March 7, 2000
Our National security nightmare

Frank Gaffney Jr. 

     When the final net assessment is performed on the immense harm done to U.S. national security by the Clinton-Gore administration, the cause of the most grievous, long-term damage may come as a surprise: The most serious and enduring harm may prove to have resulted from the systematic, purposeful and wholesale dismantling of U.S. export-control mechanisms and multilateral arrangements that until 1992 governed the transfer of militarily-relevant or "dual use" technologies. 

     The question that is now arising is whether this evisceration of U.S. export controls will be attributable solely to Clinton administration machinations? Or will certain Republican lawmakers — even some with conservative credentials —now looking to captains of industry for campaign contributions give invaluable political cover to Al Gore with respect to one of his greatest vulnerabilities? 

     As things stand now, the vice president is fully and uniquely implicated in the practice of giving priority to politically influential companies' desire for short-term profits in overseas markets, without regard for the larger national interest. This practice has jeopardized the U.S. military's qualitative edge — the access to superior technology that allows U.S. armed forces to fight and prevail even when substantially outnumbered. 

     In addition, as successive reports performed or commissioned by Congress (notably, those produced over the past two years by the House select committee chaired by Rep. Chris Cox and blue-ribbon panels chaired by former Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld and former CIA Director John Deutch) have documented, eased access to sophisticated U.S. equipment and know-how is giving rise to unprecedented new threats to national security from developing nations and even subnational groups. 

     Given this record, it is stupefying that the Senate is expected this week to consider legislation that would greatly compound this problem. Were this bill — the Export Administration Act (EAA) (S.1712) — actually to pass unchanged, moreover, the Republican-led Congress would become fully implicated in what is, arguably, the Clinton-Gore administration's most reprehensible act of purposeful malfeasance. 

     It is noteworthy that this legislation is being brought to the Senate floor over the strenuous objections of all four authorizing committees with jurisdiction over national security matters: the Senate Armed Services, Foreign Relations, Intelligence and Governmental Affairs committees. As recently as Feb. 29, the chairmen of these four committees (Republican Sens. John Warner of Virginia, Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Richard Shelby of Alabama and Fred Thompson of Tennessee, respectively), together with six other influential committee or subcommittee chairmen (Republican Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona, Pat Roberts of Kansas, James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire, Connie Mack of Florida and Orrin Hatch of Utah), wrote Majority Leader Trent Lott warning that "S.1712 fails to protect U.S. national security interests" and opposing consideration of the EAA "at this time." 

     The reasons for such opposition are not hard to divine. This legislation is designed to make it exceedingly difficult — if not, as a practical matter, impossible — to impose export controls on strategically sensitive technologies. Months of behind-the-scenes negotiations by these legislators and their staff with the EAA's proponents, primarily Texas Republican Sen. Phil Gramm's Banking Committee, have to date left such serious problems as the following uncorrected: 

     * S.1712 would confirm in law the Clinton practice of precluding executive branch agencies responsible for national security from exercising real influence over the export control process. For instance, the Commerce Department will have, for all intents and purposes, sole authority over which technologies are subjected to high-tech transfer restrictions. The bill would also confer on the Banking Committee sole jurisdiction for areas clearly within the purview of other Senate committees charged with oversight of the defense, foreign policy and intelligence portfolios. 

     * The bill unduly restricts the circumstances under which export controls can be imposed. This is done to such an extent that the next president may be hamstrung should he believe, unlike the incumbent, that the transfer of certain dual-use U.S. technology should be blocked from going to undesirable end-users. 

     It would, for example, be illegal to do so if would-be exporters claim that foreign competitors can offer a comparable product. (Under S.1712, another loophole would be created if the product is not available overseas but is widely available domestically.) If the EAA were in force, the president would be prohibited from blocking the export unless he could establish both that U.S. security would be harmed and that foreign availability can be eliminated via multilateral controls in under 18 months — neither of which are likely to be demonstrable in advance. 

     In an important address to the Heritage Foundation on Friday, one of those most concerned about this defective legislation, Sen. Thompson, declared: "We need strong, principled leadership from the president and Congress on these national security matters. We can start by passing an Export Administration Act that balances trade with national security — as opposed to the current, proposed legislation that would loosen [export controls] further than has the Clinton administration." 

     The nation may long suffer the consequences of the Clinton-Gore team's failure to strike such a balance. It seems equally certain that neither the "common defense" nor Republican electoral prospects will be advanced if the Senate disregards the judgment of Mr. Thompson and its other experts on national security in an effort to outpander the vice president for the contributions and support of high-tech businesses determined to sell their wares without regard for the dangers such sales might entail for the rest of us. 

     Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.