Sabotaging Security for a Buck

Los Angeles Times
July 30, 2002

The scandals on Wall Street have taught us that industry tells lies, that our government does not protect us from those lies and that the result can be bad for our pocketbooks. The same process can also increase the nuclear threat to our nation.

In a report scheduled for release this week, the U.S. General Accounting Office concludes that the Bush administration made a dangerous mistake on nuclear arms proliferation.

According to the GAO, the administration improperly relied on false industry data to lower the barriers on the export of the United States’ most powerful computers–machines that could be used to build the most fearsome weapons that terrorists could get their hands on. The report shows how a computer industry lobbying group co-chaired by an official of Unisys Corp. duped the White House at the expense of the nation’s security.

In August 2001, the group wrote a letter asking the government to make it easier to export powerful computers to countries such as China, India, Russia and Pakistan.

The issue is important to national security. The GAO writes that the “availability of overall computing power to a nuclear weapon design program is critical” and that powerful computers “would be of significant use to China’s designers in examining likely gaps in their nuclear weapon science.”

The industry’s letter claimed that U.S. controls had to be weakened to keep American firms competitive. Why? Because a new generation of computer servers was about to hit the market. Each would contain 32 of the new Itanium chips, made by Intel Corp.

By early 2002, these servers would be marketed by companies all over the world. The new computers would do 190 billion operations per second, more than twice as many as computers formerly controlled for export from the United States.

Thus, according to the group, unless the government raised the control level for U.S.-origin computers to 190 billion, U.S. companies might lose business to foreign competitors.

The claim was bogus.

The GAO interviewed 10 companies that the industry cited as ready to sell these computers in 2002. It found that nine “would not introduce these servers in 2002 or had no plans to manufacture these servers due to the lack of software and a market for such powerful servers.”

Only one was ready: Unisys. No foreign company was, and no other American company was. Thus, no American firm ever risked losing business, and the whole case for weakening controls was a sham.

Why, then, did our government agree?

That’s what’s frightening. Our federal watchdogs, which are supposed to guard us against terrorists and the spread of the bomb, swallowed this industry fable whole, without so much as a cautionary sniff.

The decision “was based not on an independent analysis but rather on information provided by industry,” writes the GAO. Officials at the Commerce Department, which is in charge of finding out what is really available from foreign competitors, admitted they didn’t even try. “Industry,” they told the GAO, “made its case informally.”

The GAO found that the officials had relied on nothing more than the letter from the computer industry lobbying group.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time the U.S. has lowered computer controls. The Clinton administration did so a number of times without justification and got hammered by the GAO for decisions that “lacked empirical evidence or analysis.”

The reason this keeps happening is simple: campaign money.

The computer industry shells out millions of dollars annually to both political parties. It expects, and gets, something in return.

How does this sellout harm us?

First, it sabotages our fight against terrorism. We can’t ask our allies to keep dangerous equipment away from terrorists and the countries that support them if we don’t control our own sales. In fact, the GAO found that we unilaterally lowered our controls without the consent of our partners in the only international pact–the Wassenaar Arrangement–that tries to confine computer sales to responsible buyers. All the other countries in this pact still control computers at much lower operating levels, which makes the United States a rogue exporter, as well as a unilateralist.

Second, the new computers are highly potent. The GAO found that they were more powerful than the machines now performing 98% of the Pentagon’s military computing functions. And sending them off to places such as Pakistan, where they could boost the production of nuclear warheads, only increases the number of nukes that we have to worry about going astray.

As for Unisys, it can’t be expected to use restraint. Before the Gulf War, it sold Iraq’s interior ministry an $8-million computer system specifically capable of tracking the Iraqi population, which could still be helping Saddam Hussein stay in power.

The decision to change the rules came three months after Sept. 11, which means that, despite all the brave words, money was more important than security to the White House.

Gary Milhollin is director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control in Washington.