Chinese Nuclear Espionage

March 9, 1999 - The New York Times

It is alarming to discover that lax security at the Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory in the mid-1980's may have let China steal secret designs for one of America's most compact nuclear warheads. It is also troubling to learn that the Clinton Administration did not react vigorously enough when it first heard of this possible breach of national security nearly four years ago. Some Administration officials suggest that the White House may have minimized the case to insulate its goal of improving relations with Beijing.

Careless security procedures have been a longstanding problem at America's nuclear laboratories under Democratic and Republican administrations. But a report by The Times's James Risen and Jeff Gerth makes clear that after the 1995 discovery of possible espionage at Los Alamos the Administration moved too slowly to investigate and to weigh the implications of the case.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation's initial inquiry lacked concentration and resources. The Energy Department made multiple mistakes, including withholding information about the case from Congress to avoid criticism of the Administration's China policy and initially failing to take recommended steps to tighten security at the labs. These failures are clear and can be directly traced to the indifferent leadership of the department before Bill Richardson took it over late last year. Yesterday Mr. Richardson announced the dismissal of a Los Alamos computer scientist suspected of security breaches in the case.

The White House role is more difficult to reconstruct and evaluate. White House aides insist that they moved quickly to tighten lab security once they learned of the seriousness of the case in 1997 and did not try to diminish its importance. But the national security adviser, Samuel Berger, and his aides may have underestimated the significance of the affair and failed to recognize that it warranted a reassessment of relations with China.

After the case was laid out for Mr. Berger in July 1997, the White House should have examined whether its China policy was desensitizing Washington to Chinese efforts to acquire military technology through espionage and trade. The White House should have been especially vigilant because its handling of China was already under scrutiny by Congress after allegations of illegal Chinese campaign contributions in 1996.

The Clinton Administration cannot have it both ways on China. It says it is safeguarding national security. But it unwisely relaxed export controls on sales of advanced technology that could compromise American defense secrets. Congress must now carefully reconstruct the Administration's handling of this episode to determine whether wishful policy goals of engaging China took precedence over shielding America's most important military information.

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