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High Performance Computers and Export Control Policy: Issues for Congress

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Congress has a strong interest in export control policy with regard to technologies that may have both commercial and military applications outside of the United States. Through its constitutionally delegated authority to regulate foreign commerce, Congress has the authority to control exports for national security or foreign policy purposes. The 109th Congress may examine issues of national export control policy, including reauthorization of the Export Administration Act (EAA), and control policies concerning key technologies. Among these technologies are High Performance Computers -- HPCs. HPCs are either single computing machines (usually called supercomputers) or a cluster of easily available, high-end workstations or personal computers. Congressional interest in HPCs has primarily, but not exclusively, been focused on the dual-use applications of HPCs. That is, commercial HPCs that may also be used to simulate nuclear weapon tests, chemical and biological weapons production, and for military command, control, and communications. The 109th Congress may consider the extension and revision of the EAA through H.R. 4572 or other legislation. Both chambers last considered EAA legislation in the 107th Congress. Legislation may also be introduced to repeal specific controls on HPCs enacted as part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 1998.

There are several issues that congressional policymakers may address concerning reauthorization of the Export Administration Act. One is proliferation -- who obtains this technology and how they use it. In response to concerns about proliferation, Congress has legislated licensing, post-shipment verification, export notification, and licensing threshold requirements for HPCs. Some contend that these safeguards and restrictions have not been effective. Another issue is the notification process, in which the executive branch not only notifies the legislative branch of HPC export control changes, but describes the national security implications as well. Critics contend that the last several HPC export control changes did not sufficiently provide this national security context. The U.S. computer industry has also raised concerns about another issue -- that restrictions only hurt U.S. commercial interests. The computer industry and their supporters, as well as others, contend that the computing benchmark for HPCs (Million Theoretical Operations Per Second, or MTOPS), no longer reflects rapid technology innovations in the field. Some have called for replacing MTOPS with a benchmark measuring teraflops, and this standard has recently been adopted by the multilateral Wassenaar Arrangement dual-use control regime.