Spy paranoia hits research

July 28, 2000


Restrictions passed by the US Congress in the wake of spy scares have interrupted seemingly innocent space research involving foreign students and prompted demands that the new rules be reviewed or clarified.

Under the new regulations, all space-related research is categorised as "military", no matter how innocuous, and control of it has been moved from the commerce department to the state department. Whereas security-related information was once simply declared "classified", the new rules cover anything deemed "sensitive" without defining what that means.

The International Traffic in Arms Regulation bans the "export" of research on "spacecraft, including communications satellites, remote sensing satellites, scientific satellites, research satellites, navigation satellites, experimental and multi-mission satellites".

Government officials say "export" includes involvement in the work by international students lacking a special export licence from the state department, which can take six months to obtain.

Frustrated university officials say the rules - which follow the alleged theft of nuclear secrets from the University of California's Los Alamos National Laboratory by a visiting Chinese scientist - will jeopardise all space-related research.

The regulations are "already having an adverse impact on university research", said Nils Hasselmo, president of the Association of American Universities, which, with two other major national higher education organisations, has asked for reconsideration of the rules. "Some existing projects may be unable to go forward," Mr Hasselmo said.

Because of the new rules, satellite research has been abruptly put on hold at Stanford and Pennsylvania State universities, the California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the universities of California, Arizona and Colorado. MIT declined to submit proposals for two Nasa-related projects for fear that the university could not do the work without violating the law. Research already under way at two other universities has been interrupted, one because it involved a Turkish graduate student and another because a Chinese postdoctoral scientist was participating.

Universities admit they may be over-reacting in some cases: a world expert in proton monitors, who is Irish, for example, was asked to leave the room while the equipment he designed was being bolted onto a satellite; and a conference in California was interrupted while a speaker checked that everyone in attendance was an American citizen.

But university officials say they have to be cautious, since penalties for violating the law include jail sentences of up to ten years and fines nearing $1 million.

"The problem with the ITAR regulations is that they are vague and subject to interpretation," said Debra Zumwalt, Stanford's chief attorney.

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