Russia's atomic energy minister recently bragged about acquiring powerful American computers for two nuclear weapons laboratories in his country. Not long after, a Silicon Valley company admitted "errors in judgment" in selling some of the computers to the Russians. The firm, Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI), is now under investigation for breaching export controls.
Six years ago, SGI's act would have been considered a national-security disaster - and it may yet face penalties. But in today's post-cold-war world, the situation is not as clear cut. Some experts say Russia should no longer be treated as a near enemy.
American industry has lobbied to lift export controls on computer hardware and software, arguing that it is losing markets to foreign competitors who don't face such restrictions.
"The cold war's over," says G. William Walster, who manages a joint venture in Russia for Sun Microsystems. "It is in our national security interest now to open the doors."
The debate, however, may be moot. In the two years since the Clinton administration updated its restrictions on high-tech trade, the advance of technology is already making it almost impossible to keep all but the most sophisticated equipment out of the hands of America's former foes, say experts.
The machines sold by Silicon Graphics, capable of performing 3,000 million theoretical operations per second (MTOPS), are already at the low end of what were once called "supercomputers." Computers that once filled an entire room are now the size of a file box, sold around the world by the tens of thousands.
"These systems are easily available," says a senior Clinton administration official. "Even though they're available, the US has a law that says if you know the end user is involved in weapons of mass destruction, you're not supposed to sell it to them."
The Russians hope to use the machines to simulate nuclear explosions, enabling them to maintain their nuclear arsenal while still observing the nuclear test ban treaty signed last fall. The US has refused previous Russian requests for such technology on the grounds that it is not in America's interest to help Russia maintain the reliability of its nuclear arsenal.
"There is a residual fear of our military and national-security apparatus that the Russians are still a potential adversary," says Cameron Binkley, a researcher at the Stanford Center for International Security and Arms Control and co-author of a study on high-technology export controls.
The US and Japan, the only two nations now manufacturing supercomputers, agreed during the early 1980s to jointly regulate the export of such machines. Those large computers were produced in relatively small numbers and used for highly sensitive purposes such as nuclear weapons design, encryption and breaking of codes, and the design of sophisticated conventional weapons such as fighter aircraft.
The Silicon Graphics machines are well below the capability needed to perform some of those tasks, but the Russians also claim to have acquired a 10,000 MTOPS IBM computer. Nuclear blast simulation, and other very advanced military tasks such as submarine warfare, require a minimum of 10,000 MTOPS machines.
"From a national-security standpoint, we don't want to give the Russians the state of the art," says the administration official.
The cold-war-era Western system of controls on the flow of technology to the Soviet Union, China, and other communist countries was formally dissolved in 1994. But certain controls remain in place on the grounds that they are still needed to keep these technologies out of the hands of terrorists, organized criminals, and states seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction. Exports to a handful of "rogue states" such as Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Cuba, and Libya are barred.
Companies are allowed to sell computers in the 2,000 to 7,000 MTOPS range to buyers in nuclear-weapons-capable nations such as Russia, China, Israel, India, and Pakistan. The exporters, however, must determine that the buyer is not going to use the computer to help produce nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction.
"It's very subjective," complains the export manager for a major Silicon Valley computermaker. Among other problems, the Commerce Department refuses to publish a list of suspect buyers on the grounds it would reveal intelligence information.
The advance of technology has challenged these controls as well. Networking technology allows users to link together less powerful computers to perform calculations at a much higher level. A user overseas can also buy a supercomputer and do the calculations in the US, then send them overseas via the Internet, suggests the administration official.
Also, the system is often foiled by a bewildering variety of front companies set up to buy high technology, says a Commerce Department official.