U.S. Probing Whether China Stole Nuclear Secrets

Laurence McQuillan - March 7, 1999 - Reuters

WASHINGTON - Federal authorities are investigating whether China stole U.S. nuclear secrets and used them to dramatically boost its own arsenal, U.S. officials said Saturday.

"Currently there is an ongoing investigation to determine if there was criminal conduct and we continue to assess the implications for national security," said White House National Security Council spokesman David Leavy.

According to other administration sources, federal agents as recently as this week questioned a suspect who may have been involved in stealing top secret documents from the National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and passing them to Beijing.

Officials said President Clinton was first told in 1997 that crucial information may have been stolen in the mid-1980s by Chinese agents.

"When presented with information of these allegations in 1997, we took a number of steps to improve security in a systematic and comprehensive way," Leavy said.

An administration official said while "it can't be ruled out" that more recent espionage has occurred, "we've taken a lot of steps in the last couple of years to stop it."

The New York Times reported Saturday that China used secrets stolen from Los Alamos 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, told the newspaper 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 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 Energy Department's director of counter-intelligence, Edward Curran, said Saturday he was "aggressively strengthening" measures at government laboratories to prevent espionage. Special agents were being based at weapons labs and the screening of foreign scientists seeking access to them was being tightened.

"We've increased accountability and we're putting in place additional tripwires to ensure strong protection of the vital national security capabilities at DOE labs now and in the future," he said in a statement.

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 Clinton 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.

It also coincided with Clinton administration efforts to strengthen its strategic and commercial links with China.

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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