China Stole Nuclear Secrets From Los Alamos, U.S. Officials Say
March 6, 1999 - James Risen & Jeff Gerth - The New York Times
WASHINGTON -- Working with nuclear secrets stolen from a U.S.
government laboratory, China has made a leap in the development of
nuclear weapons: the miniaturization of its bombs, according to
Until recently, China's nuclear weapons designs were a
generation behind those of the United States, largely because
Beijing was unable to produce small warheads that could be launched
from a single missile at multiple targets and form the backbone of
a modern nuclear force.
But by the mid-1990s, China had built and tested such small
bombs, a breakthrough that officials say was accelerated by the
theft of U.S. nuclear secrets from Los Alamos National Laboratory
in New Mexico.
The espionage is believed to have occurred in the mid-1980s,
officials said. But it was not detected until 1995, when American
experts analyzing Chinese nuclear test results found similarities
to America's most advanced miniature warhead, the W-88.
By the next year, government investigators had identified a
suspect, an American scientist at Los Alamos laboratory, where the
atomic bomb was first developed. The investigators also concluded
that Beijing was continuing to steal secrets from the government's
major nuclear weapons laboratories, which had been increasingly
opened to foreign visitors since the end of the Cold War.
The White House was told of the full extent of China's spying in
the summer of 1997, on the eve of the first U.S.-Chinese summit
meeting in eight years -- a meeting intended to dramatize the
success of President Clinton's efforts to improve relations with
White House officials say they took the allegations seriously;
as proof of this they cite Clinton's ordering the labs within six
months to improve security.
But some U.S. officials assert that the White House sought to
minimize the espionage issue for policy reasons.
"This conflicted with their China policy," said a U.S.
official, who like many others in this article spoke on condition
of anonymity. "It undercut the administration's efforts to have a
strategic partnership with the Chinese."
The White House denies the assertions. "The idea that we tried
to cover up or downplay these allegations to limit the damage to
United States-Chinese relations is absolutely wrong," said Gary
Samore, the senior National Security Council official who handled
Yet a reconstruction by The New York Times reveals that
throughout the government, the response to the nuclear theft was
marked by delays, inaction and skepticism -- even though senior
intelligence officials regarded it as one of the most damaging spy
cases in recent history.
Initially, the FBI did not aggressively pursue the criminal
investigation of lab theft, U.S. officials said. Now, nearly three
years later, no arrests have been made.
Only in the last several weeks, after prodding from Congress and
the secretary of energy, have government officials administered lie
detector tests to the main suspect, a Los Alamos computer scientist
who is Chinese-American. The suspect failed a test in February,
according to senior administration officials.
At the Energy Department, officials waited more than a year to
act on the FBI's 1997 recommendations to improve security at the
weapons laboratories and restrict the suspect's access to
classified information, officials said.
The department's chief of intelligence, who raised the first
alarm about the case, was ordered last year by senior officials not
to tell Congress about his findings because critics might use them
to attack the administration's China policies, officials said.
And at the White House, senior aides to Clinton fostered a
skeptical view of the evidence of Chinese espionage and its
White House officials, for example, said they determined on
learning of it that the Chinese spying would have no bearing on the
administration's dealings with China, which included the increased
exports of satellites and other militarily useful items. They
continued to advocate looser controls over sales of supercomputers
and other equipment, even as intelligence analysts documented the
scope of China's espionage.
Samore, the Security Council official, did not accept the Energy
Department's conclusion that China's nuclear advances stemmed
largely from the theft of U.S. secrets.
In 1997, as Clinton prepared to meet with President Jiang Zemin
of China, he asked the CIA for a quick alternative analysis of the
issue. The agency found that China had stolen secrets from Los
Alamos but differed with the Energy Department over the
significance of the spying.
In personal terms, the handling of this case is very much the
story of the Energy Department intelligence official who first
raised questions about the Los Alamos case, Notra Trulock.
