The Commerce and Defense departments yesterday unveiled a new "gold card" system to ease export controls on high-technology sales to foreign companies that the United States can trust to keep sensitive products from Soviet bloc nations.
The first companies eligible for the new system are situated in 11 NATO nations and Japan, the countries that belong to Cocom, the Paris-based Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls, which regulates high-tech sales to Soviet bloc nations.
But the privilege is expected to be extended soon to companies in other western nations, Defense and Commerce officials said at a press briefing yesterday.
The new system, which should go into effect in the fall, will eliminate the need for U.S. manufacturers to get export licenses for 80 percent of the products now on the control list as long as they are going to approved users. It will cut approval time from the 11 days now needed to get a license to less than two days that will be required to verify that a company is part of the gold card system.
"What we really want to see happen is to make the export control system work so that it stops diversions to the Soviet bloc without impeding trade," said Steven D. Bryen, deputy undersecretary of Defense for trade security policy.
He and Paul Freedenberg, assistant secretary of Commerce for trade administration, announced the new program. The joint press conference signaled a new spirit of cooperation between the two departments, which until recently fought bitter ideological and turf battles on the issue of export controls.
"It is the first significant reform of the export licensing system in many, many years -- decades," said Bryen.
The new arrangement was nicknamed the gold card system because of its resemblance to credit card purchases. If a potential overseas purchaser is certified for the system, all a U.S. seller has to do is get verification and ship out the product.
Freedenberg, who joined the Commerce Department in December from the staff of the Senate Banking Committee, called the new gold card system "another significant reason" for other nations to improve their export controls. That way, he added, companies in non-Cocom nations will be able to get on the gold card list and purchase American high-tech products without having to wait to get a license.
The new system should make U.S. companies more competitive with firms in West Germany and Japan in winning sales, because it eases the most cumbersome aspects of U.S. export controls.
"With the United States having comparable products, particularly when our companies go head to head with Germany or Japan, we can't afford to have any additional handicaps," Freedenberg said.
Bryen expects the system to handle between 10,000 and 20,000 license applications a year. This will leave more time for Commerce export control officers to scrutinize sales of the highest levels of technology, which are not covered by the gold card arrangement.
"These are the crown jewels, things you want to keep out of Soviet hands," said Freedenberg. Among the items not covered by the new arrangement are high-speed computers known as supercomputers.
Both officials ackowledged that the new system is being introduced to meet congressional concern that the U.S. licensing system costs sales.