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A decision by former president Clinton to relax export controls on high technology equipment has come under fire in a government report.

The report, which suggested powerful computers could be used as part of the development of nuclear weapons, was presented before a hearing of the US Congress, which is examining the issue in considering similar legislation.

Appearing before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, a trade specialist from the US General Accounting Office (GAO) testified that the Clinton administration did not properly consider the national security implications of lifting certain export restrictions to countries like China.

During its last year in office, the Clinton administration made a number of announcements that increased the export licensing threshold for high-performance computers from 2,000 million theoretical operations per second (MTOPS) to 85,000 MTOPS. Part of the reasoning behind this was Democrats believed US controls on exports were ineffective because could always be sourced from other countries. However this explanation cut no ice with officials in the Bush government.

Clinton's explanation of his administration's policy was considered inadequate by Susan Westin, managing director of GAO's international affairs and trade division.

Reuters reports that in prepared testimony Westin stated that a submission on behalf of Clinton failed to take into account "all militarily significant uses for computers at the new thresholds and assess the national security impact of such uses, as required by law".

The criticism coincides with a decision by the Senate Banking Committee to delay a bill which would exempt mass-marketed computers and other high-technology goods from export controls. Part of the reason for this is reportedly concerns from the Bush administration, which seems to be taking a far tougher line on the export of high technology than its predecessor.

However supporters of the Export Administration Act of 2001 are hopeful that the legislation might be saved. ®

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