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U.S. Treasury Department Issues Free Press Ruling

IEEE gets OK to resume peer-reviewing, editing, and publishing manuscripts from authors in embargoed countries, but other activities are still in question

3 min read

12 April 2004--To the immense relief of

From left, David Mills, OFAC's chief of licensing, Michael Lightner, IEEE director of publication services and products, and IEEE President Art Winston discuss the Treasury Department's ruling.

IEEE members and its journal editors, the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) ruled on 2 April that IEEE may resume peer review, editing, and publishing of scholarly manuscripts submitted by authors living in countries under U.S. trade embargo. Reversing its previous position, OFAC determined that IEEE's entire publishing process falls under the so-called Berman Amendment to trade law, which exempts the free exchange of information from sanctions.

Since the summer of 2001, when a bank flagged an attempted transaction between IEEE and an institution in Iran, IEEE has been negotiating with the Treasury Department about whether it was required to honor rules affecting embargoed countries. While it awaited an OFAC ruling on whether or not it was subject to embargo rules, IEEE's leadership decided it had no choice but to comply, being subject to the law of the land in which it is headquartered. IEEE's 2003 president Michael S. Adler explained the organization's position in the October issue of IEEE Spectrum, and the background to the case was detailed that month on the magazine's web site [see "Will U.S. Sanctions Have a Chilling Effect on Scholarly Publishing?" November 2003].

The case pitted the requirements of U.S. law against press freedoms and the privileges of members in international organizations, and so, understandably, not every science and technology society saw the situation the same way. The American Institute of Physics and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, among others, refused to comply with the OFAC rules. IEEE's position angered some of its members, especially the 1700 in Iran. More than 5000 members signed a petition calling upon IEEE to reverse its position.

In February this year, IEEE brokered a meeting in Washington, D.C., between OFAC and scholarly publishers. It was the first time an OFAC official had discussed the issue face-to-face with publishers. Acknowledging publishers' concerns, IEEE President Arthur W. Winston said, "Today, the OFAC restrictions raise many important issues about academic freedom--not only for the IEEE, but for all scientific, technical, and medical publishers. IEEE is committed to investigating any and all avenues that will lead to a resolution of the difficult situation�"

Following the meeting, OFAC began hearing from a number of publishers and public officials, including U.S. Congressman Howard L. Berman, Democrat of California and author of the amendment exempting informational materials from economic embargoes. Berman asked OFAC to reconsider its position on editing and publishing scholarly material, and he told OFAC he believed its position contradicted the amendment. In its ruling on 2 April, OFAC agreed with Berman's interpretation, reversing its previous position and freeing IEEE to resume all normal publishing activities. Richard Newcomb, director of OFAC, wrote in the ruling, "We very much appreciate the approach taken by [IEEE] to comply with federal law in this matter and to work with us in good faith to arrive at a resolution of these issues."

The ruling does not, however, resolve all the issues of serious concern to IEEE members in embargoed countries. In the four affected countries--Cuba, Libya, Sudan, as well as Iran--members still are prohibited from being elevated to a higher-grade membership; using IEEE e-mail alias and Web accounts; accessing online job listings; and conducting conferences under the IEEE name. Nor does the OFAC ruling, which applies specifically to IEEE's publishing activities, necessarily extend to other publishers. In its letter to IEEE, OFAC also effectively ruled out joint research projects and coauthored papers between scientists in the United States and their peers in embargoed countries. IEEE leaders say they will continue to work those issues with OFAC.

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