The Bush administration is split over how far to ease restrictions on the sale of advanced computers and telecommunications systems to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, with the super-secret, code-breaking National Security Agency and the Defense Department pressing for a continuation of strict curbs, and the Commerce Department pushing to ease the regulations, administration and industry officials said yesterday.
The dispute was bucked to the National Security Council 10 days ago, but because of the NSC's preoccupation with the Persian Gulf crisis, a high-level panel began studying it only Tuesday, sources said.
Meanwhile, the United States and its Western allies began negotiations in Paris this week over ways to ease restrictions on the sale of technology to Moscow and its former allies in the new post-Cold War era.
The administration, which agreed to a sweeping liberalization in June, promised to come up with a "core list" this month of the most sensitive technologies on which controls would remain. Administration officials said the allies are proposing a greater easing of restrictions on sale of computers and telecommunications equipment than the most liberal position in the Bush administration.
While unable to decide on a U.S. position for computers and telecommunications, the administration did agree to loosen restrictions on sales of machine tools, commercial aircraft, aviation electronics and other high-technology products that have possible military uses.
This liberalization was praised by by Paul Freedenberg, a consultant with the law firm of Baker & Botts who headed export controls in the Commerce Department in the last years of the Reagan administration. Even though the "core list" of restricted products is 132 pages long, Freedenberg noted that the administration has come a long way in its willingness to allow sales of technology to the Soviet Union and Eastern European nations.
But Ed Black, a consultant to the electronics industry, said that computers and advanced telecommunications systems represent 90 percent of the products that require U.S. export licenses. U.S. Chamber of Commerce International Vice President William T. Archey added that those sectors "hold the greatest export potential for U.S. companies."
Furthermore, the Soviet Union and Eastern European nations are clamoring for advanced equipment to modernize their economic system, attract foreign investment and turn toward a free-market economy.
The NSA and the Defense Department, however, have opposed the sale of advanced telecommunications systems, especially fiber-optic cable, because it would hinder their ability to eavesdrop.