Agencies seek stronger controls on trade in dual-use technologies

By William New

December 18, 2002

In the Bush administration's effort to attack the rising problem of sensitive products falling into the wrong hands through trade, technology cuts two ways.

"Technologies with sensitive military applications frequently have legitimate commercial applications as well," John Schlosser, director of the Office of Export Control Cooperation at the State Department's Bureau of Nonproliferation, said in a speech last week in Bangkok, Thailand. "Weapons proliferators know this and cleverly mask their acquisitions as innocent business transactions to deceive government officials and legitimate businesses."

Several agencies in the administration are working to convince countries that have the world's biggest shipping hubs and are located near terrorist activity to adopt stronger export controls. The United States controls its exports of military items and commercial items with potential military uses, known as dual-use items, by restricting which countries can receive the items.

But many places through which sensitive goods pass on their way to their final destinations, known as "transshipment" countries, have few or no controls on trade. Countries being targeted by the United States include Panama and several nations in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Technologies are on the list of items controlled by the United States in several forms. The "commerce control list" of dual-use items has categories for electronics, computers, telecommunications and information security, and lasers and sensors. With terrorist threats becoming more oriented toward the digital age, control of these items is growing in importance.

Concurrently, the United States is helping other nations employ technology to verify and control shipments. For instance, officials are helping transshipment ports to obtain large cargo-imaging machines that can scan full ship containers. They also have provided radiation-detection devices and handheld scanners, according to an administration official.

The U.S. Customs Service has a container-security initiative aimed at verifying the contents of shipments at the point of origin before being shipped to the United States.

The Commerce Department's Bureau of Industry and Security has undertaken a Transshipment Countries Export Control Initiative (TECI) aimed at helping those countries develop export-control policies. TECI is two-pronged: government-to-government and government-to-industry. The bureau emphasizes that companies involved in exporting sensitive technologies be diligent about identifying buyers and ultimate uses of the products.

In a speech at last week's transshipment event in Bangkok, Karan Bhatia, Commerce's deputy undersecretary for industry and security, said the objectives are building awareness of the problem, constructing channels of communication and developing "best practices."

In an interview, Bhatia offered advice to companies. "It's not complying with the letter of the law, it's exercising the due diligence that is appropriate and required when engaging in transactions with regions where you know there is a serious risk of diversion," he said.

By William New

December 18, 2002