China stole data on U.S. nuclear warhead, report says

Theft allegedly involved vital design information

April 21, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- A comprehensive analysis by U.S. intelligence officials has concluded that China stole design information related to the most advanced U.S. nuclear warhead from a government nuclear weapons laboratory, government officials said.

The intelligence report is expected to be presented to the Clinton administration and Congress today. Previously, the White House, citing other intelligence reports, had said the evidence of Chinese atomic espionage is less conclusive.

Although Energy Department officials have raised alarms about evidence of Chinese espionage at the national weapons labs since 1996, a 1997 report by the CIA was used by the White House to downplay energy officials' conclusions, officials said. President Clinton also said as recently as last month, "It is my understanding that the investigation has not yet determined for sure that espionage occurred."

In the new assessment, the intelligence community reports on damage done to national security from what it says is Chinese nuclear spying. The report examines a key finding of a select congressional committee that has investigated allegations of illicit transfers of high technology to China.

That committee, chaired by Rep. Christopher Cox, a California Republican, embraced the findings of Energy Department intelligence analysts who concluded that China stole design data from the W-88 warhead from Los Alamos, N.M., in the 1980s and that the theft was critical to Beijing's development of a modern, miniaturized nuclear warhead.

U.S. officials said that the new intelligence analysis includes a broad examination of the development of China's nuclear weapons capabilities over the last few decades. It determined that Beijing benefited from espionage through the theft of W-88 design data from Los Alamos. But it also found that China obtained some sensitive nuclear data from nonsecret sources, including academic exchanges and inadvertent leaks of information by scientists.

The new study comes in the midst of a furor over the administration's early response to reports of Chinese atomic espionage. Energy Department intelligence analysts initially detected the theft in 1995, and senior White House officials, including Samuel R. Berger, now the national security adviser, were first briefed on the matter in April 1996.

But the White House did not move to increase security at national laboratories until nearly two years later. After receiving more detailed evidence of Chinese spying in the summer of 1997, the National Security Council sought a quick, narrowly focused analysis from the CIA and used it to cast doubt on the troubling conclusions reached by Energy Department analysts, officials said.

Gary Samore, a senior NSC official, relied on that CIA analysis in September 1997 as the basis for his report to Berger that the evidence of Chinese espionage was less conclusive than the Energy Department had said, a White House official said.

At the time, Samore and Berger were deeply involved in planning the agenda of a U.S.-Chinese summit meeting. Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin used the meeting to elevate relations.

In recent weeks, the White House has examined whether Samore accurately portrayed for Berger the findings of the 1997 reports from the CIA and Energy Department, officials said. Berger has been told that Samore overstated the degree to which the CIA 1997 analysis cast doubt on the Energy Department findings, according to an administration official.

An NSC spokesman, David Leavy, said Berger had the utmost confidence in Samore's abilities, but Leavy declined to discuss the nature of the discussions between Samore and Berger in 1997.

"The NSC, from Mr. Berger on down, viewed this as a very serious matter then, and we view it as a very serious matter now," said Leavy. "Mr. Berger believes Gary Samore is an enormously dedicated professional who has spent his entire career on nonproliferation issues and enhancing the security of the American people, and whose integrity is unquestioned."

But senior intelligence officials now say that, while there were differences, the 1997 CIA and Energy Department reports came to generally similar conclusions about the damage done by Chinese nuclear spying.

Notra Trulock, an Energy Department intelligence official who was in charge of analyzing the espionage evidence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that a "even a cursory reading of the products of both agencies will show that in fact there are very few areas of disagreements."

Trulock added that "these supposed differences have been magnified by NSC and DOE officials in an effort to spin down the potential implications of this case."

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