Successful Spying by China

April 22, 1999 - John Diamond - The Associated Press

"Through aggressive spying, China obtained classified information on a variety of U.S. nuclear weapons, making it possible for Beijing to modernize its arsenal in the next few years, U.S. intelligence officials told Congress on Wednesday.

In a long-awaited damage assessment, administration officials disclosed for the first time that China gathered classified information not just on the W-88 warhead and the neutron bomb but on "several" modern U.S. warheads "particularly "re-entry vehicles," the nuclear weapons mounted on multiple-warhead rockets.

"China obtained by espionage classified U.S. nuclear weapons information that probably accelerated its program to develop future nuclear weapons," according to a declassified version of the assessment.

But the intelligence team said China also gained some valuable weapons information in open venues such as public conferences and scientific exchanges. President Clinton, who was briefed on the findings Wednesday, ordered a review to assess potential vulnerability to espionage beyond the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories.

"Measures to protect sensitive nuclear weapons information must be constantly scrutinized," Clinton said in a statement.

Lax Security Alleged

Chinese espionage at U.S. weapons labs developed into a political storm for Clinton as Republicans accused his administration of being lax in responding to the FBI"s initial concerns in 1995. The issue followed on the heels of allegations that the administration promoted commercial satellite exports that allowed Beijing to improve its ballistic missiles.

The Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, Sen. Richard Shelby, said the briefing Wednesday made it clear that Chinese spying continued into the Clinton administration, something that the president in the past has denied knowledge of.

"It confirms my worst fears," Shelby, R-Ala., said of the damage assessment. "We made it easy for the Chinese because of weak security at our national labs " We took too long to find out what was going on and we still don"t know how deep and wide the problem is."

Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington, ranking Democrat on the special House committee that has examined China espionage issues, said that while the report "demonstrates a terrible intelligence failure" by the United States, the long-term security implications are less clear.

"The Chinese still have not yet been able to demonstrate that they"ve taken advantage of it. And only time will tell," Dicks said.

An Improved Chinese Arsenal?

One of the assessment team"s conclusions was that China has not yet deployed any weapons based on stolen U.S. technology but may be developing them.

The Chinese nuclear arsenal, estimated at 18 to 20 single-warhead ICBMs and perhaps 400 single-warhead short- and medium-range nuclear missiles, never has rivaled those of the United States and Russia. Nor does Beijing appear to have any plans to do so, the assessment said. The United States has about 10,000 nuclear warheads.

Instead, China is trying to improve the credibility of its nuclear threat by improving its retaliatory capability, according to the intelligence assessment. Doing so involves developing lighter, more mobile and therefore more survivable warheads, such as the W-88, a miniaturized warhead mounted on the eight-warhead Trident II submarine-launched missile. China has a no-first-use nuclear policy, making survivability of its arsenal a key priority.

China also is seeking to improve the forces it has arrayed against potential regional enemies, according to the assessment team.

Denial from Beijing

China emphatically has denied the espionage charges, saying its own scientists achieved improvements in nuclear weapons design.

The multi-agency assessment team led Robert Walpole, the CIA official in charge of strategic and nuclear issues, was overseen by an outside panel of experts headed by retired Adm. David Jeremiah.

China is seeking to close "significant deficiencies" in its nuclear weapons capability, the assessment found, and "the Chinese almost certainly are using aggressive collection efforts to address deficiencies." China is likely to adopt the U.S. weapons information into its own programs over the next few years, according to the assessment.

As a result of the loss of secrets, "future Chinese weapons will look more like ours," said a senior intelligence official familiar with the assessment, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Investigating Los Alamos

A 1988 Chinese document, obtained by U.S. intelligence, as well as close analysis of Chinese weapons tests, touched off a 1995 investigation of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. A Taiwanese-American formerly employed at Los Alamos is under investigation in connection with the W-88 case.

The declassified assessment did not name the several other U.S. nuclear warheads about which China obtained "at least basic design information." To identify them, said the senior official, would provide clues as to how U.S. intelligence learned about the Chinese espionage successes and would let Beijing assess the accuracy of its stolen information.

In assessing damage to U.S. national security, the intelligence team concluded that by obtaining more U.S. nuclear technology, "the Chinese might be less concerned about sharing their older technology" with other countries, posing a proliferation risk.

The Jeremiah panel said loss of classified technology may be more damaging to the United States now than during the Cold War, when substantial weapons research kept the United States ahead of competitors.

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