372. Memorandum From the Acting Chairman of the National Security Council Under Secretaries Committee (Samuels) to President Nixon1


  • Sale of British Computers to the Soviet Union

Prime Minister Heath raised with you during his visit last December the British proposal to sell two large computers to the Institute of High Energy Physics at Serpukhov near Moscow.2 This matter has now been reviewed by the Under Secretaries Committee, following a technical study conducted by the Office of Science and Technology. The Committee’s report as well as the OST study are enclosed.3

The basic questions posed are 1) would the special safeguards proposed by the British be effective in reducing the risk of misuse of the computers to an acceptably low level, and 2) would approval seriously erode existing computer export controls or could this application be considered as constituting a unique case? The Committee could not agree on answers to these questions and the different views are given in the enclosed report.

The Committee was also unable to agree on recommendations with respect to the policy options. DOD, JCS, AEC, and STR recommend that we reaffirm our objection to the sale. Commerce favors reaffirmation of our objection; but, if your decision is to approve the transaction, believes that approval should be predicated upon prior acceptance by the three governments concerned of very explicitly articulated safeguards and procedures for implementing them. State, Treasury, OST, CEA, and USIA recommend that we lift our objection on condition that the UK agree to effective implementation of the proposed safeguards and to support continuation of tight controls on computers and technology at the next COCOM list review.

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  • British Proposal to Sell Two Large Computers to the USSR

I. Introduction

In response to Mr. Kissinger’s memorandum of January 25, 1971,5 the Under Secretaries Committee has reviewed an outstanding U.S. objection in COCOM to the export by a United Kingdom firm (ICL) of two large computers to the Institute of High Energy Physics at Serpukhov in the USSR. Prime Minister Heath raised this matter during his visit with the President and with Secretary Rogers. In order to assist the Committee review, a technical study on this matter was prepared by a panel convened by the Office of Science and Technology (OST) and is attached to this report.

The Institute at Serpukhov conducts unclassified basic research and engages in extensive exchanges of data, publications, and personnel in international cooperation efforts with institutions and scientists from free world countries, including the United States. The principal instrument around which the Institute’s activities center is the world’s currently most powerful (76 Gev) proton accelerator.6 An appropriate computer facility has been designed to complement the research potential of the Institute. The computers proposed for export exceed the performance standards of the BESM 6, which is the best Soviet computer available to the Institute, and will satisfy only approximately one-half of the Institute’s foreseeable computational requirements.

When the U.K. presented this proposal to COCOM in October 1970, we objected to it because of the risk of diversionary use of the computer facility for other than its intended purposes as well as the precedent-making implications which the export could have for controls over advanced computers. Additionally, the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy had urged that advanced computers not be sent to the USSR.

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Because of the unanimity rule in COCOM, and the inclusion of more than $3 million in U.S. parts and components, the British Government has been constrained from licensing the proposed export although the U.S. is alone in objecting. Italy and the Netherlands had reserved judgment at the time the U.S. raised its COCOM objection in October, 1970.

A refusal by the United States to approve the case will offend the British, for whom this $11 million sale is a significant transaction in terms of their hope to be a principal supplier of large computers to the USSR. It also may disappoint some members of the U.S. scientific community whose work involves them with the Institute at Serpukhov.

In order to overcome the U.S. objection, the British Government, in cooperation with ICL, has since outlined a series of safeguards which they believe will reduce the risks of misuse of the computers. Safeguards include (1) the planning of as full a research schedule as possible for the machines, (2) the necessity of written supporting documentation for individual program runs, (3) contractual rights of free access by specialists of free world parties, which have cooperation agreements with Serpukhov (presently U.S., U.K. and France), (4) 10-year control over spares and on-site maintenance, and (5) ICL willingness to obtain Soviet agreement before export of the computers to permit U.K. personnel to empty memory cores on demand of their stored informational contents and to transmit them for U.K. (and U.S.) governmental analysis.

II. Security Aspects

No transfer of production technology would be involved in this case. The security risk is the potential clandestine use of the computers’ capacity for strategic military purposes, e.g., advanced weapons design computations. The risk of diversion depends on the answers to two questions:

Can the proposed safeguards be implemented?
If implemented, will the safeguards be effective in reducing the risks of misuse of the computers?

There is general agreement that the answer to the first question is, for the most part, yes. On the second question, opinions differ. State believes that the safeguards bring the risk of misuse to an acceptably low level. DOD believes that the safeguards are ineffective since they offer no high probability that diversion, if attempted, would be eventually discovered.

Basis for position held by State

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The OST panel study deals with the British presentations on safeguards as well as the technical feasibility of establishing absolute safeguards and detection against misuse of the facility.

