Satellite Exports: Nobody Was Overruled

Warren Christopher was secretary of State from 1993-97

In March 1996, President Clinton announced a decision to transfer responsibility from the State Department to the Commerce Department for licensing the export of commercial satellites. My role in that decision has become the subject of extensive media discussion, much of it confusing and misleading. Hence, I think it is important to look at the facts.

In October 1995, I was presented with the question of whether to agree to eliminate completely State Department licensing authority over commercial satellites by transferring it to the Commerce Department or, as had been recommended by an interagency committee, to retain State's licensing role over a category of commercial satellites employing more advanced technologies. I chose the latter option.

Whether State or Commerce should have licensing jurisdiction over commercial satellites is an issue that goes back to the Reagan and Bush administrations. Competing views on the matter rest on the differences between the missions and export regulatory regimes of each department.

Under the authority provided in the Arms Export Control Act, State has export licensing authority for items that are designed, developed or modified for military applications. Under the Export Administration Act, Commerce licenses most dual-use items--items with both commercial and military uses.

The objectives of the two systems differ. The Arms Export Control Act gives State the authority to use regulatory export controls primarily to protect U.S. national security. Under the Export Administration Act, on the other hand, Commerce weighs economic and trade interests along with national security and foreign policy concerns.

The Commerce Department objected to my conclusion that certain satellites should remain under State Department licensing jurisdiction and sought presidential review. The National Security Council then began--as it should have--a comprehensive interagency review aimed at developing a resolution. At the end of this process, I was satisfied that State would continue to play a significant role in commercial satellite licensing decisions and would have an opportunity to raise national security concerns to the highest level, notwithstanding that it would not be the licensing authority. My conclusion was based upon the recommendation of Lynn Davis, the highly regarded undersecretary of State for arms control and international security affairs, and senior Defense officials.

As the situation now stands, the Commerce Department cannot act unilaterally on an application to export a commercial communications satellite. Instead, every such export application requires evaluation for national security concerns by the State and Defense departments and by the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. If any of these reviewing authorities objects to a commercial satellite export proposed by Commerce, it can initiate a process that ultimately will bring conflicting views to the president.

When President Clinton decided to move the licensing authority to the Commerce Department, he did so with agreement by the interested parties, including the State Department. No one was overruled. The president's decision represented a melding of national security and business interests, a result advocated by the Bush administration as well as by American manufacturers involved in the satellite business.

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