When commerce goes high-stakes

The US military said last week that it had destroyed a half-dozen satellite-jamming devices that could have aided Iraq in the war. Washington attributed the sale of the devices, and other equipment, to Russian firms.

Russia denied the charge, cleared its throat, and fired back that it was concerned about press reports that an Anglo-Dutch consortium had sold to Iran - a country some in the West call a rogue - centrifuges that could be used to prep uranium for nuclear weapons.

The action in the Byzantine, back-door-dealing world of global commerce can rise quickly toward crisis level during times of major international strife.

Caught in head-butting incidents like those cited above, governments and companies alike sometimes fall back on the "dual-use" defense.

That's where it becomes handy not to know exactly what happens with products or materials after they clear your borders. Just one place where business ethics - everyday ethics slightly complicated by the profit motive - can become as murky as a desert sandstorm.

If, for example, an upstanding American or British firm sells a perfectly legal chemical that's also known to be a "precursor" for the nerve agent sarin, should that firm sell it to a friendly nation known to have trade ties with a country that might want nerve gas on its shelf?

The way boardrooms address questions like that - ones with implications for the security of the planet, along with the bottom line - might eventually be monitored much more closely.

Already, with accounting more tightly regulated, some would-be reformers of the corporate world are pushing for more voluntary disclosure across a broadening range of issues. Our lead story explains.

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