U.S., Russia Seek Compromise Over Disputed Computers

AT THE END of October, the United States and Russia appeared to be nearing a solution to their standoff over the future of six American supercomputers improperly acquired by Moscow's premier nuclear weapons labs. The compromise was suggested during an informal conversation between Energy Secretary Federico Peña and Viktor Mikhailov, head of the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy (MINATOM), at the September 29 October 3 general conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. Mikhailov reportedly proposed that the four Silicon Graphics "Power Challenge L" deskside servers at Chelyabinsk 70 and two IBM machines—a 16 processor RS 6000 at Arzamas 16 and an SP 2—could be moved to non military locations in Russia and operated under U.S. monitoring.

Washington previously insisted Russia return the computers, but State Department spokesman James Rubin said October 27 that the United States is now willing to accept a solution which would shift them to civilian uses. However, Rubin warned that "Russian refusal to cooperate in finding a mutually acceptable solution would jeopardize joint U.S. Russian cooperation" and could lead to tighter "U.S. export controls vis à vis Russia."

The Russian acquisition of the U.S. made supercomputers was announced January 13 by Mikhailov, who told reporters that the new machines at Arzamas and Chelyabinsk were 10 times more powerful than any Russia had ever possessed, and that they would be used to help maintain the safety and reliability of Russia's nuclear arsenal in the absence of nuclear testing. High performance computers are used to assess the reliability of nuclear weapons by mathematical modelling of nuclear explosions under various conditions and comparing the results to expected values and nuclear test data.

Of the six high performance computers, the IBM RS 6000 may be the most powerful, capable of 10,000 million theoretical operations per second (MTOPS), while each of the Silicon Graphics machines operates at 3,000 to 4,400 MTOPS depending on the number of processors. The computing speed and whereabouts of the IBM SP 2 are unknown. By comparison, a commercial desktop computer, using a high end Intel Pentium II microprocessor, is capable of about 300 MTOPS.

Moscow succeeded in purchasing the U.S. computers after the Commerce Department turned down two requests in October 1996 from IBM and the Convex Company, a subsidiary of Hewlett Packard, to sell supercomputers to Arzamas 16. (See ACT, March 1997.) Russian officials claim that, during negotiations for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1995, U.S. negotiators hinted that U.S. computer technology would be made available to Moscow's scientists if Russia signed the treaty. The Clinton administration counters that U.S. supercomputers were never offered to Russia and, while the United States is willing to participate in unclassified scientific exchanges, official policy is not to assist Russia in maintaining its nuclear stockpile.

Based on an October 27 report in The New York Times, it appears the IBM machines were purchased by Moscow based computer re seller Ofort under false pretenses in the fall of 1996 from IBM dealers in Germany. Ofort declared a Russian software firm called Pangea as the intended end user, but Pangea and Ofort are both partly owned, the Times reported, by Jet Info Systems—the middleman for the previously rejected sales.

Officials from Silicon Graphics claim not to have known that their buyer, the All Russian Scientific Research Institute for Technical Physics at Chelyabinsk, was a nuclear weapons lab, and insist they were duped, having been told the computers would have non military uses. Both sales, in which the burden was on the sellers to determine the credentials of the end users, are the subject of criminal investigations by the departments of Commerce and Justice.

Disturbed by reports of U.S. made supercomputers showing up in Russian and Chinese military facilities, the House adopted on October 28 the fiscal year 1998 defense authorization act which included an amendment that would tighten some of the high speed computer export controls which the Clinton administration relaxed in 1995. The Senate is expected to take up the measure shortly. Under current policy, U.S. manufacturers can sell to states of proliferation concern—the so called Tier 3 countries of China, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, some Eastern European and all Middle Eastern countries—computers capable of up to 2,000 MTOPS for military or proliferation related end users, and up to 7,000 MTOPS for civilian users without obtaining prior approval from the Commerce Department.

The proposed congressional changes would require a 10 day interagency review period of any proposed sale of a computer capable of at least 2,000 MTOPS to a Tier 3 country. Other provisions would require annual post shipment verification by the Commerce Department for all computers above 2,000 MTOPS exported to Tier 3 states, and would give Congress six months to review presidential changes to the computer export control thresholds, and four months to examine changes to the Tier 3 list of countries.