolonged U.S. military engagements in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, putting more American lives at risk.

Many of these setbacks come from U.S. policies and programs that focus on containing immediate security risks in fragile states yet fail to align those goals with critical long-term strategies such as strengthening governance. The “quick-fix” nature of security assistance often means that programs are not tailored to the country’s political context or the structure of its security forces.

Both the State and Defense Departments have responded to these challenges by developing new policy frameworks; consolidating activities; and improving U.S. efforts to assess, monitor and evaluate their programs. But evidence suggests a consistent failure to meet objectives. According to a previous Lawfare analysis, not only does the United States provide security assistance in “far too many countries to make a difference or to provide any leverage,” but this assistance is also often given to some of the world’s most poorly governed countries and strategic partners who show no interest in governance reform.

So, how can the American people track these billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to effectively monitor and evaluate these programs to ensure success? Ultimately, Congress—which represents the interests of the American public —has a responsibility to exercise oversight of these programs and to ensure accountability. But both Americans and Congress have to start with the facts, and that means having access to detailed data for every type of security assistance program.

The Security Assistance Monitor (SAM) program at the Center for International Policy, which I direct, was created precisely to address the lack of robust analysis and reporting on these issues. SAM houses the most comprehensive and accurate database publicly available, holding official information on U.S. military assistance and U.S. arms sales worldwide.

SAM staff has reviewed U.S. government documents, reports, budget justifications and congressional testimony to develop a regularly updated methodology for U.S. security assistance. Over the years, SAM staff has retrieved several hundred government reports, combed through them and digitized all of the relevant information. These databases help think tanks, journalists, academics, government officials and congressional staff to conduct assessments and analyze U.S. security assistance risks and effectiveness.

The Data Problem

While the U.S. government has an obligation to make basic information on security assistance programs publicly available, obtaining this data is not an easy task. The government does not always provide the necessary details, nor is it always consistent in how and what it reports. Within the Defense Department, combatant commands and program offices have their own unique systems to track funding, and they often do so intermittently and with varying levels of detail.

To assess risk effectively, SAM needs to know at least four key things: the country recipient (ideally, the specific unit or type of security force), the type and quantity of training and equipment, the dollar amount of aid delivered, and the purpose and goals of the program. It’s also critical that this information be provided in a timely manner.

For data on U.S. arms sales, the public is still missing key details on the types of weapons the U.S. government authorizes and delivers to foreign countries around the world, the specific intended recipient and the final dollar amount of arms sales delivered. Knowing the type of weapons is critically important as it provides insight into their potential use or misuse as well the level of risk they pose to civilians. Similarly, without knowing the specific recipient, it is difficult to determine the risks in a given country, making it nearly impossible to address them.

The most detailed public picture of U.S. arms sales comes from the initial notification the State Department is required to provide to Congress for the potential sale or export license of certain defense articles. Unfortunately, it is impossible to determine when an arms sales notification is approved or carried out.

With congressional help, SAM has been able to obtain more details on direct commercial arms sales, making up a large percentage of total U.S. arms exports that often fall under the congressional radar. This data allows for a more complete picture of arms sales notifications, which we recently released in a second annual report comparing trends in arms sales in the Trump administration’s first two years in office.

It is also difficult to capture the full amount of U.S. counterterrorism aid, as the U.S. government does not have a consistent methodology for reporting it. SAM devised a methodology to determine this amount but ran into significant problems. Although the State Department provides some good categorization of counterterrorism aid for law enforcement, it fails to clarify the amount of this aid intended for foreign militaries.

In the past couple of years, thanks to pressure from Congress, the Defense Department has begun to provide better detail on some of its key counterterrorism, counter-weapons of mass destruction and counter-narcotics programs. Access to this information has allowed us to identify major trends in counterterrorism aid: For example, the Pentagon’s counterterrorism aid to sub-Saharan Africa has more than tripled in the past four years, from $327 million in fiscal 2011-2014 to $1 billion in fiscal 2015-2018.

Although the Defense Department is improving its information-sharing practices, we still don’t have details about country or regional strategies, goals, or effectiveness indicators. The concern here is that the U.S. is increasingly relying on military solutions to combat terrorist threats. An analysis done by SAM last year revealed that more of this counterterrorism aid is going through the Defense Department for military aid programs and less through State’s foreign law enforcement programs, despite evidence that counterterrorism aid to local law enforcement is the more effective approach.

