Value of nuclear data in spy case debated

Some experts believe China benefited greatly

others say loss minimal

May 23, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In 1995, a Chinese spy posing as a defector walked into an undisclosed U.S. Embassy and handed over a stack of secret Chinese documents, including an explosive 1988 memo that contained classified information on six nuclear warheads in the U.S. arsenal.

That single document, 20 pages in length, summarized Chinese knowledge of American nuclear weapons, proving that China had penetrated the highly secret program. It became the Rosetta stone for a burgeoning espionage investigation.

It led to allegations that Taiwanese-born computer scientist Wen Ho Lee had passed secrets to the Chinese from his base at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. It triggered perhaps the most dramatic security crackdown in the history of the nation's nuclear weapons labs. And it spawned heated accusations that the Clinton administration was lax, not only in its surveillance of Chinese intelligence activities but its response once those activities were exposed.

That China surreptitiously obtained U.S. nuclear secrets is no longer in doubt. What is hotly disputed is the military significance of the information. Some officials contend that U.S. national security has been severely compromised, while others insist that most of what the Chinese obtained was worthless, outdated or widely available at a good public library when China obtained it.

A major interagency damage assessment released April 21 by intelligence agents from the CIA, FBI, Pentagon, Energy Department and State Department was similarly inconclusive.

"China obtained by espionage classified U.S. nuclear weapons information that probably accelerated its program to develop future nuclear weapons," the intelligence assessment concluded. However, reviewers also stated, "We cannot determine the full extent of weapon information obtained. We believe it more likely that the Chinese used U.S. design information to inform their own program than to replicate U.S. weapon designs."

Moreover, the damage assessment said, "To date, the aggressive Chinese collection effort has not resulted in any apparent modernization of their deployed strategic force or any new nuclear weapons deployment."

Nevertheless, warned James R. Lilley, a U.S. ambassador to China during the Bush administration, such caveats should not diminish the seriousness of the security breaches.

"I think they have obtained an awful lot. How much they can absorb and use against us is not clear, but we're beginning to see some disturbing signs," said Lilley, a China expert at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. "Of course you should be concerned, but I would not be hysterical about it."

Unclassified report expected

This week, the House Select Committee on U.S. National Security and the People's Republic of China is expected to release an unclassified version of its report detailing its findings on Chinese espionage.

The report is not likely to quell the debate over the significance of the data obtained by the Chinese, but its authors say it will confirm that the Chinese have been diligently seeking the nation's most sensitive nuclear secrets, despite insistent denials by Beijing.

"Facts aren't inflammatory. Facts are facts," said California Republican Rep. Christopher Cox, chairman of the select committee. "These are facts that are completely known to the People's Republic of China, so it cannot complain."

The Cox committee, formed almost a year ago by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich in response to an outcry over alleged missile-technology transfers to China, concludes that the Chinese:

Obtained classified information on seven nuclear weapons systems, from sketchy data on the antiquated W-56 warhead to detailed design data on the diminutive W-88, the second-newest warhead in the U.S. arsenal.

Obtained conceptual information on a neutron bomb from a scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, then tested a version of the weapon in the 1980s.

Obtained some conceptual information in the 1990s on a rail gun, a giant cannon that was being developed in the 1980s as a missile-defense system but never put into use.

Obtained in 1980 a missile-guidance part known as an accelerometer, a technology which remains under the control of State Department export restrictions but is widely available commercially for domestic use.

The report also criticizes the Clinton administration for lax security controls on launches of commercial U.S. satellites in China, launches that led to the improvement of Chinese ballistic-missile capabilities. And it details the export of about 600 high-performance computers by U.S. firms that could be used to simulate nuclear weapons blasts.

White House aides "are not going to be able to spin their way out of this," a House GOP aide said of the report.

Mysterious memo

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