Spy case prompts Pentagon to tighten leash on high-tech secrets

The latest Silicon Valley spy caper illustrates the Reagan administration's contention that the Soviet Union can get valuable military technology by buying, stealing, or simply picking up information that's freely available.

In the wake of the recent episode - in which an engineer is charged with selling secret documents about US missile capabilities to Polish intelligence agents - the Pentagon and the White House are reviewing controls on sensitive information. This review, which began before the California case broke, is expected to result in a further crackdown on the availability of even unclassified data that have potential military worth.

A Defense Department task force this week will send up the chain of bureaucratic command its part of what one official calls ''great squads'' of recommendations from several agencies which will be molded into an administration position.

This may include: putting new restrictions on the Freedom of Information Act; making defense firms and those who receive Defense Department grants legally responsible for documents relating to Pentagon business; and restricting access to certain sensitive scientific and technological conferences.

''There's a lot of concern about technology transfer [to the East bloc] . . . in both the classified and unclassified area,'' says a Pentagon official.

At the same time, Congress this week is considering what form a new Export Administration Act should take. The law, which allows the President to control militarily sensitive trade, expired earlier this month. Some members of the House of Representatives and Senate want to lift some export controls. Others, citing the shooting down of the South Korean airliner, argue against making advanced technology more readily available to Moscow.

President Reagan is resisting what he fears could be a lessening of his authority in this area, and he has meanwhile invoked emergency economic powers to continue export control regulations until a new law is enacted.

Officials say the problem of controlling technology transfer is growing more serious as weapons - and especially their command and control - become more high-tech.

''The task is now more difficult than it once was because of changes over the past several years in the relationship between technology and military capabilities,'' said Talbot S. Lindstrom, deputy undersecretary of defense for international programs and technology, to the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year.

''As an example, technology through 'smart weapons' has improved accuracy and lethality by orders of magnitude,'' Mr. Lindstrom said. ''However, the export control difficulty stems from the reliance of military systems on the widely used civilian commercial technologies which are often more advanced beyond those currently deployed in military systems.''

Among other things, the administration has been trying to expand the Military Critical Technologies List (which already includes such things as spacecraft, heavy vehicles, and chemical and biological technologies), eliminate the backlog of license applications for dual-use (military and civilian) products and technology, and prevent the passing along of sensitive data by noncommunist nations to communist countries. With the new efforts here, this apparently is now to include more unclassified information as well.

The Defense Investigative Service oversees some 12,500 companies with 1.3 million employees under government contract. These range from defense giants like Lockheed and Boeing to small consultant firms and subcontractors.

With a staff of about 3,500, this Pentagon office clears company officers for access to classified data, then clears any employees necessary. Several times a year, investigators - often unannounced - will check physical plant, employees, and documents for security breaches.

For now, officials say there have been no changes to control and investigative procedures as a result of the recent spy case. This could change, however, as concern over the potential for similar incidents grows.

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