Spying Charges Against Beijing Are Spelled Out by House Panel

May 26, 1999 - JEFF GERTH and JAMES RISEN - The New York Times

WASHINGTON -- A long-awaited Congressional report that describes a pattern of systematic and successful Chinese espionage to learn American nuclear secrets was released on Tuesday, and President Clinton said he agreed that national security should be improved. The contents of the report, which have been seeping out in recent days, were unanimously approved by the five Republicans and four Democrats on the panel, the Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People's Republic of China.

Speaking in Texas at an economic conference sponsored by Vice President Al Gore, the President said his Administration agreed with "the overwhelming majority" of the report's 38 recommendations, which call for stronger intelligence, security and export-control programs.

China has consistently denied the allegations of spying, and the investigation has further strained relations between Washington and Beijing.

The committee's criticisms of the Administration's policy of easing technology exports to improve political relations could also become an issue in the Presidential campaign. The report has already drawn a call from the House majority leader, Richard Armey, for the resignation of the President's national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger.

The three-volume report, on slick paper with color photographs, concludes that China has stolen design secrets for all seven nuclear warheads currently deployed on American missiles, enabling Beijing to leap years ahead and modernize its nuclear weapons.

The report says that "systematic" Chinese nuclear espionage began 20 years ago and almost certainly continues, but that it has not altered the military balance between Washington and Beijing because China still has few nuclear missiles.

But the committee warns that China is exploiting stolen secrets to develop a modern and more mobile nuclear capability that could pose a threat to American troops and allies in Asia and the Pacific.

Despite the committee's battle to maintain its bipartisan spirit, at today's presentation one of the Democrats questioned a key conclusion, that the thefts had put China's nuclear weapons design information on a par with that of the United States.

The report also criticizes the practices of two American satellite companies -- Hughes Space and Communications International Inc. and Loral Space and Communications Ltd. -- for sometimes subordinating national security to the "bottom line."

And it offers a new view of efforts by the Chinese military to funnel money to a Democratic fundraiser in 1996: that the money, given by a Chinese military officer, Lieut. Col. Liu Chaoying, who met President Clinton at a benefit in 1996, "was an attempt to better her position in the United States to acquire computer, missile and satellite technologies."

At Tuesday's news conference, members of the committee stressed that national security had taken priority over partisan rancor. "Our final report shows Congress can work well together," said Representative Christopher Cox, a California Republican and chairman of the panel.

Representative Norm Dicks of Washington, the ranking Democrat, said, "Chris Cox and I agreed that nine members could be Americans first, putting aside partisan considerations."

But another Democratic member, Representative John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina, questioned whether the finding that stolen secrets had put China's design capabilities "on a par with our own" was accurate.

The President, in his remarks in Texas, also pledged to continue his policy of engagement with Beijing. His promise to improve security was backed up by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who said, "I am trying to clean up a mess."

But Clinton and his Administration were criticized by two Republicans seeking a Presidential nomination, George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole, both of whom said he should have reacted more quickly to initial reports of Chinese spying.

At its core the report presents two intertwined tales: of China's "insatiable" appetite for American military technology, and of Washington's laxity over sensitive exports and security at weapons laboratories.

The committee began its inquiry looking at a narrow subject: what was China learning from American companies who used Chinese rockets to launch satellites? But midway into its inquiry the committee turned to the reports of nuclear espionage.

In recent weeks, leaks of some of the findings about espionage have caused a furor in Congress. In response, the White House has emphasized that the suspected spying occurred during both Republican and Democratic administrations.

The report criticizes the looser controls on technology exports, a cornerstone of President Clinton's commercial diplomacy, but does not assign blame for lax security at the laboratories. A principal finding is that the United States did not become "fully aware of the magnitude of the problem" until 1995.

The committee interviewed 150 witnesses and reviewed 500,000 pages of documents. But it faulted the cooperation it received from the Administration and from Hughes and Loral as less than complete.

Specific complaints involve the failure of some Cabinet departments to turn over some documents or allow some interviews and the fact that Berger took 40 days to respond to a written question about when President Clinton was informed about the spying reports.

Berger originally told the committee that the President was informed in early 1998. But this month, long after the report was completed, Berger changed his account and said he had briefed Clinton in July 1997.

A senior aide to Berger attributed the delay and inaccuracy to poor staff work and distractions from American bombing of Iraq, which began a few days before Berger's reply.

The committee relied on Berger's first account, saying the President was not briefed until early 1998 "even though" the scope of the problem was first uncovered by intelligence officials in 1995. The officials then briefed Berger in 1996. Berger is not considering Representative Armey's request that he resign, a White House aide said.

About 30 percent of the report remains classified. The version made public today often uses words like "may" or "could" or "possibly." Cox said in an interview, "An unfortunate byproduct of the rewriting process is that apparent speculation and opinion enters the report whereas in our final, classified report there were only facts."

These are some of the report's findings:

  • The Chinese Government has 3,000 "front" companies in the United States, but American agencies seem to have little knowledge about their existence or activities. In the 1990's, China stepped up its use of front companies for espionage.

  • China stole unspecified thermonuclear weapons information, possibly from a national weapons laboratory, in the mid-1990's. This is in addition to China's acquisition of design secrets on seven nuclear warheads, including the neutron bomb and the W-88, the most advanced, miniaturized warhead.

  • China has stolen information relating to American re-entry vehicles, which shield warheads as they return to earth.

  • China illegally obtained ballistic-missile guidance technology that it has exploited for its own weapons.

  • China illegally obtained American research on electromagnetic-weapons technology related to satellites in the late 1990's.

  • China's agreement to allow monitoring of its use of American exports, which was announced at summit talks in Beijing in 1998, is "wholly inadequate" in general and "useless" in the case of advanced computers.

The report said Washington's policy of allowing corporations to police their own technology sales, a significant step taken in the first Clinton Administration, has not worked because national security interest "simply may not be related to improving a corporation's 'bottom line.'"

On the subject of aid by American satellite manufacturers for Chinese scientists, the committee found that in 1993, 1995 and 1996 the companies "transferred missile design information and know-how" to China "without obtaining the legally required licenses." The "illegally transmitted" information has improved the reliability of China's civilian and military rockets and "is useful for the design and improved reliability" of future Chinese ballistic missiles.

President Reagan first approved the launch of American commercial satellites on Chinese rockets in 1988. But the committee found that his decision was based on two outdated factors: "Insufficient domestic launch options in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster" and the belief that China "was a strategic balance against the Soviet Union in the context of the cold war."

So the report calls for strengthening American rocket-launching capabilities, improving the monitoring at foreign launch sites and tightening Federal scrutiny of commercial space insurers and satellite exports.

Buried in the report is a timely warning: The committee noted the lack of procedures to detect or prevent the movement of classified nuclear weapons information to less secure computer systems at the weapons laboratories.

It was not until last month that the Energy Department, which owns the labs, took drastic actions to begin to address that issue.

That came days after officials reported that several years earlier, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory suspected of spying for China had transferred virtually the entire history of United States nuclear weapons testing and development to an unsecure computer system.

  • Return to Wen Ho Lee Page