Clinton Again Relaxes Export Controls on Supercomputers

Matthew Rice

AMID GROWING INTERNATIONAL CITING TREMENDOUS ADVANCES in the computing industry and potential economic and security benefits to the United States, President Clinton announced a relaxation of licensing requirements for the export of high-performance computers (HPCs) on February 1. The changes make it possible for exporters to ship computers that have greater processing power without first obtaining a license from the Department of Commerce. The last change in HPC export control policy, which entered into force January 23, was announced last July. (See ACT, July/August 1999.)

The restrictiveness of HPC export controls is determined by a four-tier system based on the perceived threat posed by the country of the target end-user. Tier 1 countries, which include Canada, Mexico and Western European countries, are subject to very little control, while the United States retains a virtual embargo on HPC exports to Tier 4 countries, which include Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Tier 2 includes South Korea and most states in South and Central America, Africa and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and require licenses for only very high-level systems. Tier 3 encompasses countries of proliferation concern-such as India, Pakistan, China, the former Soviet states and Middle Eastern nations including Israel-and is subject to stricter constraints for both civilian and military end-users.

The newly updated regulations move Romania from Tier 3 to Tier 2 and change the HPC performance levels, measured in millions of theoretical operations per second (MTOPS), that determine licensing requirements for exports to civilian and military end-users in Tier 2 and Tier 3 countries. Exports of HPCs exceeding these defined performance levels require licenses subject to a national security review process coordinated by the Department of Commerce. For Tier 2 countries, the licensing threshold will rise from 20,000 MTOPS to 33,000 MTOPS. The licensing threshold for Tier 3 countries will rise from 12,300 MTOPS to 20,000 MTOPS for civilian end-users and from 6,500 MTOPS to 12,500 MTOPS for military end-users. Export restrictions to Tier 4 countries were not changed.

Changes in export controls regarding Tier 3 countries are subject to a six-month waiting period for congressional review. In the February 1 announcement, the administration asked that period be shortened to one month. Jake Siewert, White House deputy press secretary, explained that what the United States "would like to see is legislation that shortens that waiting period.... We want to make sure that when we make decisions, they move as quickly as the market." President Clinton made a similar request, which Congress ignored, in July 1999.

Another review of current controls, which will investigate the utility of distinguishing between civilian and military end-users, is set to begin in April.