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Former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and WMD Terrorism
U.S. Revises Computer Export Control Regulations

Seth Brugger

The White House announced plans August 3 that revise U.S. high-performance computer (HPC) export controls. The changes more than double the processing speed of computers available for export to military end users in so-called Tier 3 countries and eliminate the distinction between civilian and military end users in that tier. Commenting on the new regulations, Vice President Al Gore said they will improve the effectiveness of U.S. export controls and increase the ability of U.S. high-tech firms to compete globally.

U.S. HPC export control regulations divide recipient states into four tiers. Tier 1 countries include Western European nations and other U.S. allies that are subject to very little control. Tier 2 is comprised of Slovenia, South Korea, South and Central American nations, and most states in Africa and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. U.S. companies only need licenses to export very high-level computer systems to these countries. Tier 3 is subject to stricter controls, encompassing countries of proliferation concern, such as India, Pakistan, China, former Soviet states, and Middle Eastern nations. The United States maintains a virtual embargo on HPC exports to Tier 4 countries, which include Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria.

The latest modifications mark the Clinton administration's fifth change to HPC export controls since it began reviewing them in 1993. Since 1998, the reviews have been conducted about every six months, reflecting the fast-changing pace of computer technology.

The newest revisions modify computer performance levels, measured in millions of theoretical operations per second (MTOPS), that determine licensing requirements for HPC exports to Tier 2, 3, and 4 countries. Exports above certain levels require licenses subject to a national security review process managed by the Commerce Department. The administration's latest modifications increase the licensing threshold for Tier 2 countries from 33,000 MTOPS to 45,000 MTOPS. According to the Intel Corporation, a Pentium III processor, which is commonly found in personal computers, has processing speeds ranging from about 930 MTOPS to about 2,630 MTOPS.

The changes also move Argentina from Tier 2 to Tier 1 and Estonia from Tier 3 to Tier 2.

In February, the administration announced revisions that changed the threshold level for Tier 3 countries to 20,000 MTOPS for civilian end users and 12,500 MTOPS for military end users. (See ACT, March 2000.) This decision took effect in August. With its most recent announcement, the administration revised these levels again—to 28,000 MTOPS for all end users. This revision more than doubles the processing speed of computers allowed for export to Tier 3 military end users. It also eliminates the difference between civilian and military end users, a practice formally in place since 1995. The distinction was dropped because advances in computer technology have made gaining access to computer processors with this MTOPS level relatively easy.

Some of the latest changes require congressional approval and will therefore not take effect immediately. According to the White House, the administration will complete another review of HPC export controls in November. Maureen Tucker, a director for non-proliferation and export controls at the National Security Council, explained that the "national security agencies are reviewing various approaches for a new control methodology and that will be one of the items we will examine in the next review cycle."