Technology: Beyond Fortress America

SAN FRANCISCO — The United States is shooting itself in the foot with outmoded rules to stop the export of sensitive technologies, according to a new report from the National Research Council. The 97-page document, titled "Beyond Fortress America," says that an export control regime designed during the Cold War has become a "technological Maginot Line" that puts U.S. companies and research universities at a disadvantage in a global technological race in which we are no longer the undisputed leader.

"Traditionally, the United States had to worry about science and technology flowing out of the country," the report says. "In today's conditions, the U.S. must make sure that advanced science and technology flow into the country." (Emphasis in the original.)

The report, compiled by academic, industrial and national security leaders including Stanford President John Hennessy, Silicon Valley entrepreneur John Gage and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, was conceived in the waning days of the Bush administration and published shortly before Barack Obama's inauguration. It urges the new president to simplify export controls by executive order and tweak the visa system to make it easier for non-U.S. scientists and engineers to work in the United States.

"Almost all of these serious problems can be corrected with one Executive Order from the President," the report concludes, urging that this be "one of the first orders of business."

There is no indication yet that Obama is eager, with one stroke of a pen, to stir up two controversies — the long and unresolved dispute over tech exports with potential military relevance and a newer but divisive debate over importing scientists and engineers from outside the United States.

Both of these issues bedeviled the Clinton administration, which faced high-tech pressure to relax restrictions on the export of high-performance computers, and allow the import of more foreign-born engineers under temporary work visas.

The NRC report summarizes both of these controversies through a lens that treats current policies as anachronisms.

The expert panel examined three strata of export controls, two of which received minor critiques while the third was deemed most problematic. The committee did not quarrel with long-standing restrictions on the sales of weapons and munitions, although it suggested some streamlining. Likewise the panelists agreed with the need for export controls on technologies with a direct application to nuclear research, again with some caveats.

The report focused its critique on the third strata of export controls, those placed on dual-use technologies that appear in civilian products but have the potential for military use. This huge gray area of the global economy includes everything from communications advances that might be used to coordinate terror attacks to biotechnology tools that could be misdirected to create bioweapons.

The panel argues that current U.S. export controls on dual-use technologies ignore that there is little distinction nowadays between civilian and military breakthroughs. "By 2000, except for small but important niches in the military sector, components for both military applications and the commercial market were drawn from the same technology base," the report notes.

But the U.S. continues making long lists of dual-use technologies, forcing U.S. firms to jump through export control hoops when foreign competitors often operate without similar controls. "Unilateral restrictions can be effective only for the limited number of items for which the U.S. is the sole supplier, or where it has overwhelming market dominance," the report says, adding, "While the United States remains a world leader in advanced science and technology, it no longer dominates; it is now among the leaders." (Emphasis in the original.)

To improve the system, the panel urges the President to create a new export control office, inside the National Security Council, to coordinate the separate export-licensing activities of the Departments of State and Commerce. It also seeks the creation of an appeals board of active or retired judges to resolve deadlocks. On the visa front the report wants an executive order to include measures such as making it easier for foreign-born scientists and engineers who earn advanced degrees at U.S. universities to obtain temporary or permanent work status.

The report acknowledges that export controls on dual-use technologies have been so controversial that "for most of the last 20 years, the executive and the legislative branches . . . have failed to come to agreement — either internally or with each other." Amid this gridlock the current rules have been shaped by a series of executive orders, which tightened markedly in the Bush administration.

How far and how fast Obama will go in reversing the Bush approach remains to be seen. But the fact these policies have been largely controlled by executive fiat means the new administration cannot help but put its mark on the export controversy.