Allies Agree to Restrict Computer Sales to East Bloc

By Michael Getler, Foreign Service
The Washington Post

London -- July 16, 1984 -- The NATO allies and Japan have agreed to tighten controls further on sales of large computers to the Soviet Union and its allies and have established guidelines for the sale of the smaller, desk-top variety, according to diplomatic sources here and U.S. officials in Washington.

The agreement also extends controls for the first time to computer software and such items as sophisticated telecommunications switching equipment. Under the accord, however, the sale of many varieties of commonly available desk-top computers would be free of controls, an issue which has been the subject of a long-running political and bureaucratic battle in Washington.

"There's a red line on the high end and more decontrol on the low end, which satisfies business interests all around," a Pentagon official said.

"It marks a realization that we are not going to be able to impose overwhelming restraints on items that are being produced in the millions," added another administration official.

European countries "wanted to raise the level of main-frame computers that could be sold, and we wanted to get desk-top computers under control," another Pentagon official said, adding that both objectives were met to some extent. "But desk-top doesn't really convey what we're talking about: these are ruggedized, and really quite powerful, small computers with battlefield applications."

The agreement was reached in Paris on Thursday during a closed-door meeting of the super-secret 15-nation coordinating committee on strategic exports, known as Cocom, which must approve sales of sensitive items to Warsaw Pact nations.

The question of how far to restrict sales of high technology items, including computers, long had been a major point of friction between the United States and its western allies. The issue came to a head two years ago, when President Reagan unilaterally imposed both a ban on supplying U.S. equipment for a Soviet gas pipeline to Western Europe and sanctions against foreign firms linked to U.S. companies that sold such equipment.

Intensified talks aimed at reaching agreed-upon allied positions started shortly after that, and the recently concluded Cocom meeting is said by diplomatic sources to have worked out a satisfactory compromise on the three remaining areas of dispute involving computer hardware, software and associated telecommunications equipment.

The United States had been pressing for a sharp reduction in the level of sophistication in computers that could be sold to Moscow or its allies.

The recent meeting is said to have, in effect, concluded work on the main and most divisive issues that have been discussed in a string of meetings during a 22-month-long survey of East-West trade issues carried out by the 14 NATO members of Cocom plus Japan.

Under the new rules, computers as sophisticated as the most widely advertised office and home desk-top models can be sold overseas, although in some cases the exporter will have to tell the government how many computers have been shipped, a high administration official said.

Cocom also added a new category of controls for super mini-computers that execute complex programs at high speed. These are valuable to the Soviet military, because they can be used for the design, development and manufacture of semiconductors and for military command and control.

For the first time, a Pentagon source said, Cocom agreed to place controls on the most sophisticated types of software that have strategic implications. These include programs for networking, signal processing and real-time processing, although over-the-counter software programs are not under new controls, the official said.

Cocom also agreed to place a four-year ban on the sale to the Soviet Bloc of highly sophisticated electronic telecommunications switching equipment that can be used for military purposes. The Pentagon source said that agreement had to be reached "now or not at all," because there are potential sales in the works of large switching devices to Eastern European nations.

The Reagan administration has been deeply split over how strict the controls should be on the transfer of high technology to the Soviet Bloc, with the Defense Department generally taking a harder line than the Commerce Department.

A senior defense official said that the agreement represents "a workmanlike compromise" that left neither side totally satisfied but that everyone can live with.

The official said that the agreement is "extremely complicated," with some details still to be worked out.

The official said that different types of computers, telephone switching equipment and other gear will fall into different categories, with some requiring Cocom approval, some only requiring notification and some not requiring Cocom involvement. Most of the technology of concern to the administration will fall under some form of review, the official said.

The official added that one incentive for compromise was that no one wanted to "go back to the drawing board" after a decade of failed negotiations on the issue.

Washington Post Staff Writers Stuart Auerbach and Fred Hiatt contributed to this story from Washington.

Copyright 1984