Plan to Ease U.S. High-Tech Export Controls Unveiled


The Clinton Administration unveiled a plan Thursday to relax U.S. controls on high-technology exports, making it easier for U.S. companies to sell computers, communications gear and other sophisticated equipment overseas.

Those most likely to benefit from the plan are U.S. high-technology exporters and East European nations that until recently had Communist governments.

The plan, put together by the departments of Defense, State, Commerce and Energy, is the first major revision of the government’s export controls in 15 years. Congressional approval is required before it can take effect.


Under the proposal, multinational groups would be given a larger role in determining which sensitive technologies would remain under the control of the United States and its major Western trading partners. The licensing procedure would be streamlined and the authority of U.S. government officials to withhold licenses would be sharply reduced.

Business groups complained that the plan does not go far enough in easing export limits that make U.S. products non-competitive with those manufactured by foreign companies. But critics concerned about the spread of militarily sensitive technology said it would make it easier for such renegade nations as North Korea to obtain machinery and materials needed for the manufacture of missiles and nuclear weapons.

Administration officials, defending their proposal, said they were trying to remove “needless burdens” imposed on exporters while strengthening the government’s ability to stop the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

“We believe the legislation strikes the critical balance that is much needed between non-proliferation concerns and economic concerns,” Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown said.

The proposal will “get rid of obsolete Cold War controls that had no impact on non-proliferation” of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, said Barry Carter, acting undersecretary of commerce for export administration.

Under the plan, limits would be removed or reduced on the export of most computers, other than those considered to be supercomputers, and as much as $30-billion worth of computers would be made available for sale abroad without export licenses.


Controls on the export of composite materials used in rocketry, microelectronics and highly specialized machine tools would remain, but procedures for obtaining permission to export them would be streamlined, officials said.

Roughly 20% to 25% of the companies holding export licenses are based in California, the National Assn. of Manufacturers says.

Reflecting the potentially controversial nature of the plan, President Clinton was said to have delayed until the last moment his approval of the decision limiting the government’s hand in issuing export licenses while balancing Pentagon pressure to retain certain controls with Commerce Department efforts to open up markets for U.S. products.

Asked about the Pentagon and Commerce Department views, Brown said: “There are always discussions on these issues.” He said he had spent “a good deal of time” with Clinton on Wednesday evening working out a balance between the two departments’ positions.

The international organization to which such export licensing decisions have been handed in the past is known as the Coordinating Committee on Export Controls, which is composed of members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, along with Japan and Australia. The U.S. government, however, retained control over licensing all but generally unsophisticated technology with little if any military applications.

The committee was established in 1949 to coordinate export policies and prevent the Soviet bloc from obtaining potentially useful military technology from the West. It is scheduled to cease existence March 31.


“There is no agreement on any successor regime,” said Stephen Bryen, who oversaw export control issues at the Pentagon during the Ronald Reagan Administration.

Predicting that the relaxed rules would hasten the flow of weapons technology to outlaw nations, he said: “If you’re (Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein or North Korea, this is all great news.”

Administration officials said three organizations, two of which would include Russia and one of which would include China, would be given the responsibilities for keeping sensitive equipment out of the hands of “outlaw nations.” They said strict limits would be placed on the ability of U.S. government agencies to impose their own restrictions on such exports.

Among other steps, the Administration’s proposal would:

* Expand the rights of industry to seek the elimination of controls on the export of sensitive technology if such limits would place U.S. companies at a disadvantage with foreign manufacturers.

* Guarantee that decisions on granting licenses would be made within 90 days. If that schedule could not be met, they would be referred to the President.

* Mandate a “clearer and more complete statement” spelling out why controls are imposed on specific products.


Complaining that these steps are insufficient, Howard Lewis, vice president of the National Assn. of Manufacturers, said: “It sure isn’t going to help. It doesn’t represent the type of fundamental reform we thought needs to take place.”

With the Central Intelligence Agency under instructions from its director to pay greater attention to international industrial espionage and the renewal of attention being paid to Russian spying after the arrest of a longtime CIA employee on charges of spying for Moscow, a senior Administration official acknowledged that the program is being unveiled at an inopportune moment.

“We are flying off into a future we can only appreciate very dimly,” he said. He said, however, that the timing was dictated by the expiration in June of the 1979 Export Administration Act and by the Administration’s desire to rewrite the old laws rather than extend them for a year as was done last June.