Grab for Money Could Arm Enemies of the U.S.

Los Angeles Times
March 4, 2001, p. M5

The Bush administration is conducting a top-to-bottom review of America’s defenses to see whether they can handle, among other things, the growing threat from “rogue nations” (now called “states of concern”). At the same time, a Senate committee is pushing a bill that would make it easier for such nations to import the means to make nuclear weapons, chemical weapons and the missiles to deliver them.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and backed by high-tech firms hungry for markets, would severely restrict the president’s ability to control the export of strategically sensitive American equipment.

Among the items that could wind up for sale are the high-precision electronic switches needed to detonate atomic bombs. As recently as 1998, Iraq tried to buy 120 of these devices (known as nuclear weapon “triggers”) by claiming they were needed as “spare parts” for medical equipment. Under Enzi’s bill, the sale of switches will probably be decontrolled.

The bill could also lift restrictions on the glass and carbon fibers needed to make missile nose cones and the “maraging” steel needed for centrifuges that process uranium to nuclear weapon grade. In the 1980s, our export laws thwarted attempts to smuggle U.S.-made carbon fibers to a Iraqi missile project, and to smuggle U.S.-made maraging steel to Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons program.

These three items and scores of others have been controlled by the U.S. and its allies for two decades, specifically to combat the spread of mass-destruction weapons. But if Enzi gets his way, many of them may become available to foreign arms makers. Releasing these items for export would dismay our allies and destroy American credibility on arms control.

Under the Enzi bill, the secretary of Commerce would be required to decontrol any item that is available in “volume” in the country that produces it. Nuclear-weapon triggers, carbon fibers and maraging steel are all available in volume in the United States, but that doesn’t mean they are readily available to countries trying to build the bomb. The evidence, in fact, points the other way. Western controls on high-tech goods during the Cold War left the Soviet Union in a technological abyss, where it is still languishing. The controls helped win the Cold War, even though the goods they restricted–essential to Western economic development–were available in great volume where produced.

The bill also requires the Commerce secretary to free for sale anything a “controlled” country like Pakistan is able to buy from “sources outside the United States.” In fact, Pakistan is now importing missile components from China and North Korea. Under the Enzi bill, U.S. firms would be authorized to sell the same equipment, allowing Pakistan to do its missile shopping in the U.S.

This obviously raises a moral question: Should the United States sell anything another country does, just to make money? German firms have supplied turn-key poison gas plants to Libya and Iraq, China has essentially created Pakistan’s A-bomb program and Russia is now outfitting Iran with ballistic missiles. Should the U.S. decry the fact that our companies missed these sales? Shouldn’t America be proud that, when the Israelis found Scud missile parts in shattered buildings in Tel Aviv during the Gulf War, the logos on the parts were German and not American? America should not let a grab for money by exporters bring America down to the level of the lowest common offender.

The Enzi bill also would make bureaucratic changes. It would take away the power of the experts in the Pentagon to determine what items should be controlled. Only the Commerce Department would have this power. The exporters obviously believe that the business-friendly folks at Commerce, whose main job is promoting trade, should not be pestered by people concerned with defending the country.

The White House should not put up with this. Current law gives President Bush broad authority to control any item he deems important to U.S. national security. He should keep things that way. Under the Enzi bill, he would have less power than his own Commerce secretary. If the secretary decided to free an item for sale–even one controlled by U.S. allies under an international agreement–the president could not overturn the decision without making burdensome findings within 30 days. And the bill forbids him to delegate the job to his staff. Can anyone imagine the president personally plowing through data on nuclear weapon triggers?

The bill’s backers hope to sneak it through Congress before the administration gets organized. The White House should quash these efforts. As the U.S. tries to strengthen our defenses against potential enemies, it would be folly to weaken export controls, which are the best means of preventing such enemies from arming themselves.