The House voted yesterday to give the Defense Department greater control over controversial exports of computers and other forms of high technology to Communist countries.
The 273-to-145 vote came on an amendment offered by Rep. Richard Ichord (D-Mo.) to the Export Administration Act. Still pending are other amendments, including one to limit exports of cattle hides to protect the shoe industry, and another reaffirming the prohibition on exports of Alaskan oil.
Ichord charged that the present Commerce Department system of preventing exports of critical military technology to unfriendly countries is in "absolute shambles." Important manufacturing and metallurigical technology is being transferred "by clandestine methods, legal and illegal methods," he said.
Rep. James A. Courter (R-N.J.) said laser, computer and other "vital" technology is "falling into Soviet hands that turn that technology against the United States." Critics cited a recent disclosure that computers installed by International Business Machines Corp. in a Soviet truck factory were used to produce military vehicles.
Jonathan Bingham (D-N.Y.), fighting the Ichord amendment, argued that the Defense Department should not have the power to develop the list of critical military technologies "without anyone else having anything to say about it. The process of deciding what's on the list should be a joint process" with the Commerce Department.
Commerce tends to take a more lenient view of trade with the Soviet Union and other Communist nations on the assumption that if the United States does not sell certain technologies, other countries will.
Under existing law, an interagency committee, led by Commerce, policies a list of several thousand products which require special licenses to be sold. Although lengthy delays have resulted, 95 percent of 7,000 requests to sell sophisticated equipment to the Soviet Union last year were granted, administration officials contend.
To prevent a recurrence of the truck factory case, the House also approved, 272 to 137, an amendment to require ways to guard against the diversion to military use of technologies exported to unfriendly countries.
However, it defeated, 206 to 201, an Ichord-sponsored effort to eliminate a provision allowing the Commerce Department to remove controls on goods and technologies when their export would no longer threaten national security.
The business community involved in such exports -- IBM, Control Data Corp., the National Machine Tool Builders Association, the American Electronics Association -- had lobbied vigorously, arguing that lucrative trade deals have been held up without national security justification.
Rep. Bill Frenzel (D-Minn.) said "thousands of workers depend on exports for their livelihood. We are being overprotective" in restricting the shipment of technology. Frenzel's district includes the Control Data factory that manufactures the "Cyber 76," an advanced computer which became a center of controversy in 1977.
Dornan critized Control Data for trying to sell the computer, now used by the American military, to the Soviet Union. Frenzel, however, said the technology is 20 years old.