The OST panel believes that diversion of less than of the order of 25 percent of capacity for two or more years would not be worth the effort required of the Soviets to effect clandestine diversion. The panel believes that this much diversion of the computers’ time from legitimate work needs would likely be sensed by foreign specialists working at the Institute and who will be familiar with its research programs. The study concludes that while complete elimination of risk of clandestine misuse is not possible, the risk of such diversion is low. The study posits that it is not possible to assert with certainty that diversion, if attempted, would be discovered. However, the study notes that the ability to “dump” the contents of the computers exposes the Soviets to a finite danger of discovery provided these dumps are analyzed by U.S. personnel. Experts believe that someone familiar with high energy physics programs and weapons programs would have a good chance of detecting a significant illicit program in the core, provided he had a knowledge of the machine’s language and an awareness of the program supposedly being run at the time of the dump.

State accepts the technical views of the panel, noting that it consisted of distinguished scientists with extensive experience in the fields of computers, high energy physics and strategic weapons design. State suggests, moreover, that because of the presence of foreign scientists at the Institute and the core dump provision, the Soviets would not consider the Institution’s computers to be fully secure for handling classified programs despite the machines’ location on Soviet territory. Hence, they would be extremely unlikely to use weapons programs on such systems. The Soviets would be much more likely to use an additional Soviet-built BESM 6, which has approximately 25 percent of the power of the total British system, for weapons calculations than to try to divert time from an installation not completely under their control.

State notes that the British have supplied information subsequent to the OST report which demonstrates that the main and secondary storage capacity planned for Serpukhov is similar to that provided for comparable U.S. and U.K. installations.

Basis for position held by DOD

The fundamental flaw in the safeguard proposals is that when the concrete steps required to put them into meaningful practice are examined, the potential effectiveness of the safeguards appears increasingly remote.

For example, the first three safeguards proposed by the British assume that discrepancies between computer usage and the needs of legitimate programs would be quickly noted. Yet, according to the OST study, a knowledgeable U.S. scientist working at Serpukhov and knowing the various experimental and test programs there could assess the [Page 935] computational load only within a factor of two. In other words, so far as these three safeguards are concerned, a diversion of approximately half of the computational capacity might go undetected. To achieve even this much control would require considerable and continuing experience with the installation. Thus, these safeguards depend on the presence at Serpukhov of knowledgeable U.S. scientists willing to carry out a monitoring scheme and able to remain at the installation for extended tours of duty. DOD believes such a U.S. presence would be required on all shifts.7

The OST report lists the “dumping” of the computer core as the only special safeguard offered by the U.K. which has any teeth against a determined effort at diversion. In this connection, it is worth noting that it is only the content of the cores, e.g., the internal memory of each central processing unit, and not all stored informational content which is subject to dumping on demand.

Thus, the OST panel stated it could not assert that diversion, if attempted, would be eventually discovered with a high degree of probability. It pointed out that schemes are possible to “capture” the executive system and replace it with one which “looks” the same externally on legitimate work but which allows “hidden” programs to be run. This means that an illicit program might be detected only if it happened to be in the central processing unit when the dump was made. It is at this point that the OST panel’s questions as to why the system includes unusually large external memories become especially relevant.

Assuming the right to demand core dumping is exercised at sufficiently frequent intervals to capture any illicit programs, there is, according to a report of the National Academy of Sciences,8 no presently developed methodology for analyzing the contents of such a dump. Moreover, the National Academy of Sciences has estimated that an expenditure of several hundred thousand dollars of research effort over a period of one to three years would be needed to develop such a methodology.

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In addition, DOD believes it would be necessary to create in the U.S. a group of high-energy physicists, computer center managers and weapons designers to analyze the recorded data obtained from each dump. How large this group would need to be and whether it would be engaged on a full or only part-time basis will depend upon the frequency of the dumps and the methodology developed for analyzing their contents. Unless this aspect of the problem is addressed and solved, including the funding of such a group, even the core dump provision will be an empty safeguard.

The 10-year control over spares and on-site maintenance is less a safeguard against diversion than the basis on which sanctions would be applied if a diversion were detected. It is, of course, a threat whose impact will depend on whether the USSR has any reason to suppose the U.K. would actually cut off support if a diversion was suspected and proved. In this connection, it is not easy to imagine such a drastic sanction being employed on the basis of the kind of evidence which the other safeguards are apt to provide.

It is worth noting that when the Soviets two years ago expressed interest in a comparable U.S. computing system, the CDC 6600 for Serpukhov, an interdepartmental review, backed by two outside studies, concluded that the U.S. Government would be unwilling to issue an export license except possibly under safeguard conditions which would be either unacceptable to the Soviets or too expensive to carry out on the U.S. side.

Comments by other Agencies

AEC believes that the OST panel based its conclusion of low risk of diversion largely on U.S. presence at Serpukhov, although in the AEC view there is waning interest in Serpukhov and there may not be any U.S. scientists there after the present program is completed later this year.

