Supercomputer sale draws fire from Congress

The Energy Department on Wednesday was forced to buy back a supercomputer it had sold to a California-based company after officials realized that one of the company's principal employees was a Chinese citizen.

According to a DOE spokesman, the Sandia National Laboratories unwittingly sold what was described as a 9-year-old surplus Intel Corp. Paragon XPS supercomputer to EHI Group, Cupertino, Calif., which at the time employed Korber Jiang, a Chinese citizen. The government is concerned about selling such systems abroad because they could be used to help design nuclear weapons.

However, the DOE spokesman told FCW that the computer "is now under Sandia's control" and that DOE Secretary Bill Richardson has ordered a moratorium on all sales of surplus material until a full investigation is completed.

Neal Singer, a spokesman for Sandia, said, "Nobody is saying that Korber Jiang did anything illegal, and neither did Sandia." According to Singer, although Jiang is a Chinese national, he is in the United States legally.

The supercomputer revelation, which comes just weeks after a series of stinging reports outlining what may be the worst case of espionage at the nation's nuclear laboratories, today led a senior member of the House of Representatives to demand Richardson's resignation.

Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee's Research and Development Subcommittee, called the sale "a tremendous breach of our national security." The incident prompted Weldon to write letters to Richardson and FBI Director Louis Freeh, demanding Richardson's resignation as well as a full investigation into the sale.

In addition, Weldon has pledged to hold additional congressional hearings on the matter, focusing on concerns that the Chinese may already have been able to reverse-engineer the system.

In his letter, Weldon said the bungle renders Richardson "unfit" to oversee DOE. "Either way, you have lost the confidence of myself and many members of congress," Weldon wrote. "If these revelations are true, then for the sake of our country and national security, I must regrettably ask for your resignation."

A spokesman for Weldon said despite the fact that DOE was able to recover the computer, the congressman's demand that Richardson step down from office still stands. The spokesman also said there are still a number of security concerns to consider, including whether the information on the computer was properly deleted.

The computer, which reportedly was sold to EHI Group for $30,000, is capable of processing between 150,000 and 200,000 theoretical operations per second. According to the spokesman, DOE had to pay $88,000 to buy it back.

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