It’s Only Common Sense: ITAR—The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the Very Ugly


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Has there ever been a more nebulous qualification than ITAR? It’s one of those topics that everyone has an opinion about, but no one really understands. To some of us it’s a game with ever-changing rules, and to others it’s simply a hurdle to overcome. And for others, it is something to ignore altogether.

Speaking of ignoring it, some large companies have been ignoring ITAR restrictions for years, flying right in the face of the DoD, letting them know that they did not think printed circuit boards were an “important enough” component to be covered by ITAR restrictions. This is happening even after IPC worked so hard and won the battle to have the DoD specifically include PCBs in the list of components officially recognized as an ITAR-protected electronic component. In most cases, they are getting away with it. At the same time, a small-time broker in the Northwest was fined and went to prison for ITAR infringement. So it seems that we have another instance of “too big to be prosecuted.”

Look, I am no expert on ITAR and all its rules and subtle nuances; frankly, I don’t know many people who are, but this is what I know:

  • To true ITAR expert consultants, ITAR means badges and scanning devices, electronically locked doors, no documents on computers leaving the country, no non-American citizens coming within a hundred yards of an ITAR project and no transmission of ITAR product data over your normal internet lines.
  • To CEMs, on the other hand, it means almost nothing. ITAR is just something to overcome, get around or work around on their way to finding the cheapest products they can find anywhere around the world.
  • Brokers feel that if they have the “right documentation,” whatever that is, they can legally sell offshore printed circuits to American military contractors who require ITAR compliance.
  • To many of our defense contractors, ITAR is nothing more than a pain in the neck, and since they claim they must work with an ever-diminishing portfolio of legitimate ITAR board fabricators to get their ITAR parts, they are constantly looking for loopholes in the system so they can head offshore to get their parts.
  • To American PCB vendors, ITAR has been one last vestige of hope against the ongoing devastation of their industry. They are hoping against all odds that at least one small part of the market would be deemed off-limits to offshore competition and saved exclusively for them.
  • To the American government, one must wonder what ITAR means. U.S. regulators try to protect the actual nitty-gritty data that goes into an ITAR-protected product while flagrantly selling and sometimes giving away the very end-products that the components go into, often to countries who are friends today, but possibly enemies tomorrow.
  • Last but not least, what does ITAR mean to one talented young man with a University of Toronto PhD and MIT credentials, who is a declared expert in special materials used in ICs, 3D circuits and PCBs? Despite his numerous publications and conference presentations on high-end materials and laminates, one of the most able, qualified scientists cannot even get a position in the U.S. because he was born in Canada, which is a huge loss for the U.S. This is especially troubling today when we are all desperately seeking technical talent, and many technically talented companies won’t even try to work through the legitimate immigration and citizenship process for fear of the ITAR police. Doesn’t make much sense, does it? If any of you have any need for such a talented young man, or any good ideas about what we can do to help him, please let me know.

In the end, I feel that ITAR is a good thing and could be even better if we were all the same page. And if all of us, from the smallest broker to the U.S. government, decided to respect, honor and enforce ITAR, it could and would be a great thing.

It’s only common sense.

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