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Cox Committee Redux at NASA Ames

"LADEE is using Pentagon-developed technology — specifically a 'bus,' the basic satellite infrastructure that holds instrumentation — as part of a cost-savings, why-reinvent-the-wheel strategy. It is old technology, otherwise the Department of Defense would not have made it available to NASA." Credit: NASA photo

Just when it seemed that, after a long hiatus, sanity might be returning to Washington in at least one small area — the U.S. International Trafficking in Arms Regulations (ITAR) export controls — the politics of fear once again seem to be re-emerging regarding ITAR and China.

In 1998 it was the Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People’s Republic of China, known as the Cox Committee after its chairman, U.S. Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.). Now the China threat drum is apparently being used to go after NASA Ames Research Center Director Simon P. “Pete” Worden for alleged ITAR violations.

The counterproductive results of the Cox Committee to U.S. national security are still being dealt with. The counterproductive fallout from this latest witch hunt is not difficult to anticipate.

The 1998 Cox Committee report presented findings of an imminent threat to U.S. national security, based on dubious claims of China stealing vital U.S. nuclear secrets and being given assistance for its missile program by U.S. aerospace companies through lax adherence to ITAR. The result was the imposition of draconian, byzantine regulations on the U.S. satellite industry. Consequently, U.S. satellite companies began losing sales, and other countries were motivated to develop their own satellite industries, beyond the reach of U.S. controls. In other words, the United States took careful aim and shot itself in the foot when countries took their satellite business elsewhere, and it ended up with less control of dual-use space technology than it had prior.

It was not until the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 (NDAA 2013) that commercial satellites were removed from the ITAR list, hopefully allowing the U.S. satellite industry to again become competitive in the export market.

While die-hard Cox Committee supporters (still) tout the findings as justified and bipartisan, it has been discredited by the technical community. Further, a close reading of some Democratic committee members’ remarks echo skepticism at both the methodologies used and committee’s apparent rush to judgment. Many analysts then and now saw it as a partisan ploy to jab at President Bill Clinton through his outreach policies to China, always an easy target in Washington.

In the latest case, the Republican chairmen of the two House committees with NASA oversight publically charged in letters to the FBI director on Feb. 8 that personnel at the agency’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., may have been involved in leaking classified information to China, with the tacit or direct approval of the senior leadership, and that a federal criminal probe into the matter was dropped due to “political pressure.”

Did a violation result in the transfer of technology valuable to other countries, specifically the Chinese? If it did, then prosecution should be pursued. That, however, seems unlikely. The technology in question being used in LADEE — which, again, people at NASA Ames say is not Pentagon-developed technology — is a “bus,” the basic satellite infrastructure that holds instrumentation — as part of a cost-savings, why-reinvent-the-wheel strategy. While the pedigree seems to be in dispute, if it is military technology it would be old technology, otherwise the Department of Defense would not have made it available to NASA. And the Chinese clearly already know how to do attitude control and orbit-change maneuvers. They have already sent probes to the Moon, they have demonstrated crewed rendezvous and docking and, yes, they have demonstrated anti-satellite capabilities. So it is doubtful that a  PowerPoint presentation that might or might not have included an artist’s rendering of a “classified” bus would propel China a quantum leap ahead of the U.S. in space capabilities.

The relevant questions then seem to break down as follows:

  • Was there an ITAR violation?
  • Did this violation result in the transfer of technology valuable to other countries, specifically the Chinese?
  • Was “political pressure” exerted to stop a probe of an ITAR violation resulting in injury to U.S. national security?
  • What will be the result of further pursuance of this matter?

Each of these questions deserves consideration.

First, there may well have been an ITAR violation. ITAR is an outdated and cumbersome set of regulations designed during the Cold War to keep sensitive technology from the Soviet Union and its allies. The U.S. and its allies all identified the same country as “the enemy,” everyone agreed on what was sensitive, and most often the U.S. had a monopoly on the sensitive technology in question. In a globalized world, none of those premises holds true. China works with most other countries in the world; the U.S. is the outlier when it comes to rejecting space cooperation with China. Night goggles sold through mail-order catalogs were on the ITAR list. Business techniques on how to identify problems in systems, such as something called the Ishikawa Fishbone Diagram (available through an Internet search), can be argued as valuable to enemies for improving their missile launch systems by tracing the source of their failures. Hence, referencing it on a PowerPoint slide at an international conference can be a potential ITAR violation. ITAR is ambiguous, far-reaching and badly in need of revision. A violation can be found in almost any contact with a foreign national where technology is discussed.

