Philadelphia Inquirer: Inside Moves
Sunday, May 13, 1984
Cracking down on transfer of high technology to the Soviets
By Steve Twomey
Inquirer Staff Writer
PARIS - Exactly what was going on last week at 58 Rue de la Boetie, on the second floor behind a code locked steel door, was not something anybody wanted to say a whole lot about.
The West Germans politely refused. "We have quite strict rules on this," one said. "I'm very sorry." The Dutch said any other subject but that one: "The Western nations don't talk about it."
The British were not returning local telephone calls.
And the Americans who owned the innocuous-looking edifice on a small courtyard told a visitor to please go away immediately or they would be forced to call out the Marines.
What these and other Western allies were doing on the Rue de la Boetie was making their next moves in the highly sensitive and increasingly tense East-West game of "Keep Away."
As in "Keep high technology away from the Russians."
Until the Reagan administration, CoCom actually had been a rather sleepy organization. Founded shortly after World War II, it had not held a high-level meeting in 25 years.
When Reagan took office, the United States asked for such a meeting, the Commerce Department official said, and "we were able to lay on the table before our CoCom allies evidence that our intelligence community had gathered about leaks and to show weaknesses in the CoCom system."
The official declined to discuss the intelligence reports in detail. But she acknowledged that "we get a lot of feedback from the business community about seeing controlled items and equipment in the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc."
With its Western allies, though, the administration has encountered two problems in getting tough.
One is the Export Administration Act of 1979, under which the United States claims the right to approve any sale of sensitive goods anywhere if it involves U.S. products. In other words, a U.S. computer sold to a British company cannot be resold to, say, a French company without U.S. approval.
The British find this idea of extraterritoriality too much - "repugnant," in the words of the London official - because it infringes on British sovereignty and law.
The Act is before Congress for renewal, and the British have been lobbying for changes.
The second problem is the insistence by the Reagan administration, particularly the Defense Department, on including on the controlled list small, openly available items such as home computers. The Commerce official candidly sided with the British argument that to restrict these products only hurts Western businesses by denying them sales.
Even the State Department official acknowledged that "you can buy all kinds of stuff by mail order that's on the list. If mail order hasn't occurred to the Russians, I'd be surprised.
But he defended tough controls even on these items because such products can have military applications and it is worthwhile to at least slow down their acquisition by the Soviet Bloc.
"It delays the arrival of the stuff, allowing us to maintain or increase our lead in critical technology," he said. "It's not a matter of indifference whether they figure out how to do something the next day or the next year."