China Accused of Stealing Secrets
H. JOSEF HEBERT
May. 25, 1999
WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Clinton, confronted by a bipartisan congressional conclusion that Chinese espionage has led to the theft of top-secret information about every U.S. nuclear weapon, said Tuesday he will put into place more than two dozen recommendations to safeguard America's nuclear secrets.
A special House committee catalogued 20 years of Chinese espionage and the panel's chairman, Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., said China's spying campaign almost surely continues ``to this very day.''
In an appearance in Texas, Clinton said his administration was ``moving aggressively to tighten security'' at nuclear laboratories and would work with Congress to follow the recommendations of the committee. But he also said the administration would continue dealing with China on a range of matters because that, too, was in the national interest.
``We have a solemn obligation to protect such national security information,'' declared the president.
Though the most critical thefts were said to have occurred during previous administrations, the findings by the bipartisan special House committee brought demands by some Republican lawmakers for the resignation of Clinton's national security adviser and attorney general. There also were renewed questions about why Clinton did not move earlier to boost security at federal weapons labs.
While defending the president's response, Rep. Norman Dicks of Washington, the panel's ranking Democrat, said that Chinese penetration of nuclear weapons laboratories was ``a major counterintelligence failure ... one of the worst failures in the nation's history.''
The three-volume report, covering more than 700 pages, concluded that by stealing nuclear secrets China had ``leaped in a handful of years from 1950s-era strategic nuclear capabilities'' to a position where its weapon designs soon will be ``on par with our own.''
Dicks and another committee member, Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., characterized that conclusion as an overstatement based on ``worst case'' assumptions. They said China has yet to deploy any warhead from information believed to have been obtained in the 1980s, and the Chinese have only a few nuclear weapons compared with the thousands in the U.S. arsenal.
China denied the allegations entirely, dismissing them as a ``despicable attempt'' to shift attention from the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia.
Cox, whose committee of five Republicans and four Democrats began investigating China's acquisition of U.S. technology last July and by fall turned its focus to espionage, said the findings in Tuesday's unclassified report were based on facts set out in a longer classified version.
``Our committee did not engage in surmising, did not engage in opinion,'' Cox said at a news conference.
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who has moved to boost security at the weapons labs, said ``we are fixing the problem'' and 30 of the 36 recommendations made by the Cox committee already have been accepted. The recommendations were sent to the White House in January before the report was declassified.
Richardson called the panel's document ``a good solid report,'' but said ``there's no evidence of wholesale loss of information.'' He disputed the conclusions regarding China's potential use of the stolen technology.
``China is not up to par with the United States on nuclear development. It is far behind us,'' said Richardson in an interview. ``There is no evidence that is changing.''
But even Democrats expressed concern.
``I'm baffled at how this investigation has been handled,'' Spratt said, referring to a case, still being investigated by the FBI, of the loss of design material from one of the country's most sophisticated warheads, the W-88, from the Los Alamos weapons lab in New Mexico.
While that information was believed obtained by China in the 1980s, the theft was not discovered until 1995 and then its impact was only slowly recognized, the congressional report said. Sandy Berger, the president's national security adviser, notified Clinton in mid-1997, prompting the president to direct an overhaul in security at the labs in February 1998. The first significant security improvements, however, were not put in place for nine months, after Richardson took over at the department.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, urged Berger's resignation, saying he had ``failed in his duty to the administration'' by not pursuing the security matter more aggressively. On Sunday, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., had urged Attorney General Janet Reno to resign because of FBI and Justice Department handling of China espionage.
``The president has full confidence in the attorney general and she is secure in her position,'' White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said Tuesday. Clinton previously has expressed full support for Berger.
Another frequent White House critic, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, asked whether Clinton and Vice President Al Gore ``deliberately ignored the reality of Chinese spying and theft because they had ulterior economic and political motives'' _ an apparent reference to Democratic fund raising.
Cox declined to join such speculation and Dicks, when told of DeLay's remarks, said he believed ``the president acted as soon as he was briefed'' and that Berger ``acted properly.''
In Texas, Republican presidential hopeful Gov. George W. Bush said the report ``shines a glaring light on the current administration's failed policies toward China.'' Bush's father was either vice president or president during the years much of the espionage is said to have taken place.
The House committee report, unanimously approved by the special panel in December, was held up because of disagreements with the administration over how much should be declassified. Finally, about 70 percent was made public.
In this atmosphere, Congress will consider the future of U.S.-China trade and what additional measures should be taken to reduce the risk of espionage at the prestigious _ and up until now largely independent _ nuclear weapons labs at Los Alamos and Sandia in New Mexico and Lawrence Livermore in California.
Nine congressional committees are still looking into the espionage charges. On Tuesday, a Senate Appropriations subcommittee voted to boost spending for security and counterintelligence by $53 million, a 40 percent increase.