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Government control over private arms exports is lax, allowing hundreds of questionable shippers to join in the $33 billion annual sale of U.S. weapons abroad, congressional investigators say.

"It is apparent that the highest priority at State is the quick processing of arms export licenses," said Sen. David Pryor, D-Ark., in a prepared statement for a Senate hearing on the exports.The State and Commerce departments issued 847 licenses over three years to parties whose eligibility to sell arms abroad should have been more closely scrutinized because they were on "watchlists," said a report released Wednesday by the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm.

It said the State and Commerce departments have failed to include all relevant names on the lists, which include convicted felons or parties who have past involvement in questionable export practices such as proliferation of nuclear or missile technology.

Pryor noted that U.S. arms exports have tripled since 1991 and said the latest data show that the United States accounts for more than half of all arms exports to the Third World.

While most of the exports are handled by the Defense Department under the Foreign Military Sales Program, he said, the State Department receives 50,000 applications a year for private munitions exports. Pryor said only 5 percent are denied.

"We still are not fully checking to see if only legitimate companies are obtaining these licenses," he said.

In addition to the licenses issued to people or companies on the lists, investigators came up with 224 licenses the government had issued to 15 parties that the GAO report said should have been on the agencies' lists.

The State Department, in a written response to the report, said it agreed with much of the GAO's analysis and was already implementing most of its recommendations. The Commerce Department had a similar response.

The agencies pointed out, however, that the purpose of watchlists was not necessarily to exclude companies or individuals on the lists from licenses.