Screening high-tech exports

THE give-and-take process of democracy appears to be working in producing a reasonable answer to a thorny question: How much control should government have over the export of high-tech American products, such as computers?

In this internationally competitive product area, US firms should be permitted as much latitude as possible in marketing their newest computers and other electronic equipment.

Yet some of this equipment has the potential for great military use. For the national security of the US it is obviously important that reasonable efforts be made to keep this technology out of the hands of Soviet-bloc nations and any other potential adversaries.

Most Americans working on the issue agree with both points. The disagreement arises over the question of balance: What is the proper degree of government surveillance to permit US computer manufacturers maximum trade freedom, while at the same time restricting Soviet access to American technology?

What makes this such a difficult decision is that it is extremely difficult to tell at first glance whether computers shipped from the US to several nations in fact will wind up there - or will be reshipped to the Soviet Union. Last year , for example, a computer said to have major military applications was sent from the US to Sweden; there it was seized by Swedish authorities, who said it was bound for the USSR. So far as could be determined the American manufacturer was not aware of the ultimate destination. The US had been pressuring European nations to take such stiff action or risk losing access themselves to advanced American technology.

Two months ago the Reagan administration proposed regulations to require that , in the case of many computer exports, American manufacturers find out from overseas purchasers whether the computers were to be reshipped to another buyer - and, if so, the purchaser's identity. American firms protested vigorously that such a move would harm exports.

Late last week the administration issue a new set of export controls that contain some compromise. The Pentagon now will be permitted to review proposed shipments of high techology at the same time the Commerce Department is considering whether to grant an export license. Previously the Pentagon could not examine such requests until the Commerce Department had made its decision.

Under the new controls the Pentagon thus would be more likely to be able to prevent the export of technology which appeared likely to fall into Soviet hands.

At the same time, permitting both departments to review the planned export simultaneously would aid trade by permitting exports to be made more quickly.

In any case, it needs to be realized that denying the Soviets access to the latest American exports will only slow down their acquiring the technology.

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