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Clinton Revises Computer Export Control Regulations

Alex Wagner

On January 10, the outgoing Clinton administration loosened U.S. export controls on high-performance computers (HPCs) for the sixth time since 1993, emphasizing that the restrictions have become obsolete given rapid advancements in computer processing speed.

The United States regulates the export of HPCs because they can be used in the development and deployment of weapons of mass destruction. HPC exports are controlled by a four-tier country group structure created in 1995. The tier system restricts exports based on the perceived proliferation threat posed by the recipient state or end-users within a state. Tier 1 countries, such as European allies, are subject to no restrictions, while virtually all HPC exports are banned to end-users in Tier 4 countries, which include North Korea and Iran. Exports to countries in Tiers 2 and 3 require licenses for HPCs above certain speeds.

The White House's recent move combines the first and second tiers, creating a new three-tier structure and effectively abolishing licensing requirements for Tier 2 states, which include Slovenia, South Korea, and most countries in Central and South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. The revised regulations also raised the speed threshold for exports (above which a license is required) to Tier 3 countries, including Russia and China, from 28,000 million theoretical operations per second (MTOPS) to 85,000 MTOPS for all end-users. (According to the Intel Corporation, the Pentium III processor, which is commonly found in personal computers, has processing speeds ranging from about 930 MTOPS to about 2,630 MTOPS.)

The tier combination will take place in 120 days and the new speed threshold will go into effect February 26.

In a press release announcing the changes, the Clinton administration indicated that it "would prefer to remove most controls on computer hardware exports" but recognized that the Bush administration would need time to evaluate such a proposal. While acknowledging that there is "merit in continuing to control national security and proliferation-related software," the Clinton administration noted that restricting hardware exports is increasingly ineffective.

A General Accounting Office report released in December 2000 agreed, saying that current HPC controls based on MTOPS were "outdated and no longer a valid means for controlling computing technology." However, the report criticized the Clinton administration for not adequately explaining previous changes to the MTOPS thresholds in February 2000 and August 2000, specifically noting that the administration "did not factor computer clustering into its control threshold changes." Clustering, the process of physically connecting lower-speed computers to run applications faster, would allow a collection of such computers to exceed even the revised HPC thresholds.

Saying that an alternative was needed in order to address national security and proliferation concerns, the report called for a panel of experts to "comprehensively assess and report to Congress" ways to address the shortcomings of the current HPC export control process.

The Bush administration is reviewing the Clinton administration's HPC export control policies, but has yet to determine what changes, if any, it plans to make. In his confirmation hearing January 17, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that as "opposed to 10 or 12 years ago…we have now discovered that [HPCs] are fungible items; they're all over the world, and if we don't sell them, somebody else will." While recognizing the significance of "guarding the nation's interests" and "protecting [its] secrets," Powell concluded that computer export controls should not place the United States at a "competitive disadvantage."