Fast Computers, Deadly Enemies

The New York Times
January 31, 2001, p. A25

As President Bush sifts through the pile of his predecessor’s last-minute directives to spot the executive orders he wants to – and can – overturn, there is one he should put at the top of the list. Just days before leaving office, President Bill Clinton – in a last-minute gift to Silicon Valley – moved to lower the controls on the export of America’s most powerful computers.

If Mr. Clinton’s directive stands (Congress has 60 days to overturn it, but probably won’t), a host of foreign countries will be able to build better weapons with American equipment.

Today, he who computes fastest wins wars. The United States has always used its most powerful computers to design nuclear warheads. And in modern warfare, computers are used for surveillance, communications, targeting and the precision-guiding of munitions.

Mr. Clinton’s directive will allow computers that perform up to 85 billion operations a second to be sold to countries like China, India and Pakistan – all of which are building nuclear and missile arsenals – and to Russia, which is helping Iran do the same. These computers are 44 times more powerful than the ones these countries’ military plants could buy from America only about a year ago. The result will be a big increase in foreign arms production.

In a press release about the new directive, the Clinton administration said that such export relaxation is inevitable. Controls on high-speed computers, it claimed, are “becoming ineffective” because of what’s known as “clustering” – the ability to achieve fast computing speeds by connecting together a number of lower-speed computers. Indeed, Mr. Clinton went so far as to recommend that export controls on all computers might as well be dropped, a suggestion that, if followed, would include the export of the multimillion-dollar (and multithousand-chip) machines in our national laboratories now trying to simulate atomic explosions.

The truth is that clustering works, but not as well as a single fast machine. It is quite difficult to assign pieces of a complex calculation to different computers and then combine the results. Among other things, the connections between the computers slow the speed. That is why foreign buyers still pay top dollar for the fastest American computers they are allowed to buy: They can’t get the same result with a bunch of laptops hooked together with cables.

In a mid-December report, the General Accounting Office criticized Mr. Clinton’s previous computer-export relaxation, which raised the top allowable speed to 28 billion operations a second from 12.5. The agency said the new ceiling failed to assess “the national security impact on the United States of Russia, China, or other countries obtaining high-performance computing.” That presidential directive, issued last August, goes into effect at the end of February.

And while the G.A.O. found that in some cases clustering is a successful substitute for higher-powered computers, it recommended convening a panel of experts to figure out what to do about clustering – not wholesale export deregulation.

The new administration should heed this advice and get its best brains working on the computer export problem. In the meantime, it should rescind, if it can, our outgoing president’s hasty and ill-considered directive.