Clinton Acts After Possible Nuclear Theft By China

March 6, 1999 - Reuters

WASHINGTON - President Clinton ordered tightened security at U.S. nuclear laboratories after receiving reports that China may have stolen nuclear secrets in the 1980s, U.S. officials said Saturday.

The officials, commenting on a story in The New York Times, denied one aspect of the report -- that the Clinton White House tried to downplay the espionage because it clashed with efforts to improve relations with Beijing.

One official said the theft of nuclear secrets apparently took place in the 1980s, but was only brought to Clinton's attention in 1997.

"Once he learned of it he increased security at the labs. It was something that happened a long time before," the official said. "He acted quickly, but you don't draw attention to something like that."

The Times said U.S. authorities believed China was still trying to steal secrets from the U.S. government's major nuclear weapons labs.

The paper reported that China, using secrets stolen from the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico, had been able to produce small warheads that could be launched from a single missile at multiple targets.

The CIA's former chief spy hunter Paul Redmond, who made his name by uncovering Soviet spy Aldrich Ames, said the theft had far-reaching consequences.

"This was far more damaging to the national security than Aldrich Ames," he said.

The espionage was not detected until 1995 when the CIA analyzed Chinese nuclear test results and found similarities with America's most advanced miniature warhead, the W-88, the Times reported.

In 1996, a Chinese-American suspect was identified at the U.S. Energy Department's weapons lab in Los Alamos. It was not until this year that the suspect was given a lie-detector test, which one official said he failed. He was not arrested.

The Times quoted critics as saying the investigation into Chinese espionage had been delayed because the discoveries came at a politically sensitive time for the White House.

The information came to light while Congress was investigating the role of foreign money in the 1996 presidential campaign and as charges emerged that Beijing had secretly funneled money to the Democratic Party.

The Clinton administration has been trying in the last few years to strengthen its strategic and commercial links with China.

"This conflicted with their China policy," a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity told the Times. "It undercut the administration's efforts to have a strategic partnership with the Chinese."

The Times said the espionage was referred to in a secret report by a U.S. House of Representatives select committee investigating the separate transfer of sensitive U.S. technology to China. The investigation found the theft had harmed national security, the Times reported.

At the request of the committee, headed by California Republican Rep. Christopher Cox, the CIA and other agencies are conducting a thorough damage assessment, the paper said.

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