Boston, 5 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton has taken a major step toward allowing sales of faster computers to Russia and China, despite the security fears that have delayed the decision for more than a year.
Both Clinton and Congress have been under pressure from the computer industry to ease the U.S. export rules because technology has raced ahead while export limits have remained unchanged since 1996.
Last Thursday, officials in Washington announced new rules that would nearly double the speed of computers that may be freely shipped to Russia and China for civilian use and more than triple the speed of slower machines sold to the military.
The move came despite the series of scandals involving the spread of U.S. technology to Russian and Chinese weapons programs since 1997.
The problems started when Russia obtained U.S.-made supercomputers for its nuclear arms laboratories by subverting U.S. export rules. Congress reacted by requiring advance notice for sales of all high-performance computers to 50 countries, including Russia and China.
More security fears followed with allegations that China gained missile technology from launches of U.S. satellites and that it stole nuclear secrets from U.S. arms laboratories.
The problems have affected U.S. computer exports because high-speed machines can be used either for commercial purposes like banking or for designing missiles and nuclear arms.
U.S. officials had originally planned to relax computer limits in early 1998 under a schedule of reducing the restrictions every two years to keep pace with technology. But there were fears that Congress would kill any such plan until the scandals had run their course.
As advances in technology have continued, the computer industry and its supporters in government have found it too costly to wait anymore. U.S. officials said last week that faster computers have become so common that they are now considered to be "commodities" that are impossible to control.
John Podesta, the White House chief of staff, said that later this year it will be possible to buy a laptop computer with a speed that exceeds the current control level for sales to the Russian military. That speed is already 10 times faster than machines that were defined as supercomputers in 1992.
The announcement highlights the huge lead in technology that the United States has over much of the world, where the term "commodity" still means oil or grain rather than high-performance computers. Washington is eager to maintain that lead. As a result, officials have made the argument that U.S. security depends more on selling technology than denying it to the rest of the world.
That case has also been made in Congress. Despite the recent furor over China's alleged spying, the computer industry wields enormous influence. Seventy-nine members of Congress wrote a letter to Clinton last month, urging him to update the export rules.
"We're basically doing what 79 members of Congress asked us to do," an official of the U.S. Commerce Department said Friday.
While the government will reduce limits on sales to civilian users immediately, the break for sales to the military will take effect after six months because of a waiting period imposed by Congress in 1997. The administration plans to ask Congress to reduce the delay to one month for any future changes. It will also review computer limits every six months instead of every two years, pointing toward much faster liberalization from now on.
In fact, controls for military users in Russia and China may become more a matter of trust than ever before. Because computers sold to civilians may be six times faster those now allowed for the military, the temptation for diversion may be great. Also under the new rules, all controls will be lifted on computer sales to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, putting them on a par with other NATO members. Washington will have to rely on effective enforcement in those countries to prevent re-exports to Russia.
One possible interpretation of the decision to ease the computer rules is that officials now believe that the worst part of the spy and export problems is behind them. If any more scandals surface, the administration could come under fire for allowing even more technology to be transferred to U.S. adversaries.
But experts say the decision has nothing to do with any expectations that troubles with Russia and China are at an end. Eric Hirschhorn, a former Commerce Department official who is now a Washington attorney, said that computer technology is simply moving so fast there is no practical way that the U.S. government can maintain its old control rules.
"They have no choice," Hirschhorn said. "The supply side of the market is going ahead whether they're ready or not."