- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 13, 2000

The Senate yesterday voted overwhelmingly to relax export controls on the powerful computers that have become ubiquitous in the digital era, despite worries that the machines could fuel foreign military buildups.

Lawmakers signed off on the legislation a top priority of the computer industry as the Senate remained mired in an increasingly contentious fight over how to proceed on a separate bill that could curtail American technology exports to China in response to its sales of weapons of mass destruction.

The Senate approved 86-11 an amendment to national-defense legislation that would reduce from 180 days to 60 days the time Congress has to review export-control changes made by the president. The provision does not actually open the way for exports of more powerful computers, but would smooth the way for the president to do so.

The Senate action virtually guarantees that the 60-day provision will become law. Last month, the House approved the same provision as part of its version of the defense bill.

The Clinton administration, though it wanted a 30-day provision, is willing to accept a 60-day rule, an administration official said.

"Today's vote is a big victory for the U.S. high-technology industry and for the jobs and economic growth that this important industry has generated," said Sen. Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who sponsored the legislation with Sen. Robert F. Bennett, Utah Republican.

The computer industry, which has chafed under what it considers unreasonably stringent export controls, welcomed the Senate vote as a step in the right direction, though it also wanted a 30-day review.

"The 180-day waiting period does little to bolster U.S. national security as foreign computer companies are free to sell the same computer systems that U.S. companies are restricted from exporting during the 180-day period," said Dan Hoydysh, a lobbyist for the Unisys Corp.

Computer giants including IBM, Sun Microsystems, Intel and Hewlett-Packard, which derive roughly half their sales from overseas markets, have pushed aggressively for changes to current rules as export controls bit into exports of off-the-shelf personal computers, work stations and servers. Computers such as those used by U.S. government laboratories to design and maintain nuclear weapons have remained under strict controls.

But Sen. Fred Thompson, the Tennessee Republican leading the charge on the proliferation legislation, charged that the change could harm U.S. national security.

"The Chinese … are specifically using our high-performance computers to enhance their own nuclear capabilities," he said. "Potentially, they will be used against our own country."

Mr. Thompson's bill, which had drawn the opposition of the White House, business groups and most Democrats, would squeeze exports of potentially sensitive technology to China if there was evidence that China is engaging in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The export-control legislation would ease the way for the next president to follow the Clinton administration's lead in adjusting computer-export controls as companies develop more powerful machines. Despite repeated controversies over exports to both China and Russia, the administration has pursued this strategy since 1995, arguing that exports are crucial to maintaining the American dominance of the computer industry.

But even before the legislation would take effect, the White House plans to announce further changes this month, an administration official said. But those changes would take effect at the end of the year, given the existing 180-day waiting period.

Currently, companies can freely export computers that can process up to 12,500 million theoretical operations per second. The White House announced this level in February, even though computer companies complained that the coming debut of Intel's Itanium microprocessor, which soon will replace a generation of Pentium chips, would boost the power of many machines well beyond the 12,500 MTOPS level.

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