The U.S. has a large law enforcement program designed to keep drugs out of the country. And still, drugs get in. American officials also work hard to keep weapons technology from getting out of the country. Does that effort work any better than the antidrug program? RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully asked two national security analysts just how secure the U.S. is.
Washington, 5 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Two recent criminal cases in the U.S. dramatize the need for America to maintain tight security on its latest military technology.
In San Francisco, three executives of an electronics company were formally charged last week with selling equipment to India that could be used to make nuclear weapons. Prosecutors say the equipment -- called nuclear pulse generators and manufactured by Berkeley Nucleonics Corporation -- can be used to calibrate radar and nuclear instruments that can be used for the military.
In 1998, the U.S. government tightly restricted technology exports to India and Pakistan after the two Asian rivals conducted nuclear-arms tests and refused to sign treaties against proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Lawyers for the three executives say the defendants had long exported technology to India and were unaware of the restrictions imposed in 1998. In fact, many mainstream American companies with good reputations worldwide have been accused of violating export sanctions, perhaps unwittingly. They include the Dell Computer Corporation, IBM, and the Hewlett-Packard Company.
In the second recent case of a suspected export violations, law-enforcement officials say the suspects knew what they were doing was wrong. The U.S. Customs Service has charged two men with trying to sell highly sophisticated encryption devices to the Chinese government.
A spokesman for the U.S. Customs Service, Kevin Bell, told RFE/RL that the defendants -- Eugene You Tsai Hsu and David Tzu Wvi Yang -- actually told Mykotronx Incorporated, the company that makes the devices, that they intended to sell the equipment to China.
The encryption equipment cannot be sold without permission of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). Bell says Mykotronx immediately notified the Customs Service about the suspects' intentions.
A Customs agent posing as a civilian intermediary for the transaction told the two suspects several times that selling the devices to China would be illegal, Bell says, but the two men said they planned to make the sales anyway.
Bell said it is not clear whether the two men were motivated by greed or are affiliated with the Chinese government.
According to Bell, Chinese scientists could "reverse-engineer" the equipment -- study the equipment and learn how it works. This, he said, could have devastating consequences.
"These cases are scary because if they could reverse-engineer this sort of technology, who knows what they could do? They could theoretically get some of our codes."
The question arises whether U.S. law-enforcement agents are able to catch all the people who are trying to sell sensitive military equipment to other countries. For example, American authorities have vast interdiction programs to prevent illicit drugs from penetrating the country, and yet they cannot stop all of it.
But independent security analysts interviewed by RFE/RL say they are confident U.S. security is not being seriously breached. One is Edward Atkeson, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a policy-research center in Washington. But Atkeson says he is not complacent about American security, and that the U.S. government is not complacent, either.
"I think it's sort of a maintenance thing that we just have to keep working all the time and don't get complacent with it because it's [illegally exporting military technology] very rewarding to the people who do make it [succeed in exporting the technology]."
Atkeson says cases like the one involving encryption equipment generally lead security agencies to conduct "post mortem" investigations to help them understand how the suspects operated and how they might have been able to evade detection. According to Atkeson, such reviews improve security techniques to make it more difficult for other criminals to follow suit.
Another CSIS analyst, Kenneth Allard, agrees it is unlikely that much sensitive U.S. military technology is secretly exported to rival countries, thanks to the vigilance of law enforcement. And he says it is important for the government to publicize arrests as they did in the case of Hsu and Yang.
But Allard told RFE/RL that developing special military technology is inherently vulnerable. He says there are two very important things for a country to remember when it develops new military technology. The first, he says, is elementary, but still easy to overlook.
"You never assume -- with any technology, with any lead [advantage] that you've got -- that the enemy, whoever that enemy is, cannot duplicate that."
The second thing is that as soon as the technology is deployed, it becomes vulnerable to duplication. He explains that once the technology is used against an enemy, the enemy usually knows that it has been used, what it is, and how they can use it, too.
Allard says the best way a country can prevent its enemies from duplicating its secret technology is to deploy it as seldom as possible, and even to postpone deployment until the use of the technology is absolutely essential. But he stresses that it will never be totally safe from those who want it.