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Sensitive military technology might be slipping into enemy hands, in part because of a dramatic decline in the number of foreign workers that the Commerce Department screens, federal auditors have found.
For national security purposes, the United States controls the export of so-called dual-use technologies -- items that have both civilian and military uses, including computer security tools -- to countries of concern, including Iran and North Korea.
One way to restrict the transfer of such technology is for Commerce to screen visa applications from foreign nationals who wish to work in U.S. high-tech companies.
But the Commerce Department, the agency responsible for checking visa applications to identify potential unlicensed exports, is not screening thousands of those forms, according to a Government Accountability Office report released on Monday.
Reduced visa application vetting is one of several factors that "may indicate the continuing risk that foreign nationals could gain unauthorized access to controlled technology," the auditors wrote.
Commerce checked only 150 visa forms in fiscal 2009, a dramatic drop from fiscal 2001, when it checked about 54,000 such applications.
"The agency reviewed thousands fewer overseas visa applications in fiscal year 2009 as compared to fiscal year 2001 because of a change in its procedures," GAO officials wrote. "The new procedures are more reactive because they focus on leads and intelligence information rather than proactive screening."
The number of cases pulled aside for further inspection also has dropped off considerably, according to GAO officials. In 2001, Commerce performed additional screening onabout 160 of the thousands of applications, while the department referred only one application for further examination in 2009.
Commerce officials argue the scaled-back screening has produced better investigations. After reading a draft of the GAO report, Eric Hirschhorn, Commerce undersecretary for industry and security, said last November that opting to not review every visa application constitutes a proactive approach.
It would not be sound practice, given limited resources, to analyze the entire visa database, he said. Doing so could yield an overwhelming amount of data and no focused research, Hirschhorn added.
GAO officials still maintain the procedures are reactive "as they rely on Commerce receiving leads or information, rather than proactively and routinely reviewing a portion of the database."
The report cited several other factors contributing to potential security breaches, noting that a large number of foreign nationals are in the United States with specialty occupation visas to work in fields involving technology that might require an export license.
Between 2004 and 2009, Commerce fined 14 U.S. companies about $2.3 million for allowing foreign nationals unauthorized access to controlled technologies, the report said. The department also suspended the export privileges of one company and two individuals for 20 years each.
Commerce did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report.