Export Controls: Sales of High Performance Computers to Russia's Nuclear Weapons Laboratories

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-04-15.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                          United States General Accounting Office

GAO                       Testimony
                          Before the Subcommittee on Military Procurement,
                          Committee on National Security, House of Representatives

For Release on Delivery
Expected at
2:00 p.m., EST
                          EXPORT CONTROLS
April 15, 1997

                          Sales of High Performance
                          Computers to Russia’s
                          Nuclear Weapons
                          Statement of Mr. Harold J. Johnson, Associate Director,
                          International Relations and Trade Issues, National
                          Security and International Affairs Division

          Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

          We are pleased to be here today to discuss the sale of high performance
          computers to Russia’s nuclear weapons laboratories. We understand that
          your hearing today will focus primarily on the alleged improper sales of
          computers to the Russian laboratories that have been the subject of recent
          media attention. As you know, those sales are currently being investigated
          by the Departments of Justice and Commerce, and by the U.S. Customs
          Service, and we understand that other witnesses here today will address
          that issue.

          To help understand the implications of the alleged improper sales and the
          relevant policy issues, you asked us to define the context for those sales
          by discussing (1) the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and its
          implications for high performance computer exports to Russian
          laboratories, (2) U.S. export regulations as they apply to the Russian
          nuclear weapons laboratories, (3) the Russian request for such computers
          during the summer of 1996, and (4) the executive branch’s decision to
          return without action several export license applications for high
          performance computers to the Russian laboratories and the implications
          of that decision. Although media reports have provided some details on
          the exporters and items involved in the prior license applications, we are
          limited by section 12(c) of the Export Administration Act of 1979 from
          discussing details of the license applications in public.

          Mr. Chairman, before I begin discussing each of the areas you asked us to
Summary   comment on, let me just briefly summarize what has occurred regarding
          the sale of high performance computers to Russia. Russia has expressed a
          strong desire to obtain high performance computers from the United
          States for use at its nuclear weapons laboratories. According to the
          Russian Minister of Atomic Energy, such computers are needed to help
          Russia maintain its nuclear stockpile, particularly in light of the CTBT
          prohibiting future nuclear explosions. Russia attempted to obtain high
          performance computers for its weapons laboratories for “civilian
          purposes” from two U.S. manufacturers. The manufacturers, in
          compliance with the export control laws and regulations, sought an export
          license for the transaction, but the applications were eventually returned
          by the Commerce Department without action. The U.S. government said it
          needed more information about how the computers would be used.
          Subsequently, press reports began to circulate in Russia and the United
          States that Russia had obtained U.S. high performance computers from

          Page 1                                     GAO/T-NSIAD-97-128 Export Controls
                    other sources, and according to officials from Russia’s Ministry of Atomic
                    Energy, the computers would be used for nuclear stockpile maintenance.
                    If these press reports are correct—and information supplied by the
                    Russian Minister of Atomic Energy indicates the reports are correct—such
                    a sale would appear to be contrary to the policy underlying U.S. export
                    control regulations and to U.S. policy boundaries regarding cooperation
                    with Russia’s nuclear weapons program.

                    With that overview, I would now like to discuss the relationship between
The Comprehensive   the sale of high performance computers to Russia and U.S. policies
Test Ban and High   regarding cooperation with Russia relative to CTBT. High performance
Performance         computers are playing an increasingly important role in maintaining
                    existing nuclear weapons stockpiles. As you know, the United States,
Computers           Russia, and about 140 other countries have signed a CTBT that prohibits
                    any nuclear explosions.1 Since nuclear explosions are not permitted under
                    a CTBT, the United States has embarked on a science-based stockpile
                    stewardship program that uses past nuclear weapons test data,
                    non-nuclear laboratory tests, and computer simulations to maintain
                    confidence in the existing U.S. nuclear stockpile. Russian officials have
                    indicated their desire to obtain high performance computers to help them
                    maintain their nuclear weapons stockpiles.

