Although State's public export declaration lists such broad categories of exported weaponry, determining exactly what the shipments contained is still a challenge. Spokesman David McKeeby declined to discuss whether Peru and Algeria got riot control agents, for example, despite the department's confirmation that Egypt did. Asked why, he said "Egypt was a very unique case. Unfortunately, I can't tell you any more details about these countries, or these licenses."
McKeeby added that "what I can tell you in Bahrain and Algeria's case, for example, is that a lot of these licenses predate the Arab Spring period, and that's something that's being considered for licenses for the next fiscal year. But the information you want falls under ITAR. That's how these reports are written, and that's what we leave it at." ITAR stands for State's International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which say that details of the arms exports "may generally not be disclosed to the public."
Representatives of several companies linked in public accounts to shipments of tear gas canisters to Middle Eastern nations declined to comment. Jose Corbera, a spokesman for the Peruvian embassy's Commercial Office did not return a request for comment, and officials at Algeria's embassy also declined to provide data on imports of U.S. munitions.
State spokeswoman Beth Gosselin did note that some of the weapons exports listed in the State Department's report were meant for use by U.S. forces abroad, not by foreign militaries. In Bahrain, for example, $266.7 million of the $280.3 million worth of military arms and equipment were items for the Navy's "Fifth Fleet" station on the island nation, she said. Gosselin declined to provide similar data for other countries.
Matt Schroeder, director of the Arms Sales Monitoring Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said the U.S. vetting process for militaries and governments receiving arms is better than that of many nations, but that information on which weapons go to U.S. forces and which weapons go to other users is rarely accessible. "It's difficult to take the dollar value of arms shipped to a country and extrapolate which section of these items may be vulnerable to misuse," Schroeder said. "It's tough to make that call."
A provision written by Leahy and passed by Congress in 2011 requires legislative approval for the sale of crowd-control material to Middle Eastern governments facing democratic unrest. That provision forced an initial halt to weapons transfers to Bahrain, which has seen protests dating back to last year's Arab Spring. But in May, the United States ended the months-long freeze for some items, renewing the export of arms meant to be used for external defense, such as harbor security boats and engines for jet planes.
The issue of arms exports to countries engaged in repression of their own populaces has been debated recently by top U.S. and Russian officials. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on June 12 accused Russia of shipping attack helicopters to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, charging that those weapons were being turned against Syria's own people. In a retort, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, "We are not supplying to Syria or anywhere else things that are used in fighting with peaceful demonstrators, in contrast to the United States, which is regularly sending such special means to countries in the region."
Lavrov did not mention any nation by name, but Shapiro took the comment as a critique of U.S. exports to Bahrain and called the Russian criticism "totally specious....We have made clear that we're not selling equipment to Bahrain now that can be used for internal security purposes until there is improvement on human rights, and ... as Secretary Clinton pointed out, the sales to Syria are directly implicated in attacking innocent people, innocent civilians. So we believe that that comparison does not hold water."
Next month, the United Nations is scheduled to discuss a global treaty that would require annual reports from all nations detailing the value and type of weapons they exported. Although President George W. Bush's administration opposed the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty in favor of handling weapons tracking on a national level, Clinton reversed that position in a statement in October 2009, saying, "The United States is prepared to work hard for a strong international standard."
U.S. officials have said the treaty, expected to be approved by the end of July, would effectively force other nations to make declarations comparable to what the State Department already does in its annual military assistance report. Akwei expressed hope that the result will be a more concrete system for tracking international arms shipments and ensuring they're not used in cases of human rights abuse.
"The treaty finally focuses an international lens on this huge trade where the oversight is scarce and haphazard," Akwei said. "It will be largely dependent on cooperation of countries like China and Russia, but it will give NGOs in those countries, and worldwide, the ability to see records and ask questions about arms trade."