Intelligence Report Points to Second China Nuclear Leak
April 8, 1999 - JEFF GERTH and JAMES RISEN - The New York Times
WASHINGTON -- In early 1996, the United States received a
startling report from one of its Chinese spies. Officials inside
China's intelligence service, the spy said, were boasting that they
had just stolen secrets from the United States and had used them to
improve Beijing's neutron bomb, according to American officials.
The spy had provided reliable information in the past, and
officials said investigators took the report seriously.
China first built and tested a neutron warhead in the 1980s,
using what American officials have said publicly was secret data
stolen from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California,
one of America's key nuclear weapons laboratories.
But the design did not work properly. American officials say
that China's 1988 test of the neutron bomb, which kills people with
enhanced radiation while leaving buildings intact, was not
Now, the spy was suggesting, Chinese agents had solved the
problem by coming back to the United States in 1995 to steal more
secrets. The spy even provided details of how the information was
transferred from the United States to China, officials said.
The report prompted a federal criminal investigation, but
American officials say they have found no evidence that China has
produced an improved neutron bomb.
Sandy Berger, who is now the National Security Adviser, was
first told of a possible new theft of neutron bomb data in 1996,
according to officials who took part in the meeting or read the
highly classified materials used to prepare for it.
The briefing, these officials said, came weeks after the FBI
gave the Energy Department a report about the spy's information.
David Leavy, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said
that Berger and another NSC official who attended the 1996 briefing
do not believe the neutron bomb issue was mentioned. Leavy said
that Berger did not learn of the suspicions until a more detailed
briefing in July 1997.
The spy's report arrived as American intelligence agencies were
examining a separate suspected Chinese espionage coup: the theft of
designs of America's most modern nuclear warhead, the W-88.
The disclosure of the report about the neutron bomb is
significant for several reasons.
Until now, Clinton administration officials have portrayed
reports of China's nuclear spying as an old story.
In a series of public statements, administration officials have
emphasized that the loss of the W-88 design occurred in the 1980s,
which was while Republicans held the White House. They have
suggested that there is no evidence Chinese nuclear spying
continued into the Clinton administration.
They have also said that President Clinton acted quickly in
response to concerns about security breaches at the nuclear weapons
laboratories by issuing a Presidential order in February 1998.
Accounts by government officials about the neutron bomb case
call both assertions into question.
According to the officials, the April 1996 briefing of Berger
included evidence of the theft of the W-88 design, the need to
increase security at the weapons laboratories and the report about
the loss of neutron bomb data.
The White House said Berger did not tell the President or take
any further action until more than a year later, in July 1997, when
he received a more detailed briefing about the W-88 theft, the
neutron bomb and the ongoing Chinese espionage.
Soon after, Leavy said, Berger told the President about the
security weaknesses at the laboratories and China's spying. Asked
whether he mentioned the neutron bomb case, Leavy would reply only
that "he did not detail each and every allegation."
A bipartisan Congressional report on China's acquisition of
United States technology includes a detailed, but still secret,
account of Beijing's efforts to obtain neutron bomb secrets,
including reports of efforts during the Clinton Presidency. But
government officials say that the Clinton administration is
resisting requests from Congress to make the more recent material
Leavy said the administration is cooperating with Congress to
declassify as much material as possible consistent with law
enforcement and intelligence requirements.
Several agencies, including the FBI, the Central Intelligence
Agency and the Energy Department are continuing to examine the
The FBI has not identified a suspect in the case.
The April 1996 briefing came at a critical moment in U.S.-China
relations. The Clinton administration's continuing effort to expand
commercial and diplomatic ties with China had been upset by
Beijing's test in March of missiles off the coast of Taiwan.
Berger has said the April 1996 briefing was not sufficiently
detailed to prompt action.
Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press" last month, he said the
information he was told three years ago was "very general and very
preliminary." In addition, he said, "we did not have a suspect"
in the theft of the W-88 technology.
But other officials offered a different account of Berger's
briefing. The White House said it believes the briefing occurred on
April 13, 1996, but was not sure of the exact date and has no
records of what was said that day.
The officials said the briefing was more detailed than Berger
has described and was the culmination of a five-month inter-agency
study of the W-88 theft and related issues. "It was a pretty
specific briefing," one American official who was present said.
Charles Curtis, the deputy secretary of Energy, led the Energy
Department's delegation at the White House briefing. The main
briefer was Notra Trulock, then the Energy Department's chief of
Trulock's briefing, officials said, specifically covered the
theft of the W-88 technology and concluded that China had likely
obtained data about the miniaturized warhead, officials said.