                    The executive branch has determined that it is in the U.S. interest to
                    cooperate with Russia on the safety and security of their nuclear weapons
                    stockpiles, but within certain specific boundaries. Pursuant to this policy,
                    discussions have been held with the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy
                    (MINATOM) and other officials on the possibility of undertaking cooperative
                    projects under a CTBT. Department of Energy officials said that the policy
                    boundaries for potential cooperative projects are that they would be
                    unclassified, and most importantly, they would not enhance the
                    performance of Russian nuclear weapons or contribute to Russian nuclear
                    weapons design.2 These officials stated that any access to computers
                    provided to Russian scientists will be consistent with current export
                    control laws. The regulations implementing the law provide the executive
                    branch the authority to deny a license for any item intended for the
                    research, development, design, manufacture, construction, testing,

                     The CTBT will enter into force when 44 nations, named in the treaty, deposit their instruments of
                    ratification, but no earlier than September 24,1998. Three of those 44 states—India, Pakistan, and
                    North Korea—have not yet signed the treaty.
                     Los Alamos National Laboratory defines performance as the ability of a nuclear weapon or weapon
                    system to operate in a specified manner (e.g. yield, range, accuracy, radiation spectrum) under stated
                    conditions and is essentially equivalent to reliability.

                    Page 2                                                      GAO/T-NSIAD-97-128 Export Controls
                        operations, or maintenance of any nuclear explosive device or other
                        sensitive nuclear activities. With this in mind, the concern is that if a high
                        performance computer is sold to a Russian nuclear weapons laboratory,
                        even for ostensibly civilian purposes, how would the United States devise
                        a safeguard plan to detect the possible diversion of computers from
                        civilian uses to proscribed nuclear weapons activities? Clearly, there is a
                        greater opportunity to devise such a plan if an export license is sought.

                        Now let me turn more specifically to the policies and regulations affecting
Policies and            the export of high performance computers to Russian nuclear weapons
Regulations Affecting   laboratories. The United States has long maintained export controls over
the Export of High      high performance computers for national security and nuclear
                        non-proliferation reasons. On October 6, 1995, the executive branch
Performance             announced a new policy for exporting high performance computers. This
Computers               policy now focuses controls on computers that have a significant impact
                        on U.S. and allied security interests and eliminated controls that were
                        deemed unnecessary or ineffective due to rapid advances in computer
                        technology. For example, the new policy removes licensing requirements
                        for sales of common desk top computers to most countries. The policy
                        requires companies to obtain an export license when selling
                        U.S.- manufactured high performance computers to Russia and certain
                        other countries when the computers (1) are intended for a military end
                        user or an end user involved in proliferation activity and have a composite
                        theoretical performance (CTP)3 of over 2,000 million theoretical operations
                        per second (MTOPS) or (2) are intended for a civilian end user and have a
                        CTP of over 7,000 MTOPS. The policy also requires exporters to keep
                        accurate records of each export of a computer over 2,000 MTOPS to any
                        destination, whether a license is required or not.

                        The policy also outlines a number of steps that the U.S. government may
                        require of the exporter or the end user to safeguard computer exports.
                        Among other things, the exporter or end user may be required to limit
                        access to the computer or inspect computer logs and output. In addition,
                        the end user may also be required to agree to on-site inspections by U.S.
                        government or exporting company officials, who would review programs
                        and software used on the computer, or to remote electronic monitoring of
                        the computer.

                        CTP is a measure used to estimate the maximum possible performance of a computer as measured in
                        millions of theoretical operations per second.

                        Page 3                                                  GAO/T-NSIAD-97-128 Export Controls
                       The policy was announced after the executive branch concluded that
                       computers capable of a CTP of up to 7,000 MTOPS would become widely
                       available in international markets within the next 2 years. The executive
                       branch set a lower export control limit of 2,000 MTOPS for military end
                       users and end users of proliferation concern because, while these
                       computers may be less controllable, the United States does not want to
                       support proliferation or certain military efforts in these countries.

                       The U.S. export control policy also requires that an export license be
                       sought for items when an exporter knows4 that an export or reexport will
                       be used directly or indirectly for certain proscribed nuclear activities,
                       including nuclear explosive activities, unsafeguarded nuclear activities,
                       and certain fuel cycle activities, whether or not they are safeguarded. The
                       Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Export Administration can also
                       inform an exporter or reexporter that an export license is required for
                       specified items to specified end users when the Bureau has determined
                       that there is an unacceptable risk of diversion to proscribed nuclear

                       The executive branch has commissioned a new review of high
                       performance computer export control policy which will be available at the
                       end of 1997.

                       In the fall of 1995, two U.S. computer manufacturers applied for export
Russian Requests for   licenses to sell U.S. high performance computers to the Russian nuclear
High Performance       weapons laboratories known as Arzamas-16 and Chelyabinsk-70.
Computer Exports       According to the Commerce Department’s interpretation of section 12(c)
                       of the Export Administration Act of 1979, I cannot provide any further
                       details about these cases in public. However, according to press reports,
                       the license applications were submitted by Convex Computer Corporation
                       and IBM, and the end uses for the computers were for groundwater and
                       atmospheric pollution monitoring.

