The revolving door spins out a new John Warner

Former Sen. John Warner, R-Va., is lobbying on behalf of foreign and U.S. satellite operators to loosen U.S. export controls aimed at preventing the Chinese military from copying American technology and potentially using it to make weapons.

Warner, as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, supported strict controls on the export of satellite technology, and he criticized “people in the corporate boardrooms” who pushed for export liberalization to the detriment of national security. Today, he headlines the K Street push on behalf of companies eyeing the lower satellite-launch costs China offers.

Colorado-based Echostar, Canada's Telesat, Luxembourg's SES, and Bermuda-based Intelsat are satellite operators that have banded together to form the Coalition for Competitive Launches, which has retained the powerhouse firm Hogan & Hartson to lobby the administration.

As one of the coalition's lobbyists, Warner describes the coalition's agenda as “providing greater, and more cost-effective, access to space” by “increas[ing] launch vehicle options that could ultimately lower costs for users of communications satellites.” Warner can't lobby the Senate until 2011, two years after his retirement from the upper chamber, but he has met with Obama's national security adviser, retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, on this matter, according to a lobbyist who opposes loosening the rules. Warner wouldn't confirm this meeting happened, and the White House did not respond to queries on the matter.

Satellite operators hire launch companies to send their satellites into space aboard rockets, and launch options are dwindling. Lockheed Martin and Boeing have merged their launch businesses into United Launch Alliance, which is reportedly kept too busy launching U.S. government satellites to offer any services to private operators. That leaves only two European-based launch companies — and the state-owned China Great Wall Industry Corporation.

The 1999 Strom Thurmond National Defense Authorization Act stipulates that U.S.-made satellites may be exported to China only if the president affirms they pose no threat to our national security. Satellites contain advanced technology that lawmakers fear China could study, copy and use in developing rockets or space-based weapons. The Great Wall corporation also has a record of selling weapons technologies to Pakistan and Iran.

Great Wall has been repeatedly slapped with U.S. sanctions. The most recent sanction, which prohibited U.S. companies from doing any business with Great Wall because of weapons proliferation, expired last June.

Since the Thurmond bill passed, not a single U.S. satellite has been launched aboard a Chinese rocket. These restrictions drive up costs for operators, especially because Chinese launches cost half the price of U.S. or European launches, according to a 2007 Wall Street Journal article.

“When hard decisions must be made, national security must always be the paramount consideration,” Sen. Warner said in 2001. He assailed the companies that were lobbying for looser export controls at the time: “I am afraid there are those, including people in the corporate boardrooms across this country, who sometimes are not mindful about what serves as the foundation of our economic strength and their ability to project beyond our shores.”

But now Warner's priorities have shifted. “I remember the Strom Thurmond Act — that's fine,” he told me. “I stand by whatever I said. I don't remember what I said, but I'll be delighted to read it in your column tomorrow. But I know this is an industry that needs help, and I'm privileged to be in a position to try and help them.”

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., a vocal China hawk, isn't buying. “I do not know how people who have spent their life trying to represent the interests of the United States of America … can leave their office and then be hired on by a country that is America's greatest potential enemy in the future.”

Export controls could drive operators to use foreign-made satellites, Warner's side argues, hurting the U.S. satellite makers and thus national security. Warner emphasized the coalition's push to expand U.S. launch opportunities, calling China and the export controls, “just a tangential issue.”

Resisting Warner's push for liberalization are the Russian and French satellite launchers, who benefit from the limited launch supply, and who do not want to compete with a Chinese state-owned company.

The case is complex — it is not a simple case of profit versus security. But John Warner's rhetoric sure sounds different since his trip through the revolving door.

Timothy P. Carney, The Examiner's lobbying editor, can be reached at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. He writes an op-ed column that appears on Friday.

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