'No Question,' U.S. Says, Leak Helped China

March 15, 1999 - DAVID E. SANGER - The New York Times

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger, acknowledged Sunday that "there's no question" that China benefited from obtaining the design of America's most miniaturized nuclear warhead from the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Berger's comments came as Republicans and some Democrats called for further investigations into whether the administration dragged its feet in investigating the loss after the first suspicions arose in 1996.

Rep. Norm Dicks, a D-Wash., said on the NBC News program "Meet the Press" that the administration had been "slow to react" to calls from the FBI to strip the lead suspect of his security clearance. Dicks was co-chairman of a special congressional committee that recently completed a study of Chinese efforts to obtain American technology.

"We had a major counterintelligence failure," he said. "That is the most important conclusion we reached." The administration is in the midst of an increasingly tense discussion with the commission, headed by Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., over what information to make public in a declassified version of the report.

Cox said he was "appalled by the leaks of some of this information" but said the White House still was trying to keep out data that already has "been in the newspapers for several weeks."

Berger has been defending the investigation into the intelligence loss for a week now, arguing that he moved quickly once the evidence became specific and credible. Appearing on the same news show, he argued that the first report of the nuclear technology theft, relayed to him in 1996, was "simply preliminary," and he asked both the FBI and the Energy Department to investigate.

He did not order a new plan to tighten security until more specific evidence arose the next year, he said. Warnings from investigators to take away the security clearance of the lead suspect, Wen Ho Lee, "were conversations that must have taken place between the FBI and the Department of Energy," he said, leaving the impression he was not involved in the decision. The suspect was not fired until last week, after The New York Times reported on the investigation.

At the same time, Berger made his firmest statement yet that China had gleaned important information from the theft of the design of the warhead, known as the W-88. "There's no question that they've benefited from this," he said.

In response to the growing criticism of how they handled the case, administration officials now say they conducted 17 briefings of congressional intelligence committees in recent years that included information about the theft. Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., has said in recent days that the briefings included information on the Los Alamos case. But Goss, a former CIA officer who chairs the House Select Committee on Intelligence, insisted Sunday that the information was "not highlighted and it was underplayed."

Goss said that the administration was giving "a little bit more attention" to counterintelligence now, and added, "I think if we keep the pressure on, we will indeed understand that national security is more important than trade."

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