- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2000

The Clinton administration desires by the end of the year to dramatically ease export controls on high-powered computers that have become ubiquitous in the Internet age, but that also have important military uses, according to sources close to the issue.

Preparations for this change, which are being carried out with the support of the Pentagon, amount to an admission by much of the Washington national security establishment that these computers are so widely available that traditional controls have become futile.

Exports of advanced computers, also known as supercomputers, have been the subject of intense debate over the past four years as powerful machines have wound up in Chinese and Russian laboratories involved with their countries' military establishments.

But U.S. companies now are producing even more powerful computers, and they say they rely on those sales to maintain their technological advantage. In addition, their foreign competitors are producing more products that compete with American supercomputers.

"The developments in technology have blown out the capacity to have controls on many of these computers," said Dan Goure, who worked on export controls as an assistant to Defense Secretary Dick Cheney during the Bush administration.

The Clinton administration is crafting a different kind of system in which a relatively small number of computers with national security value would be subject to stringent controls, while most others could be exported freely.

"What's driving this is the Pentagon's desire to focus on the machines that they care about," a senior administration official said.

Because the U.S. computer industry is producing more powerful computers each year, the administration believes the changes should be in place by the end of the year to avoid harming an important sector of the economy.

"We intend that this happen by the end of the Clinton administration," the official said.

The president has the authority to make many changes to export controls without congressional approval. But administration officials, mindful that key committees might object to these changes, have discussed these potential policy changes with members of Congress, congressional sources said.

On a technical level, the change would abandon the standard the government uses for applying export controls on computers. Currently, controls are based on how many million theoretical operations per second (MTOPS) a computer can process.

This yardstick for measuring computer power dates back to the Bush administration, and the Clinton administration used it as the basis for periodically easing controls on progressively more powerful computers. The most recent change was in February, and another is expected next month.

The administration has not decided which standard will replace the current one, but several possibilities are under consideration.

At its heart, the change would amount to an admission by the Pentagon and other government agencies with national security responsibilities that computing power has become a commodity, something that users buy on the basis of price and is freely available from many sources. Advocates of this change point out that the United States developed many weapons systems using slower computers than current ones.

"There are real problems in having limitations specified on technology itself," Louis Gerstner, chief executive officer of IBM Corp., said while in Washington last week. "We need to think in terms of commodities and specialized products."

Mr. Goure, who is organizing a major study on export controls for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agrees.

"There ought to be export controls where you can prevent something bad from happening, and where you can effectively control something," he said. "In the case of computers, we have neither."

The move toward a different export-control system for computers is at least partly the result of a sustained, systematic effort by manufacturers to convince the administration and Congress that the current controls need revision, administration and congressional sources said.

High-tech companies long have complained that export controls hurt their bottom line without enhancing national security because other countries produce the same products and do not restrict exporting them.

They also have argued to the Pentagon that export earnings from their bread-and-butter products, which can account for as much as 70 percent of revenue, drive research into newer technologies that have battlefield applications.

Trying to keep U.S. companies and those from other countries from producing top-of-the-line computers is an exercise in futility, they contend.

"You're better off trying to run faster than the pack than trying to keep the others going more slowly," said Dan Hoydysh, a lobbyist for Unisys Corp.

Computer companies have put both organizational muscle and money into the political process over the last two years. In 1998, major manufacturers and a number of high-tech industry associations formed the Computer Coalition for Responsible Exports to lobby for what they consider to be reasonable export controls on computers.

Within that group, the most active member has been the Computer Systems Policy Project. The organization is composed of the CEOs of the major computer systems manufacturers, both older companies like IBM and Hewlett-Packard, and newer companies like Sun Microsystems and Dell Computer Corp.

Mirroring the high-tech industry's increased involvement in American politics, these companies also have contributed heavily to both Republican and Democratic campaigns. The group's members have so far made slightly more than $1.2 million in individual, political action committee (PAC) and "soft money" contributions in the 1999-2000 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Of that, $695,000 went to Republicans, while Democrats received $507,000, according to the center.

"Soft money" describes unlimited and largely unregulated contributions given to political parties or party campaign committees, in contrast to "hard money," direct donations to candidates that are limited and regulated by the Federal Election Commission.

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