Congress Considers Tightening Export Controls for Supercomputers


Howard Diamond

FOLLOWING THE transfer of several U.S.made high-performance computers to Russia and China, possibly for use in their nuclear weapons programs, Congress is considering legislation that would tighten supercomputer export controls which were eased by the Clinton administration in 1995. An amendment to the fiscal year 1998 defense authorization bill that is pending in a House-Senate conference committee would require prior written approval from the U.S. government for sales of computers capable of at least 2,000 million theoretical operations per second (MTOPS) to countries of proliferation or security concern.

The amendment, cosponsored by Floyd Spence (R-SC), chairman of the House National Security Committee, and Ron Dellums (D-CA), the panel's ranking minority member, was adopted June 19 in the House by a vote of 332-88. Although the Senate rejected a similar amendment offered by Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Richard Durbin (D-IL), it approved, by a vote of 72-17, a substitute measure offered by Senator Rod Grams (R-MN) that would retain the current system for controlling computer exports, but would require a General Accounting Office study of the issue.

Given the lopsided but contradictory votes in the House and Senate, the future of the Spence-Dellums amendment remains uncertain. Congress will ultimately resolve the issue after the conference committee finalizes the 1998 defense bill when legislators return from summer recess.


'Tier3' Controls

When the Clinton administration relaxed export controls on supercomputers in 1995, it created four "tiers" of states within a system of increasing levels of controls and limits, progressing from almost no controls on sales to close allies such as Canada, Western European countries and Japan in "tier-1," to near total prohibition for Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea in "tier-4." The key concern is the status of export controls on the so-called "tier-3" countries that include China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, much of Eastern Europe, all of the Middle East and the former Soviet republics.

For "tier-3" countries, computers capable of 2,000-7,000 MTOPS may be sold under a general license without prior approval from the Commerce Department. Sales to military or proliferation-related buyers in this group require an individual validated license from the department, as do any sales of computers operating above 7,000 MTOPS. Sales of computers operating above 10,000 MTOPS may require additional safeguards at the end-user's location.

Critics of the administration's policy have argued that the government, rather than the computer companies, should determine whether a potential buyer is a military or proliferation-related end-user. According to one congressional staffer involved in the issue, computer companies, which are responsible for making this determination under the current system, lack the intelligence information needed to make such judgments, and, as the illegal sales to Russia and China indicate, some companies fail in their obligation to "know their customer."


Congressional Inquiry

Congressional concern about supercomputers was stimulated earlier this year when Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy (MINATOM) announced that it had acquired five American-made supercomputers—four from Silicon Graphics, and one from IBM—for use in maintaining the safety and reliability of the Russian nuclear arsenal in the absence of nuclear testing. (See ACT, March 1997.) A modern desktop computer using a 200-megahertz Intel Pentium processor is capable of roughly 200 MTOPS, approximately the same level that was used to define a supercomputer in 1991. In comparison, the machines acquired by Russia's weapons labs under the guise of modeling soil and water pollution, operate at 4,400 and 10,000 MTOPS.

The sales led the Military Procurement Subcommittee of the House National Security Committee to hold an April hearing and prompted the Senate Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on International Security, Proliferation and Federal Services to hold a hearing on June 11. Commerce Department Undersecretary William Reinsch said in testimony before the House subcommittee that 1,100 supercomputers worth more than $550 million had been exported from the United States between January 1996 and March 1997, including 46 to China worth $17.5 million and eight to Russia worth $19 million.

Reinsch told the Senate subcommittee that the Commerce Department has taken steps to help exporters comply with the 1995 policy, including consulting with companies if they are in doubt about certain buyers; holding seminars for the few U.S. producers of supercomputers; and, where possible, publishing in the Federal Register the names of buyers requiring an individual license. Despite the three cases under investigation, Reinsch said, "by and large these companies have not had a lot of difficulty figuring out . . . who the military end users are and who [are] not." Reinsch also told the Senate subcommittee that additional names of organizations requiring Commerce Department approval would be made public shortly, though, he said, "we have not done it extensively so far [because] there are intelligence sources and methods issues that come up frequently on this issue." On June 30, the department published in the Federal Register the names of 13 entities in China, India, Israel, Pakistan and Russia which exporters should consider to be military-related, and said more would be added in the future. Prior to the June hearing, the Commerce Department had publicly identified Ben-Gurion University in Israel and Bharat Electronics of India as entities of proliferation concern.

The Justice Department is currently investigating the Silicon Graphics and IBM supercomputer sales as well as a sale by Sun Microsystems to a Hong Kong company that subsequently transferred the computer it bought to a weapons lab run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.