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Defense & Security

U.S. to ease export control restrictions

SPIE Newsroom
30 August 2010

President Barack Obama is expected to announce on Tuesday that the United States will ease restrictions on exporting products with military applications, including many optical devices and aerospace technologies.

revisions to ITAR are expectedThe initiative, which has been a year in the making, responds to frustration felt by U.S. defense and high-tech companies, including SPIE members and constituents, who say export controls that date to the Cold War cost them billions of dollars in lost sales and have created barriers to U.S. science and technology leadership.

SPIE has long supported an overhaul of the U.S. export controls affecting U.S.-based industries and universities while recognizing U.S. security interests. "SPIE and our members in industry and academia strongly support and welcome reform of these regulations," says Eugene Arthurs, executive director of SPIE.

"Overly restrictive regulation on the export of dual-use technologies, visa issues, and the inconsistent interpretation and enforcement of the regulations has created business, educational, and research barriers to U.S. leadership in science and technology," he said. 

SPIE has previously urged an overhaul that would implement recommendations suggested in the 2009 Beyond Fortress America Report, issued by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences. The report concluded that national security controls are "broken" and that their misapplication and unintended consequences stifle "American engagement in the global economy and science."

The report called for ending outdated national security controls on U.S. exports of defense and civilian-military, dual-use technology, and products.

President Obama, in taped remarks to a Commerce Department conference on Tuesday, will discuss the steps his administration is taking to harmonize two separate export control lists -- the Commerce Control List run by the Commerce Department and the U.S. Munitions List overseen by the State Department.

In a briefing with reporters Monday, government officials said that U.S. agencies would revise their lists of items requiring export licenses to create a tiered system. It would distinguish between the "crown jewels" of military technology-such as stealth aircraft technology-and other more mundane and less sensitive items such as vehicle parts, display panels, and lenses. Such changes "will allow us to build higher walls around the most critical items to be exported, while allowing other items to be exported under less restrictive conditions," a senior administration official said in the briefing.

The current system was so inefficient, administration officials said, that the brake pads on a M1A1 tank are subject to restrictions, even though they are almost identical to pads for fire trucks that can be exported without a license.

The State Department on Friday also published a Proposed Rule in the Federal Register that would amend the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) to update the policies regarding end-user employment of dual nationals and third-country nationals.

SPIE has been a strong supporter of legislation to award green cards to immigrants who receive a PhD or master's degree in science, technology, engineering, or math from a U.S. university. The current "deemed export" rule, part of ITAR's Export Administration Regulations, prohibits the sharing of technical data with foreign nationals, even with students.

"If you convey technical data to a foreign person within the U.S., it's really the same as if you export that technical data to that person's home country," says Kerry Scarlott, partner at Posternak Blankstein & Lund in Boston (USA) who has taught several SPIE courses on complying with ITAR. In order to comply with this rule, most foreign nationals must go through a cumbersome process to receive a license to have access to U.S. defense technology, or not have access at all. Citizens of such countries as China, Iran, and Venezuela, are restricted from receiving such licenses.

In 2008, two University of Tennessee professors were convicted of illegally exporting sensitive information related to a U.S. Air Force research project on unmanned aerial vehicles. The professors had shared information and received assistance on the project from one Chinese and one Iranian graduate student. They said they thought that ITAR only applied to existing products.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has backed the reform initiative, saying in an April speech to the Business Executives for National Security that the bureaucratic system "does not serve our 21st-century security needs or our economic interests."

"The United States is thought to have one of the most stringent export regimes in the world," Gates said. "But stringent is not the same as effective. … It makes little sense to use the same lengthy process to control the export of every latch, wire, and lug nut for a piece of equipment like the F-16 when we have already approved the export of the whole aircraft."

In a recent opinion column for the Wall Street Journal, President Obama's national security adviser, Gen. Jim Jones, said: "Going forward, our goal is to focus our efforts on the most critical technologies and items needed to defend ourselves against current and anticipated threats, and to place more emphasis on protecting them effectively."

For more on the U.S. export control regulations: