THE ADMINISTRATION'S sudden announcement that it would relax export restrictions on "robust" encryption products -- codes that can cloak electronic communications and cannot be broken -- looks at first like a screeching U-turn. For years, despite pressure from the U.S. software industry, from privacy advocates and from Congress to lift all curbs on strong encryption, the White House argued -- rightly, in our view -- that those interests must be carefully balanced against the threat to national security and public safety if terrorists and drug lords could obtain uncrackable encryption. It clung to that surface principle even while announcing revision after revision in the export restrictions, all aimed -- unsuccessfully -- at mollifying an industry that feared losing the large overseas market to foreign encryption products.

The announcement, then, raises the unhappy but familiar suspicion that the White House is playing politics on a matter of national security. A bare two months ago, after all, FBI Director Louis Freeh testified on the Hill that law enforcement is in "unanimous agreement that the widespread availability and use of robust, non-recoverable encryption ultimately will devastate our ability to fight crime and prevent terrorism." And the administration's encryption stance has been a point of great bitterness between Vice President Gore and the largely California-based high-tech community.

But it's also the case that seven years of waffling have gradually weakened the argument that export controls would in fact keep strong encryption out of the hands of international criminals. National security people were arguing in 1996 that, while no export curbs were foolproof, they still had a two-year "window" in which to slow down strong encryption's spread and prevent its being widely adopted as a matter of course -- a window that has now presumably shut. Those who watch the intelligence agencies -- necessarily at a distance -- say they already operate in an environment where strong encryption is widely available from foreign and illicit sources. Countermeasures, they suggest, are evolving to match.

The administration proposal purports to add such countermeasures. It asks Congress for more money to create an FBI code-breaking center, and it offers incentives for the use of voluntary escrow for extra "keys." But these are smallish initiatives to attack what remain potentially huge dangers. The administration now echoes privacy advocates in arguing that more crime will be prevented by the widespread use of secure communications than will be unleashed by its availability to criminals. While a fair point, that doesn't address the question of whether the White House still takes seriously the large dangers it warned against for so long.