China Slams U.S. Nuclear Theft Charge As Baseless

March 7, 1999 - Reuters

BEIJING - Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan dismissed charges that China stole nuclear secrets from the United States as baseless and "very irresponsible" Sunday.

"The report the New York Times printed is very irresponsible. It is also without basis," Tang told a news conference.

"I have also noticed that such reports have appeared in the U.S. recently from time to time," Tang said.

"There are some people who want to stop the United States from exporting normal high-technology products to China. I think this will not be beneficial to the interests of the United States."

U.S. officials say federal authorities are investigating whether China stole U.S. nuclear secrets and used them to dramatically boost its own arsenal.

The New York Times reported Saturday that China used stolen secrets 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.

Administration sources said 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.

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 Christopher Cox, the CIA and other agencies were conducting a thorough damage assessment, it said.