A wealthy West German businessman described as one of the most successful illegal exporters in history was sentenced Friday to 15 years in prison for diverting millions of dollars worth of U.S. high technology to Soviet bloc countries.
Protesting that he is a victim of "diplomatic gamesmanship" and America's own technological self-doubts, Werner Bruchhausen was also ordered to pay a $15,000 fine for his conviction in the illegal export of more than $6 million worth of sophisticated computer and radio equipment.
"I feel as a pawn in a political chess game between the United States and the Soviet Union," the so-called techno-bandit told U.S. District Judge Alicemarie Stotler before his sentencing on 15 counts of wire fraud.
"I feel as if the political mechanisms of the U.S. government have sought to make an example of me for the purpose of sending messages in connection with American foreign diplomacy," Bruchhausen said in an earlier written statement to the court. "I wonder if it is the purpose of law to bolster diplomatic gamesmanship?"
But Stotler dismissed the political arguments and called Bruchhausen's case "just another criminal sentencing" in which Bruchhausen must be "punished severely" for manipulating the international trade network for enormous profits.
"It's interesting that Mr. Bruchhausen tells the court that money does talk," the judge said. "It may be true, it may not be true, but it's clear that it does talk to Mr. Bruchhausen."
Federal prosecutors claim that the German businessman caused "incalculable damage" to U.S. security, providing the Soviets with equipment that, in some cases, was so sensitive that it had not been released to American allies.
Among the material exported through a variety of California purchasing outlets between 1975 and 1985 were sophisticated computer testing systems and secret military communications equipment that allowed Soviet bloc countries to monitor North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces.
"Before you is an individual who is one of the most significant illegal exporters of all time," said Assistant U.S. Atty. William Fahey, who had urged the court to impose the maximum possible sentence of 20 years.
"Bruchhausen's long-term scheme cries out for the most severe sentence ever imposed on a high-technology diverter," Fahey said, noting in his sentencing report that other technology diverters are undoubtedly watching the case "to assess our country's resolve and determination in this area."
Bruchhausen, a 47-year-old electronics engineer who headed a worldwide purchasing empire from his mansion in Munich, lectured the court in heavily accented English about two decades of U.S. foreign trade policy and claimed that he was guilty only of exploiting the same legal "loopholes" that large American corporations abroad have used with impunity.
Bruchhausen's crime, said his attorney, Alan May, was a political one.
"There is nothing necessarily in the Ten Commandments . . . that says it's wrong for someone to buy goods on the open market in one country and sell them in another country. In fact, some people call that capitalism," the attorney said.
May said the government's strong desire to send "a message" through Bruchhausen to other illegal exporters reflects the nation's own lingering doubts about its technological supremacy.
"It hurts me," he said. "I don't care what you ship Russia, that tyrannical, dogmatic society. You can give them the blueprints to everything we have, and they're still not going to catch up with us.
"We've lost confidence in ourselves," he said. "We've lost confidence in our ability to compete. Where have we lost our faith?"
Bruchhausen's calm discourse, in which he carefully detailed examples of American technology sales by major corporations, clearly impressed both prosecutors and the judge, who described him as "an astute businessman" with "an astonishing awareness" of American trade policy.
"He's quite brilliant," Fahey conceded. "He's also a supreme egotist. He believes that he can pick and choose the laws that should be followed. . . . He thought he was more intelligent and more sophisticated than the American agents charged with enforcing those laws."