Gates spearheads overhaul of export controls

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is the key player in new efforts by the Obama administration to overhaul the nation’s outdated export control system, seen by many as a Cold War relic.

The system is intended to safeguard sensitive technologies that could be used for military and commercial purposes, but has not been updated in decades. Critics say dangerous technologies are not always controlled, while restrictions on the trade of some goods that are now widely available in the commercial market only have the effect of hurting U.S. companies.

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President Barack Obama late last week ordered an extensive, inter-agency review of export controls, and Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, said he plans to introduce legislation to overhaul the system.

The last effort to do so failed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but proponents say Berman could succeed because of strong support from the administration, led by Gates.

Congressional and lobbying sources note that Obama only announced the review after meeting with Gates, who pressed him on the need to reform the system.

Gates isn’t alone, either.

The effort is also supported by National Security Adviser Jim Jones, and Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Tauscher was a strong proponent of reforming export controls during her seven terms in the House.

“The administration is driven by the recognition of senior people, such as Secretary Gates and Gen. Jones, that the system is badly out of date, that we control too much stuff and that we do not do it in a way that helps  national security,” said Bill Reinsch, the president of the National Foreign Trade Council.

While previous efforts have failed, Reinsch, a former Department of Commerce official charged with export control policy, said he is cautiously optimistic the new effort will be successful because Obama himself has ordered the inter-agency review.

“It was a presidential decision to go forward and order the review,” he said. “Reviews did not get far in the past because they have been bottom-up rather than top-down. That is the reason they have floundered in the past.”

Gates — who is the lone holdover from the Bush administration — will carry much weight in the debate, several sources said. He not only commands the respect of both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, but has also had extensive experience with export controls.

Gates has dealt with the issue of export controls from different vantage points in his career: as director of the CIA, as deputy National Security Adviser and as the president of Texas A&M University, a school with heavy focus on technology and sciences. Additionally, Gates served as the chairman of the Committee on Scientific Communication and National Security, created to consider new approaches to regulating science and technology in support of national security, scientific pre-eminence and long-term economic growth.

“Gates certainly has a lot of credibility in this field,” said Reinsch. “He has very direct knowledge of the issue.”

Gates also understands that the IT revolution has changed the way people communicate and produce technology, Reinsch explained. “Gates understands that America’s great strength is to run faster than anyone else,” he said.

That also means that the Pentagon cannot rely on technologies custom-built for the military. It must also be able to dip into developments readily available on commercial shelves.

But in order for the Pentagon to profit from advances in commercial technologies, those companies have to be profitable themselves, so that they can pour money into research and development, Reinsch explained.

The way those companies would stay profitable is through exports. The export control system is in place to guard the technologies deemed for dual use, both civilian and military.

“Suddenly it is not in the Pentagon’s interest to restrict everything, “ he said. “You have to focus your export controls in a much more narrow [fashion]. Gates understands it and Obama understands it, but you have to do a scrub of the controls system.”