The Dangerous Domino Effect of Campaign Contributions

Some lessons you may not have learned in Civics 101: When business interest clashes with human rights interest, business generally wins. When business interest clashes with national security interest, the game gets more complicated. When decision-making is shifted from the security-minded State and Defense Departments to the trade-minded Commerce Department, you know who's winning. In a campaign year, factor in political contributions.

President Clinton was probably more candid than he meant to be when he said, in a White House briefing on March 6, "I don't believe you can find any evidence of the fact that I changed a government policy solely because of a contribution."

Of course, there were other considerations.

Two American aerospace firms, which had more satellites than launch capacity, shared an interest with the Chinese aerospace industry in being able to launch American commercial satellites atop Chinese military missiles. The trouble was that the Chinese, having crashed one American satellite, needed a better missile guidance system, which America had. State and Defense maintained that this technology could be converted to military uses, and, anyway China was still subject to sanctions for previous diversion of technology to Pakistan. Like previous presidents, Mr. Clinton issued a couple of waivers, meaning exceptions, and then he turned over decision-making to the more amenable Commerce Department.

Whether his motive was trade expansion "uber alles" or "solely" campaign contributions, the Justice Department is trying to figure out in a preliminary inquiry that could result in the appointment of an independent counsel.

If there was a quid pro quo of campaign money for bending the arms export rules, that would be a crime. If there was knowing acceptance of a foreign contribution, that would be another crime.

But equally important is measuring the impact of this transfer of sensitive technology on the nuclear arms race in Asia.

Was India's decision to proceed with nuclear testing influenced by fear of the enhancement of China's - and perhaps Pakistan's capacity - to deliver a nuclear bomb?

If so, then Clinton has more to answer for than "solely" political contributions.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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