WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration failed to brief key congressional committees in 1997 about the FBI's investigation of Chinese nuclear espionage, even as the United States was trying to certify that China was helping to curb the spread of nuclear technology, a White House official acknowledged yesterday.
The admission is likely to intensify the debate over China as lawmakers and White House aides struggle to declassify a report on Chinese weapons proliferation before a March 31 deadline.
And it brought a swift rebuke from Republican leaders, who hinted that the administration had violated at least the spirit, if not the letter, of U.S. nuclear proliferation law.
Republican Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman of New York, the chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said he had instructed his staff "to see if there are any inconsistencies with U.S. law."
Yesterday, Gary Samore, the National Security Council's senior director for nonproliferation and exports controls, defended White House actions that came after Energy Department and FBI disclosures in the mid-1990s. The agencies said the Chinese might have obtained critical nuclear secrets from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico during the 1980s.
Not only did the Clinton White House act quickly to bolster security at nuclear weapons laboratories, Samore contended, but the FBI and administration officials briefed the House and Senate intelligence committees no fewer than 16 times on the unfolding investigation. The briefings, he said, were "very specific," and "some were quite detailed."
"It is absolutely wrong that there was any cover-up or any effort to sweep this under the rug or look the other way," Samore told reporters and nuclear proliferation experts at a briefing at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But Samore conceded that no information on the FBI investigation was shared with the House International Relations or the Senate Foreign Relations committees. That could be significant because throughout 1997, White House officials met with those committees to forge an agreement to begin cooperating with China on civilian nuclear energy.
The agreement on nuclear energy cooperation with China was reached by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. But in 1985, Congress passed legislation mandating that before the agreement could go into force, the president would have to certify that China is not providing nuclear weapons aid to other countries. Congress would have the authority to override the certification. Until 1997, the agreement was not implemented because no such certification could be made.
But leading up to Clinton's 1998 visit to China, White House officials made clear that they wanted the cooperative agreement to be the centerpiece of their initiative toward China. In September 1997, according to congressional aides, Robert Einhorn, a deputy assistant secretary of state, notified the House International Relations Committee that Clinton would certify that China was no longer helping spread nuclear weapons technology.
At the same time, administration officials launched a broad effort to plug security leaks at the nuclear weapons labs. They also ratcheted up an investigation into whether China had stolen designs for a miniaturized nuclear warhead.
Samore said yesterday that the issue of China's theft of nuclear secrets in the 1980s had nothing to do with whether Beijing was helping other countries advance their nuclear weapons programs. Therefore, he said, the White House was under no obligation to brief congressional leaders outside the intelligence committees.
But Republican aides said the law governing the U.S.-China nuclear cooperation agreement specifically says the president must keep the international relations committees apprised of every conceivable proliferation issue.
Beyond the intricacies of the law, there are the political issues of Clinton's policy of engagement with China. Gilman said the White House had intentionally kept his committee in the dark to ensure the approval of the agreement before his visit to Beijing.
"In all probability, the Congress would not have signed off on implementing the U.S.-China Nuclear Cooperation Agreement if we had known that the Chinese had stolen some of our most precious nuclear technology," Gilman said. "The Clinton administration knew this then and they know it now."
The latest revelation came as White House and congressional aides were making progress on one China issue: declassifying a nearly 800-page report detailing Chinese espionage and the effect of missile technology transfers to China from U.S. satellite manufacturers.
The select House committee that drafted the report is to be disbanded at the end of the month. If the declassification work has not been completed by then, Republican leaders have threatened to demand a congressional vote to disclose information from the report, with or without the administration's approval.
But with only about 100 pages left to screen, Republican and Democratic leaders of the committee, chaired by Rep. Christopher Cox, a California Republican, are urging restraint.
Florida Republican Porter J. Goss, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a co-author of the report, said he has told Republican leaders that if the work is not finished by March 31, it will be completed shortly thereafter.
"It is my very strong wish and firm belief that reasonable people can come up with a releaseable version of the Cox report in the near future," Goss said.
Pub Date: 3/18/99