The Commerce Department yesterday denied eight applications for licenses to export $1 billion in high technology and strategic equipment to the Soviet Union.
But Commerce Secretary Philip M. Klutznick was unclear whether the denials were routine or in response to administration directives regarding the Soviets' invasion of Afghanistan.
Asked at a news conference yesterday whether the applications would have been denied anyway, Klutznick said, "My judgment is they would not have been granted."
But later, Klutznick, who often turned to aides to help answer questions, said, "These items were reviewed in light of the president's order. Some items would have been denied, some approved." The denials were made "in light of present conditions," he said.
Many observers were surprised at the $1 billion figure. A statement released at the news conference said the amount would have been spread over several years.
In the past, exports of high technology and strategic equipment to the Soviets have never exceeded $216 million a year. Last year the total was about $160 million. Commerce officials said. One aide said that a very large project was involved in the current applications, thus boosting the dollar total.
Another explanation, according to a Soviet trade export, was that applications often are made and acted on before a firm deal is made. Such applications, filed when a company is still negotiating a deal, also could have boosted the total, this expert suggested.
Klutznick said he was legally prohibited from naming the companies seeking the export licenses.
He did say that the canceled projects involved technical data and equipment for a telecommunications plant, digital computing systems and accessories for Soviet computers, seismic data-processing equipment, research equipment used in the development of microwave semiconductors and yarns used for ballistic protection and high-strength military structures.
The Soviet trade expert said he could not imagine a company applying for a license for the yarns, or the Commerce Department approving such an application.
Both Comsat and International Telephone and Telegraph Corp., two of the country's largest telecommunications companies, denied that their applications were involved in the telecommunications plant proposal.
The Soviet trade expert and a Comsat official said they were unaware of such a project.
Despite the curtailments of high technology items, Commerce officials said yesterday that about $340 million in other goods are flowing unimpeded to the Soviet Union under what are called general licenses, which do not require department approval.
Klutznick said the United States expects its allies to cooperate in denying technological goods and services to the Soviets. "I have been informed by the State Department that there have been substantial assurances" from several countries, Klutznick said, but he would not identify them.
Yesterday's department news conference -- the second this week -- provided the third announcement concerning curtailment of nonagricultural trade with the Soviets.
On Wednesday President Carter suspended all licenses to export high technology and strategic items to the Soviets, and froze those shipments there. Klutznick said one of his announcements was his compliance with that order.
He also said the suspension of the licenses is pending a review of U.S. export licensing policy, as directed by Carter. That announcement also had been made earlier.
At one point, Klutznick was asked what, if anything, new was being said. The secretary, gripping the lectern, reiterated that the department was complying with Carter's orders.