On the other hand, OST points out that the panel’s estimates were based on Western presence, not just U.S., and that the British have agreed to obtain random core dump printouts. OST believes that there will be continuing U.S. interest in the Serpukhov accelerator even after the large U.S. accelerator at Batavia becomes available.

III. Precedent-Making Implications

A difference of Committee views also developed in assessing the precedent-making implications of a decision to lift the U.S. objection to the export of these ICL computers.

Position of State

Regarding the potential impact of this export on COCOM and U.S. export controls, the international stature and importance of the Institute [Page 937] as the largest in its field, its willingness to accept extraordinary safeguard conditions and its openness to foreign scientists, can be considered as constituting a unique situation which justifies a single exception. Should the British export be approved, possible proposals by Control Data Corporation to sell large computers to other Soviet research institutes such as those at Yerevan and Dubna, as well as any subsequent proposals, would necessarily be subjected to detailed investigation on their individual merits in accordance with the standards applied in this case. An additional factor relating to large CDC machines, which does not apply in this case, is that there are weapons codes compiled in CDC computer machine language.

Pressures for relaxation of computer parameters which exist within COCOM are endemic and can be anticipated to continue regardless of the outcome of the British proposal. As far is known British ICL is the only non-U.S. company presently seeking orders in Eastern Europe for computers which exceed the COCOM technical limits. A further consideration is that the Soviet agreement to on-site inspections by Americans on their territory could, if carried out, establish a useful precedent which might facilitate future arms control negotiations. Finally, the safeguards in this case bring it within the U.S./U.K. guidelines for dealing with computer exceptions requests.

Position of DOD

There is little doubt that this transaction, if approved, would create an undesirable precedent for both COCOM and U.S. controls. The OST panel noted that each of the two systems exceeds the COCOM guidelines in every relevant specification by a considerable margin. To approve this export and not do great violence to COCOM controls, it would be necessary for the U.S. to claim that the Institute is a uniquely deserving end-user, that its personnel are not likely to be required by the Soviet Government to divert the system and that, in any case, the safeguards included in the contract effectively eliminate the risk of such diversion. If these claims are made, the predictable result would be the prompt submission, by U.S. firms as well as others, of a number of requests for the export of very large computers to other destinations in the USSR. Each request will claim the end-user to be deserving; each will assert the improbability of diversion; and each will propose to include safeguards similar to those accepted for Serpukhov. It will be difficult for the U.S. to object to these requests since by approving the Serpukhov case, it will have, in effect, certified the adequacy of the Serpukhov safeguards. If the safeguards were, in fact, adequate, this result would be entirely acceptable. The crucial fact, however, is they are not, and to the extent that they can be used to justify computer exports the net result will be the rapid destruction of existing U.S. and COCOM controls.

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The British could go ahead despite lack of COCOM approval, but would then have to consider the need for U.S. unilateral approval to ship the estimated $3 million of U.S. parts and components which are included in their proposed export.

Comments by other Agencies

The AEC believes that a favorable U.S. decision could result in the establishment of undesirable precedents in our international embargo control scheme as well as increased pressures from both U.S. and foreign computer firms to sell embargoed computers to the bloc. It would be extremely difficult to maintain present U.S. and international controls if such a major exception is made to these embargo controls. The U.S. has been the primary spokesman among our Western European allies over the years for restraining trade with the bloc in large, strategically-useful computers. A major departure from this position, as would be represented by approval of the U.K. case, would erode significantly our posture on computer controls that the U.S. has long held with its Western allies. AEC believes that U.S. companies, particularly CDC, will push for approval of several large computer exports to the Soviet Union if the U.K. case is approved.

OST believes that the security risk from this one transaction is not significant. Approval should be predicated on the uniqueness of the Serpukhov facility, its use and needs, as well as a clear understanding with the British that it would not represent a precedent for frequent exceptions of such magnitude. It notes that there are at present no other 76 GEV accelerators in the USSR or the world, which could similarly qualify as unique international institutions.

Policy Options

1. Reaffirm U.S. objection in COCOM.


Would avoid incurring any security risk.
Would avoid the precedent-making implications which would flow from approval of computers of this size.
Would permit additional time to develop more effective safeguards as well as to determine if safeguards negotiated with the U.K. in previous cases are effective.


Prime Minister Heath’s raising this subject with the President underscores the great importance the British attach to it. Reaffirmation of our negative position after their extraordinary efforts to satisfy our concerns would be very disappointing to the British.
The Soviets would cite our decision as further evidence of U.S. reluctance to permit peaceful trade in goods containing advanced technology.
If this exception is not approved, the U.K., supported by others, can be expected to press for relaxation of COCOM controls during the coming List Review.

