President's Justification of the High Performance Computer Control Threshold Does Not Fully Address National Defense Authorization Act of 1998 Requirements

GAO-06-754R: Published: Jun 30, 2006. Publicly Released: Jun 30, 2006.

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Joseph A. Christoff
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The United States controls the export of high performance computers for national security and foreign policy reasons. High performance computers have both civilian and military applications and operate at or above a defined performance threshold (which was formerly measured in millions of theoretical operations per second [MTOPS], but is now measured in Weighted TeraFlops [WT]). The U.S. export control policy currently organizes countries into "tiers," with tier 3 representing a higher level of concern related to U.S. national security interests than tiers 1 and 2. A license is required to export computers above a specific performance level to countries such as China, India, Israel, Pakistan, and Russia. Policy objectives of U.S. computer export controls are to (1) limit the acquisition of highest-end, high performance computer systems by potential adversaries and countries of proliferation concern and (2) ensure that U.S. domestic industries supporting important national security computer capabilities can compete in markets where there are limited security or proliferation risks. Over the last few years, the effectiveness of U.S. export controls in meeting these policy objectives has been challenged by market and technological changes in the computer and microprocessor industries. The National Defense Authorization Act of 1998 requires that the President provide a justification to Congress for changing the control threshold for exports of high performance computers to certain sensitive countries. The President's report must, at a minimum, (1) address the extent to which high performance computers with capabilities between the established level and the newly proposed level of performance are available from foreign countries, (2) address all potential uses of military significance to which high performance computers at the newly proposed level could be applied, and (3) assess the impact of such uses on U.S. national security interests. In February 2006, the President set a new control threshold for high performance computers and a new formula for calculating computer performance. GAO is required by law to assess the executive branch's proposed changes to the current control thresholds related to foreign availability and the national security risks of exporting high performance computers between the previous and proposed thresholds.

The President's February 2006 report did not fully address the three requirements of the National Defense Authorization Act of 1998. Therefore, the report did not present the full implications of the threshold change to Congress.

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