Los Alamos Spies, Then and Now

March 15, 1999 - David Holloway - The New York Times

TANFORD, Calif. -- This is going to be just as bad as the Rosenbergs," Paul Redmond, formerly the chief spy hunter for the Central Intelligence Agency, recalls saying when he was briefed in 1996 on the evidence that China had stolen nuclear secrets from the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The current scandal inevitably conjures up memories of Soviet atomic espionage. There are similarities between the two cases, but differences between them are more significant.

During World War II, when the Soviet Union and the United States were allies, scientists helping to develop the atomic bomb passed detailed information on to Moscow. Klaus Fuchs was the most important source of information. More recently, Theodore Hall, a young physicist at Los Alamos in the 1940's, was also shown to have provided important data to the Soviets. Julius Rosenberg was a small cog in the espionage effort.

Recently declassified reports written by Igor Kurchatov, the scientific director of the Soviet project in those years, show just how important the secret information was for the Kremlin. The first Soviet bomb was a direct copy of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, and the spying at Los Alamos may have speeded up the Soviet nuclear test by one or two years.

The current China espionage scandal also concerns the design of nuclear weapons. If the reports are true, the information stolen from Los Alamos will enable China to put lighter, more powerful warheads on its land-based and sea-based strategic missiles. This means China would be able to cover more targets more cheaply. Though not as dramatic a step as the first Soviet bomb test, this would nonetheless mark a significant advance in the development of Chinese strategic forces.

But Los Alamos today is not what it was in World War II when the entire operation, shrouded in secrecy, was devoted to building the first atomic bomb. Today while there is still secret weapons research going on at Los Alamos, the laboratory is also engaged in more general research, which unfolds in an open, international atmosphere. Maintaining security under these conditions is difficult because the scientists working on weapons research are less isolated than before; there is the danger that they will unwittingly convey useful information when discussing a benign topic like computer modeling.

Los Alamos has been collaborating closely in recent years with its former rivals, the Russian nuclear weapons labs.

This collaboration is inspired in part by the desire to support Russian scientists so they will not be tempted to pass secrets to potential proliferators. How paradoxical, then, that it is Los Alamos, rather than Arzamas-16, the Russian lab, that has been the source of the secrets passed to China.

When news of the Soviet espionage became public in 1950, anti-Communist sentiment hardened. The recent revelations about Chinese espionage, along with the charges that Beijing has been illicitly acquiring American technology on a large scale, come at a time of intense debate about American policy toward China. And those revelations will probably strengthen the hands of those who want a tougher stand.

Perhaps the most significant difference between the two cases lies in the access to technology. The technology needed to build nuclear weapons is more widely available today than it was in the 1940's and 1950's. More than 25 nonnuclear countries have the latent capacity to build nuclear weapons. The difficulty of controlling technology is especially complex in areas that have both civilian and military uses, notably computers. There are desktop computers today that are more powerful than the supercomputers used in weapon design in the 1970's.

This suggests that even as the United States tries to tighten its security and its export controls, it is fanciful to believe that the dissemination of science and technology can be controlled completely by one country. American politicians should keep this fact in mind before they strain relations with China and other countries.

David Holloway, the director of Stanford's Institute for International Studies, is the author of "Stalin and the Bomb."

  • Return to Wen Ho Lee Page