American Defeat

March 8, 1999 - ESSAY by William Safire - The New York Times

Throughout the 1996 Clinton campaign for President, China's agents of influence had the run of the White House as they raised millions for the Clinton campaign. Chinese military intelligence officials were waved in without clearance. U.S. executives contributed megabucks as they lobbied for easier approval of sales of sensitive technology to Beijing.

In the midst of this -- in April of 1996 -- a Department of Energy official informed President Clinton's deputy national security adviser, Samuel Berger, (1) that China had probably stolen our secrets of making warheads small enough to enable long-range missiles to pack multiple nuclear punches, and (2) that the suspected spy was still at work in the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico.

Mr. Berger, who sat in on most of the political meetings with Clinton's Asian fund-raisers, did nothing. The internal security division of the Department of Justice apparently did not ask a court for wiretap authority under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. At Reno Justice, investigating any Chinese penetration is a no-no.

Over one year later, after news stories and columns about Clinton's "Asian connection" had stimulated law enforcement officials and a Senate committee to bestir themselves, F.B.I. Director Louis Freeh and Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet went to the office of Energy Secretary Federico Pea. "Louis and George read him the riot act," a meeting participant tells me, "about lax security at Los Alamos."

But nothing happened for a year and a half. Senator Fred Thompson's hearings on the Asian connection were politicized and truncated by John Glenn and Tom Daschle. Not until late 1998, when a bipartisan House select committee under co-chairmen Chris Cox and Norman Dicks began asking questions about Chinese espionage, did a new Energy Secretary begin to lock the barn door.

For months, the House select committee has been negotiating with the Clinton Secrecy Brigade to declassify most of its 700-page report. The White House hopes to delay clearance until the select committee goes out of business in April, when criticism of the espionage defeat and its Clinton cover-up could be diffused and buried.

But Berger did not reckon with the journalistic enterprise of The Times's James Risen and Jeff Gerth. Their story on Saturday was headlined "China Stole Nuclear Secrets for Bombs, U.S. Aides Say" and subheaded "Espionage Case at New Mexico Lab Is Said to Be Minimized by the White House."

They show how the theft of our nuclear secrets enabled China to leap a generation ahead with warheads that can be launched from under water. The reporters quote Paul Redmond, the C.I.A.'s former counterintelligence chief who caught the Soviet spy Aldrich Ames, assessing the impact on our defenses of this Chinese espionage: "This was far more damaging to the national security than Aldrich Ames."

Berger has a unique geopolitical Weltanschauung: Whatever elects Bill Clinton and protects him from criticism is good for our national security. Accordingly, his spin control is likely to be: The initial breach happened in the 80's, so blame Reagan, not us.

Besides, goes the White House line, when a Berger flunky asked for a quickie C.I.A. "alternative analysis" of the suspicions of the Energy Department's Notra Trulock, that whistleblower's warning was derogated as merely "a worst-case scenario."

Not yet denied, but likely to be unless witnesses were present, is The Times's account that Trulock "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." For spilling the beans, Trulock was demoted.

Now we're getting to the nub of it. Yanked to a complete turnabout on trade policy with China by the Riady family and other heavy campaign contributors in the satellite and computer businesses, Clinton didn't want Congress -- empowered by law with oversight of intelligence -- to know what the F.B.I., C.I.A. and D.O.E. suspected about China's spy in Los Alamos.

Although aware of the dangerous spying, Clinton still insisted that regulation of the transfer of sensitive technology be controlled by his sell-'em-anything Commerce Department.

He delivered for China. Will Congress now protect the interests of the United States?

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