Major battle looms on House report on technology transfers to China

January 01, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The completion of a top-secret House committee report on U.S. technology transfers to China sets the stage for a major battle in coming weeks over how many of the report's details will be declassified and made public.

The committee, headed by Rep. Christopher Cox, a California Republican, said Wednesday it had found that U.S. national security has been harmed by Chinese acquisitions of American military technology over the past two decades.

The report, by itself, could lead to some tightening of controls on American high-technology exports to China and to further restrictions on Chinese access to U.S. facilities such as the nuclear-weapons laboratories at Los Alamos, N.M., and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near San Francisco.

But until the details are released, it will be impossible to know whether the committee has come up with ground-breaking revelations, or whether it is pulling together and giving a new boost to information that has been on the public record for many years.

``So far, it's all classified. I can't tell if they're coming up with something new or just recycling stuff and putting alarming rhetoric on it,'' said Gary Milhollin of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control. Milhollin, a specialist on technology transfers, testified before Cox's committee.

For example, one section of the House report is said to focus on Chinese thefts of American high-tech secrets. That could well involve new material. Or it might summarize disclosures that date back a decade or more. In 1989, the FBI counterintelligence chief in Los Angeles told the Los Angeles Times in an interview that China had surpassed the Soviet Union in operations to steal technology in California.

Similarly, the House report is said to describe China's theft of nuclear-weapons design technology from the U.S. national laboratories run by the Department of Energy.

That could be an updated account of a story first reported by the San Jose Mercury-News in 1990: that Chinese scientists had built and tested a neutron bomb using secrets stolen from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Or, alternatively, the committee's conclusion may be based on new and recent information the six-month congressional investigation has uncovered.

``I don't think this is just a tempest in a teapot,'' said James Mulvenon, a China specialist at the Rand Corp.'s Washington office who was also a committee witness. ``I think they have got something and they're figuring out how to use it.''

Cox said yesterday that his committee's classified report includes important new information.

``If you weighed it, I suppose 50 percent of it by weight has been in the press before, just because you can't have every word be new,'' Cox said. ``But our significant findings are new.''

The House committee's 700-page document was based on a six-month investigation, during which the panel held 22 hearings and took testimony from 75 witnesses. For now, however, its findings are classified ``top secret.''

The committee plans to publish an unclassified version -- but it is not yet resolved how many of the details in the classified report will be included in this subsequent document.

Over the next few weeks, there could well be considerable skirmishing between Congress and the Clinton administration over how much information should be declassified and released.

``I want to declassify essentially the whole thing,'' Cox told the Los Angeles Times. ``We've talked to a number of experts like [former CIA Director] James Woolsey who agree that we can move to declassification. We've got some leverage on this, because the House has the power to declassify.''

If the Clinton administration is ``dragging its feet'' on declassification, Cox said, the House intelligence committee could hold a closed session to decide how much of the report can be released, and the full House could meet in executive session to make a final decision.

Cox would not discuss the specifics of the report. But according to sources familiar with the committee's investigation, the report includes sections on China's acquisition of American technology for supercomputers, machine tools and missile-guidance technology.

Although Republican congressional leaders have criticized the Clinton administration for being too lenient in approving U.S. high-technology exports to China, the U.S. business community has so far headed off legislative efforts to impose drastic restrictions on these sales.

During his 1992 campaign for the White House, President Clinton attracted unusually strong business support from executives of high-tech industries in places such as Silicon Valley. After taking office, his administration took a series of steps aimed at liberalizing the controls on high-tech exports for products such as advanced computers.

At the time, proponents argued that the existing restrictions were cumbersome and unnecessary, curtailing exports of goods that could easily be obtained elsewhere. But critics argued that the liberalized export controls could help countries such as China to improve missile and nuclear capabilities.

The new House report is likely to revive this long-standing battle over export controls.

Pub Date: 1/01/99

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