Spy Report Sparks GOP Attack

Vernon Loeb - The Washington Post - May 26, 1999

A House select committee probing China's theft of U.S. nuclear secrets finally made its 700-page report public yesterday, triggering an intense partisan outcry about the impact of Chinese espionage on national security that could affect the course of U.S.-China relations for years.

Leading Republicans, including Texas Gov. George W. Bush and four other candidates for president, seized the committee's dramatic findings of Chinese spying and loss of U.S. nuclear secrets and went on the attack, accusing the Clinton administration of appeasing China and failing to swiftly counter Chinese espionage at the nation's nuclear weapons laboratories.

"Presented with detailed information about China's espionage, this administration apparently did not take [it] seriously, did not react properly and it is still trying to minimize the scope and extent of the damage done," Bush said in a statement released in Austin.

President Clinton fired back immediately, telling reporters during an appearance at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, Tex., that his administration had enacted "the most sweeping reorganization ever of counterintelligence in our nuclear weapons labs" 15 months ago in response to suspected Chinese espionage at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

"We have strict controls on the transfer of sensitive commercial and military technology to China," Clinton said. "At the same time, I strongly believe that our continuing engagement with China has produced benefits for our national security."

Clinton credited the House panel, headed by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), with acting in a "careful and bipartisan manner."

But the committee's widely reported unanimity in concluding that China has stolen U.S. thermonuclear design secrets and used them to help develop a new generation of sophisticated nuclear weapons came unglued as the report was released.

Rep. Doug Bereuter (Neb.), one of five Republican committee members, said the panel's work confirmed that Chinese espionage at the nation's nuclear weapons laboratories represented "the gravest single loss of our nation's most sensitive secrets ever."

"There is really no doubt about that," Bereuter told hundreds of reporters gathered in the ornate caucus room at the Cannon House Office Building.

The panel's four Democrats sharply disagreed.

Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.) took strong exception with the central finding that stolen U.S. nuclear secrets have given the Chinese thermonuclear design information "on a par with our own."

"Now that's alarming, but is it accurate?" Spratt asked, noting that U.S. intelligence agencies do not know what use the Chinese have made of stolen nuclear secrets.

"I do know that we have had 1,100 nuclear tests, as opposed to 50 on their part," Spratt said. "We've built over 30,000 nuclear warheads, as opposed to a few hundred, at most, on their part. So that would suggest to you that we have a somewhat greater capability for nuclear design than they do."

Rep. Norman D. Dicks (Wash.), the committee's ranking Democrat, said the report was written "in a worst-case fashion" and predicted that "academics and experts in and out of government will challenge some of our worst-case conclusions."

Right on cue, Robert S. Norris, a senior analyst and nuclear weapons expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, disputed the conclusion that stolen U.S. secrets substantially influenced Chinese warhead design. "Their weapons are not copies of ours," he said.

Norris also noted the United States' overwhelming nuclear superiority and said, "that's not going to change in any kind of dramatic fashion in the future."

"I think it's best to put some of this in perspective and context and not hyperventilate about the future of Chinese nuclear weapons," he added.

But the context remained partisan as Republican and Democratic committee members spared over the validity of the panel's conclusions and leading Republicans joined the fray.

The Cox committee came into being one year ago after then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) proposed that a select panel be formed to investigate whether contributions to the Democrats' 1996 campaign influenced the administration's regulation of exports of sensitive military-related technology to China.

Some leading Republicans believed that the administration's acceptance of campaign contributions from satellite makers in for alleged favorable export rulings was possibly an impeachable offense. But the Cox committee ultimately shied away from the issue, focusing instead on the export controls themselves and on signs of espionage at the nuclear weapons labs.

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) raised the campaign contribution issue again yesterday, faulting the Clinton administration for turning "a blind eye while Communist China stole our most classified national security secrets."

"We are forced to question whether the president and vice president deliberately ignored the reality of Chinese spying and theft because they had ulterior economic and political motives," DeLay said.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), a Cox committee member, responded that the panel asked executive branch officials responsible for regulating technology transfers to China whether they had ever felt any type of "political pressure." All of them answered no.

"Although some had originally speculated that impeachable behavior would be found by this committee," Scott said, "we in fact found nothing worthy of a referral to the Judiciary Committee."

Still, Republicans pressed the attack, focusing on Clinton's national security adviser, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger. Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), a Cox committee member, lambasted Berger for releasing the committee's recommendations in February so that he could put his "spin" on the results at a time when the panel's report was still stamped secret and undergoing a declassification review that ended last week.

Berger's move, Weldon said, came before CIA Director George J. Tenet had even finished reading the report.

"Today the American people get to make their own judgments," Weldon said. He described the administration as "a government that has relaxed the export controls, a government that has not had aggressive counterintelligence efforts, a government that has not enforced the very arms control agreements they would have us agree to."

As for future relations with China, committee members split again along partisan lines.

"We need to completely reevaluate our relationship with the People's Republic of China," said Bereuter, the Nebraska Republican, suggesting a "guideline" that ensures no short-term compromises in return for long-term gains. "Everything must be in our short-term and long-term national interest," he said.

Dicks, the Washington Democrat, was far more conciliatory. "I think we still need to engage with China," he said. "And I would hate to see this report create a circumstance in which we . . . go to a Cold War setting with China. I think that would be a mistake."

Staff writers Helen Dewar and Paul Blustein contributed to this report.

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