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Keynote Remarks by Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross at the Overseas Security Advisory Council’s 34th Annual Briefing


It is my honor to be here today at the 34th Annual Briefing of OSAC. Your efforts over the decades have been instrumental in assuring the safety of Americans overseas, and contributing to the economic and cultural vitality of the United States and countries of throughout the world. I am a direct beneficiary of the Diplomatic Security Service run by the Department of State, having traveled extensively as Secretary of Commerce and previously as a businessman.

OSAC is one of the best examples of a public-private partnership that works for the benefit of everyone involved. It is, in fact, one of the longest-running and most successful public-private partnerships in the United States. And for you, your commitment to the safety of Americans around the globe, we are extremely grateful.

The Commerce Department has been engaged with OSAC for decades, given our extensive footprint overseas and the need to protect American industry’s growing presence in foreign markets. Jerome Holloway, Director of Administrative Services at the Commerce Department, is our representative on the OSAC Board. Thank you, Jerome.

Commerce indeed was instrumental in reviving OSAC in the mid-1990s, when the staff, believe it or not, had dwindled to three employees. Today, there are 28 people working in OSAC’s Research and Information Support Center.

Many people don’t realize how important the Commerce Department is to our companies and organizations operating in foreign markets. For 40 years, the Commerce Department has been a key function of America’s diplomatic presence around the world, helping U.S. companies do business on the ground in key markets. Today, American companies are doing business in 76 countries and 118 cities, representing more than 95 percent of the world’s GDP. They work with an incredibly talented corps of Foreign Commercial Service Officers.

Last year, these 240 career diplomats and 660 commercial specialists worked with more than 25,000 U.S. companies doing business overseas. They helped our companies enter new markets, find reputable partners, sell their products locally, eliminate foreign trade barriers, and establish and sustain their global operations. They worked with our companies to identify opportunities, navigate unfair and sometimes corrupt business practices, and successfully compete for deals. In collaboration with regional security officers and OSAC members, they advised companies on the risks of doing business in countries around the world, including issues of safety, crime, terrorism, and breaches of the rule of law.

Please contact our Foreign Commercial Service whenever you do business and wherever you do business around the world. They have a lot to do, given the size and complexity of our global economy and the dynamic — and sometimes frightening — changes taking place on every continent. And it provides ample evidence of why OSAC has more than 5,000 registered member organizations. It means the U.S. Government has an immense responsibility to serve those enterprises and the people working for them overseas.

In addition to those working for our companies, there are millions more Americans overseas in the military, on holiday, or for education. Outbound air travel by Americans to overseas countries increased by 9 percent in 2018 to 41.8 million travelers and is on pace to increase by another 8 percent this year. That does not include land travel to Mexico, which was 37 million U.S. travelers last year, nor to Canada, 14.3 million more.

Moreover, we have military personnel in 150 countries, and there are more than 325,000 American students studying abroad. There are Americans in foreign countries — many serving at great risk — within NGOs, the Peace Corps, non-profits, our export credit organizations like EXIM, and other entities.

At my own agency, this year we suffered the tragic and harrowing death of one of our employees, Chelsea Decaminada, who was working for our Commercial Law Development Program.

Millions of Americans have no idea how important you are, nor of the work you do behind the scenes. For all of them, thank you. Please give yourselves a round of applause.

My department is also safeguarding our nation by reducing the risks from the diversion of unauthorized activities and technologies to the production of weapons of mass destruction. Our Bureau of Industry and Security oversees the safety and security of exports, reexports, and transfers of products that pose potential risks to our national security.

We also run the Entity List that imposes licensing requirements on foreign companies involved in activities that are contrary to U.S. national security. There are 1,200 companies now on this list, and they are from 76 countries, such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, China, Egypt, Iran, India, and Russia. One company alone, Huawei, has 115 non-U.S. affiliates on the Entity List. Items in question include missile-related technologies, software, parts, components, and nuclear activities. Many of these components are individually harmless, but when assembled into a system, are lethal.

We have produced a “Know Your Customer” guidance for companies operating internationally. American companies must comply with end-use — and end-user — based export restrictions. Accordingly, we urge them to inquire about the end users of their products.

BIS publishes a best practices guidance on its website that alerts companies to the diversionary tactics of sensitive technologies being used by China, Hong Kong, Russia, Iran, and, most recently, Pakistan. BIS runs the Guardian Program to stop diversions before they occur by providing real-time warnings to U.S. companies about illicit procurement attempts.

Our Export Control Officer program involves Special Agents stationed in seven embassies around the globe to work with U.S. companies that suspect diversionary tactics among buyers. These Export Control Officers are in Beijing, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, New Delhi, Singapore, Istanbul, and Dubai. I encourage you to seek them out whenever they can be helpful to you.

Commerce also has teamed with the Departments of State and Treasury to create a Consolidated Screening List of bad actors engaged in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. And we’re also defending American companies impacted adversely by illegal foreign trade practices. The Enforcement and Compliance Division within Commerce has initiated 187 new antidumping and countervailing duty investigations since the start of the Trump administration. This is a 240 percent increase over the comparable period of the previous administration.

We also have had major involvement with protecting our citizens against China’s two major telecom producers, Huawei and ZTE. I am genuinely frightened by what we have learned from our investigations of them.

No longer is the guy wearing a broad-brimmed hat, a trench coat and sunglasses and carrying a folded newspaper what you have to worry about for espionage. Instead, it is now a new virtually invisible spot on a semiconductor, or a code buried deeply in your network or phone software. There also is the geopolitical hacker. And, there are stealthy armed drones and biological and radiological devices to inflict harm. Finally, there is an appalling growth in both professional terrorists and lone wolf shooters. 

You already have an overwhelmingly difficult task that will become even more daunting as these things unfold. I know that you are up to the job. I also know that no one really notices security until there is a breach. Therefore, on behalf of everyone you help to protect, I congratulate your unsung efforts. Thank you very much.