Rein In Technology Exports

Los Angeles Times
February 26, 1997, p. A11

POLICY: Silicon Graphics’ sales abroad of supercomputers came just in time to continue the nuclear arms race.

It should come as no surprise that Russian scientists are now designing nuclear weapons with powerful American supercomputers. When California-based Silicon Graphics improperly outfitted one of Russia’s nuclear laboratories last fall, it was the inevitable result of the Clinton administration’s penchant for putting export earnings above national security.

The Silicon Graphics computers are about 10 times more powerful than anything the Russians had before. They will enable Russia to design nuclear warheads cheaper and faster through computer simulations and to make long-range missiles more accurate. Whoever succeeds Boris Yeltsin will appreciate the help.

To make matters worse, the head of marketing at Silicon Graphics told me last week that the company sold even more powerful supercomputers to the Chinese Academy of Sciences last March. That august body helps develop long-range Chinese nuclear missiles such as the DF-5, which is aimed at American cities.

The Commerce Department is probing the Russian sale–which appears to be illegal–and will probably probe the Chinese one, but Commerce is primarily to blame for allowing them to happen.

Early last year, the administration’s nuclear experts asked Commerce to send American computer makers a list of the sensitive nuclear sites in Russia and China. The experts wanted to put the companies on notice, so they wouldn’t unwittingly sell high-power machines to these places. Commerce refused, saying that it was against U.S. policy to name such sites in friendly countries.

Why was there a danger of unwitting sales? Because to please Silicon Valley, Commerce had slashed export controls on strategic technology to one-tenth of what they were under the Bush administration. Under Bush, no computer performing more than 12.5 million operations per second could go to Russia or China without an export license. Now, computers up to 7 billion operations per second can go without a license if the sale is not to a nuclear, chemical, missile or military site.

Claiming ignorance, Silicon Graphics made the Russian and Chinese sales without an export license. “It boggles the mind that Silicon Graphics would do this,” said an official at the Department of Energy.

At virtually the same time that the Silicon Graphics computers were being sold, the White House, under media pressure, was turning down requests for export licenses from Hewlett Packard and IBM, which had orders for similar machines from the same scientists. Why? Because the scientists work at Chelyabinsk-70, the center that has developed most of Russia’s nuclear warheads, including the world’s most powerful hydrogen bomb.

Officials at the Commerce, Defense and Energy departments say that the four Silicon Graphics computers–each performing more than 4 billion operations per second–needed an export license to go to Chelyabinsk.

But Edward McCracken, Silicon Graphics’ chief executive officer, told me that the company didn’t know what Chelyabinsk was up to. That’s ridiculous. Since opening in 1955, it has been one of the two best-known Russian laboratories for designing nuclear warheads. And in 1995, in a guide to acquaint American exporters with Russia’s military sites, the Commerce Department plainly listed Chelyabinsk’s “product line” as “development of nuclear weapons.” Moreover, U.S. export laws oblige an exporter to investigate a buyer before making a sale.

As for the Russians, they got the computers just in time to continue the arms race. Russia’s minister of atomic energy, Viktor Mikhailov, told the press recently that Moscow will obey the new test ban treaty, but will now design its warheads with simulated explosions, using the computers from Silicon Graphics. “Like the United States, we have great expertise in this area,” Mikhailov boasted.

If Silicon Graphics can rewire Russia’s and China’s bomb makers without anyone knowing, it can do the same for scores of other nuclear and missile sites in India and Pakistan. All four nations are under the same computer export rules as Russia.

And there is the fact that McCracken was an influential campaign supporter of President Clinton’s in 1992 and 1996. He helped lead the industry drive to slash computer export controls and was also a candidate for secretary of Commerce. McCracken’s company seems to be violating the very rules he helped create.

By touting trade as the supreme foreign policy goal, President Clinton has given the impression that anything goes if it brings in a buck. Congress must reverse that impression by demanding a full public account of the computer sales to Russia and China. And the Commerce Department, in addition to giving computer makers a list of off-limit nuclear sites, should make an example out of Silicon Graphics by yanking its export privileges for six months to a year. That would get industry’s attention. It also would show that the Clinton administration cares more about the spread of the bomb than about its campaign supporters in Silicon Valley.