President Clinton agreed to computer industry requests Friday and removed all federal restrictions on the export of U.S. supercomputers to Western Europe and five major developed nations. He also greatly loosened controls on computer exports to most countries in the developing world.
The decision would end "unnecessary and ineffective regulations which often have tied [the hands of U.S. manufacturers] while foreign competitors won major contracts or built their own systems," Clinton said. He added that it would "help preserve the strength of the U.S. computer industry, which also is key to our national security."
But critics on Capitol Hill and within the Clinton Administration complained that increased foreign sales of supercomputers--high-speed machines that have numerous civilian uses but can also be used to design advanced weapons--would undermine U.S. security. Some also said the policy shift was motivated by Clinton's desire to bolster his political standing in Silicon Valley.
His decision frees U.S. firms to sell an upcoming generation of supercomputers to Europe, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand, without first having to obtain U.S. government licenses.
Supercomputers with a lower performance level--those capable of handling less than 10 billion theoretical operations per second--will be freed from export license requirements for sale to less-developed nations in Asia, South America and much of Eastern Europe.
Their manufacturers will no longer be required to pay for costly safeguards to ensure the machines are not diverted to military uses.
Sales to so-called rogue nations such as Iraq, Iran, Libya and North Korea will remain completely blocked.
Representatives of the computer industry praised the move. Robert D. Palmer, chairman of Digital Equipment Corp. and the leader of a coalition of 13 companies that lobbied for the shift, said in a statement that the decision "creates new job opportunities for American workers and brings new revenue into the U.S. economy."
But House National Security Committee Chairman Floyd Spence (R-S.C.) denounced the decision as "inconsistent with anti-proliferation efforts," and said it would increase the cost for the U.S. military to maintain a technological edge.
The new policy, which came over objections from officials in the Department of Energy and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, represents the second major loosening of export controls on supercomputers under Clinton.
Before 1993, manufacturers had to obtain export licenses for machines capable of more than 195 million theoretical operations per second.
The Administration then raised this to 1.5 billion operations per second.
Under the new system, only supercomputer sales to the Middle East, India, Pakistan, China, Vietnam, the former Soviet Union and a few companies in Eastern Europe will still be subject to licensing and restrictions on use.