Exclusive: Clinton Tells the Truth!

An endless transcontinental plane flight allowed Chatterbox to briefly catch up on his “if only I had world enough and time” reading. So in the throes of self-betterment, he actually read every dense word of Monday’s front-page New York Times investigative report by Jeff Gerth and Eric Schmitt about Bill Clinton’s liberalization of American strategic restrictions on exports to China. This story was a follow up to Gerth’s well-publicized revelation last spring that in 1996 two U.S. rocket companies had allowed the Chinese to obtain sensitive missile-guidance technology.

What grabbed Chatterbox’s attention mid-flight was Gerth’s and Schmitt’s account of when and how the president decided to loosen the government’s technology-export policy. The pivotal event was a private February 1993 dinner with Silicon Valley executives in which Clinton heard loud laments about governmental red tape blocking computer and software sales abroad. “My God,” Chatterbox thought to himself, “I was on that trip.” During those heady early days of the Clinton regime, Chatterbox actually believed that he could learn enough travelling with the president to justify the exorbitant cost. But a seemingly low-nutrient diet of pool reports and pre-fabricated events soon weaned Chatterbox from this free-spending habit.

The Times story was enough, though, to prompt a look back through the White House archives to find out what Clinton was saying publicly about technology exports back in early 1993. And guess what? Amazingly enough, Clinton had explained the outlines of his new latitudinarian export policy during a question-and-answer session on February 22 (the morning after the private dinner) at Silicon Graphics. Unfortunately, not a single news story, according to a Nexis check, picked up on this policy shift that was to turn out to have major strategic implications. (For his part, Chatterbox is mortified to recall that he was terminally bored at the Silicon Graphics event. All he remembers are Clinton and Al Gore looking like nerdy grad students as they sat awkwardly on lab stools).

The opening question from Silicon Graphics employees was about Washington’s export-control system. With guileless honesty, Clinton recounted being told by a high-tech executive at dinner the night before: “”If we export substantially the same product to the same person, if we have to get one permit to do it, we [now] have to get a permit every time we want to do the same thing over and over again. They [the government] always gives it to us. But we have to wait six months, and it puts us behind the competitive arc.”

Such nitpicking by security-obsessed bureaucrats would be a thing of the past, Clinton promised as he said, “That’s something that ought to be changed, and we’ll try to change that. We also know that some of our export controls, rules and regulations are a function of the realities of the Cold War, which aren’t there any more.” Gore, in response to the same question, sounded far more cautious as he warned of the dangers of inadvertently aiding Saddam Hussein or Qaddafi. The vice president said in his answer, “There are some in business who are understandably so anxious to find new customers that they will not necessarily pay as much attention as they should to what the customer might use this new capacity for. And that’s a legitimate role for government to say, ‘Hold on.’ “

Having walked back the cat, Chatterbox can find five enduring lessons in this nearly six-year-old story:

1) Beware of policy-making by anecdote. Both the Times story and Clinton’s own 1993 comments suggest that he was unduly swayed by the complaints from Silicon Valley CEOs.

2) When he’s feeling relaxed and not defensive, Clinton can reveal a surprising amount as he answers questions.

3) The White House press corps–in their deadline-obsessed focus on the news of the day (in this case, a soon-to-be-forgotten spending plan to foster technology)–can be counted on to miss the big story.

4) Gore deserves an award for Cassandra-like prescience. The veep shrewdly warned about the kind of please-the-customer conduct by American business that four years later prompted the two rocket companies to share missile-guidance technology with the Chinese;

And 5) Chatterbox is not infallible.

Walter Shapiro