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Obama urged to relax US tech restrictions

Security regs 'quietly undermine' American strength

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A heavyweight advisory report has said that current US technology controls and regulation on foreign researchers are "broken" and "quietly undermine our national security and economic well-being". The authors - including former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft - recommend that President Obama should streamline the rules aggressively using an executive order.

The report, titled Beyond Fortress America - National Security Controls on Science and Technology in a Globalised World can now be read online here.

In it, the authors - led by Mr Scowcroft, who was national security adviser to Presidents Ford and Bush the Elder - have stinging words for the unwieldy US technology-export controls, designed to prevent America's enemies acquiring its advanced weapons.

During the Cold War, the United States was the international center of scientific knowledge and technology. U.S. national security depended on maintaining the technological superiority of our military forces against the quantitatively superior military forces of the Soviet bloc. To help ensure its superiority, the United States established a system of national security controls to prevent the leakage of military-related goods and technologies, including so-called dual-use technologies ... While far from perfect, this system met the needs of the Cold War reality of a bipolar power struggle with a known and well-characterized enemy.

Today, world conditions are very different. Our adversaries are diffuse; they range from sovereign states to small terrorist cells without state affiliation. Many of the most important technologies for continued military superiority originate in the commercial sector rather than in the military sector ... Many young people who would have come to the United States to study or work in science and technology now opt to stay home for their education or to return to their home country after graduate school in the US ...

What is the United States doing to reap benefits from its increased interdependence? Instead of promoting engagement, the United States is required by our current system of controls to turn inward. Our visa controls have made it more difficult or less attractive for talented foreign professionals to come and learn what is great about this country, or to stay and help grow the American economy. Our export controls retard both the U.S. and its allies from sharing access to military technology, and handicap American business from competing globally.

The Cold War mentality of “Fortress America” cripples our ability to confront the very real dangers of altered world conditions.

According to the panel's authors, this situation should be sorted out by making it much harder to add things to the ever-lengthening lists of controlled technology run by the US government, and by having an automatic "sunset" process under which items would regularly come up for removal from the lists - and a strong case would have to be made to maintain the restriction.

Secondly, Mr Scowcroft and his colleagues say that "traditionally, the United States had to worry about science and technology flowing out of the country. In today’s conditions, the U.S. must make sure that advanced science and technology will continue to flow into the country". They say that "Science and engineering degreeholders who prefer, after graduation, to work in the US should have ready access to permission for long-term stays ... The US cannot protect US jobs by denying entry to foreign professionals; jobs will simply go abroad".

Many in US industry will welcome the panel's comments: in particular, American aerospace companies often struggle to comply with the requirements of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). Boeing, for instance, has on occasion had to mount a colossal internal struggle to rid its export airliners of any possible "cross-contamination" with technology that might have originated within the firm's military programmes.

Others in the States, however, will be strongly in favour of tough US tech controls - even sometimes in the case of close allies like the UK. There are those in Washington who suspect that Britain, once it has its hands on US technology, occasionally sells it on.

Reuters reports that the chairman of the Congressional Science and Technology committee has pledged that he and his colleagues will examine the report closely over coming months. ®

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