THE ATTORNEY GENERAL, Griffin Bell, chided some foreign governments - unnamed - last week on the subject of antitrust enforcement. The United States stands ready to help other governments with evidence and witnesses in international cases, he said, and it expects other governments to reciprocate. That might seem fair enough. But, like many things that seem fair enough at first glance, there's a bit more to it.
The countries that Mr. Bell had in mind were primarily Canada and, perhaps, Britain. The subject is not merely normal trade, but the accelerating worldwide scramble for energy. "Let me make clear to you," Mr. Bell told the American Bar Association, "that I deem our criminal investigation of the international uranium industry and our civil investigation of the international oil industry matters of fundamental United States interest. We are under obligation to do all that we reasonably can to prosecute foreign private cartels which have the purpose of effect of causing significant economic harm in the United States. . ." The key word is "private." Mr. Bell does not intend to prosecute OPEC, the oil cartel, which is composed of governments. But what about the private companies that do the bidding of a government-run cartel as the necessary condition of producing oil, or uranium, in a foreign country?
The uranium cartel was led, through its short life, by the Canadian government. Like other countries with oil or gas or uranium to export, the Canadians took the view that they were protecting a vital national resource. Over the past year the uranium-producing companies in Canada have been getting a deluge of subpoenas from American courts and congressional committees. In response, the Canadian government invoked its Atomic Energy Control Act to prohibit any of that evidence from leaving Canada. Mr. Bell doubtless had that example in mind.
Meanwhile the Westinghouse Corp. has been trying to gather evidence overseas for its suit against members of the cartel. One of them, Westinghouse claims, is a British mining company called Rio Tinto Zinc. It declines to come to the United States to testify, and that is why an American judge went to London earlier this summer to hear witnesses. The witnesses resisted, and a whole catalogue of procedural issues are now on appeal to the House of Lords. But even if they are resolved in Westinghouse's favor, that will confront the British courts with a much more substantial question: Can a British company be forced by one foreign government to divulge information that another foreign government requires it to withhold?
No one has been unkind enough to mention it, but this aggressive American interest in competitive worldwide energy is rather recent. It has risen more or less proportionately with U.S. imports of foreign fuel. To a good many other countries, particularly those producing the oil and uranium that the United States buys, it looks suspiciously like an attempt to break up the price policies that their governments have imposed. Mr. Bell chose to overlook the degree to which these cartels have represented the assertion of national interests. Where is governments that set the prices for oil or uranium, the Sherman Act is not much of a remedy.