The Defense Department also published a congressional budget justification on its security cooperation activities for the first time in 2018 and again this year. While this is a great step toward improving transparency, both documents fail to address all of the congressional requirements or important details such as justifications for aid on a country level. Without this information, it is impossible to assess whether security aid is working or if the aid is going toward its intended purpose. In fact, a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the Defense Department’s global train and equip program found that only eight of 21 projects evaluated in 2016 and 2017 showed improved capabilities in the local military forces that the programs are meant to help.

Through the State Department, by contrast, we are seeing fewer country-level details and more funding through regional subaccounts. Glaringly evident in the State Department’s funding for peacekeeping aid, this makes it impossible to determine the amount of aid going to a country by year, much less the nature of the aid. For instance, though Somalia receives hundreds of millions of dollars through State’s Peacekeeping Operations account, significant portions of that package are intended for countries such as Kenya or Burundi that are contributing troops to peacekeeping efforts there.

Disappearing Transparency

Unfortunately, much of the progress SAM has made over the years in accessing data and pushing the government to be more transparent is being erased by the current administration. As seems to be the trend under the Trump administration, information meant for public availability is being withheld. Vital reports for our database are suddenly being classified, more military aid is going through regional accounts without any country-level justification and arms sales data is not being reported to Congress in the manner or level of detail required.

Access to this information is more important than ever as this administration continues to strip Congress of its oversight powers and consistently pushes a U.S. foreign policy that prioritizes business interests over human rights or diplomatic relationships. This is most evident in the Trump administration approach to U.S. arms sales. Since taking office, President Trump has removed Obama-era suspensions on arms sales to Bahrain, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, to which sales were withheld due to human rights concerns. Human rights have also taken second place to economic considerations in the Trump administration’s new Conventional Arms Transfer policy; and Trump has requested that U.S. ambassadors, the top American diplomats, promote U.S. arms sales.

At the beginning of this year, the Trump administration notified Congress of its plans to loosen the regulatory controls on some U.S. firearms exports and transfer jurisdiction of these exports to the Commerce Department. This move means that Congress will lose its oversight role on important and deadly U.S. weapons, which in the past had allowed them to stop certain problematic exports to Turkey and the Philippines. If anything, U.S. weapons exports deserve higher scrutiny, rather than being treated as mere business transactions and reduced to a streamlined export process similar to that of tractor exportation.

Controversies surrounding the recipients, use and diversion of arms sales are by no means a new phenomenon. What makes Trump’s policies and abuse of power so dangerous is the new precedent his administration has set allowing the executive branch to make foreign policy decisions unilaterally. In effect, arms sales are now driving U.S. foreign policy instead of being used as a tool for it. The repercussions from this reversal could be disastrous. On top of eroding American values and diminishing U.S. credibility among its partners, some countries have learned how to leverage our own “tool” against us. Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have used their geostrategic position to extract American arms, manipulate the terms of U.S. arms sales, and play the United States against other powers all while their human rights violations continue unabated. And it’s not just foreign governments that are finding it increasingly easy to manipulate U.S. foreign policy; the Trump administration’s policies allow the U.S. defense industry, already highly adept at playing this game, to maximize its profits at the expense of conflict and turmoil around the world.

What Can Be Done?

Together with Congress, the U.S. foreign policy community can fight to keep the executive powers in check. The first task is to work with Congress to ensure that recently classified reports be made public again.

Furthermore, the U.S. foreign policy community must push the State, Defense and Commerce Departments to publish more details in their annual reports, including the amount authorized and delivered by category, as well as by recipient country. The State Department must provide a breakdown of country-level funding for all peacekeeping assistance. The Defense Department must fulfill its congressional requirements of providing objectives for each country. Finally, the government must include more details on the strategy for proposed arms sales and security aid in congressional notifications and budget justifications.

Without this data, it will be impossible for the foreign policy community and the legislative branch to assess, monitor or evaluate U.S. security assistance activities. And that means it will be impossible to know what is or is not working or where the country can improve—whether in the security of foreign partners, U.S. national security or the return on investment of taxpayer dollars.

Christina Arabia is the Director of the Security Assistance Monitor program at the Center for International Policy where she leads research efforts to identify and analyze challenges and risks in U.S. military and police assistance and arms sales worldwide. She has previously worked as a consultant for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and the United Nations Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Africa (UNREC).

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