THE flurry of news reports alleging improper Israeli technology transfers is disturbing not only for the stories' contents, but also for their damaging effects on United States officials and US allies without any public airing of the evidence.
The public version of State Department Inspector General Sherman Funk's report on defense trade controls is a case in point. The audit itself provides absolutely no proof of unauthorized Israeli activity, referring instead to other "reports" of "significant" Israeli violations. However, an interagency intelligence review, working from much of the same intelligence available to Mr. Funk, found that "almost all" of the reports of Israeli violations "were not credible." The bottom line is that, to date, no report of Israeli violations has been publicly substantiated.
Nonetheless, accounts continue to surface about improper Israeli transfers of technology and equipment. On April 8, the Washington Times reported yet another leaked intelligence report. This time two Chinese diplomats supposedly told Americans that Israel had transferred Patriot technology to China. This new leak was almost certainly intended to counter the clean bill of health on the Patriot affair issued to Israel by the State Department on April 2.
Without seeing the evidence, it is impossible for Israel or for American officials impugned in the press to definitively refute the charges or for objective observers to judge their credibility.
Like many such narrowly focused audits, the Funk report fails to put the issue of technology transfers into proper context. Unfortunately, technology theft among allies is commonplace. But even during the height of the cold war, the US did little to pursue tough export controls. Given Israel's policy of sharing much of its own technology with the US, it would have been natural for the Bush administration to overlook alleged Israeli violations - as it had overlooked many other infractions by NATO allies a nd sales of sensitive technology to states like Iraq.
But that is not what happened. When he took office in 1989, Richard Clarke, the current assistant secretary of state for politico-military affairs, significantly improved enforcement of export controls. He reorganized the relevant office, implemented new procedures, and fought for additional staff.
Mr. Clarke also sought to insure that Israel was fully complying with US law. He did not pass the buck; instead, he personally discussed the matter with senior Israeli officials to privately work out appropriate procedures - behavior fully in keeping with the way the State Department deals with close friends.
YET some intelligence agencies - perhaps unaware of Clarke's activities - concluded that they had been ignored by the State Department; moreover, animosity through much of the bureaucracy to the hard-driving Clarke is well known in Washington. The combination contributed to the harsh tone of the inspector general's report.
Funk claims that Clarke should be disciplined for failing to take appropriate action to stem supposed Israeli violations and that he failed to make appropriate reports of these breaches to Congress. While Funk's exhortations have received extensive press coverage, little attention was paid to the fact that no other State Department official has yet supported his position. The legal adviser's office opposed disciplining Clarke for failing to take action "required neither by law, regulation, nor department
policy," and questioned whether the intelligence community had reached any definitive conclusions about alleged Israeli violations.
In his own defense, Clarke pointed to the actions his bureau had taken to deal with potential Israeli violations - holding up licenses, negotiating agreements, and arranging an outreach program to explain US regulations to Israeli exporters.
What is clear from this episode is that any story - no matter how flimsy - about Israeli or American malfeasance with respect to arms exports will be judged newsworthy by the media.
It is indeed sad to see how easy it is for those who have never worked in the foreign policy arena to besmirch the reputations of honest officials given the unenviable task of enforcing complex export regulations while preserving alliance relationships.