Trulock became a secret star witness before a select
congressional committee last fall. In a unanimous report that
remains secret, the bipartisan panel embraced his conclusions about
Chinese espionage, officials said. Taking issue with the White
House's view, the panel saw clear implications in the espionage
case for U.S.-China policy, and has now made dozens of
policy-related recommendations, officials said.
A debate still rages within the government over whether Trulock
was right about the significance of the Los Alamos nuclear theft.
But even senior administration officials who do not think so credit
Trulock with forcing them to confront the realities of Chinese
China's technical advance allows it to make mobile missiles,
ballistic missiles with multiple warheads and small warheads for
submarines -- the main elements of a modern nuclear force.
While White House officials question whether China will actually
deploy a more advanced nuclear force soon, they acknowledge that
Beijing has made plans to do so.
In early 1996 Trulock traveled to CIA headquarters to tell
officials there of the evidence his team had gathered on the
apparent Chinese theft of U.S. nuclear designs.
As Trulock gathered his charts and drawings and wrapped up his
top-secret briefing, the agency's chief spy hunter, Paul Redmond,
At the dawn of the Atomic Age, a Soviet spy ring that included
Julius Rosenberg had stolen the first nuclear secrets out of Los
Alamos. Now, at the end of the Cold War, the Chinese seemed to have
succeeded in penetrating the same weapons lab.
"This is going to be just as bad as the Rosenbergs," Redmond
The evidence that so alarmed him had surfaced a year earlier.
Senior nuclear weapons experts at Los Alamos, poring over data from
the most recent Chinese underground nuclear tests, had detected
eerie similarities between the latest Chinese and U.S. bomb
From what they could tell, Beijing was testing a smaller and
more lethal nuclear device configured remarkably like the W-88, the
most modern, miniaturized warhead in the U.S. arsenal. In April
1995, they brought their findings to Trulock.
Officials declined to detail the evidence uncovered by the Los
Alamos scientists, who have access to a wide range of classified
intelligence data and seismic and other measurements.
But just as the scientists were piecing it together, they were
handed an intelligence windfall from Beijing.
In June 1995, they were told, a Chinese official gave CIA
analysts what appeared to be a 1988 Chinese government document
describing the country's nuclear weapons program. The document, a
senior official said, specifically mentioned the W-88 and described
some of the warhead's key design features.
The Los Alamos laboratory, where the W-88 had been designed,
quickly emerged as the most likely source of the leak.
One of three national weapons labs owned by the Department of
Energy, Los Alamos, 35 miles outside Sante Fe, N.M., was
established in 1943 during the Manhattan Project. Trulock and his
team knew just how vulnerable Los Alamos was to modern espionage.
The three labs had long resisted FBI and congressional pressure
to tighten their security policies. Energy officials acknowledge
that there have long been security problems at the labs.
Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories, also in New Mexico,
had in 1994 been granted waivers from an Energy Department policy
that visiting foreign scientists be subjected to background checks.
Lab officials resented the intrusions caused by
counterintelligence measures, arguing that restrictions on foreign
visitors would clash with the labs' new mandate to help Russia and
other nations safeguard their nuclear stockpiles.
The Clinton administration was also using increased access to
the laboratories to support its policy of engagement with China, as
had been done under previous, Republican administrations.
In December 1996, for example, China's defense minister, Gen.
Chi Haotian, visited Sandia on a Pentagon-sponsored trip. Energy
Department officials were not told in advance, and they later
complained that Chi and his delegation had not received proper
clearances, officials said.
Still, there is no evidence in this case that foreign visitors
were involved in the theft of information.
In late 1995 and early 1996, Trulock and his team took their
findings to the FBI. A team of FBI and Energy Department officials
traveled to the three weapons labs and pored over travel and work
records of lab scientists who had access to the relevant
By February the team had narrowed its focus to five possible
suspects, including a computer scientist working in the nuclear
weapons area at Los Alamos, officials said.
