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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Trade Controls on Computers No Easy Goal

WASHINGTON -- There is a new arrival in the debate over how the United States can keep its computer wizardry from falling into the wrong hands.

It is a computer chip so powerful that officials are studying whether they can restrict its sale overseas under a law intended to deny adversaries the computer capacity to design weapons, break codes and track battles.

Where can this potentially deadly chip be found? On the Sony Playstation II, the latest generation of the world's most popular video game machine, due to go on sale next year for less than $500.

Playstation II is only one of the most recent and vivid examples of a technological upheaval that is reshaping both the products we purchase and the policies we pursue to protect against foreign threats.

In a little more than a decade, the number of computers and computer makers worldwide has exploded while the machines themselves have morphed from huge, temperamental, few-of-a-kind devices into Lego-like assemblies that almost any technically competent person can put together. As a result, the United States no longer can dictate which countries can get powerful computers and for what purposes.

"We used to be able to control these things pretty effectively because there were only a few hundred machines we had to worry about and a comparable number of organizations we didn't want to have them,'' said Seymour Goodman of Stanford University, principal author of two influential studies on computer technology and national security.

"Now, companies are producing microprocessors by the tens of millions that are more powerful than some of the most powerful supercomputers we had 10 years ago and they are doing it around the world. How are you going to control that?''

The question was at the heart of a recent congressional committee investigation, which concluded that America's national security had been compromised both by Chinese spying at U.S. government weapons labs and by Chinese purchases of U.S.-built computers and other high technology.

The committee, headed by Representative Christopher Cox, a California Republican, called for strictly limiting the speed of computers that U.S. manufacturers may sell abroad without a government license. It urged reviving a Cold War pact requiring allies such as Germany, Japan and Britain to impose similar limits. It said the U.S. government should ensure that exported American computers are not being diverted to military use. The Cox committee's findings are virtually guaranteed to get heavy play during the coming presidential campaign season as Republicans accuse President Bill Clinton's administration and the Democrats of trading away the nation's competitive edge in a scramble for sales abroad and political contributions at home.

But a wide array of experts says that the panel's work is unlikely to resolve the issues surrounding computers and national security and for a very telling reason: because the report is being overtaken by some of the very events that the committee is seeking to control.

One example: The committee said China may be using even comparatively modest machines f those that fall below the threshold for government regulation f for such military purposes as nuclear weapons testing, chemical weapons design and surveillance.

The report went out of its way to attack a 1995 Goodman study concluding that such computers are so easily available in world markets that they cannot be controlled. That left the distinct impression that the panel wanted sales limits tightened and more strictly enforced.

But Cox acknowledged in an interview last week that circumstances have changed since the 1995 Goodman study f and even since his own committee's report last month.

Cox declared that "1995 was 1995. I have to listen to what (chip giant Intel Corp. Chairman) Andy Grove tells me right now,'' which is that computers at or slightly above the U.S. limit are so widely available worldwide they cannot be controlled.

That threshold is now about half as high as the most powerful personal computers on the market today, those with the latest Pentium III chip.

Japan's Sony and its partner, Toshiba Corp., muddle the issue further with their claim that the newly developed computer chip at the heart of the video game machine can run almost three times as fast as Santa Clara, California-based Intel's latest Pentium III and has more than twice the power of the most powerful work station made by Mountain View, California-based Silicon Graphics, which is considered the gold standard for graphics computing power.

Both U.S. firms dismiss the Japanese companies' claims as overblown. But not the U.S. government.

"We certainly have to look at this product closely,'' said William Reinsch, the Commerce undersecretary. "The chip itself may warrant export control under our current definition of high-performance computer.'' The restrictions, if they come, would apply to chips made overseas and shipped to the United States for re-export.