$9 Million Supercomputer
Goes To China For $30,000
Can We Buy Back Our Supercomputer, Please?
By Jamie Dettmer

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 intransigent.
. . . . 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 spare parts.
. . . . 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 it."
. . . . "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 missions."
. . . . 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 resignation.
. . . . 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."