This suspect "stuck out like a sore thumb," said one official.
In 1985, for example, the suspect's wife was invited to address a
Chinese conference on sophisticated computer topics even though she
was only a secretary at Los Alamos. Her husband, the real expert,
accompanied her, a U.S. official said.
By April 1996, the Energy Department decided to brief the White
House. A group of senior officials including Trulock sat down with
Sandy Berger, then Clinton's deputy national security adviser, to
tell him that China appeared to have acquired the W-88 and that a
spy for China might still be at Los Alamos.
"I was first made aware of this in 1996," Berger, now national
security adviser, said in an interview.
By June the FBI formally opened a criminal investigation into
the theft of the W-88 design. But the inquiry made little progress
over the rest of the year. When Energy Department officials asked
about the inquiry at the end of 1996, they came away convinced that
the bureau had assigned few resources to the case.
A senior bureau official acknowledged that his agency was aware
of the Energy Department's criticism but pointed out that it was
difficult to investigate the case without alerting the suspects.
The bureau maintained tight control over the case. The CIA
counterintelligence office, for one, was not kept informed of its
status, according to Redmond, who has since retired.
Energy Department officials were also being stymied in their
efforts to address security problems at the laboratories.
After Frederico Pena became energy secretary in early 1997, a
previously approved counterintelligence program was quietly placed
on the back burner for more than a year, officials said.
In April 1997, the FBI issued a classified report on the labs
that recommended, among other things, reinstating background checks
on visitors to Los Alamos and Sandia, officials said. The Energy
Department and the labs ignored the FBI recommendation for 17
months. An Energy Department spokeswoman was unable to explain the
Another official said, "We couldn't get an order requiring the
labs to report to counterintelligence officials when the Chinese
were present. All those requirements had been waived."
In early 1997, with the FBI's investigation making scant
progress and the Energy Department's counterintelligence program in
limbo, Trulock and other intelligence officials began to see new
evidence that the Chinese had other, ongoing spy operations at the
But Trulock was unable to quickly inform senior U.S. officials
about the new evidence. He asked to speak directly with Pena, the
energy secretary, but had to wait four months for an appointment.
In an interview, Pena said he did not know why Trulock was kept
waiting until July but recalled that he "brought some very
important issues to my attention and that's what we need in the
Pena immediately sent Trulock back to the White House -- and to
"In July 1997 Sandy was briefed fully by the DOE on China's
full access to nuclear weapons designs, a much broader pattern"
said one White House official.
Officials said Berger was told that there was evidence of
several other Chinese espionage operations that were still under
way inside the weapons labs.
That news, several officials said, raised the importance of the
issue. The suspected Chinese thefts were no longer just ancient
history, problems that had happened on another administration's
Berger quickly briefed Clinton on what he had learned and kept
him updated over the next few months, a White House official said.
As Trulock spread the alarm, his warnings were reinforced by CIA
Director George Tenet and FBI Director Louis Freeh, who met with
Pena to discuss the lax security at the labs that summer.
"I was very shocked by it, and I went to work on shifting the
balance in favor of security," Pena said. He and his aides began
to meet with White House officials to prepare a presidential order
on lab security.
The FBI assigned more agents to the W-88 investigation,
gathering new and more troubling evidence about the prime suspect.
According to officials, the agents learned that the suspect had
traveled to Hong Kong without reporting the trip as required by
government regulations. In Hong Kong, officials said, the FBI found
records showing that the scientist had obtained $700 from the
American Express office. Investigators suspect he used it to buy an
airline ticket to Shanghai, inside the People's Republic of China.
With Berger now paying close attention, the White House became
deeply involved in evaluating the seriousness of the thefts and
solving the counterintelligence problems at the laboratories.
Trulock's new findings came at a crucial moment in U.S.-China
relations. Congress was examining the role of foreign money in the
1996 campaign, amid charges that Beijing had secretly funneled
money into Democratic coffers.
