Washington counters Soviet pilfering of its high-tech know-how
AMERICA'S counteroffensive against Soviet efforts to acquire strategic United States high technology is beginning to make a dent in what has been called the ''massive'' flow of Western goods and know-how to the Soviet Union.Skip to next paragraph
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The US push, begun in 1981 under the name Operation Exodus, has shifted into high gear in recent months. The nationwide effort has included the use of front organizations and sting operations to snare potential technology smugglers.
The results have made recent headlines:
* Last month, a federal judge fined a Swedish computer firm, Datasaab Contracting AB, $3.12 million for secretly selling the Soviets US radar and computer equipment. The equipment permitted the Soviets to upgrade their civilian air-traffic radar system, enabling it to detect US manned bombers and coordinate air attacks on West Europe.
* Federal agents in early April arrested members of an alleged computer smuggling operation that included companies in Arizona, New Hampshire, Canada, and Switzerland. The operation was said to have transshipped computers to Soviet-bloc nations without requisite export licenses.
* In January, two Americans in San Francisco were charged with shipping $170, 000 worth of high-tech equipment including minilaser range finders to the Soviet Union, Libya, and Cuba.
* Customs officials in Sweden and West Germany last November halted shipments of $1.5 million in advanced computer equipment which they said were headed illegally for the Soviet Union. The equipment had originally been shipped to South Africa with a valid export license. The VAX 11/782 computer system would have assisted in the Soviet manufacture of integrated circuits.
''We have been really pleased in the last few months,'' says William Rudman, director of the Customs Service's strategic investigations division. ''We've been told by the Defense Department and the intelligence community that we are having an impact.''
The impact has come about in part through the mobilization of many of the Customs Service's 900 special agents and the Commerce Department's 44 investigators. They have primarily targeted Soviet and East-bloc efforts to steal, smuggle, or divert US high technology.
''Probably 95 percent of our cases involve third-country diversion,'' says Mr. Rudman. He says the increased number of diversion cases shows that the Soviets have been forced to work harder and invest more time and money to acquire illicitly US technology than they did in the past.
''We know that we will never stop the outflow of critical US technology completely, but our goal is to slow the Soviets down,'' Rudman says.
The increased investigative activity includes a system of identifying from intelligence reports what goods and technologies the Soviets are seeking. Federal agents then try to head them off at the pass by monitoring US companies capable of supplying such goods and technologies.
In some instances, front organizations have been established by undercover federal agents to lure black-market businessmen into the open. Customs agents have also posed as free-lance businessmen trading in banned high-tech goods. In other cases, federal agents have infiltrated legitimate businesses - with the knowledge of one or two corporate executives - in an effort to expose Soviet or other approaches to corporate officials.
There are a few tip-offs that investigators use to help detect potential technology diversions. For instance, when the supposed end-users of technological equipment refuse the standard offer of free installation by the selling company it is considered a good indicator that the equipment may be slated for illicit diversion to another country.
Customs officials say another tip-off can be the type of packing used. If a shipment marked as a domestic US delivery is packed in special ''salt-free'' packing, which protects electronics from sea-air contamination, there is reason to suspect the cargo may ultimately be heading out of the country.
Since the beginning of Operation Exodus there have been 3,182 seizures of high-tech goods that were on their way illicitly out of the country. They are valued at $191 million, according to Customs officials. More than twice that number of shipments have been detained because they were suspected of being illegally exported.
DURING the same period the number of export-related cases has increased from a few during the 1970s to 13 individuals convicted in 1982 and 21 individuals convicted in 1983, according to Justice Department statistics.