1. Archive

Sales could blow up in our faces

Since January, the Clinton administration has been quietly circumventing a new law intended to keep American supercomputers away from Third World bomb and missile manufacturers.

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 be used in plutonium 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 makes India's biggest rocket and missile engines.

By law, American companies must notify the government before shipping a supercomputer to countries such as Russia and China, because they don't control their exports effectively, and India, Israel and Pakistan, because they reject the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. If a federal agency objects to a sale within 10 days of notification, the seller must provide more information.

Congress enacted this law last fall after Silicon Graphics and IBM were caught shipping supercomputers to Russia's leading nuclear-weapons labs without the required export licenses.

But in January, Gary Samore, the White House official in charge of non-proliferation and export controls, knocked the teeth out of the law by informing the federal agencies that they could not object to a sale unless an under secretary 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 I have seen) that the White House seemed to want to "insure 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 10 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 under secretary 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 20 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 5 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.

Gary Milhollin directs the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.

New York Times