The officials said Berger was also told that investigators had
identified a prime suspect in the theft and would shortly turn
their information over to the FBI for a formal criminal inquiry.
Berger and Curtis agreed that the Congressional intelligence
committees would be briefed on the W-88 matter following the
referal to the FBI (Congress was informed that summer.)
According to the officials, the 1996 White House briefing also
discussed how the stolen technology could fit into Beijing's
nuclear strategy. Trulock suggested that China could use the W-88
technology as part of a plan to rely on the mobility of
truck-launched missiles with small warheads to better survive
nuclear attacks, officials said.
At the end of the April briefing, officials said, Trulock said
there was new information that China may recently have stolen
neutron bomb data. He was referring to the spy's report, which had
been received by the Energy Department from the FBI on March 27,
1996, the officials said.
The neutron bomb intelligence was "hot off the press," and it
was included to warn the White House of the possibility of
continuing Chinese espionage, one official said.
Curtis told Trulock at the meeting to follow up the neutron bomb
information with a broader inquiry into Chinese espionage efforts
at the weapons labs, one official said.
The Energy Department completed an analysis of the neutron bomb
case in July 1996, and it unearthed some intriguing connections.
The study, officials said, raised the possibility that the chief
suspect in the W-88, a computer scientist in Los Alamos, had also
been involved in the transfer to China of neutron bomb secrets.
The suspect, Wen Ho Lee, was dismissed from his job last month
after the Energy Department said he violated security regulations.
No criminal charges have been filed against him. Officials said the
FBI has investigated the Energy Department's theory but has not
been able to establish that Lee has any connection to the neutron
As they investigated further, Energy Department officials
discovered that Lee had attended a classified meeting in 1992 in
which solutions to the neutron bomb's design flaw were discussed,
The FBI, officials said, had also found that Lee had made at
least one telephone call to the scientist at Lawrence Livermore who
was suspected of having provided the Chinese with the original
neutron bomb data in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
According to the FBI's informant, Chinese officials were
boasting in 1995 about obtaining new data from the United States
but did not specifically mention the government's weapons
laboratories. American officials say the FBI has not found any
evidence linking the weapons laboratories to the suspected theft of
neutron bomb secrets.
Government officials said it is difficult to evaluate China's
progress on developing a neutron bomb because they have not
detected any testing of such a weapon since 1996, when Beijing
agreed to a moratorium on tests.
The informant's report, however, was one of several pieces of
intelligence pointing to the vulnerability of the laboratories to
In November 1996, shortly before he left the government, Curtis
ordered a series of measures to tighten security. But the White
House was apparently not notified of Curtis's directives, most of
which were ignored or delayed by Energy Department officials.
In July 1997 Trulock returned to the White House to present his
wider findings to Berger, who had become Clinton's National
Berger, in turn, now says that that briefing prompted him to
inform Clinton about China's nuclear espionage and concerns about
lab security. But late last year, in a sworn reply to the select
House committee chaired by Christopher Cox, a Republican from
California, Berger said the President was not told about the
espionage until 1998.
Asked to explain the discrepancy, Leavy said "after the Cox
Committee process we've remembered more."
Clinton says he is unaware of any Chinese espionage taking place
during his administration.
"To the best of my knowledge, no one has said anything to me
about any espionage which occurred by the Chinese against the labs,
during my Presidency," he said at a news conference last month.
Leavy declined to say whether Clinton has been briefed on the
intelligence about the possible theft of neutron bomb data during
Two months ago, Cox and the ranking Democrat on the committee,
Norm Dicks of Washington, wrote President Clinton requesting a
meeting to discuss their report. Leavy said the White House was
working on scheduling a meeting. The committee has completed its
work but is still consulting with the administration over how much
of its final report can be made public.
China conducts unsuccessful test of neutron bomb.
March 8 -- China rattles the United States by starting a week of
war games and tests missiles off the coast of Taiwan.
March 27 -- Energy Department receives report from Chinese spy
that China has stolen information about the neutron bomb from
American nuclear weapons laboratories.
April -- Energy Department officials tell Sandy Berger, then
deputy director of the National Security Council, of reports that
China stole warhead designs and information about the neutron bomb.
June -- FBI tells White House aides of evidence that China
planned to covertly funnel money into 1996 election campaigns.
July -- China conducts final atomic test and says it will explode
no more nuclear weapons in tests.
November -- Deputy Secretary of Energy Charles Curtis orders a
series of security improvements at the labs, most of which are
ignored or delayed.
July -- Energy Department officials provide more detailed
briefing for Berger about allegations of Chinese atomic espionage;
he briefs President Clinton.
February -- President Clinton issues order to tighten security at
nuclear weapons labs.
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