Did a violation result in the transfer of technology valuable to other countries, specifically the Chinese? If it did, then prosecution should be pursued. That, however, seems unlikely. LADEE is using Pentagon-developed technology — specifically a “bus,” the basic satellite infrastructure that holds instrumentation — as part of a cost-savings, why-reinvent-the-wheel strategy. It is old technology, otherwise the Department of Defense would not have made it available to NASA. And the Chinese clearly already know how to do attitude control and orbit-change maneuvers. They have already sent probes to the Moon, they have demonstrated crewed rendezvous and docking and, yes, they have demonstrated anti-satellite capabilities. So it is doubtful that a PowerPoint presentation that may or may not have shown an artist’s rendering of a “classified” bus would propel China a quantum leap ahead of the U.S. in space capabilities.

Was “political pressure” exerted to stop a probe of an ITAR violation resulting in injury to U.S. national security? This is unknown. While Worden is a retired Air Force brigadier general with a reputation as a bureaucratic maverick — that is, he can actually make things happen in spite of the bureaucracy — it is unclear why he would be presumed to have much pull with the Justice Department. More likely, the Justice Department dropped whatever investigation it was conducting when it became clear that little or nothing of value was transferred, certainly nothing creating an imminent threat to U.S. national security, or worthy of a lengthy, expensive-to-the-taxpayer investigation. At this point, after the issue was apparently dismissed by the Justice Department, it is worth asking the question as to the motivation of the congressional inquiry. Certainly, anti-China sentiment is at play, but one cannot help but wonder also about the issue of partisanship that was clearly a factor in the Cox Committee inquiry.

What will be the result of further pursuance of this matter? NASA, once known as the “can do” bureaucracy, is already lumbering to escape its more recent reputation as the place where innovation goes to die. Workshops titled “Lost in Space?” are being held to determine why the U.S. space programs seem to be floundering in comparison with other countries, and with its own legacy. Part of the problem is a seeming inability or unwillingness of those with oversight powers to see the world beyond the Cold War. Continued pursuance of red herrings such as these charges would further stifle NASA’s ability to innovate, to work with others as the U.S. must to address critical issues like space debris and space traffic management, and to develop confidence-building measures critical toward establishing responsible spacefaring as the norm. NASA is already legislatively banned (at the behest of one of the House committee chairmen pursuing this alleged ITAR violation) from bilaterally working with — or even communicating with — China on space issues. Ignoring the country with the currently most active agenda makes no sense.

If China is seen as a threat to U.S. security, then, as the old adage says, keep it close. Indeed, U.S.-Soviet space cooperation during the Cold War proved a successful model. If China is not a threat, then the U.S. should keep it close to learn more about its intentions and processes, and to have a better chance of influencing its activities. Would China have conducted its irresponsible anti-satellite test in 2007, doubling the amount of threatening space debris in orbit, if it had been allowed to participate in the international space station program as it had long sought to, and been refused by the United States? Maybe not.

Worse yet, the congressional inquiry seems to suggest that the very presence of non-American scientists at Ames is somehow suspicious or threatening. Using ITAR to warn or punish individuals or organizations who see international cooperation in space as the only means of keeping space a sustainable environment for U.S. space assets — critical to U.S. national security — will undoubtedly again be counterproductive. It is better that U.S. policymakers recognize this fact now rather than waiting more than a decade, as it took to rectify the Cox Committee debacle.

 

Joan Johnson-Freese is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. The views expressed in this article are strictly her own and do not reflect the views of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. Theresa Hitchens is the director of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) in Geneva. The views expressed are strictly her own, and do not reflect the views of the United Nations or UNIDIR.

Article Comments

"Keep your friends close and your enemies closer" was a nice euphemism for the Godfather, but China plays a different game.

This isn't about foreigners working at ARC and isn't about the "politics of fear". If one reads the Wolf-Smith letters and coverage by Aviation Week's Frank Morring, it is about a storied NASA center possibly becoming a conduit through which sensitive defense technology might have been knowingly and illegally transmitted and that there was subsequently an attempt to cover-up such violations. Keeping enemies closer is good. But that effort should not entail giving them sensitive data that they then use for systems that could impact our own ability to project power or breaking several laws.

One question raised is that there wasn't "an ITAR violation" but several instances of ITAR violations at ARC over a period of years. Were in fact several hard drives confiscated by San Francisco International Airport TSA on more than one occasion from individuals trying to travel to China who were at the time assigned on LADEE in particular and ARC in general? Is it true that, according to Wolf-Smith, those seized drives were analyzed and found to contain data related to sensitive DOD technology, which is covered by ITAR? Did those individuals, whose hard drives were seized at SFO, actually receive ITAR clearance from Ames? Morring reports that the U.S. Attorney's office recommended indictments over ITAR and other violations but that very nearly all of the folks conducting the original investigation were suddenly transferred. If that's true, does this point to the possibility that a much bigger story than meets the eye and could raise the question of who knew what and when? If not, then it should be easy for the FBI and DOJ IG to quickly put the representatives' concerns to bed.

I don't know what the facts are of what could be several violations of law, ITAR and otherwise. And neither does Space News, the writers of this op-ed, or any commenter here. Why don't we wait to see what happens before drawing conclusions?

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