Commerce Secretary C. William Verity said yesterday that America's NATO allies and Japan have agreed to a high-level meeting early next year to tighten rules against the diversion of military-sensitive technology to the Soviet bloc.
The agreement came in the wake of a series of illegal sales that the Pentagon said vastly improved the Soviet military machine, including making Russian submarines quiet enough to avoid detection by U.S. sub-chasers, and as Congress is debating legislation that would bar imports from companies that violate export control laws. These sales were made by companies in Japan, Italy, France, West Germany and Norway.
Verity, in his first major speech since being sworn in as Commerce secretary three weeks ago, told a National Press Club audience that a lack of cooperation among some allies has hampered efforts to prevent the Soviets from getting western technology.
"That is something that we are working on very aggressively now," he said. "There will be a ministerial-level meeting the first part of the year to see what we can do to further strengthen and tighten the controls. This is something that we take extremely seriously; this is something that the Congress is very much interested in, as is the president."
This would be the first high-level meeting of the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls, known as COCOM, since 1982 and only the second in the 38 years of its existence. The 16 members of COCOM are Japan and all the NATO allies with the exception of Iceland. Until recently, even the existence of COCOM was kept secret, since some allies didn't want to admit they were part of a cooperative effort to keep technology from the Soviet bloc.
Acting Undersecretary of Commerce Paul Freedenberg said the idea of the high-level meeting is to "inject political vigor into the process" of strengthening COCOM.
"We don't want it to be a run-of-the-mill COCOM meeting" of technical experts who are unable to make political decisions. "We want to invigorate both the licensing and enforcement parts of COCOM," said Freedenberg.
Administration experts said that even if the meeting were to be at a sub-Cabinet level instead of among ministers, that would still result in discussions among officials at a policy-making level.
High-level administration export control specialists have fanned out through Europe and Japan over the past month to build support for a cooperative effort on both the enforcement of export control laws and on the procedures for licensing sales of high-technology products to the Soviet Bloc.
They are finding increased interest among COCOM members, partially as a result of the congressional threat of trade sanctions against companies that violate export control rules. The Senate passed legislation that would bar sales in this countries of products made by the Japanese electronic conglomerate Toshiba Corp. and a state-owned Norwegian arms firm, Kongsberg Vappenfabrikk, for selling computerized milling machinery to the Soviets.
Verity opposed retroactive sanctions against the companies, saying that, instead of trying to punish individual companies, "the most constructive thing we can do at this time" is make sure that COCOM partners improve their export control procedures.