The continuing violence and political instability in Ukraine have raised concerns around the world, especially within the United States and the EU.  Whether some form of sanctions against current officials in the Ukrainian government should be imposed has been debated over the past several weeks, including reports that the Obama administration began preparing financial sanctions against current Ukrainian government officials last month.

Sanctions against Ukrainian officials are, of course, a delicate diplomatic endeavor for EU countries that not only trade extensively with Ukraine but also recognize the effects to EU-Russian relations with any rancor that develops by proxy in former Soviet states.  Such targeted EU or U.S. sanctions, moreover, amount to blocking funds that are unlikely to be found in large amounts in Western banks and a travel ban on individuals who were not likely to travel to the West in the near future in any event.

The telephone conversation posted to YouTube late last week between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, however, exposed just how heated a resolution in Ukraine is becoming between the United States and the EU.  In discussing how officials from the United Nations may assist in reaching a resolution between the current Ukrainian government and opposition leaders, Nuland has now infamously said, “f**k the EU,” presumably an expression of her view that EU involvement thus far to address the situation in Ukraine has been inadequate.  As if that were not enough for diplomatic missteps, it has also been reported that Nuland and Pyatt each used unencrypted cell phones during the conversation.

While the fallout of Nuland’s comments and the Obama Administration’s finger-pointing at Russia for its involvement in hacking the phone call will garner the headlines, the issue also presents an interesting juncture for a shadowy subject of U.S. export controls: surreptitious listening devices.

As we first reported over seven years ago, BIS has not always been sufficiently clear on its standards for classifying surreptitious listening devices that are subject to the EAR’s control under section 742.13.  In Export Control Reform materials presented by BIS last year, BIS articulated five questions to assist exporters in answering the ultimate question, “Is my item subject to the 742.13 Communications Interception policy?”  Those questions, however, don’t help advance the ball much in improving a U.S. exporter’s ability in classifiying surreptitious listening devices short of seeking clarification or a license from BIS.

The United States may never determine what devices were involved in intercepting the Nuland-Pyatt conversation.  Moreover, the “tradecraft,” as Nuland described the interception, may very well continue to develop in ways that outpace any technical specifications that BIS affixes to surreptitious listening devices.  Without further clarity, however, U.S. exporters will still be mostly in the dark about what items require a U.S. export license at the same time that BIS will likely crank up the breadth of its controls over exports of surreptitious listening devices.  But if clarity is a hallmark of Export Control Reform, a little more with respect to surreptitious listening devices would go a long way.