Should We Sell Supercomputers to Algeria?

The New York Times
April 24, 1998, p. A26

Since January, the Clinton Administration has been quietly circumventing a new law designed to keep American supercomputers away from third world bomb and missile makers. Supercomputers are the most powerful tools available for designing nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. The world may soon face more weapons of mass destruction, all so computer companies can reap a few export dollars.

The Digital Equipment Corporation has asked the Commerce Department for permission to sell a supercomputer to India’s Nuclear Power Corporation, which runs a string of reactors, widely assumed to produce plutonium used in atomic bombs. Digital also wants to supply China’s Harbin Institute of Technology, which makes rocket casings and other components for long-range missiles.

Sun Microsystems wants to outfit the Indian Institute of Technology, which develops rocket propellants and performs wind tunnel research to improve the flight of nuclear missiles. And Silicon Graphics, Inc. is hoping to supply supercomputers to another company that develops India’s biggest rocket and missile engines.

By law, American companies must notify the government before shipping a supercomputer to countries like Russia and China, which don’t control their exports effectively, and India, Israel and Pakistan, which reject the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. If a Federal agency objects to a sale within ten days of notification, the seller must provide more information.

Congress passed legislation last fall after Silicon Graphics and IBM were caught shipping supercomputers to Russia’s leading nuclear weapon labs without the required export licenses.

But in January, Gary Samore, the White House official in charge of nonproliferation and export controls, knocked the teeth out of the law. He informed the Federal agencies that they could not object to a sale unless an undersecretary personally put the objection in writing. This is like requiring the Postmaster General to personally forward your mail.

A Pentagon expert told me that this requirement is “outrageous,” because even formal license applications–which are more important than notices–are handled by mid-level personnel. David Tarbell, a senior Pentagon official, complained in a memo that the White House seemed to want to “ensure that no (or very few) objections would ever be received.”

The Energy Department has not objected to a single sale, because staffers there believe they would not get an objection up their chain of command within ten days. Even Federal agencies that have persisted have been unsuccessful. In February, the American arm of Siemens, the German electronics giant, announced that it wanted to sell a powerful computer to the Russian Academy of Sciences. The Pentagon objected because the Academy’s institutes still design nuclear warheads and missiles. But the Commerce Department returned the objection because an undersecretary hadn’t signed it. The Russians got the machine, and the Pentagon got stiffed. Only the tiny Arms Control and Disarmament Agency has been nimble enough to lodge effective objections.

Most recently, the Commerce and Energy Departments are trying to drop more than twenty countries that are now covered by the law. They want to allow supercomputer exports to Algeria, a terrorist-plagued state that is planning to process plutonium. The two departments also want to drop restrictions on countries like Vietnam and Vanuatu, which have no export controls, so technology could be easily diverted to other countries.

For all this, the computer companies would gain relatively little. The countries on the list of risky destinations account for only five percent of the potential market for supercomputers. Is it worth the risk, if someday American soldiers and sailors face Russian- and Chinese-supplied missiles in the Persian Gulf? Unless the Clinton Administration follows the intent of the law, those missiles will be designed with American help.