The White House and computer industry representatives justify reducing the oversight not because security concerns have changed, but rather, by arguing hardware up to 28,000 MTOPS will soon be available commercially and therefore become too widespread to be controllable.
The new threshold represents “a realistic and enforceable control level,” said the White House statement, in light of “advances in basic computing technologies, and the problems inherent in trying to control commodity level items the administration has determined that widespread commercial availability.”
CCRE Co-Chair Daniel Hoydysh told a congressional committee in May the U.S. company Intel will soon be selling commercially a powerful new microprocessor, the Itanium, four of which can be linked to make a 23,700 MTOPS Internet business computer.
“At least five foreign firms [NEC, Siemens, Hitachi, Fujitsu, and Bull] have already indicated that they intend to market computer systems with the Itanium,” he said.
Congress’s nonpartisan watchdog agency, the General Accounting Office, says the White House has made its judgments about widespread availability based on industry projections, not on actual sales.
Furthermore, GAO Associate Director Harold Johnson noted at the May congressional hearing those projections were based on expected sales of U.S. computer technology — the very technology that would be controlled if the export regulations remained unchanged.
“It sounds to me like a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn, chairman of the Senate Government Affairs Committe.
Raising further question about the White House’s judgment of uncontrollability, Johnson noted U.S. companies and their subsidiaries are the main sources of supply for the most advanced high-performance computer technology around the world.
The GAO also concluded the administration has not presented a good analysis on how its new regulations might affect U.S. national security.
“The executive branch has not clearly articulated the specific national security interests to be protected in controlling the export of computers at various performance levels, nor has it stated how countries of military concern could benefit from using such computers,” said Johnson.
The relaxed restrictions will promote security, the White House asserts, because they would free up more government resources to stop proliferation of other technologies and because more money for U.S. computer companies would mean a stronger tech sector.
“The administration’s policy also recognizes the importance to our national security of maintaining a strong and vibrant industrial and technology base,” said Gore.
A Problem With Definition
Nearly all agree — the administration and its critics alike — that U.S. computer export regulations need to be tailored to distinguish between desktops, systems designed for business, and other parallel processors that could be used for military purposes.
The MTOPS criteria currently used applies to all computers. So, when an MTOPS limit is raised ostensibly to allow sales of new desktop or business computers, the higher threshold also makes available systems that could be used to design advanced aircraft or nuclear weapons.
Complicating the challenge, however, is the fact that systems designed for business can be used for military work.
The administration has for some time been considering tailoring the regulations to reflect distinctions between the different capabilities of computers.
“That’s still an open question,” says Eugene Cottilli, a spokesman for the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Export Administration, responsible for controlling HPC exports.
In the mean time, Milhollin says higher MTOPS levels will allow Tier III militaries to access the most advanced computer systems that can help them design and test weapons.
“It means the Chinese military can advance cheaper, faster and better with U.S. equipment.”