Stop propping up Russia with US exports

One of the ironies of this decade is that the greatest peril for American security comes from the application of our own scientific and technical expertise to the Soviet war machine. That expertise has been bought, diverted, or stolen from the United States and its allies despite the best efforts of our export control system.

Western goods, services, and technology have aided the Soviet military in three broad ways:

First, by transferring know-how for weapons systems the Soviets did not possess, saving them billions of dollars in research and development, as well as making up for gaps in Soviet technology.

Second, by giving the Soviets knowledge about Western weapons systems, allowing them to develop countermeasures, thereby undermining the Western qualitative edge in armaments that has been our defense against Soviet-bloc qualitative superiority.

Third, by facilitating overall Soviet economic growth, allowing the Soviets to have both guns and butter.

The export problem is structural in nature. There is an inherent contradiction in assignments within the principal US agency charged with the export control function - the Commerce Department, which is assigned both the task of export control and that of export promotion. This makes it improbable that there can be any long-lasting reconciliation that will provide the adequate emphasis and resources necessary for the Office of Export Administration to carry out its responsibilities under the export control laws.

The Department of Commerce's inspector general conducted an investigation and issued a report in June 1982 that highlights this problem. It concluded that the failure of the Commerce Department to rectify inadequacies in its export administration operations ''raised serious questions about the department's commitment to, and ability to enforce, the Export Administration Act of 1979.''

This is not hard to understand. The pressure at the Commerce Department, because of its very nature, is toward export promotion. No one applauds a Commerce Department official when exports are controlled, but that same official is likely to be praised for his wisdom when export licenses are granted. The present institutional incentives upset the balance called for under the law.

As currently administered, export controls serve neither our commercial, our strategic, nor our foreign policy needs. Controls are confusing, incoherently administered, shortsighted, and ineffective. At times the Commerce Department spends inordinate resources examining inconsequential exports while truly sensitive items receive little more than cursory review.

For two years, a Soviet cover organization purchased $10.5 million worth of controlled US high technology. The Commerce Department, with knowledge of this activity, failed to take any steps to stop the illegal transfer. Apparently the department's resources were tied up in trying to reduce a backlog of thousands of routine and unnecessary export applications. This creates the worst of both worlds, undermining both American export performance and security.

Export administration must be removed from the Commerce Department and given to an independent agency that has the priority and bureaucratic insulation to balance and coordinate input from the departments of government involved in export control.

We need an agency that is captive of no special constituency. That includes being free from the excessive influence of the Department of Defense. We need an agency with the stature and bureaucratic insulation to carry out fully all of the purposes of the export control statutes.

The director of this agency should be a member of the National Security Council, with direct access to the President. With this stature the agency would be able to provide comprehensive planning and evaluation of overall strategy to address our technology leakage problem.

The existence of such an agency, with its high-level coordination and bureaucratic efficiency, would have provided us with the early warning and timely action that would have avoided many of the frictions caused by our efforts to block the Soviet natural gas pipeline long after contracts were signed and shipments made. Free from the ambiguity currently existing at the Commerce Department, such an agency would also provide more timely processing of export licenses.

Next year the Export Administration Act will expire. A proposal to replace the current structure with an independent office of strategic trade will be a major part of the debate over the act's renewal. Well it should be, given the inherent weakness and failures of the Commerce Department.

We will be successful at halting the flow of high technology to the Soviet bloc without undue harm to our economic interests only when we devote the effort to the clear, timely enforcement of export controls that the Soviets devote to circumventing them. And that will not happen as long as export control and export promotion are continually confused within the same agency.

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