The administration was also moving to strengthen its strategic
and commercial links with China. Clinton had already eased the
commercial sale of supercomputers and satellite technology to
China, and now he wanted to cement a nuclear cooperation agreement
at the upcoming summit, enabling American companies to sell China
new commercial nuclear reactors.
In August 1997, Berger flew to Beijing to prepare for the
October summit. He assigned Samore, a senior NSC aide in charge of
proliferation issues, to assess the damage from the Los Alamos spy
After receiving a briefing from Trulock in August, Samore asked
the CIA's directorate of intelligence to get a second opinion on
how China had developed its smaller nuclear warheads. It was, an
NSC aide said, "a quick study done at our request."
The analysts agreed that there had been a serious compromise of
sensitive technology through espionage at the weapons labs, but
were far less conclusive about the extent of the damage. The CIA
argued that China's sudden advance in nuclear design could be
traced in part to other causes, including the ingenuity of
"The areas of agreement between DOE and CIA were that China
definitely benefited from access to U.S. nuclear weapons
information that was obtained from open sources, conversations with
DOE scientists in the U.S. and China, and espionage," said a U.S.
"The disagreement is in the area of specific nuclear weapons
designs. Trulock's briefing was based on a worst-case scenario,
which CIA believes was not supported by available intelligence. CIA
thinks the Chinese have benefited from a variety of sources,
including from the Russians and their own indigenous efforts."
Samore assembled the competing teams of CIA and DOE analysts in
mid-October for a meeting in his White House office that turned
into a tense debate.
The CIA report noted that China and Russia were cooperating on
nuclear issues, indicating that this was another possible
explanation of Beijing's improved warheads.
Trulock said this was a misreading of the evidence, which
included intercepted communications between Russian and Chinese
experts. The Russians were offering advice on how to measure the
success of nuclear tests, not design secrets. In fact, Trulock
argued, the Russian measurement techniques were used to help the
Chinese analyze the performance of a weapon that Los Alamos experts
believed was based on a U.S. design.
"At the meeting, Notra Trulock said that he thought the CIA was
underplaying the effect that successful Chinese espionage
operations in the weapons labs had had on the Chinese nuclear
weapons program," said one official.
Relying on the CIA report, Samore told Berger in late September
that the picture was less conclusive than Trulock was arguing.
Officials said he began to relay that view before hearing Trulock's
rebuttal of the CIA study at the October meeting.
Samore told Berger "there isn't enough information to resolve
the debate, there is no definitive answer, but in any event this
clearly illustrates weaknesses in DOE's counterintelligence
capability," said one official familiar with Samore's
CIA officials strenuously deny that the agency's analysts
intended to downplay Trulock's findings.
The FBI inquiry was stalled. At a September 1997 meeting between
FBI and Energy Department officials, Freeh concluded that the
bureau did not have enough evidence to arrest the suspect,
according to officials.
The crime was believed to have occurred more than a decade
earlier. Investigators did not then have sufficient evidence to
obtain a secret wiretap on the suspect, making it difficult to
build a strong criminal case, according to U.S. officials. FBI
officials say that Chinese spy activities are far more difficult to
investigate than the more traditional espionage operations of the
former Soviet Union.
But even if the bureau couldn't build a case, the Energy
Department could still take some action against someone holding a
U.S. security clearance. Freeh told DOE officials that there was no
longer an investigative reason to allow the suspect to remain in
his sensitive position, officials said. In espionage cases, the FBI
often wants suspects left alone by their employers for fear of
tipping them off prematurely.
But the suspect was allowed to keep his job and retain his
security clearances for more than a year after the meeting with
Freeh, according to U.S. officials.
