Suspect in Probe of China Atomic Spying Fails Polygraph
Walter Pincus - The Washington Post - March 7, 1999, Page A19
A Taiwan-born American scientist, who is suspected of turning over to China design information about a key U.S. nuclear missile warhead 10 years ago, failed a polygraph test last month, according to administration sources.
The scientist, who worked on classified weapons designs in the 1980s and 1990s at the Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, became a suspect in an FBI espionage investigation that began in 1996.
As reported earlier by the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, the FBI inquiry that led investigators to suspect the scientist was begun after U.S. intelligence in 1995 obtained a top-secret Chinese nuclear weapons document from the late 1980s that indicated Chinese scientists had become aware of techniques employed by U.S. scientists to miniaturize the shape of nuclear materials to get an explosion 20 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.
The New York Times reported yesterday that the scientist failed a polygraph during the investigation into how Chinese scientists learned of the miniaturization technique.
The design had been tested in the late 1970s, and in the early 1980s was built into the W-88 warhead that is carried on Trident II submarine-launched intercontinental missiles. The small size and shape allow missile builders to pack more than one warhead on a long-range missile.
A White House official yesterday denied the Times report that the Clinton administration had sought to minimize the Chinese espionage because it was seeking to establish a strategic partnership with the Beijing government.
"We recognize as a fact of international life that countries spy on each other," the official said, "but we have other strategic interests to pursue. We carry on with a lot of countries, including allies, that we feel are spying on us. . . . There are very few countries we could cooperate with if spying were a defining issue."
The official declined to comment on whether the 1988 Chinese document that triggered the FBI investigation was obtained by U.S. intelligence agents carrying out espionage on China.
After President Clinton and his national security advisers were briefed about the alleged espionage in 1997, new internal security programs were ordered. Under a Presidential Decision Directive, PDD-61, approved in February 1998, the Department of Energy (DOE) instituted tougher security regulations for the national nuclear laboratories and brought in Edward J. Curran, a former top FBI agent, to head its office of counterintelligence. Curran has hired former FBI officials to run security at DOE installations.
Since 1995, when Los Alamos officials were informed of the possible espionage, there has been disagreement among scientists there and elsewhere as to how important any information obtained from Los Alamos would have been to the development of the Chinese nuclear program.
Notra Trulock, director of DOE's energy intelligence office, pieced together the first theory of Chinese gains based on an analysis of that stepped-up testing during the early 1990s and the top secret Chinese document, according to administration sources. Paul Redmond, retired head of the CIA's counterintelligence office, who sat in on Trulock's briefings in late 1996, said yesterday that the "rapidity of the Chinese development of the [small warhead] weapon" gave the impression they "had swiped the design."
Redmond said that before his retirement in December 1996 he had observed the reaction of top administration officials to Trulock's analysis and they "appeared to take it seriously." He said he heard there later was some "temporizing" by those officials, but by then he no longer was involved in the case.
A former top Los Alamos official told The Post last month that it would be difficult to demonstrate the importance of what may have been revealed to the Chinese "because they already had done advanced work in this area."
The senior National Security Council official said no one "suggests Trulock did not have a legitimate point of view," but that it was "the worst case" scenario and "there was no specific evidence for that conclusion." In any event, he added, new security rules and regulations are being put in effect.
The alleged spying by the Los Alamos scientist is one of three cases of alleged Chinese espionage directed at the U.S. nuclear laboratories during the Reagan administration that became the focus last fall of a House select committee investigation of the transfer of technology that began with Beijing's purchase and launching of U.S. communication satellites. The committee's 700-page report, which focuses heavily on the nuclear spying, is being edited to allow declassification with hopes that such a version can be released by April 1, when the panel is due to disband.
The initial recommendations of the panel, released in January, called for implementing PDD-61 "on an expedited basis" and required the administration to conduct a comprehensive damage assessment of the possible losses from Chinese nuclear spying.
The first case involved a Taiwan-born scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who in 1981 is alleged to have passed secrets about the American W-70 warhead, commonly known as the neutron bomb. After being confronted by U.S. authorities, he resigned from the Livermore laboratory; that case is still open.
The second case involved a Los Alamos scientist who passed information on a laser program while he was in China giving lectures. He pleaded guilty in 1998 and is serving a 12-month sentence in a halfway house.
The suspect in the Los Alamos case initially refused to cooperate with investigators. As in most allegations of espionage, law enforcement officials find it difficult to make arrests or bring indictments without a confession or an exact record of what transpired.
For example, in 1989 State Department official Felix S. Bloch was placed on administrative leave after the 30-year veteran diplomat was videotaped passing a briefcase to a Soviet agent in Vienna. Although investigators believed Bloch's alleged spying may have gone on for 10 years, they were never able to prove it and Bloch eventually retired. At the time an investigator was quoted saying: "In these kinds of cases, it's incredibly difficult to get an arrest warrant unless a guy makes a confession."
Bloch, who four years ago pleaded guilty to shoplifting aspirin and other merchandise at a Chapel Hill, N.C., drugstore, is seeking Austrian citizenship, according to sources.
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