WASHINGTON -- President Clinton is preparing to relax restrictions on the export of high-performance computers, handing a long-sought victory to the technology companies whose executives were among the most ardent supporters of his 1992 campaign.
Opponents of the move, including some on Capitol Hill and within the administration, fear that the powerful U.S.-made computers will be diverted to military uses, such as the design of missiles or nuclear weapons.
Administration officials who support the proposal that is before Mr. Clinton say it recognizes a technological reality: Computer manufacturers are turning out vastly more powerful machines every year.
What the administration defined two years ago as a supercomputer requiring government approval for sale abroad is today a widely available desktop computer used by businesses from banks to movie animators.
The proposal, administration officials said, would help U.S. manufacturers sell billions of dollars' worth of powerful computers to civilian customers in China, Russia, Israel, Pakistan and India.
They said exports to military customers in those countries would remain under tighter controls.
"If you try to control the uncontrollable, it's not tough and pious," one senior official said. "It's feckless and wasteful of government resources. We'd like to target our resources to where we think we could make a difference."
But Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, said the administration was about to make a crucial tool available to countries building missiles and nuclear weapons.
He decried the proposal to relax export controls as a "political decision designed to help California" and said the Chinese, among others, would inevitably order the computers for civilian uses and then give them to the military.
Mr. Clinton has not yet formally approved the proposal, which was worked out after months of wrangling among the Defense, State, Energy and Commerce departments.
But an administration official said Mr. Clinton told Israeli officials last week that he intended to liberalize the rules that have made it difficult for Israel and many other countries to buy advanced computers from the United States.
Announcement of a decision to relax restrictions, which administration officials said was expected within days, is likely to stir criticism on Capitol Hill. Several lawmakers, including Rep. Floyd D. Spence, a South Carolina Republican who is chairman of the House National Security Committee, have already written to Mr. Clinton and urged him to reconsider.