Senators briefed privately on spy case

March 17, 1999 - Bill Gertz - The Washington Times

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson briefed senators privately yesterday on Chinese nuclear spying that one participant called the most damaging national security breach since Moscow obtained U.S. atomic-bomb secrets in the 1940s.

Mr. Richardson and Energy Department officials met privately with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee for 90 minutes about the scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory who was fired March 8 after being suspected of passing warhead design information to China during the 1980s.

"I'm concerned about the magnitude of the information that has been transmitted," said Sen. Robert C. Smith, chairman of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces, who attended the meeting. "I think it's as serious, if not more serious, than any breach of national security since the Rosenbergs."

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were Soviet spies executed in 1953 for giving Moscow U.S. nuclear weapons secrets during the 1940s.

Mr. Richardson said later during an open session of the committee that the damage is still being assessed. "It's serious; it's inexcusable," he said under questioning by Mr. Smith. "Compromises did happen. Whether it's in the area that you mentioned, that design, we will know very soon the precision of that damage."

Mr. Smith said China obtained design information on the W-88, the United States' most advanced and compact nuclear warhead. It is deployed on U.S. Trident II submarine-launched nuclear missiles.

Asked later to elaborate on what makes the case so damaging, Mr. Smith said the information about the case "will come out."

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, Rep. Duncan Hunter, chairman of the House National Security Committee subcommittee on procurement, said Energy Department policy and intelligence officials failed to disclose the Los Alamos spy case in testimony under oath.

The California Republican said that during a classified briefing held Oct. 6, he asked Elizabeth Moler, the deputy energy secretary, and Notra Trulock, the department's intelligence chief, whether there had been cases of classified nuclear weapons information being compromised at the weapons laboratory.

"In response to those questions, they talked about some old cases, but at no time did they disclose to us, after having sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, anything about the W-88," Mr. Hunter said.

Mr. Hunter said he plans to question Miss Moler, whom the congressman said ordered information about China excluded from prepared testimony, and Mr. Trulock about the testimony.

"They knew all the time that this warhead had in fact been stolen and yet were extremely reluctant," Mr. Hunter said.

An Energy Department spokesman had no immediate comment.

Mr. Hunter disputed claims by President Clinton that steps were taken to increase security at weapons labs. "The president did not take aggressive action, and his people did not take aggressive action," he said.

He said FBI Director Louis J. Freeh told the Energy Department in September 1997 that a probe of the spying had stalled and the bureau lacked evidence for an arrest.

Mr. Richardson fired the employee, Wen Ho Lee, for unspecified security violations -- some 14 months after the FBI said he could be dismissed.

"That is not acting aggressively," Mr. Hunter said.

Mr. Hunter said the nuclear spying was not limited to the 1980s, but included compromises in the 1990s. "We've had losses in both decades," he said.

"There's always been espionage to some degree, ever since the cases of the Rosenbergs, but I know of no other case where we've kept a known spy in place where he can access critical military or nuclear-related information for long periods of time," Mr. Hunter said.

Mr. Smith, too, said he was never informed about the Chinese spying at Los Alamos, even though his subcommittee overseas U.S. strategic nuclear forces and foreign strategic weapons developments. "We clearly were not informed of this," Mr. Smith said.

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