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June 26, 1998


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Pentagon official exposes Clinton administration's soft spot for China

Blowing the whistle on the Pentagon, a long-time US defence official says the office in charge of guarding US technology from export to China grew lax under the Clinton administration.

Peter Leitner, a veteran adviser with the Pentagon agency charged with reviewing proposed exports, testified on Thursday before a senate committee investigating whether the administration helped China gain military capability that should have been restricted.

Speaking in a hoarse whisper due to illness, Leitner told the senate governmental affairs committee how senior defence officials glossed over concerns in the lower ranks that US businesses were allowed to sell technology with military applications to China and other countries. Senior defence officials sometimes instructed subordinates to soften or reverse their recommendations that certain technology not be exported, he said.

"That happened on several occasions,'' Leitner said. "Sometimes it happens in your face and sometimes it happens when you're on vacation and somebody tampers with your database under your name.''

In 1996, Leitner said, he returned from a three-week vacation to find that his recommendation against the export of supercomputer technology to Russia had been rewritten to a neutral position. Although approval for the export was denied eventually, Russia later announced it had obtained the US-built computers without an export licence. The case, Leitner said, is under investigation.

The hearing concerns the defence technology security administration, an obscure Pentagon agency that has become the focus of congressional investigations of aerospace exports to China. A key question is whether DTSA, where Leitner has been a senior strategic trade adviser for 12 years, has shirked its role as a guardian of US technology.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Tang Guoqiang dismissed the growing controversy in the United States over technology sales to China as "a wave of noise.'' Asked specifically whether China stole a circuit board from a crashed American satellite, Tang replied, "No such case exists.''

Traditionally, the Pentagon-based office has adopted a strict attitude toward exports with military potential. Under the Clinton administration, Leitner contends, that philosophy quietly changed as the commerce department was given primary responsibility for reviewing commercial satellite exports.

The Pentagon "abandoned its traditional role and instructed (department of defence) employees to side with the commerce department.'' The result, he said, was to "deceive both Congress and the American people. While shortsighted business interests line their pockets.''

Commerce, according to administration critics on Capitol Hill, has been much more prone to support exports to China and elsewhere despite potentially adverse national security consequences. Senior commerce officials have vigorously denied that charge in recent congressional testimony. Republicans have suggested that campaign contributions may have swayed Clinton administration export policies.

Veteran executive branch officials rarely criticise a sitting administration on policy matters, but Leitner has done so before, surprising a congressional hearing last year by questioning the administration's commitment to protecting sensitive technology. Today's testimony, however, comes amid much greater attention as President Clinton has begun his nine-day trip in China and congressional inquiries continue.

Air Force Lt Col Queenie Byars, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said Leitner was speaking "as a private citizen,'' not a Pentagon official.

David Tarbell, director of the defence technology security administration, denied in recent testimony that he pressured subordinates to toe a pro-export line. He was asked specifically to discuss allegations reported previously by the Associated Press that DTSA staffers were instructed to support a proposed satellite export to China in February.

Clinton approved the export of the Chinasat-8 satellite even though its builder, Loral Space and Communications, is under justice department investigation for allegedly providing China with missile-related information in an earlier deal.

"All the recommendations that came in on Chinasat-8 recommended approval,'' Tarbell told a House hearing. But he added, "I don't know whether there might have been one employee in the defence department who thought this was a bad idea.''


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