U.S. SUPERCOMPUTER SALE TO RUSSIA RAISES ALARM IN CONGRESS
(Case under investigation by Commerce, Justice)
By Bruce Odessey
USIA Staff Writer
April 15, 1997
Washington -- An alleged U.S. sale of supercomputers to Russian nuclear weapons facilities has raised alarm in the U.S. Congress, where some members want to reverse the Clinton administration's relaxing of export controls.
At a House of Representatives National Security subcommittee hearing April 15, William Reinsch, under secretary of commerce, said little about the sales themselves except that they were under investigation by the Commerce and Justice departments.
Reinsch also defended administration export control policy, which he said recognizes that the current generation of computers, once linked, have the power of supercomputers, but have become so widely available in the international market that they are effectively uncontrollable.
"Trying to control the uncontrollable is ineffective when the U.S. no longer possesses a monopoly on this technology," Reinsch said.
Nevertheless, he said, the U.S. Department of Commerce requires licenses and safeguards for supercomputer exports to countries like Russia and China, even for computers of relatively little power that are intended for military end users or end uses.
Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican chairman of the subcommittee, argued that the military in Russia or China can command access to any supercomputer from any other government agency even if it was imported from the United States on the basis of civilian end use. He expressed serious doubts on Clinton administration policy.
Even Representative Ronald Dellums, ranking Democrat on the full National Security Committee, asserted that some kind of reform was required.
"It's clear to me the policy needs to be changed," Dellums said.
At issue is the alleged sale of supercomputers by Silicon Graphics, Incorporated, of California to the Russian nuclear weapons laboratory Chelyabinsk-70.
Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, testified that Silicon Graphics sold supercomputers to the Russian nuclear weapons laboratory Chelyabinsk-70 without bothering to apply for a Commerce Department export license.
That happened, according to other testimony, just as the administration was deciding not to approve license applications submitted from IBM and Convex Computer Corporation for supercomputer sales to Chelyabinsk-70 and another Russian nuclear weapons lab, Arzamas-16.
The administration did not deny those applications either, but returned them without action, thus allowing the exporters to reapply for licenses later.
Milhollin said the four processors delivered by Silicon Graphics had four to 10 times more computing power than anything the Russians had before.
"With them, Russia will be able to design nuclear warheads cheaper and faster through simulations and will be able to design more accurate long-range missiles," Milhollin said. "In effect, Russia will continue the arms race on computers made in America."
According to GAO testimony, Russian government officials have stated that the supercomputers will be used to confirm the safety and security of Russia's nuclear arsenal.
Those kinds of activities are allowed under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; the U.S. Department of Energy has even discussed with the Russian government cooperating on a science-based stockpile stewardship program.