- They are hoping Congress never finds out -- and in the
wake of the damning Cox report on Chinese espionage and the recent flurry
over major security lapses at U.S. nuclear labs, it is hardly surprising.
But soon officials at the Sandia nuclear laboratory are going to have to
explain to lawmakers how they managed 10 months ago to sell a $9 million
surplus supercomputer for $30,000 to a California-based Chinese national
who specializes in exporting advanced U.S. goods to Beijing.
- . . . . According to classified Department of Energy
reports leaked to news alert!, the October 1998 sale by the New Mexico
lab of the early 1990s Intel Paragon XPS system is of "significant
national-security concern." Federal sources say the supercomputer
could be a major addition to the Chinese nuclear program -- that is, if
the system finds its way to Beijing. Now DOE officials are engaged in a
standoff with the purchaser and endeavoring desperately to persuade him
to sell the system back to Sandia for $2.5 million. However, he is proving
- . . . . The alarm bells about the sale only started ringing
after the purchaser, Korber Jiang, contacted Intel Corp. seeking to secure
some items that would get the system up and running again. Sandia sold
the computer disassembled, thinking that any buyer would just use it for
scrap, and Korber had told the lab of his plan to use the system only for
- . . . . On learning in mid-July of Korber's approach
to Intel, federal investigators were scrambled from New Mexico to Cupertino,
Calif., to interview him and to discover the whereabouts of the computer.
They also were ordered to urge the Chinese exporter to let Sandia repurchase
the system. But, according to classified documents, "he has been somewhat
evasive about where the system is located and what he intends to do with
- . . . . "Sandia is in full farcical 'cover-your-a**
mode,'" says a Washington official. "They are still praying they
can get the damn thing back without anyone noticing in Congress -- and
of course they are anxious Beijing will get hold of it." Until July
20, the DOE wasn't even sure the system was still in the United States.
- . . . . While the Paragon XPS is not the most advanced
U.S. system now on the market, its computing power is significant -- 150,000
to 200,000 MTOPS. According to the leaked classified reports, the model
sold had been modified to include "some of the U.S.'s most leading-edge
interconnect and computer technology -- it has an operating system that
has been tuned and enhanced by Sandia for a number of important national-security
- . . . . Further, while Sandia insists the system "never
processed classified or sensitive information," officials at DOE aren't
so sure. They suspect their Sandia counterparts are not being forthcoming
and they're fearful U.S. nuclear secrets may be stored in the system's
hard drive, which apparently wasn't wiped. "Sandia is being as evasive
as Korber -- we are not taking anything on trust from the lab," says
a Washington source who declined to be identified for this article. "Why
was the system improved if it wasn't used for security missions? Did they
just use it to work out the staff's monthly schedule?"
- . . . . While Sandia still is attempting to secure the
supercomputer, the DOE is conducting a review to discover whether the lab
followed federal guidelines covering the sale of surplus high-risk property.
The lab was due on July 16 to supply a "white paper" detailing
what action it took to address possible security concerns and export-control
regulations on supercomputers.
- . . . . Some federal sources familiar with the transaction
dispute the lab's initial insistence that it was vigilant in how it went
about the sale. They maintain Sandia should have been far more security-minded
and exhaustive in unearthing crucial facts about the identity of the buyer.
- . . . . Before selling the supercomputer to the highest
commercial bidder, Sandia did check to see whether any federal agencies
were interested in acquiring it, but none were. Korber came in with the
best offer. But the property section failed to check his background and
assumed that his EHI Group USA was American-owned. A little digging would
have discovered that Korber's one-man business has as its only client the
government of the People's Republic of China.
- . . . . Korber himself is in the United States on an
L1 business visa. Recently, in a House Immigration subcommittee hearing,
federal officials admitted that L1 business visas are being abused on a
massive scale, both by organized-crime groups and by foreign governments
intent on placing "intelligence assets" in the United States.
However, there is no evidence that Korber has links either with foreign-intelligence
organizations or criminals. Sandia is at a loss about what legal action
they can take to get the computer back. Export-control regulations should
prevent the computer being sent to China.
- . . . . Told by news alert! of the sale, Republican Rep.
Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania, a Cox committee member, says: "The national
security ramifications of this sale are disastrous." Weldon promptly
wrote to Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson on July 23 calling for his
- . . . . He adds: "Ironically, at the very time the
Cox committee was investigating the transfer of sensitive technology to
China, your employees were selling some of our most sophisticated systems
to them at bargain-basement prices."