Washington — The whir and click of computers have never been louder. But joined with the rising hum of the high-tech revolution is a growing public outcry over the threats posed by foreign efforts - legal and illegal - to acquire US technology.
For its part, the Reagan administration seems to define the problem as strictly East-West in scope. In the interest of national security, it has set out to limit Soviet and Eastern bloc access to American high technology.
But other Americans see the nation's industrial competitors in Western Europe and Asia as also unfairly benefiting from US breakthroughs. Still others warn against overly strict export controls, saying that the US would lose more than it would gain through such measures. They argued that US leadership through achievement was the only practical course.
As the year ends, the notion that the US has suffered from illegal ''technology transfer'' has gained general agreement from leaders in business and academia, as well as government. ''Based on my personal experience and background, including prosecuting two cases on the West Coast,'' says Theodore Wu, the new head of the Commerce Department's Office of Export Enforcement, ''the problem is monumental. There is no doubt the rate of illegal technology exports is very high.''
''There's much more evidence (of high-technology espionage) than two or three years ago,'' agrees Jay BloomBecker, director of the National Center for Computer Crime Data in Los Angeles. ''Some of it is because more is going on. Some of it because government has taken more interest'' in the subject, he says.
Indeed, government agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Customs Service, and the Commerce Department have moved aggressively to combat leakage of strategically important technologies listed on the Defense Department's critical military-technologies list. At the same time, they have introduced programs to induce cooperation from businesses whose products may be the target of espionage.
Government officials seem particularly enthusiastic about the potential for businesses and citizens to help in the effort through heightened public awareness. Mr. Wu, the Commerce Department's highly regarded new deputy director , calls compliance by business with export regulations ''the first bulwark against the initial loss'' of technology. ''Prosecution and investigation are necessary, but they alone are not enough,'' he says.
For its part, the FBI has introduced a program it calls DECA (Development of Counterintelligence Awareness) in an effort to alert key industries to the threat of foreign espionage. The bureau's program has targeted 11,000 US companies that have ''secret or top secret'' contracts. At least one agent in each FBI field office works on the program. In addition to the ''most targetable'' companies, the FBI is expanding the program to include other firms dealing with emerging technologies, such as genetic engineering.
'High-tech research and development had been driven by the military, but since early '70s there's been a turnaround,'' says Lyle J. Theisen of the FBI's intelligence division. ''A lot of high-tech R&D is publicly available - a lot of sensitive information.
''We have been briefing security officials at the facilities, giving them background for talking to employees. Now we're getting into the briefing process ourselves. Employees like to hear our 'war stories.' Generally, they respond very favorably.''
When the FBI knows employees at a company have had contact with a foreign agent, Mr. Theisen says, the bureau works particularly closely with them. He declined to say how many companies have had employees contacted.
The contact also produces counterintelligence for the FBI. ''It's important for us to know what the hostile intelligence communities are after,'' Theisen says. ''If they're after a step higher laser than we thought, that tells us something.''
Although government officials say these attempts to gain cooperation from industry are essential, and largely successful, the use of police powers of investigation and seizure have grown, too. In particular, the US Customs Service's ''Operation Exodus'' has gained widespread publicity with its seizures of $53 million worth of classified equipment headed overseas in a recent 10 -month period.
''We're making it more difficult for them now,'' says Customs spokesman Dennis J. Murphy. Inspectors check suspicious cargo at ports to see that it is what the manifest claims it to be. In a West Coast seizure, for example, a ''chip scrubber'' - a high-tech product the Soviets have not been able to produce for themselves, was described as ''washing machine parts.''
Rollin Klink, acting director of Customs Office of Investigations, says far fewer mistakes are being made in detentions today because of more trained and experienced personnel. ''One and a half years ago we opened a crate at Dulles (airport outside Washington) that had electronic circuit boards, invoiced as valves,'' he recalls. ''It turned out to be electronic valves for a fertilizer factory. It was let go once we knew what it was.'' Today, a growing percentage of detentions lead to seizure of the shipment, an indication that agents are becoming more skillful.
Customs spokesman Murphy says manufacturers are being alerted to such techniques as ''second party'' sales. These occur when a domestic ''front'' company buys a product with the intent to reship it overseas. ''You should be suspicious if they ask for salt-free packaging or a different voltage, for example,'' he says.
Yet even with government tightening the valve on technological exports, it will be guesswork at best to decide if the flow has been cut, US officials say. They compare the problem to drug smuggling into the US. Since the size of the problem is unknown, it's hard to judge the success of efforts to fight it.
''There's a lot going out, but it would be just guessing to put numbers on it ,'' says Phillip Brady, a Customs special agent who heads the Operation Exodus program in Boston. ''We can put a dent in it. The idea is to push our technology lead [over the Soviets] back up to 8 to 10 years from 2 to 3 years. If we can stop spare parts, for example, that could lay them up for months searching for a supplier. That's all downtime for all that equipment.''
''We can make a reasonable showing,'' the Commerce Department's Wu agrees. ''But we're not going to stop all illegal trade.'' The results of US control efforts ''may not be telling until sometime downstream,'' he says. An increase in the US technology lead is not a reliable indicator by itself, he adds, because it may be the result of new research and development, not tighter security. And the number of prosecutions can be unreliable, too, since ''we don't know how much is going on.''
Although Sen. Jake Garn (R) of Utah and others have called for removing export control from the Commerce Department and the establishing of a centralized Office of Strategic Trade in the executive branch, Wu argues that this move is unnecessary.
''This is a relatively new subject for the federal government - really since about 1980,'' he says. ''I think the various agencies have not been aware. They haven't had the mentality to address this problem. The FBI, Customs, Defense, Commerce, we're all now getting on line.''
''There's plenty out there to do,'' he says. ''Enough for everyone. No one single agency can effectively address this problem.''
Next, how US industry responds