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THE NATION

Bush Eases Limits on Supercomputer Exports

Trade: The move will allow some nations, including Russia and China, to import more powerful U.S. machines.

January 03, 2002|JUBE SHIVER Jr. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In a move that pits national security concerns against commercial interests, President Bush on Wednesday eased restrictions on the export of supercomputers to Russia, China, Pakistan and other nations.

Bush notified congressional leaders that his administration will more than double the amount of computing power allowed to be exported to "tier 3" nations, a group of more than three dozen countries that pose nuclear proliferation concerns, including Israel and India.

The decision marks the second time computer export restrictions have been eased since 1999 and comes amid heightened national security concerns after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. It also comes nearly a month after Bush vowed to "toughen export controls."

The U.S. restricts the sale of the nation's most powerful computing technology in an effort to thwart the spread of nuclear weapons.

Under the relaxed standards approved by Bush, the government will restrict the export of computers that perform more than 190,000 MTOPS (millions of theoretical operations per second), more than double the current limit of 85,000 MTOPS. A computer that uses 36 Pentium 4 processors--new home computers can run on just one of those processors--could theoretically crank out about 191,988 MTOPS, according to Intel Corp., which makes the Pentium processors.

The widespread availability of such powerful processors led some experts to say that it is futile to try to restrict supercomputers.

"Moore's Law has not been repealed," said John Pike, director of the Alexandria, Va., consulting firm Globalsecurity.org, referring to the industry maxim that computer power inexorably doubles every 18 months.

The White House conceded as much Wednesday when it announced the policy change.

"These reforms are needed due to the rapid rate of technological change in the computer industry. Single microprocessors available today, by mail order and the Internet, perform at more than 25 times the speed of supercomputers built in the early 1990s," said White House Deputy Press Secretary Scott McClellan.

However, McClellan said the changes "will advance the president's goal of updating the U.S. export control system so it protects U.S. national security and, at the same time, allows America's high-tech companies to innovate and successfully compete in today's marketplace."

As part of the Export Administration Act, the computer regulations were approved during the Cold War era, when most computers were much less powerful. The act expired in 1990 but has been given temporary extensions by Congress.

But even hard-line security hawks say containing the spread of more powerful computers to wayward nations may be all but impossible in this era of global commerce and cheaper and faster microprocessors.

"In the long run, trying to prevent the spread of computation capability is like trying to prevent the spread of knowledge; however, you don't want the most advanced machines going to the bad guys," said Henry D. Sokolski, director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a conservative Washington group.

Critics note that the first nuclear weapons were created in the 1940s without the use of powerful computer technology. But Sokolski said supercomputers can be instrumental in shortening the engineering time needed to develop advanced nuclear triggers.

"Do you need the most advanced computer to solve tough problems? No, but anything that increases computing capability increases the ability to solve complex problems more quickly," he said.

The computer chip industry has lobbied intensively for an end to the export limits. This latest easing was applauded by industry leader Intel, which is preparing to roll out its next-generation processor, the Itanium.

"We are pleased and gratified that the administration has chosen to move the limit up," said Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy. "It will allow us to continue to export [freely] for the next two years or so." But Mulloy said the industry will continue to lobby for an end to the restriction because the next generation of processors will probably require another adjustment within two years.

Bush's move met resistance from some within the administration, industry lobbyists said.

It comes less than a month after Bush cited a need for tougher export controls. "Together, we must keep the world's most dangerous technologies out of the hands of the world's most dangerous people," Bush said Dec. 11 in a speech to cadets at the Citadel, a military college in South Carolina.

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