WASHINGTON -- A secret report to top Clinton administration officials in November warned that China posed an "acute intelligence threat" to the government's nuclear weapons laboratories and that computer systems at the labs were constantly being penetrated by outsiders.
Yet investigators waited until March to search the computer of a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico who had been under investigation for nearly three years, suspected of spying for China. It was not until April that the Energy Department shut down its classified computer systems to impose tighter security over their data.
Meanwhile, in February, the scientist, Wen Ho Lee, tried to delete evidence that he had improperly transferred more than 1,000 files containing nuclear secrets, officials said.
The classified report contains numerous warnings and specific examples showing that outsiders had gained access to the computer systems at U.S. weapons labs as recently as June 1998.
Lawmakers from both parties have raised questions about why the Clinton administration failed to address security breaches at the laboratories sooner, and the report, which has been shared with Congress, is certain to fuel the debate.
The report, the first comprehensive review of its kind, was prepared by U.S. counterintelligence officials throughout the government. It confirmed and elaborated on long-standing concerns about the vulnerability of the weapons laboratories to espionage.
The report was distributed to the highest levels of the government, including Bill Richardson, the secretary of energy; William S. Cohen, the secretary of defense; Janet Reno, the attorney general; President Clinton's national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger; and three dozen other senior officials at law enforcement, defense and intelligence agencies. A government official gave a copy of the report to the New York Times.
According to the report, the Energy Department recorded 324 attacks on its unclassified computer systems from outside the United States between October 1997 and June 1998, including instances when outsiders successfully gained "complete access and total control to create, view, modify or execute any and all information stored on the system." The document does not say where the computer attacks originated.
A select congressional committee sent the president additional warnings about security of the weapons laboratories in a separate report that was secretly delivered in January.
Richardson said in an interview that he was briefed extensively on that report and that it "confirmed the already strong counterintelligence measures I approved in October, including cybermeasures."
The search of Lee's computer "should have happened earlier," Richardson said. But he defended waiting until April 2 to shut down the computer systems at the laboratory, saying: "It wouldn't have made much of a difference to have gone earlier."
"The shutdown was the most extreme of measures," he said. After learning on March 30 that Lee had improperly moved vast amounts of nuclear secrets, Richardson said he decided to "speed up" plans adopted months earlier to improve computer security.
Lee has not been charged. His lawyer left a message on a reporter's voice mail saying the allegations against his client are false.
Richardson defended his department's performance but said that some Energy Department officials might be disciplined once an internal inquiry has been completed.
The 25-page counterintelligence report contains many examples of lax security and serious intelligence breaches at the labs that have not been previously disclosed and involving more than a dozen foreign countries.
Foreign spies "rightly view DOE as an inviting, diverse and soft target that is easy to access and that employs many who are willing to share information," the report states. The Energy Department is responsible for building and designing America's nuclear weapons.
China is cited in the report as posing the most serious security threat to the U.S. weapons labs. The report also claims that Russia and India are immediate threats.
"China represents an acute intelligence threat to DOE," the report said, referring to the Department of Energy. "It conducts `a full court press' consisting of massive numbers of collectors of all kinds, in the United States, in China, and elsewhere abroad.
"China is an advanced nuclear power yet its nuclear stockpile is deteriorating," it continued. "As such, China has specifically targeted DOE for the collection of technical intelligence related to the design of nuclear weapons."
The report concludes, "This effort has been very successful and Beijing's exploitation of U.S. national laboratories has substantially aided its nuclear weapons program."
The report states that the maintenance of nuclear weapons, so-called "stockpile stewardship," is the area of most intense interest to China. Lee was at the center of Los Alamos' stockpile stewardship program for years.