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Computer sales could be costly

How many more foreign governments will make a mockery of U.S. regulation of overseas computer sales before the Clinton administration gets serious about policing the export of this technology?

First we learned that China spent huge sums of money buying U.S.-manufactured supercomputers that were used illegally for military purposes. Then came word that Russia might have taken advantage of loopholes in U.S. law to make similar purchases. According to a recent investigation by the New York Times, a Russian nuclear weapons lab purchased 16 advanced IBM computers last year in a clandestine business deal allegedly brokered by Moscow-based middlemen. A federal grand jury is investigating whether IBM knowingly violated laws that restrict unlicensed sales of computer equipment to overseas nuclear weapons installations.

These troubling incidents might have been avoided if the Clinton administration had not made the mistake of hastily deregulating the computer export industry two years ago.

The 1995 decision granted U.S. computer manufacturers the right to sell supercomputers overseas with minimal government oversight, provided the technology was sold only to civilians. Sales to military organizations or nuclear weapons firms still require special government permits.

Since that time, however, some computer companies have made only a minimal effort to keep track of their machines once they leave U.S. shores. Others are suspected of ignoring regulations altogether, knowing full well that Washington is not terribly interested in exerting what little regulatory authority it still has in this area.

Defense experts are rightly concerned that these American-made computers might make it possible for rogue nations to develop nuclear weapons that could one day be used against the United States. President Clinton obviously doesn't share that concern. He needs to explain why he is more concerned with global warming in the distant future than the threat of nuclear proliferation now.