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US firms chafe under federal curbs on high-tech exports

William Kelly doesn't like it when it takes six months to deliver a marine-navigation radar to an overseas buyer. Mr. Kelly, manager of export-import controls for Raytheon Corporation, recalls two different times when the same item was held up by US Customs officials checking to make sure no restricted high-technology goods leave American shores.

''An official was unfamiliar with the license,'' Mr. Kelly says, commenting on the radar's delay. He probably confused it with military equipment, he says, detained it, and referred the case to the Commerce Department, which reviewed the license. Half a year later, the buyer got his radar. But, Mr. Kelly adds, the buyer ''wasn't too happy about it.''

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Such detentions, along with the sometimes lengthy process of obtaining licenses for over 200,000 restricted high-technology goods, are the focus of many exporters' complaints. And what they see as overly stringent controls are being questioned as the battle forms over revision of the 1979 Export Administration Act, which regulates the export of sensitive products and technologies.

Under debate, essentially, is the balance between national-security concerns and the competitiveness of American business abroad.

The Reagan administration is seeking more power to enforce restrictions on exports of strategically sensitive goods and technologies identified on the Commerce Department's Commodity Control List.

Exporters, who applied for 90,000 licenses last year, charge that product controls are excessive and time consuming, and that many controlled goods are no longer ''state of the art.'' They also say the possibility of foreign policy-related embargoes on their products hurts their position in overseas markets.

Many support a bill put forward by Rep. Don Bonker (D) of Washington which would eliminate export licenses to countries participating in the coordinating committee of most NATO countries and Japan - founded in the late 1940s by the United States to control sensitive exports to Communist countries. The Bonker bill would also allow US companies to ship to foreign subsidiaries without obtaining separate licenses each time. Alan Spurney of the Electronic Industries Association says, ''The act as currently administered constitutes a significant disincentive to export.''

A Defense Department official acknowledges that ''there can seem to be no rhyme or reason to the process,'' but adds that many items considered nonsensitive by exporters are still more advanced than what can be found in East bloc countries and thus must be controlled. He comments that a major problem in the control and review process for licenses is that it can be time consuming, something that frustrates exporters.

One possible solution, proposed seven years ago, is to focus controls on technology transfer rather than actual end products. The difficulty, as one government official points out, is that technology transfers can be anything from blueprints to telephone calls to scientific papers, and controlling these can be impossible.

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But Bohdan Denysyk, deputy assistant secretary at the Commerce Department, says he believes that 50 percent to 75 percent of currently required licenses would be unnecessary if such a policy could be agreed upon and implemented.

Responsibility for administering export control is shared by the Commerce Department, the Defense Department, the State Department, and the Customs Service. While routine licenses are generally issued within 30 days, they can take several months, depending on the item and its destination. Exports seized by US Customs under Operation Exodus - a year-old attempt to keep an eye on what exactly is leaving American ports - even if legitimate, can take much longer, as Raytheon's Mr. Kelly discovered.

Most exporters are quick to assert their support for national-security controls. However, many question the need for extensive lists of sensitive technologies and products subject to government control. ''We're not the only smart country in the world,'' comments Mr. Spurney drily. ''And the US export system is unilateral. We don't deny the Soviets the products, we just lose the business. ''

The lack of multilateral controls, agreed to by other countries involved in the same trade, means that US allies may freely sell technologies or products that the US restricts, say critics of the current law. In addition, the Reagan administration is proposing to weaken US suppliers' ability to get an export license if comparable items or technologies are readily available overseas.

''The US can put on all the controls it wants to,'' comments John Copeland, of Motorola, and a member of the subcommittee on export administration of the President's export council. ''But what good does it do if the Swedes, or Germans , or Israelis produce and ship a like item?'' He adds that overseas competitors are ready to take advantage of markets lost by Americans.

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