2. Lift our objection.


Would be responsive to Prime Minister Heath’s personal approach to the President.
The on-site inspection arrangements could establish a possibly useful precedent for future arms control negotiations.
Would provide increased opportunities for Western cooperation in high energy physics at Serpukhov and might cause some general improvement in the Soviet attitude toward cooperative scientific ventures.
Would ease pressures for sales of computer production technology to Communist countries by demonstrating that occasional sales of advanced hardware can be approved.


Would provide the USSR with an advanced computer system better than any they now have and capable of being diverted to important strategic uses. Until additional details are developed on implementation of proposed safeguards, it is not possible to establish that such diversion would be detected.
Would encourage U.S. and other firms to attempt sales of large computers to the USSR and Eastern Europe.
Would cause increased pressure by American manufacturers for relaxation of U.S. export controls.
Would encourage some COCOM members to demand a more flexible policy toward exceptional exports of other strategic items and technology.
Would set the stage for demand by other COCOM members for a major reduction in computer embargo levels at the List Review.

3. Lift our objection on conditions that 1) U.K. agree to effective implementation of the proposed safeguards, particularly joint procedures for the inspection and random core dump provisions including the transmission of the core printouts to the U.S., 2) U.K. agree to support continuation of tight controls on computers and technology at the next List Review.

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Would be responsive to Prime Minister Heath’s personal approach to the President provided agreement can be reached on effective implementation of the safeguards.
Would involve the British with us jointly in a safeguards implementation procedure, which could provide valuable experience to both countries and have important implications for future transactions in the computer field.
Would tend to reduce the unfavorable precedent-making aspects.
Would provide increased opportunities for Western cooperation in high energy physics at Serpukhov and might cause some general improvement in the Soviet attitude toward cooperative scientific ventures.
Might establish a precedent for inspection or safeguards of some future value in arms control negotiations.


Could be expensive in U.S. manpower and money to implement safeguards.
Would delay execution of ICL contract until implementing details were worked out.
Would require USSR to accept controls possibly beyond those already contemplated.
Would probably still entail some security risk.
Might encourage U.S. and other firms to attempt sales of large computers to the USSR and Eastern Europe.
Might encourage other COCOM partners to demand equal treatment on other strategic items and technology.
Export of these large computers by the U.K. would tend to reduce the value of U.K. support for continued tight controls over computers in COCOM.

DOD, JCS, AEC and STR recommend Option 1. State, Treasury, OST, CEA and USIA recommend Option 3. Commerce favors reaffirmation of the objection as in Option 1; but, if the President’s decision is to approve the transaction, believes that approval should be predicated upon prior acceptance by the three governments concerned of very explicitly articulated safeguards and procedures for implementing them.


Option 1—reaffirm our objection

Option 2—lift our objection

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Option 3—lift our objection on conditions that 1) UK agree to effective implementation of the proposed safeguards, particularly joint procedures for the inspection and random core dump provisions including the transmission of the core printout to the U.S., 2) UK agree to support continuation of tight controls on computers and technology at next list review9

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, S/S Files: Lot 81 D 309, NSC-U/SM 94C. Confidential. Transmitted to members of the Under Secretaries Committee under cover of a March 19 memorandum from Staff Director Hartman. Hartman also sent a copy to Peterson (CIEP). Several earlier drafts of the memorandum are ibid.
  2. See footnote 2, Document 369.
  3. The OST report is not printed; see footnote 3, Document 369.
  4. Confidential. An undated memorandum from Trezise to Samuels transmitted a draft of this USC report, which Trezise indicated was based on the OST report. (National Archives, RG 59, S/S Files: Lot 73 D 288, NSC/USC Memos)
  5. Document 369.
  6. The U.S. will have available in the 1972-73 time frame a much larger accelerator (300 Gev) now under construction in Batavia, Illinois. However, it will be useful for Americans to have access to the Soviet machine even after the U.S. accelerator becomes available. [Footnote in the source text.]
  7. OST notes in this regard that Dr. Ling, Chairman of the OST panel, in a subsequent conversation stated that this statement in the OST report is misleading outside of the context of the discussion which led to its inclusion and should preferably have been deleted from the final draft. The accurate statement summarizing the panel’s view is that a diversion of one-third of the computational capacity would be detectable to Westerners working at Serpukhov. [Footnote in the source text.]
  8. Preliminary Report of the Computer Science and Engineering Board, National Academy of Sciences, September 22, 1969. OST notes that this report does not specifically refer to core dump analysis nor does it make an estimate of the man-years and costs involved in developing a methodology for core dump analysis. DOD has apparently taken the term “signature analysis” and equated it with core dump analysis. As OST understands the former term, it is a far more comprehensive effort designed to detect or distinguish any record, data or activity, which indicates unusual or unexpected operation of the system. [Footnote in the source text.]
  9. None of the options is checked or initialed.