The Interagency Trade Enforcement Center (ITEC) was established in 2012 with avowed, but vaguely defined, ties to the U.S. Intelligence Community. Now, as the U.S. embarks on an ambitious global trade agenda, some of its main trade partners suspect that they are targets of U.S. espionage. Has the trade war gone covert?
The Interagency Trade Enforcement Center (ITEC) was created by executive order on February 28, 2012. One of the policy goals stated in that executive order was to “strengthen our capacity to monitor and enforce U.S. trade rights and domestic trade laws, and thereby enhance market access for U.S. exporters . . .” However, since ITEC’s creation, the Obama Administration has provided only vague information on the means by which ITEC monitors and enforces U.S. trade rights. The executive order that established ITEC provided for the appointment of three officials, a Director, a Deputy Director, and an “Intelligence Community Liaison” – who was to be a full-time senior-level official, recommended by the Director of National Intelligence. The executive order states that “others in the Intelligence Community . . . are encouraged to detail or assign their employees to the Center . . .” Since that Order, there has been scant public information regarding the staffing of ITEC. All three officials apparently have been appointed, but while the persons holding the Director and the Deputy Director positions were publicly announced, the Intelligence Community Liaison was not.
ITEC’s mandate to “monitor” U.S. trade partners, even its explicit ties to the Intelligence Community, are no proof of clandestine activity. However, the recent revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden regarding secret NSA data collection raise questions about how such data might be used by federal agencies such as ITEC – agencies that do not have an explicit national security role. Snowden revealed the existence of several NSA data collection programs that targeted both foreigners and U.S. citizens. The revelation of these programs sparked immediate debate within the U.S., particularly with regard to the NSA’s collection of phone records from U.S. citizens. However, in the weeks following Snowden’s initial disclosure, there has been a growing media focus on the NSA’s clandestine data collection from foreigners using the internet (the “PRISM” program), and even recent allegations of NSA wiretaps placed in brick-and-mortar facilities such as foreign government buildings and foreign embassies within the U.S. Hong Kong officials reportedly asked the U.S. for clarification regarding Snowden’s revelation that the U.S. was cyber-spying on the Chinese. European Union member states, such as France and Germany, have started to balk at reports that the U.S. wiretapped EU buildings and embassies in Washington, D.C. and New York. And what Snowden has revealed so far may just be the tip of the iceberg. Such relevations may raise concerns by U.S. trade partners about the relationship between the intelligence community and ITEC, which, as described in the President’s 2013 Trade Agenda “will play an increasingly critical role in the Obama Administration’s enforcement efforts.”
Given ITEC’s explicit mandate to coordinate the exchange of information among U.S. trade agencies and the Intelligence Community, it is plausible that such information might include information obtained by clandestine means, such as the NSA programs described by Snowden. Such information could be very valuable to ITEC to the extent it reveals potential trade violations, or even a foreign government’s strategy for handling a trade dispute with the U.S. While the collection of such information might be authorized strictly for national security purposes, ITEC might be tempted to use the data collected for its own purposes – establishing evidence of trade violations and assisting the U.S. government in trade negotiations and disputes.
Furthermore, it is unclear what national security purpose would be served by clandestine surveillance of “friendly” nations, such as the alleged wiretapping of EU Member States embassies. Information obtained through such means could, however, be very useful in trade negotiations, such as the ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations or the burgeoning US-EU trade talks. The US-EU talks have already hit snags as a result of the NSA revelations, with European officials denouncing the U.S.’s purported actions, and at least one participant, France, calling for a temporary delay of trade negotiations.
Snowden’s revelations provide a new lens under which to examine the role of ITEC and its ties to the Intelligence Community. USTR and Commerce trumpeted the efficacy of ITEC in their joint 2013 Subsidies Enforcement Report to Congress, stating that ITEC “has already played an important role in vigorously pursuing U.S. rights under the Subsidies Agreement” — for example, in a WTO consultation regarding alleged Chinese export subsidies on autos and auto parts. The Report stated that “Commerce, USTR and the ITEC subsidy experts collaborated closely in extensively researching, compiling and analyzing hundreds of Chinese central and provincial government measures.” The means by which ITEC carried out this research and analysis are not specifically revealed, although the Report states that “IA and USTR officers stationed overseas (for example, in China) enhance these efforts by helping to gather, clarify, and confirm the accuracy of information concerning foreign subsidy practices.” Could ITEC’s network include secret agents? What about the Executive Order’s encouragement that the Intelligence Community assign employees to the Center? Even if those employees do not bring with them data obtained through clandestine means, they may well use personal knowledge that they have gained through covert operations against U.S. trade partners. References to ITEC’s “intelligence community liaison” have been particularly vague. The most fulsome public report on the activities of this ITEC officer appears to be in the 2013 Trade Agenda, which merely states: “An intelligence community liaison provides a variety of critical services and assistance to ITEC in furtherance of its objectives, including introducing ITEC, its mission, and priorities to the various collection and analytic components of the intelligence community.”
As a federal agency, ITEC is relatively small. Its approved budget in 2013 was approximately $15 million, and the Commerce Department has asked Congress for $20 million to fund ITEC in 2014 (as part of an $8.6 billion total Department budget). However, ITEC is important in what it represents – a partnership between transparent U.S. agencies, agencies with an economic purpose, and clandestine U.S. agencies, agencies with a national security purpose. The sharing of information and resources between such agencies may be highly effective in enforcing trade law and assisting the U.S. in negotiations. But it could also be counterproductive, if it gives U.S. trade partners the impression that the U.S. uses the fruits of espionage to advance its trade agenda.