Chinese espionage report dividing key Republicans

Democrats enjoying dispute surrounding study for Jack Kemp

July 24, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- One side accuses the other of hyping allegations of Chinese espionage to the point of absurdity. The other fires back that its accusers are ignoring the facts out of sympathy for the Chinese Communist Party.

If it was just another partisan cat fight, it would go virtually unnoticed. But when conservative gadfly and 1996 Republican vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp squares off with GOP Rep. Christopher Cox, the chairman of the House committee on Chinese espionage, the battle gets a little more interesting.

The rift on the right has sent waves of delight through Democratic circles. China is still expected to be a potent campaign issue, especially for conservatives who have seized on the Cox committee's espionage charges as the latest -- and most egregious -- example of what they consider President Clinton's duplicity.

But a well-publicized challenge from other conservatives could defuse the right's new battle cry, "Treason is the Reason."

Little wonder, then, that a study commissioned by Kemp to critique the Cox committee's conclusion has been virtually deep-sixed by the Republican establishment.

William J. Bennett, who with Kemp co-chairs the conservative think-tank Empower America, refused to lend the group's imprimatur to Kemp's report, forcing him to release it on his own letterhead.

Cox and his committee's senior Democrat, Norm Dicks, have disparaged the Kemp report as "little more than a personal book review" that is "laden with uninformed opinion and false assumptions."

Not only did the report's author, physicist James Gordon Prather, have no access to the more detailed, classified version of the Cox committee findings, but neither Prather nor Kemp tried to contact committee aides before releasing their critique, Cox says.

To further discredit Prather's report, and Kemp's patronage, Cox aides are distributing an e-mail from the author conceding that he has not had ac cess to classified weapons information since 1975, when he left Sandia National Laboratories.

"The [committee's] unclassified report states very plainly what the facts are, and Jack chooses not to accept them," Cox fumed about Kemp. "There is a flat-Earth society as well."

Kemp could not be reached for comment, but he and Prather stand by their report. Prather insists they have mortally wounded Cox's widely accepted conclusions that the Chinese have infiltrated the nation's nuclear weapons laboratories, stolen nuclear design secrets and incorporated them into a new generation of deadly weaponry.

`You've been had'

"Cox is wrong," declared Prather, a deputy assistant secretary of the Army for science and technology in the Reagan administration. "Everybody who has looked at his report is coming out and saying, `You've been had, Chris. Now just admit it.' "

Since the Cox report emerged in May, it has taken a beating. A CIA-commissioned damage assessment led by retired Navy Adm. David Jeremiah strongly implied that the extent of Chinese espionage had been exaggerated, though it did say Chinese spies had undoubtedly obtained classified nuclear weapons information.

A presidential commission chaired by former Republican Sen. Warren B. Rudman of New Hampshire also concluded that the damage done by Chinese spies had been overstated.

More recently, a bevy of eminent nuclear scientists has belittled the Cox findings, picking out inaccuracies, such as the statement that the United States has never deployed a neutron bomb, to undermine the report's overall conclusions.

In fact, the United States deployed three versions of the neutron bomb, on the Lance battlefield missile, the Sprint missile interceptor and an 8-inch artillery shell.

Wolfgang Panofsky, a prominent physicist and director emeritus of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, concluded: "There is little, if anything, alleged, and certainly not proven, in the report that significantly affects U.S. national security."

Writing in the current issue of Arms Control Today, a liberal journal, Panofsky called recently implemented nuclear security measures "a case of closing the barn door to a stable from which no horse has been stolen."

`Hardly accurate'

Even one Cox committee member, who had signed off on the report's conclusions, took some serious shots at it in Arms Control Today. Rep. John M. Spratt Jr., a South Carolina Democrat, says the report levels "sweeping" charges that are "hardly accurate."

The committee relied heavily on a few witnesses, without substantiating their testimony with weapons experts or technical reviews, Spratt says.

Spratt does not question that Chinese espionage had obtained classified weapons information or that lab security needed to be tightened. But he said he was compelled to counter the Cox report's most provocative conclusions, such as the assertion that the Chinese had obtained nuclear weapons designs "on par" with the United States -- a charge that he claims is "simply not accurate."

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