                       In the early summer of 1996, the Russian Minister for Atomic Energy sent a
                       letter to the Secretary of Energy expressing his concern about U.S. export
                       restrictions on high performance computers. This letter also requested
                       that Russian and U.S. officials begin discussing the possible export of a
                       Convex SPP 2000 computer. This computer is more capable than any
                       computer known to have been in use in Russia at that time. Although the
                       Commerce Department had not received an export license application for

                        The definition of knowledge in 15 CFR Part 772 includes reason to know or reason to believe.

                       Page 4                                                     GAO/T-NSIAD-97-128 Export Controls
                        the computer, the Secretary of Energy asked MINATOM for additional
                        information on how Russia planned to use the SPP 2000 computer and the
                        other computers for which the executive branch was then reviewing
                        export license applications. The Minister for Atomic Energy indicated that
                        the SPP 2000 would be used to help maintain Russia’s nuclear stockpile,
                        but that the other computers for which export licenses were pending
                        would be used for civilian purposes at Russian nuclear weapons
                        laboratories. According to the manufacturer, the SPP 2000, now known as
                        the Exemplar X-Class, can be configured with a maximum of
                        64 processors and the manufacturer told us that the machine has a
                        maximum performance rating of 22,275 MTOPS.

                        Our review of computer export data indicates that it was unlikely that
                        Russian military and nuclear weapons laboratories had acquired
                        computers capable of more than approximately 3,500 MTOPS, due to a lack
                        of known sales of computers above that capability from the United States
                        or Japan, the only countries currently producing computers above that
                        level. However the capabilities of the Russian nuclear weapons
                        laboratories, before the recently reported sales, may have been
                        considerably less. The specific details are classified.

                        Although the Russian Minister of Atomic Energy explained that MINATOM
Executive Branch        would use the computers sought under the pending applications for
Decides Not to Act on   civilian end uses, the executive branch decided to return the license
the Export License      applications to the exporters without action. The Commerce Department
                        told the exporters that the U.S. government was taking this action because
Applications            of insufficient information about the end use of the computers. Commerce
                        Department officials told us that a decision to return a license application
                        without action means that the license application had neither been
                        approved nor denied, but that if a license is required, such a decision
                        blocks the export. The exporters can reapply for a license in the future.

                        In December 1996, the State Department informed MINATOM that the United
                        States did not approve the export license applications under review
                        because the applications were inconsistent with the U.S. government’s
                        export control policy. This policy seeks to prevent the export of high
                        powered computers for end uses or end users that directly or indirectly
                        support nuclear weapons activities.

                        Page 5                                      GAO/T-NSIAD-97-128 Export Controls
                      Subsequent to the executive branch’s decision to return the license
Possible Improper     applications without action, press reports began to circulate here and in
Sale of High          Russia that Russia had obtained several high performance computers from
Performance           U.S. companies, apparently without an export license.5 Press reports
                      indicated that MINATOM told one of the companies that sold them a
Computers to Russia   computer without a license that the computer would be used for modeling
                      of earth water pollution caused by radioactive substances. However,
                      MINATOM officials have stated that the computers will be used to maintain
                      the Russian nuclear weapons stockpiles and the Minister of Atomic
                      Energy indicated that the computer would be used to confirm the
                      reliability of Russia’s nuclear arsenal and ensure its proper working order
                      under the terms of the CTBT. Because the computers Russia obtained use a
                      technology known as parallel processing, a number of processors can be
                      added to increase their performance. If the high performance computers
                      allegedly acquired by Chelyabinsk-70 were to be aggregated into a single
                      cluster, the laboratory would have a central computer with a CTP capability
                      of about 9,000 MTOPS. Through other acquisitions that the Russian Minister
                      indicated had been made, this capacity could be increased to about 14,000

                      This concludes my prepared remarks. My colleague and I would be
                      pleased to respond to any questions you may have.

                       U.S. press reports indicate that Silicon Graphics, Inc., sold four computers to Chelyabinsk-70 in the
                      fall of 1996 for $650,000 and a distributor in Europe sold an IBM computer for $7 million to MINATOM.
                      The New York Times has reported that Russian nuclear officials said the computer will be used to
                      simulate nuclear weapons tests.

(711246)              Page 6                                                     GAO/T-NSIAD-97-128 Export Controls
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