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Supercomputer Export Controls Strengthened
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Despite two previous veto threats, President Bill Clinton signed into law on November 18 congressionally mandated changes to U.S. supercomputer export controls, which were contained in the fiscal year 1998 defense authorization act. The new guidelines reverse some of the modifications made by the White House in 1995, and will require the administration to expand its monitoring of proposed sales, and verify the actual uses of many U.S. high performance computers in countries of proliferation concern.

Prompted by reports that Moscow and Beijing had circumvented U.S. export controls and acquired U.S. supercomputers for use in military research facilities, including nuclear weapons labs, legislators forced three key changes to U.S. export policy. First, for unlicensed sales of computers operating at speeds above 2,000 million theoretical operation per second (MTOPS) to countries of "some security or proliferation concern"—so called tier 3 states—the determination of the buyer's legal eligibility will no longer be done by computer exporters, but through a 10 day inter departmental review process. Second, presidential changes to the list of tier 3 countries and the 2,000 MTOPS threshold will henceforth require 120 and 180 day congressional review periods, respectively. Finally, the Commerce Department will be required to conduct post shipment verification of the location and uses of all U.S. origin computers above 2,000 MTOPS in tier 3 states.

Commerce Department Undersecretary Bill Reinsch objected to the new requirements at a November 13 hearing of the House National Security Committee. According to Reinsch, the new requirements are "unrealistic both philosophically and procedurally," and infringe on the president's ability to conduct foreign policy. Reinsch added that the new verification requirements will waste scarce verification resources, overburden the intelligence community with needless license support obligations, and ultimately provide a significant competitive advantage to foreign computer companies.

Posted: November 1, 1997