CIA launches probe of China spying

March 15, 1999 - AP

WASHINGTON (AP) - The CIA said Monday it will conduct a damage assessment to determine how much sensitive nuclear weapons information - if any - was lost to China through a suspected spy working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Amid mounting criticism that the Clinton administration took no decisive action when it first learned of the possible compromise of sensitive weapons information, CIA Director George Tenet said retired Adm. David Jeremiah will provide an independent review of the work being done now by a multiagency intelligence team.

It is the second such assessment Jeremiah has been asked to do. Last year, he led a review team that found weaknesses in intelligence community procedures that contributed to the CIA's failure to provide adequate warning that India was about to test a nuclear weapon.

"Admiral Jeremiah is the perfect person to lead such a review," Tenet said. "His credentials are impeccable and his credibility is unquestioned."

Jeremiah's review team will examine work begun in mid-February within the intelligence community. At issue is whether China gained top-secret know-how on building multiple-warhead nuclear weapons from a Taiwanese-born scientist who worked at Los Alamos. China has yet to field such a weapon, but a prototype bears a strong resemblance to the W-88, a U.S. warhead.

Several members of Congress are pressing for greater disclosure and a closer look at high-tech relations between the United States and China.

The Senate is holding hearings this week on an alleged 1980s case of Chinese spying at the Energy Department's nuclear weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M., that only recently came to light. In the House, members are demanding that nearly all of a classified 700-page report on technology transfers to China be made public.

Administration officials stood their ground Sunday, saying they have dealt properly with the Los Alamos case and overall security threats to the nation.

"I think we moved swiftly and I think we continue to impose on China the strictest controls," national security adviser Sandy Berger said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said President Clinton should appoint a nonpartisan commission to investigate allegations that China stole nuclear warhead technology. The Justice Department "does not have credibility on this issue" because Attorney General Janet Reno refused to seek an independent counsel investigation into illegal campaign contributions originating in China, he said on CBS' Face the Nation.

Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., told NBC that the spy case called for a serious review of U.S.-Chinese policy, including a warning to China that a missile attack on Taiwan would be met with U.S. retaliation.

Other Republicans said they would fight administration resistance to make public almost all of the report on technology transfers prepared by a special panel headed by Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif.

"We will have to have a vote of the House in order to declassify that report, and when the American people see what's in it, I think they will be really outraged," House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said on Fox News Sunday.

Cox, interviewed on ABC's This Week, said his panel believes that "not only now but for the indefinite future we have serious counterintelligence problems at our national laboratories and elsewhere throughout the government."

The ranking Democrat on the panel, Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington, said the most important finding was that for 20 years "we had a major counterintelligence failure at Los Alamos and at the other national labs that is now being corrected."

A Taiwanese-born computer scientist, Wen Ho Lee, was fired from his job at Los Alamos a week ago amid suspicions that he leaked secrets to the Chinese in the 1980s. Lee has not been charged with any crime, and Newsweek magazine said the FBI now believes it has virtually no chance of making a case against him.

The FBI began its investigation in 1996, and Republicans have accused the administration of dragging its feet in acting against Lee in the interests of U.S.-China relations.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, appearing on NBC and CNN's Late Edition, insisted the administration acted swiftly and responsibly. "I took (Lee's) clearance away, I moved him away from sensitive areas long before the story broke," he said.

He said the Energy Department since 1997 has doubled the intelligence budget at the national labs, initiated strong background checks of scientists from sensitive countries and required employees to take polygraph tests.

National security adviser Berger said there was "no question" that the Chinese did benefit from the flow of nuclear technology in the 1980s that is now subject to strict controls.

But he also said the spying allegations must be seen in the context of China's cooperation in such areas as stopping the sales of weapons to countries including Iran and dealing with North Korea.

"Most countries are engaged in efforts to obtain American sensitive information by clandestine means," Berger added. "The world is not a playpen here.'

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