The Corner

Foggy Bottom Out of (Export) Control

Tucked away in the August 11, 2010, Federal Register (page 48,626) is a way arcane U.S. State Department proposal to allow “third-country nationals,” including Chinese, Syrian, and Iranian citizens, much greater access to U.S.-controlled military technology.

One would like to think that this was a printing error. There are vast numbers of citizens of unfriendly states whom our government rightly forbids access to U.S. defense technology (read here, citizens of China, Iran, Syria, North Korea, etc.). This is so whether they work in U.S. firms or in defense companies overseas.

But apparently, the State Department wants to change this. Some months ago, Foggy Bottom officials said they wanted to “reform” U.S. export control rules to allow overseas defense firms that the U.S. cooperates with greater flexibility to use highly skilled dual-citizenship workers. The idea was to do so only if the U.S. could be sure these workers would not share American defense technology with proscribed states.

What’s worrisome about the State Department’s recommended rule change is not simply that it fails on that score but that it goes much further. Rather than limit itself to covering highly skilled overseas defense workers with dual citizenship, State’s proposed rule covers foreign nationals who have but one passport — including those of states proscribed from receiving any U.S.-controlled military technologies.

Of course, such foreign nationals would have to be “screened” and pledge not to pass on what they know to their home countries. But — you guessed it — the screening under State’s proposed rule would be entirely administered by the overseas firms that employ them rather than any U.S. entity.

Perhaps the only thing that trumps this is the proposal’s timing: Earlier this week, the U.S. convicted an Indian born Northrop defense engineer, Noshir Gowadia, for passing on stealth technology to China. This is just one of a string of expected Chinese technology theft convictions the Justice Department is preparing.

You’d think this and Secretary of Defense Gates’s recent warning that “China continues a systematic effort to obtain dual-use and military technologies from abroad through legal and illegal commercial transactions” would put the kibosh on the State Department’s proposal. After all, the rule change would give foreign nationals working at overseas defense firms far freer access to U.S.-controlled defense technologies than they could ever get if they worked at defense firms here in the U.S.

Why did State make its proposal? It’s hard to know. One paranoid explanation is that it is not just foreign defense firms that would like to have the U.S. loosen its defense export control leash, but American firms as well. Certainly, there is no way State’s proposed rule could go forward without U.S. defense companies — which increasingly rely on foreign-born engineers — demanding that they receive similarly lax security oversight over their employees.

Allowing foreign nationals (not even dual citizenship workers) to work with sensitive U.S.-controlled military technology here in the States would certainly save money. And the Defense Department’s acquisition and research budgets are projected to shrink significantly. With this proposed rule, though, so too might our security.

Henry Sokolski, is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and oversaw the Pentagon’s review of U.S. missile and nuclear-related exports as deputy for nonproliferation policy in the Cheney Pentagon.

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