Two ranking administration officials traded public accusations yesterday over how much control the Pentagon should have over strategic high-technology exports.
The longstanding, and often acrimonious, dispute between the departments of Commerce and Defense has gone to the White House's National Security Council for resolution. A White House attempt last March to define the roles of the two departments apparently failed, as neither Defense nor Commerce officials signed an elaborately negotiated "memorandum of understanding" drawn up after President Reagan personally stepped in to settle the dispute.
In an unusual public airing of the dispute, Assistant Defense Secretary Richard N. Perle, architect of the Pentagon's export policies, said the Commerce Department had "reneged on its commitment" to give the Defense Department "review authority" over "exports to non-communist countries."
More than a year ago, Perle told a White House news briefing on computer technology, "In his suburban Maryland home, [Commerce Undersecretary] Lionel Olmer and I shook hands" on an agreement to include the Defense Department in the export license and review process.
After the agreement had been put in writing, Perle said Olmer had come back to say that Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige would not go along with it.
"That is Perle's usual dissembling," Olmer said later in a telephone interview. He addressed the briefing first and said he did not hear Perle's remarks.
He said an earlier memorandum of understanding had been signed by former Commerce assistant secretary Lawrence J. Brady, but then Defense "changed it. They wanted some more." He said the issue is Baldrige's insistence that both departments be equal and that Defense not have a unilateral right to reject export licenses.
The Defense Department already plays a key role in controlling strategic exports to Soviet-bloc nations, but has been seeking more power to stop possible diversions from non-communist nations to Eastern Europe.
The argument between the two men -- both experts in computer technology with wide experience who hold differing views on national-security issues -- has been raging for a large part of the Reagan administration's first term. Although it appears to be a classic Washington turf battle, it has a strong ideological component.
The Pentagon argues that Commerce has done an inadequate job of stemming the illegal diversion of high technology to the Soviet Union and other Eastern-bloc nations where it can be put to military uses. Consequently, it has aggressively sought to expand its role to monitor U.S. technology exports overseas.
Olmer, who oversees the Commerce Department's export control efforts, agreed that illegal technology transfers to the Eastern bloc were a serious problem, but asserted that "less than 10 percent comes from violations of export control regulations."
He said that the dispute between his agency and Perle's is being handled by the National Security Council staff and that he hopes "Defense comes to its senses" about the role it should play in export controls.
Olmer and Perle gave widely differing interpretations last March of the White House attempt to bring agreement between the two departments over export controls, and each asserted primacy. It appeared, however, that the White House had increased the Pentagon's role in export controls.
"What we have here is a standard garden-variety turf battle that only Washington can afford to indulge in," Perle said. The problem of diversion "hasn't been helped by this bureaucratic infighting," he added.