Wednesday, July 8, 2009

ITAR, Roth and Friedman

While most of these essays will be showing up about every two weeks, noteworthy events will justify an added comment. One such event was the recent conviction and sentencing of a University of Tennessee professor, J. Reece Roth in a case involving the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, better known to us spacecraft types as ITAR. You can read about the specifics of the case here:

ITAR is the law of the land in the United States, is enforced by the State Department and covers the export of defence technologies. While it mainly applies to military hardware it also applies to DoD-sponsored research, (as in the Roth case) the activities of defence contractors and, spacecraft and launch systems. As such, many NASA activities are covered by ITAR provisions and I can tell you from personal experience that these regulations are taken very seriously.

I should also mention that the term “export” is meant very broadly and information or equipment does not have to leave the country in order to be considered exported. Simply allowing a foreign national unauthorized access or taking a laptop with contract information abroad will satisfy the export provision. As well, many types of information that might not seem at first glance to be sensitive are covered. These include spacecraft instrument deck layouts, for instance. Often as a result, international treaties are required to secure international participation.

(Note: This may not always be the case. There has been talk of reclassifying spacecraft and launch hardware under the commerce department to free up this area. Much of this is due to a loss of market share in the commercial launch market to Europe since the late 90s.)

However, this all adds up to an inconvenience for those of us who are not US Citizens who would like to make a contribution to spacecraft and planetary science. In some cases, we cannot even apply for positions, while in others the compliance requirements put us at a competitive disadvantage compared to others. Even in the mildest cases, we often can not be included in many of the important decision making processes.

But I am ok with that. During my tenure in Arizona, I knew that I was a guest, even though - to the credit of those around me - I was always treated as an equal with the rest of my classmates. (Granted I am Canadian, so it was often forgotten that I was not, in fact, American myself) I am thankful for the opportunities that I was able to advantage of, and all the help I received over those years. As such, it is not for me to criticize why these rules exist. The US has a right to protect the technologies developed within its borders and a duty to provide the best opportunities for its citizens.

But it should be pointed out that these restrictions and the vigour with which they were enforced as shown by the Roth case may have the effect of discouraging talented individuals from outside the country from immigrating. (More potential pitfalls are discussed over at wikipedia in the controversy section: As Thomas Friedman of the New York Times points out, this could impact economically on the continued leadership of the United States in many technical fields.

While I would not go so far as he does in suggesting that all PhD recipients at US universities should be granted citizenship “stapled to their diplomas,” clearly fewer barriers before and after graduation would help retain top individuals. Further, given the serious expense involved with advanced training, often at the expense of the state or federal government, retention would be an admirable and cost-effective goal.

In the end it seems that Roth’s violation was more to the letter of the law, rather then to the spirit in which the law was enacted. Even the compliance officers at the University of Tennessee expressed their surprise in their report ( that a conviction was obtained without any evidence that national security was compromised. However, his activities continued even after he was informed of the ramifications. It was this flouting of the regulations which ultimately seems to have resulted in his conviction, and for that neither the prosecution nor the law can be faulted.

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