In late 1997, the NSC did begin to draft a new
counterintelligence plan for the weapons labs, and Clinton signed
the order mandating the new measures in February 1998. In April, a
former FBI counterintelligence agent, Ed Curran, was named to run a
more vigorous counterintelligence office at Energy Department
The administration explained aspects of the case to aides
working for the House and Senate intelligence committees beginning
in 1996. But few in Congress grasped the magnitude of what had
In July 1998, the House Intelligence Committee requested an
update on the case, officials said. Trulock forwarded the request
in a memo to, and in conversations with, Elizabeth Moler, then
acting energy secretary. Ms. Moler ordered him not to brief the
House panel for fear that the information would be used to attack
the president's China policy, according to an account he later gave
congressional investigators. Ms. Moler, now a Washington lawyer,
says she does not remember the request to allow Trulock to brief
Congress and denies delaying the process.
In October, Ms. Moler, then deputy secretary, stopped Trulock
from delivering written testimony on espionage activities in the
labs to a closed session of the House National Security Committee.
Ms. Moler told Trulock to rewrite his testimony to limit it to
the announced subject of the hearing, foreign visitors to the labs,
an Energy Department spokeswoman said. The issue came up
nonetheless when committee members asked follow-up questions,
Energy Department officials said.
Key lawmakers began to learn about the extent of the Chinese
theft of U.S. nuclear secrets late in 1998, when a select committee
investigating the transfers of sensitive U.S. technology to China,
chaired by Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., heard from Trulock.
Administration officials say that Congress was adequately
informed, but leading Democrats and Republicans disagree. Rep.
Norman Dicks, D-Wash., the ranking minority member on the House
Intelligence Committee and also a member of the Cox committee, said
that he and Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., chairman of the House
intelligence panel, were not adequately informed.
"Porter Goss and I were not properly briefed about the
dimensions of the problem," he said, adding: "It was
compartmentalized and disseminated over the years in dribs and
drabs so that the full extent of the problem was not known until
the Cox committee."
Last fall, midway through the Cox panel's inquiry, a new
secretary of energy, Bill Richardson, arrived on the job.
After being briefed by Trulock, Richardson quickly reinstated
background checks on all foreign visitors, a move recommended 17
months earlier by the FBI. He also doubled the counterintelligence
budget and placed more former FBI counterintelligence experts at
But Richardson also became concerned about what the Cox panel
was finding out.
So in October he cornered Berger at a high-level meeting and
urged him to put someone in charge of coordinating the
administration's dealings with the Cox committee.
Berger turned again to Samore, officials said.
By December, Dicks, in his role as the ranking Democratic member
of the Cox panel, was growing impatient with the administration's
slow response to ongoing requests from the committee and its
inaction on the Los Alamos spy case. Dicks told Richardson, a
former colleague in the House, that he needed to take action,
Dicks' complaints helped prompt Richardson to call Freeh twice
in one day in December about the inquiry, an official said.
The suspect was given a polygraph, or lie-detector test, in
December, by the Energy Department. Unsatisfied, the FBI
administered a second test in February, and officials said the
suspect was found to be deceptive. It is not known what questions
prompted the purportedly deceptive answers.
As the FBI investigation intensified, the Cox Committee
completed a 700-page secret report which found that China's theft
of US secrets had harmed U.S. national security -- saving the
Chinese untold time and money in nuclear weapons research.
After hearing from both the CIA and Energy Department analysts,
the bi-partisan panel unanimously came down on the side of
Trulock's assessment, officials said.
Now, the CIA and other agencies, at the request of the Cox
Committee, are conducting a new, more thorough damage assessment of
the case, even as the debate continues to rage throughout the
intelligence community over whether Trulock has overstated the
damage from Chinese espionage.
Meanwhile, Trulock has been moved from head of DOE's
intelligence office to acting deputy. While Richardson and other
Energy Department officials praise Trulock's work and deny he has
been mistreated, some in Congress suspect he has been demoted for
helping the Cox Committee.
Redmond, the CIA's former counterintelligence chief, who made
his name by unmasking Soviet mole Aldrich Ames at the CIA, has no
doubts about the significance of what Trulock uncovered.
He said: "This was far more damaging to the national security
than Aldrich Ames."
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