Seven months after expressing concern that missile expertise had been disclosed to China, a Pentagon agency endorsed President Clinton's decision to export satellite technology despite fears of some in government that it posed security risks.
The Pentagon's Defense Technology Security Administration, charged with preserving the U.S. military's technological edge, concluded in a classified assessment a year ago that a report on a failed commercial satellite launch submitted to China by two U.S. defense contractors could be used to improve China's ballistic missiles.The agency this year supported an export license allowing one of those contractors, Loral Space and Communications, to export another commercial satellite to China and work with the Chinese on the launch.
On Capitol Hill, Republican committee staffers charge that agency workers who were reviewing the export license for security risks were kept from voicing opposition to Clinton's approval of exporting satellite technology to China.
The Pentagon denies any such effort and says the transfer was approved after officials were satisfied that sensitive missile technology would not be leaked to China.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said Tuesday he will seek creation of a committee to investigate whether the administration gave Loral preferential treatment. Bernard L. Schwartz, who heads Loral, is a major Democratic Party donor.
"This has nothing to do with campaign finance," Gingrich said. "This has to do with the national security of the United States and an effort by a foreign military to penetrate our military system, an effort by some people to give the Chinese secrets in violation of American law."
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., also has expressed concern about creating a committee when several House panels have jurisdiction.
The White House Wednesday voiced skepticism about Gingrich's announcement, but said it would work with Congress regardless of which committee investigates.
"That's their business, not ours," said White House spokesman Mike McCurry.
"There's an extensive congressional inquiry already under way" of the sale of satellite technology to China by U.S. aerospace companies, McCurry said at the White House. "We are fully cooperating with that."
McCurry also said that Clinton had no plans to cancel or rescheduled his planned trip to China next month, as some congressional Republicans have suggested.
The Justice Department has opened a preliminary inquiry into whether Schwartz' contributions played any role in the export decision. Clinton welcomed the action, saying that if anyone tried to influence foreign policy decisions, "There ought to be an investigation."
It was the Pentagon agency's classified report in May 1997 that sparked the Justice Department's investigation into whether Loral and Hughes Electronics broke the law in giving missile-related information to China. The companies deny that any sensitive information was compromised.