U.S. Relaxes Export Controls on Supercomputers

Howard Diamond

RESPONDING TO ADVANCES in computer technology, President Clinton revised export control thresholds for high-performance computers (HPCs) on July 1, claiming that without the changes both the U.S. computer industry and national security would suffer. The Clinton administration relaxed HPC export controls in 1995 and again in 1996, but reports of U.S. supercomputers finding their way to Russian and Chinese military research facilities prompted Congress to reverse some of the administration's changes in November 1998. Most of the July 1 revisions took effect immediately, but changes in the controls on HPC sales to military-related users in countries of security or proliferation concern will not be implemented until a 180-day review period established by Congress in 1998 expires.

The United States controls HPC exports through a four-tier system based on the perceived threat posed by the recipient state. Restrictions range from simple record-keeping requirements for HPC sales to states in Tier 1, which includes Canada, Mexico and most U.S. allies, to a virtual embargo on sales to the so-called rogue states in Tier 4, including Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria. Tier 2 states, including most of South America, much of Asia, Slovenia, South Africa and South Korea, can purchase most HPCs with only record-keeping requirements but need licenses from the Commerce Department for higher-end systems.

The changes announced on July 1 moved Brazil and new NATO members Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into Tier 1 and raised the threshold for HPCs exported to Tier 2 countries, which require an individual license, from 10,000 million theoretical operations per second (MTOPS) to 20,000 MTOPS. White House Chief of Staff John Podesta said the Tier 2 upper limit would be reviewed in six months and probably raised to 32,000-36,000 MTOPS, with additional reviews to follow every six months. No changes were announced for Tier 4 controls.

The third tier, which has been the center of conflict between Congress and the administration, includes a wide variety of states considered to be of proliferation or national security concern. Tier 3 states include Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, Vietnam and most Middle East, Maghreb, former-Soviet Union and non-NATO Central European states, with different export controls for civilian and military users.

The new Tier 3 controls, unless rejected by Congress, will take effect in February 2000 and will raise the individual licensing level for military end-users from 2,000 to 6,500 MTOPS. The increase from 7,000 to 12,300 MTOPS for civilian end-users in Tier 3 was implemented immediately by the Commerce Department.

The current generation of desktop computers using Intel's Pentium III microprocessor are capable of about 1,300 MTOPS, and the California-based company expects to release computer chips next year capable of over 5,000 MTOPS. Hundreds of thousands of small- and medium-sized businesses are expected to buy computers that use multiple Pentium III-class processors, yielding capabilities above previous export thresholds.

The administration's revision of HPC export controls had been anticipated since the beginning of the year, but had been postponed to deflect partisan attacks. Coming little more than a month after the release of the Cox Report, which alleged that China had taken advantage of the 1996 liberalization of controls on HPCs to advance its nuclear weapons program, the new HPC export rules followed months of lobbying by the computer industry. Arguing that foreign manufacturers can produce computers beyond U.S. export thresholds by using multiple processors, U.S. computer makers prompted Republican members of Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (MS), to write the president and demand that the administration revise HPC controls. Also chiming in on the need to help the U.S. computer industry were Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush and Representative Christopher Cox (R-CA).

At the press briefing announcing the HPC rule changes, Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre said that during the interagency review the Defense Department had insisted on maintaining the dual standard for civilian and military end-users for Tier 3 countries, and had refused to accept an automatic indexing of controls. "I know we irritated people a good deal," Hamre said, "but every one of our concerns was accommodated, and we're satisfied that we can continue to protect the country with these relaxations."

Podesta said the administration hopes to work with Congress on reducing the six-month notification period for some HPC controls and would like to move to a new type of review process for HPC exports. The administration's goal, Podesta said, would be "to adopt an approach that does not rely on ad hoc judgments about appropriate levels of control, but rather keys our export controls to recognize the practical impossibility of controlling items...like microprocessors which are sold in the hundreds of thousands of units per month."