“Deemed Exports” and the Stirrings of a New Security Policy

U.S. government regulations that limit disclosures of certain scientific and technical information to foreign nationals — known as “deemed exports” — are obsolete and need to be replaced, according to a new advisory committee report (pdf).

More broadly, however, the new report reflects the growing realization that government secrecy policies have become counterproductive and need to be recalibrated to adapt to evolving technological and geopolitical realities.

“In this new world order, a nation that attempts to build a ‘wall’ around its scientific and technologic communities simply denies itself the opportunity to fully benefit from the vast body of knowledge being accumulated elsewhere – and thereby virtually assures itself of an inferior competitive position in the knowledge world,” the report states.

“With the important exception of a very few highly sensitive military areas, the United States is better served to partner in the global creation of knowledge than to attempt to protect the lesser body of knowledge that can be generated through purely domestic research efforts.”

“Stated otherwise, protecting what we know is in most instances not the primary concern; participating in creating that body of scientific and technical knowledge that is not known is the concern.”

While secrecy — “protecting what we know” — may still be the first instinct of those seeking to preserve the technological advantages enjoyed by the United States, the advisory committee concluded that this approach is no longer well-founded, if it ever was.

“The United States in the latter half of the 20th century was preeminent in many, probably most, fields of scientific and engineering endeavor. Today, the United States is but one among a number of nations or groups of nations competing for leadership across the spectrum of scientific and engineering disciplines. Just a few examples where other nations have already established leadership positions include polymer composites (Germany), 3D optical memories (Japan), bulk metallic glass (Japan), biostatistics/multivariate statistics (France), population biology (UK), adaptive dynamics (Germany/Switzerland), theoretical biology (Netherlands), and solar energy (Japan/Germany). Any nation today seeking to remain at the forefront of science and technology must be an active participant in the global science and technology community if it is to be successful.”

“In the evolving environment, unlike the recent past, denial of access to United States-possessed knowledge can often be circumvented simply by obtaining it from others.”

“The seemingly inescapable conclusion from these evolving circumstances is that the erection of high ‘walls’ around large segments of the nation’s science and engineering knowledge base has become not only increasingly impracticable, but that attempts to build such walls are likely to prove counterproductive – not only to America’s commercial prowess but also, in balance, to America’s ability to defend itself.”

“That is, the nation will be better served, in balance, by seeking to accelerate its own technical prowess than by seeking to deny potential enemies access to broad ranges of knowledge.”

Though focused specifically on “deemed exports” and disclosures of scientific information to foreign persons, this analysis has obvious implications for the national security classification system and other restrictive information security policies.

The advisory committee, chaired by Norman Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin, was composed of various luminaries from academia, the commercial sector and the national security community. Its findings were first reported by Paul Basken in the Chronicle of Higher Education on December 21.

See “The Deemed Export Rule in the Era of Globalization,” submitted to the Secretary of Commerce, December 20, 2007.

“Yes, disclosing information may cause damage,” said William Leonard of the Information Security Oversight Office in a valedictory interview with Newsweek this week. “But you know what, withholding that information may even cause greater damage… And I don’t think we [have] sufficiently taken that into account.”

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