Chinese may have stolen U.S. bomb secrets in 1995

Assertions that loss of W-88 design occurred in 1980s contradicted

April 08, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- In early 1996, the United States received a startling report from one of its Chinese spies. Officials inside China's intelligence service, the spy said, were boasting that they had just stolen secrets from the United States and had used them to improve Beijing's neutron bomb, according to American officials.

The spy had provided reliable information in the past, and officials said investigators took the report seriously.

China first built and tested a neutron warhead in the 1980s, using what American officials have said publicly was secret data stolen from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, one of America's key nuclear weapons laboratories.

But the design did not work properly. American officials say that China's 1988 test of the bomb, which kills with enhanced radiation while leaving buildings intact, was not successful.

Now, the spy was suggesting, Chinese agents had solved the problem by coming back to the United States in 1995 to steal more secrets. The spy even provided details of how the information was transferred from the United States to China, officials said.

The report prompted a federal criminal investigation, but American officials say they have found no evidence that China has produced an improved neutron bomb.

Samuel R. Berger, who is now the national security adviser, was first told of a possible new theft of neutron bomb data in 1996, according to officials who took part in the meeting or read the highly classified materials used to prepare for it.

The briefing, these officials said, came weeks after the FBI gave the Energy Department a report about the spy's information.

David Leavy, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said that Berger and another NSC official who attended the 1996 briefing do not believe the neutron bomb issue was mentioned.

The spy's report arrived as American intelligence agencies were examining a separate suspected Chinese espionage coup: the theft of designs of America's most modern nuclear warhead, the W-88.

The disclosure of the report about the neutron bomb is significant for several reasons.

Until now, Clinton administration officials have portrayed reports of China's nuclear spying as an old story.

In a series of public statements, administration officials have emphasized that the loss of the W-88 design occurred in the 1980s, which was while Republicans held the White House. They have suggested that there is no evidence Chinese nuclear spying continued into the Clinton administration.

They have also said that President Clinton acted quickly in response to concerns about security breaches at the nuclear weapons laboratories by issuing a presidential order in February 1998.

According to the officials, the April 1996 briefing of Berger included evidence of the theft of the W-88 design, the need to increase security at the weapons laboratories and the report about the loss of neutron bomb data.

The White House said Berger did not tell the president or take any further action until more than a year later, in July 1997, when he received a more detailed briefing about the W-88 theft, the neutron bomb and the continuing Chinese espionage.

Pub Date: 4/08/99

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