A Welcome Retreat at Treasury

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Science  09 Apr 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5668, pp. 171
DOI: 10.1126/science.304.5668.171

In case you are not particularly interested in U.S. governmental habits or have been completely absorbed in your research, here is some news that may surprise you as much as it has us. The U.S. Department of the Treasury has an office called the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). That division, first established by a law restricting “trading with the enemy,” last fall told publishers that they faced serious legal penalties if they provided editorial services to manuscripts that come from Iran, Cuba, or other countries subject to U.S. economic sanctions. We weren't exactly happy to be told that we wouldn't be allowed to fix up the language, negotiate changes with authors, or improve illustrations.

OFAC's position may strike you as weird, but you and we aren't the only people who thought so. Congressman Howard L. Berman (D-CA), who authored a 1988 amendment that excluded “informational material” from the original law, was quick to note that the new rule violated the statutory exemption. He informed the Treasury Department of this view in no uncertain terms. Being more statesmanlike in his language than we are, he merely said that the order was “patently absurd” instead of, say, “really dumb.” Meanwhile, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), which first brought the problem to the surface, was protesting against the ruling, along with the American Association for the Advancement of Science and other organizations. We couldn't see a “national interest” for the United States in this rule, and certainly the interest of the international scientific enterprise was being poorly served. After all, the unfettered exchange of information encourages scientific progress in all nations, including the United States. How would scientists around the world, who often collaborate with U.S. colleagues, receive the news that our science press is sort of free, but not quite? What would they make of the revelation that OFAC fears a Science paper from Iran, but only if it's edited?

A more recent OFAC stunt then extended the Treasury Department's policy into a new area. On a week's notice, some 40 U.S. academics hoping to attend a neurology meeting in Cuba were told that they couldn't go under the terms of OFAC's general license and couldn't get a specific license either. There is a suggestion here of involvement by the State Department, which usually has a say in such matters. This is reminiscent of the early 1980s, when U.S. government restrictions under regulations regarding the international traffic in arms forced universities to trail foreign visitors, keep them away from certain labs, and restrict their attendance at seminars. After a 2-year struggle, those practices were finally halted by Executive Order. But the present Cuba case must entail motives of a different kind. Might there there possibly be some interest in the south Florida vote?

Well, just as this editorial was about to go to press, a remarkable thing happened. The Department of the Treasury actually changed its mind and announced in a press release on 5 April that normal peer review of manuscripts did not fall within its purview. It gets even better. The language used in the release (see the News story on p. 187) says all the right things, pointing to the need for international scientific communication unobstructed by such restrictions. Science appreciates Treasury's willingness to own up to a mistake and is grateful to IEEE and the other groups who led the effort to get the policy changed. But they have spoiled some fun for us; we were hoping to receive a paper full of typos and opaque constructions from one of those embargoed countries. Then we were going to publish it just as it came in, with a note at the top thanking Treasury for saving us all that editorial work.

The real story here is that this reversal sets an example for an administration that is notoriously reluctant to admit error. Perhaps we can hope for more of the same. The Treasury Department itself could set the next example by lifting the Cuba prohibition and declaring that basic research symposia and laboratory visits are not appropriate subjects for “trading with the enemy” sanctions. Who knows, the self-correction virus might even spread—to a White House announcement of a connection between anthropogenic emissions and global warming! We dream on.

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