Export Controls Now Threaten National Security, Panel Says

01.12.09 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Science and technology export controls that are rooted in Cold War geopolitical realities are now both anachronistic and counterproductive, a report from the National Research Council said last week.

“As currently structured, many of these controls undermine our national and homeland security and stifle American engagement in the global economy, and in science and technology,” the report said.

The authors called on the Obama Administration to promptly revise export control policies by issuing an executive order that affirms “a strong presumption for openness.” They urged that economic competitiveness be factored into export control decisions, that controls be reviewed annually and rescinded when they can no longer be justified, and that new procedures be established for adjudicating disputes. Perpetuation of existing policies, the report warned, would be “a self-destructive strategy for obsolence and declining economic competitiveness.”

The report makes a compelling case that current export control procedures and visa policies for foreign scientists are arbitrary, incoherent and even dangerous.  (Perhaps not coincidentally, export controls have also proved ineffective in preventing transfers of sensitive military technologies to Iran, as the Washington Post reported on January 11.)

By imposing ill-founded restrictions on technology exports, the report says the U.S. government not only reduces U.S. economic vitality but paradoxically stimulates sources of competing technology abroad.  “We are, in effect, actively nurturing foreign competitors for our own goods and services.”

The authors endorse the need to exercise controls on weapons, narrowly defined, as well as on classified technologies, and other particularly sensitive systems.  But they say any control on other technologies should be subject to review and removal every twelve months unless an affirmative case can be made to continue it for another year.

Visa policy is also seriously twisted, they explain, inhibiting collaboration with foreign experts and absorption of foreign students.  “Current law has the perverse effect of permitting foreign students to enter the United States only if they can prove to a consular officer’s satisfaction that they will take what they learn home with them…. [A]nyone who admits that he or she might want to stay in the United States and contribute to this country’s technological competitiveness must — by law — be denied entry.”

The report’s critique of controls on science and technology will seem familiar to students and critics of classification policy.  The outmoded premises, the unintended consequences and the sustained failure to achieve meaningful reform are common to both sets of problems.  And just as lists of technologies subject to export controls are infrequently updated so as to remove obsolete items from unnecessary controls, a large fraction of agency classification guides likewise go unreviewed, thereby perpetuating overclassification.

But while acknowledging that “the classification system needs an intensive review and overhaul,” the authors add that “that is not the subject of this report.”

The report criticizes “the marked inability of recent Congresses to address this issue” and therefore directs its recommendations to the incoming Obama Administration.  As if to confirm the authors’ skepticism about Congress, the House Science and Technology Committee said in a press release that the Committee “will be examining” the new report closely “over the coming months.”  But the authors aren’t asking for further examinations.  They want their recommendations implemented “as one of the first orders of business in January 2009.”

See “Beyond ‘Fortress America’: National Security Controls on Science and Technology in a Globalized World,” National Research Council, January 2009.