Industrial espionage has been around for centuries. Our enemies (yes, we do have enemies) and economic competitors are always on the prowl for the latest and greatest technology developed by the United States at our universities, national labs, corporations and, yes, even in our basements and garages. While an overwhelming majority of U.S. goods and services move freely, and mostly unregulated, in international commerce, our nation has made a wise policy decision to control access to some of it through various complex laws and regulations. These technology sharing rules of the road are called export controls.

During the course of the least few years, the Obama Administration has been undertaking a major review of the laws and regulations that govern who gets to buy, access, or export sensitive and U.S. military technology. The reform process was started by the Bush Administration, but to their credit, the Obama Administration has really done the first serious review and update since World War II. These rules and regulations are in need of reforming. I think most of the regime can stay as is, with incremental reform the more prudent approach. What we really need is a fundamental re-think of the role of the federal government in the U.S. economy. Congress and all federal agencies need updating.

Politically, export control reform is one of these issues that, with the exception of a hand full of Members of Congress and select staff, most folks working on Capitol Hill or the Executive Branch really do not understand. Most people do not even know that they exist. Fortunately, there are a few well-qualified folks overseeing this proposed reform process, including former legal practitioners who have seen the good and bad of these rules of the road in real life scenarios. However if done incorrectly, or if “reform” goes too far, it is a recipe for political disaster that can severely damage U.S. national security and global competitiveness.

Last week Fox News reported on its website an item that links the law, public policy, and economic equities that are at play with this issue in a way I have not seen in some time. Titled, “FBI probe of defense tech allegedly leaked from NASA stonewalled, sources say,” it says that sensitive U.S. technology has been compromised to foreign entities including a new form of rocket engine used in outer space exploration, mapping systems for a cruise missile system, as well as satellite technology.

Why should taxpayers care about any of this? For starters, we’re paying for a lot of this research. If you own a business you know what it feels like when someone steals your latest and greatest product or service. If your a good student and studied hard for exam, how would you like it if the class slouch looked over your shoulder to steal your answers? Then there U.S. national security. Do we really want to give the Chinese or the Saudis, two countries mentioned in the Fox report, a free pass? Based on what I read in that Fox article alone, this should put on ice, get this, a proposed Saudi nuclear cooperation agreement.

One of the more troubling aspects of this Fox News report is allegations that the Department of Justice sat on potential prosecutions.  Export control reform goes hand in hand with enforcement. Why bother updating the regulatory regime if the Justice Department is not enforcing the existing laws and regulations?

Someone on Capitol Hill needs to lead on this issue. This needs to be done at the Member level, with staff support, not the other way around. This recent development could be a good way to join two issues into one national discussion about protecting national technological base. They should most certainly take a very close look at overall export control reform efforts. This does not mean staff, but principals — the folks elected by the people to do these type of things. This is not the first time the Chinese, Saudis, or other foreign government will try to steal U.S. technological and military secrets. And it will not be the last (Google Huawei, for starters).

If you’re interested in seeing a snapshot of recent violations of U.S. export control laws, as well as economic sanctions (an overlooked area of reform efforts), follow these links: the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security, Major Export Enforcement Cases (Justice Department), State Department Debarment and Consent Agreements, as well as the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control Recent Actions page.

P.S., If the Obama Administration wants to “bring jobs to America”, as it has promised time and time again, it should pay very close attention to these export control reform processes.

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