Long-term threat seen in China theft

Use of stolen U.S. data in missiles looming, Hill report warns

'Major failure' in security

Study sparks torrent of criticism about White House inaction

May 26, 1999|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- China for years has stolen secrets about the most sophisticated U.S. nuclear weapons, accelerating Beijing's military advancement and its potential threat to the United States, a long-awaited congressional report issued yesterday concludes.

The espionage has allowed China to leapfrog from 1950s-era atomic weapons designs to modern thermonuclear technology, a feat that took the United States several decades, hundreds of millions of dollars and numerous nuclear tests to achieve, the report said.

The spying, which began in the 1970s and probably continues today, is part of a widespread and voracious Chinese information-gathering effort to gain U.S. technology that can be used for both commercial and military purposes, the report concluded.

China "has mounted a widespread effort to obtain U.S. military technology by any means, legal or illegal," said Rep. Christopher Cox, the California Republican who led the special House committee of five Republicans and four Democrats who unanimously approved the findings in the 700-page report.

Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington state, the panel's senior Democrat, characterized the thefts as "a major counterintelligence failure one of the worst failures in the nation's history."

The report documents breakdowns in U.S. counterintelligence that date back at least 20 years and concludes that some of the most serious thefts occurred during previous administrations.

Nevertheless, it triggered a torrent of new criticism of the Clinton White House, with many Republicans arguing that the administration knowingly or naively ignored evidence of Chinese espionage because of its intense desire to foster trade relations with Beijing.

Reno, Berger targeted

Some Republicans have called for the resignations of Attorney General Janet Reno and Samuel R. Berger, President Clinton's national security adviser, saying they repeatedly failed to respond aggressively to warnings of espionage at U.S. nuclear weapons labs.

"Janet Reno has always said that she's accountable, and she certainly is," said Sen. Richard C. Shelby, an Alabama Republican and chairman of the Senate intelligence committee. "She's accountable to the people for her actions or inactions, and there are a lot of inactions there. And I believe it's time for her to go, and now."

House Majority Leader Dick Armey said: "I think Sandy Berger should resign. I just think Sandy Berger needs to stand up and accept his responsibility."

Clinton, saying he was determined to prevent more thefts at U.S. nuclear labs, announced yesterday that he would implement more than two dozen of the report's 38 recommendations.

"I want to assure the American people that I will work very hard with the Congress to protect our national security," Clinton said. "The overwhelming majority of those recommendations we agree with and are in the process of implementing."

Cox concluded that China "has induced U.S. businesses to provide military-related technology for commercial motives" and "induced U.S. businesses to lobby for liberalized export standards, with the ultimate result of being able to assemble information for military purposes."

`Penetration continues'

China's theft of American nuclear secrets began in the 1970s and continued in the 1980s and 1990s, according to the report. "It is exceptionally likely that penetration of our U.S. national weapons laboratories continues to this very day," Cox said.

The report said the stolen information includes classified information about "every currently deployed thermonuclear warhead in the U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile arsenal." The primary targets of Chinese thefts have been the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories -- Los Alamos and Sandia in New Mexico; Lawrence Livermore in California; and Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Damage scrutinized

The damage caused by Chinese spying is the subject of debate.

Supporters of U.S. trade, scientific and military exchanges with China dispute the seriousness of the espionage, arguing that much of the information Beijing managed to obtain was either outdated or publicly available. China has not deployed any weapon based on stolen American designs.

The Cox panel suggested that it would not be long before Beijing puts the information to use. China is developing three mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles, all of which could reach the United States. The first of these could be tested this year and deployed in 2002.

"These missiles require small warhead designs, of which the stolen U.S. design information is the most advanced in the world," the report said.

Threat to U.S. seen

With China in an early stage of developing a modern economy and building its military strength, the full import of what China has gained may not be understood for years. But the Cox committee expressed little doubt that the espionage could threaten U.S. national security in the long term.

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