GAO: Tighten U.S. supercomputer export restrictions

A federal oversight committee is criticizing U.S. President George W. Bush’s decision to ease restrictions on the sale of high-performance computers to countries that the U.S. government considers high risk to the national security, such as China and some countries in the Middle East.

The warning came Monday in a report from the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, which conducted a review of an executive decision in January to increase the processing-speed cap on computers that U.S. IT vendors could sell to “countries of concern.”

Some limitations on the international sale of supercomputers have been placed on the U.S. IT industry since 1979, in order to prevent them from getting into the hands of countries that could pose a national security threat to the U.S.

However, due to recent achievements in microprocessor development, the Bush administration signed off on a decision to increase the processing speed cap by more than double its current limit. The threshold on computers that can be sold to countries was increased from 85,000 MTOPS (Millions of Theoretical Operations Per Second) to 190,000 MTOPS.

The administration concluded that if the U.S. didn’t export these large systems, they would be available from other countries. It was required to provide Congress with a report detailing reasons for the change in policy. That report, delivered to Congress in late December, stated that high-performance computers would flood the market in early 2002, mainly based on systems capable of employing 32 of Intel Corp.’s 64-bit Itanium processors, also known as 32-way systems.

The Bush administration also provided evidence that countries can cluster many small computers together to create systems with computing power that rivals the power of a supercomputer.

The GAO concluded in its review of that report that the threshold increases “were not adequately justified,” and relied too heavily on evidence provided by computer industry associations and major IT vendors. The claim that these 32-way systems would be widely available “has not materialized,” the GAO concluded.

Hewlett-Packard Co., the biggest backer of Itanium, has yet to release a server that includes more than 16 Itanium chips. Unisys Corp. is the only one of 10 companies surveyed by the GAO to have a 32-way Itanium system.

The December report also failed to address other issues such as potential military uses of high-performance systems by some countries and what impact that might have on national security in the U.S., the GAO said.

“Since the report’s conclusions are based on inadequate information provided by the computer industry and an inadequate assessment of national security issues, the decision to raise the export control threshold is analytically weak and appears to be premature, given market conditions,” the report said.

The GAO has had little response from government agencies that have reviewed its investigation, it said. The U.S. Department of Commerce disagreed with the GAO findings, the oversight committee wrote in its report. The Department of State agreed with some of the GAO findings. However, it said that limiting the sale of supercomputers has become less effective now that technology allows the clustering of smaller systems. The Department of Defense said it was conducting its own inquiry into the computer export limits.