A little-noticed White House regulation change urged by Silicon Valley will allow the Chinese military to buy some of the most powerful U.S. computers without a government license or security review.
The move, announced by President Clinton on Aug. 3 and applauded by Vice President Al Gore, is drawing fire from security experts who say the computers could help foreign militaries develop nuclear weapons more quickly, and from a congressman who charges the White House is compromising national security for political profit.
The new regulations, scheduled to take effect in February, will relax U.S. government oversight on exports of ultra-powerful high-performance computers, or HPCs, to nearly all countries around the globe.
Security experts are particularly worried because the regulations reduce special oversight on computer exports to the the militaries of approximately 50 nations the United States has designated security concerns, including China, Russia, Pakistan and India, so-called Tier III countries.
Under the new rules, militaries in those countries would be allowed to buy, without a U.S. government license and 10-day multi-agency security review, systems with processing speeds as fast as 28,000 million theoretical operations per second (MTOPS), made by manufacturers like IBM, Silicon Graphics and Cray Inc.
A joint Commerce-Defense Department study has found nuclear blasts can be simulated with computers between 10,457 and 21,125 MTOPS.
The average desktop computer might measure around 1,000 MTOPS.
In its Aug. 3 announcement, the White House said the new regulations “promote national security” while they “ease unnecessary regulatory burdens on both government and industry.”
The new regulations are the fifth and most aggressive relaxation of national security controls on high-performance computer exports since Clinton took office in 1993. Like changes before, they were made at the urging of America’s top computer companies — specifically, the chief executive officers of IBM Corp., Unisys Corp, Hewlett-Packard Co. and NCR Corp., at a June 8 meeting with Clinton administration officials.
The CEOs left that meeting “very encouraged,” according to a statement from the Computer Coalition for Responsible Exports, an organization representing the industry.
Following Clinton’s announcement, Unisys CEO and CCRE Co-Chair Lawrence Weinbach congratulated the administration. “The president’s decision makes U.S. computer manufacturers more competitive in the worldwide marketplace.”
Democratic presidential candidate Gore issued a statement also applauding the decision, saying it would “increase the ability of U.S. high-tech companies to compete and win in global markets.”
Silicon Valley Support
Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., a frequent critic of the administration’s technology export policies, believes the changes are a reckless move to bolster campaign support from America’s prosperous computer sector.
“It’s another example of this administration’s wanton efforts to not worry about our security because they’re more concerned about favoring companies and enterprises, in this case involving China, which will benefit from this technology,” he says.