For years, the Commerce Department has been caught between a rock and a hard place over export licenses. While businesses complained that it took too long to obtain a license, the Pentagon and its congressional allies accused Commerce of being so lax that strategic technology was being leaked to Soviet bloc nations.
After a complete overhaul of its procedures, Commerce officials feel that they can refute both kinds of complaints.
William T. Archey, acting assistant secretary of Commerce for trade administration, says the new procedure means that licenses for high-technology exports to noncommunist nations now are issued "dramatically faster" than a year ago, while enforcement efforts have been strengthed.
A massive turf battle erupted last year over Commerce's authority over export licensing, with the Defense Department and U.S. Customs Service trying to get a piece of the action. At the same time, Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah), whose Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee has jurisdiction over the Export Administration Act, has been pressing for a special agency to handle strategic exports.
While the Pentagon has won new authority in the licensing area, Commerce succeeded in fending off the Customs Service. And in the process of defending itself, Commerce upgraded its export-controls apparatus.
Last year the new net caught $160 million worth of high-technology products that investigators suspected would be diverted illegally from free world countries to the Eastern Bloc -- almost twice the $90 million worth of products that were stopped in 1983. Archey said enhanced checks in the licensing process blocked shipments of sophisticated computers and machinery to make semiconductors -- which are reported to be high on the Soviet Union's high-technology wish list.
"I think we are balancing business interests with the national security," said Archey, a former acting commissioner of the Customs Service who has borne the brunt of the controversy over export licensing during the past year.
"Criminal prosecutions sound sexy, but it's more important to keep sensitive technology from leaving the country," he added.
This was accomplished in the face of a massive increase in the number of applications for export licenses. Beginning last February, the number of applications began increasing by about 50 percent each month. Applications totaled 126,000 in fiscal 1984, compared with 93,000 in fiscal 1983. In the last half of 1984, however, license applications ran at an annual rate of 140,000.
Theodore W. Wu, deputy assistant secretary for export enforcement, has two agents stationed in Austria and Sweden, considered two centers where high-technology products are diverted to the Eastern Bloc.
But the biggest change has taken place in a group of offices on the second floor of the department's headquarters building, where a "fast track" system for issuing export licenses has been in effect since September.
The results have been dramatic. Simple export licenses to noncommunist nations that took an average of 46 days to process in the first three months of calendar 1984 were cleared in an average of 20 days by the last three months.
In one sample case culled at random this week, a license request received Jan. 24 was ready to be issued this Wednesday, only six days later.
At the same time, enforcement specialists check both the overseas buyer and the domestic shipper in cases where diversion is suspected. Moreover, licensing officers have been organized into teams that specialize in specific products and are more closely supervised to make sure they stick to the rules. Supervisors run still another check on about 10 percent of the cases.
Previously, license approvals had to make their way through a hodgepodge of offices spread over two floors, with a paper trail that looked like a Rube Goldberg cartoon. It could take as long as 23 days for an application to reach a license officer. Now, with applications received at one end of the corridor and moving in a straight line, a licensing officer begins examining the application within two days.
"What we did was Industrial Engineering 101 leavened with a great deal of common sense," Archey said.
A manual procedure has been replaced -- "sent to the Smithsonian," Archey jokes -- with computers, which, as it turns out, were bought as surplus equipment from the Smithsonian. High-technology companies that wanted to speed up the processing system donated equipment to enhance the computer's storage and memory.