U.S. officials have approved the sale of an American supercomputer to Israel’s Ministry of Defense for use at a secret military site, knowledgeable U.S. officials tell the Risk Report.
The machine, built by Cray Research, operates at 2,625 MTOPS (million theoretical operations per second) and is destined for the Israeli intelligence services, U.S. sources said. According to a Cray official, it will do “crypto-analytics,” meaning that it will be used for coding and decoding secret messages. Israel received funding to purchase the machine from the U.S. Department of Defense.
Cray’s application was voted down in October 1995 by a group of experts from five federal agencies because the computer was destined for a secret site where its use could not be verified. Officials were concerned that the machine could be used to design nuclear weapons or long-range missiles. “The policy was that if the export is going to a proliferant and you can’t safeguard it, and it is not part of a government-to-government program, you deny it,” said a U.S. official familiar with the case. According to Cray, the negative vote by the Subgroup on Nuclear Export Controls (SNEC) was due to the fact that the machine “was going into a black hole because the site was classified as off-limits.” The recipient was “known but not trusted,” the Cray official confided to the Risk Report.
The negative vote was reversed late last year by a change in U.S. export policy. After the change, computers operating at less than 7,000 MTOPS were no longer defined as supercomputers and therefore no longer had to be protected by a security plan. Thus, the machine for Israel could be approved even though it would be inaccessable to U.S. personnel.
As the May issue of the Risk Report went to press, at least two other applications were pending for American supercomputer exports to Israel. U.S. officials said that the Israeli Ministry of Defense had requested a second machine for the secret military site. The Ministry asked for permission to upgrade and use at the site an American computer previously exported to Israel by the Digital Equipment Corporation. The machine’s speed would increase from 1,335 to 2,596 MTOPS. The DEC computer had been approved for export in May 1995 by a high-level decision that overruled a rejection at the expert level.
The second application was to upgrade a Cray supercomputer in use at Israel’s Inter-University Computation Center at Tel Aviv University. The Cray had been approved for export in November 1994, also after an interagency conflict (Risk Report Vol. 1, No.1, Jan.-Feb, 1995). Israel asked for permission to increase the computer’s speed from 5,225 MTOPS to 10,425 MTOPS and to move the Computation Center from Tel Aviv to Ben Gurion University.