At first glance, the rugged mountains of northern New Mexico don't look like a particularly attractive destination for foreign tourists. But for years, Chinese visitors have poured into the remote region, as eager as kids headed to Disneyland. They're not coming for roller coasters or golf courses or ski slopes, however. They're coming to steal America's nuclear secrets.
That's the fear of intelligence experts, at any rate. They say the armed guards and razor wire that surround the Los Alamos nuclear labs are a sham. The 40-square-mile compound dotted with concrete blockhouses is now the focus of what could become the biggest spy scandal since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in 1953.
At issue is America's most advanced nuclear warhead, the W-88. Scientists at Los Alamos worked for years to miniaturize the atomic device, allowing a single Trident missile to carry up to eight 500-kiloton warheads. Smaller warheads are a huge improvement over the old three- or four-megaton behemoths because they are light enough to launch from close-in submarines and they can target multiple sites with a single launch.
Military planners were confident that the painstaking research at Los Alamos had given America a strategic advantage that would take the Chinese at least 10 years to match.
They were in for a shock. In 1995, a top-secret document intercepted by the CIA revealed that the Chinese already possessed the miniaturized technology. According to one intelligence official, with just 44 tests the Chinese had acquired a weapon that American scientists had struggled with over the course of some 1,000 tests.
Given the clear breach of national security, counterintelligence officials turned their attention to the Los Alamos labs. Suspicion fell on Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese-born computer scientist who had been working on the nuclear weapons program since 1979. In April of 1996, Notra Trulock, the head of intelligence for the Department of Energy, briefed National Security Adviser Sandy Berger on the apparent spy situation at Los Alamos. Mr. Berger, in turn, briefed the president.
Mr. Clinton, at the time, was busy raising money for what was expected to be a tough reelection campaign. Charlie Trie and other Asian-American "Friends of Bill" were dumping huge sums into Democratic coffers. As later investigations showed, much of that money came from companies controlled by the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army (PLA).
While Mr. Clinton raised money, Mr. Lee, the suspected spy, continued his work on supercomputer codes in the Los Alamos lab's top-secret "X Division," which is responsible for theoretical nuclear weapon design and applied computational physics. In addition, visiting Chinese scientists continued pouring into Los Alamos by the hundreds. According to a 1997 report by the General Accounting Office, Los Alamos hosted 746 Chinese visitors from 1994 to 1996. Of those, only 12 were required to undergo background checks. The visitors were often granted 24-hour, unescorted access throughout the laboratory compound.
Based largely on the Lee case, several federal agencies investigating America's nuclear weapons program recommended in mid-1997 that security be tightened at the three labs (Sandia and Lawrence Livermore, in addition to Los Alamos). In February 1998, President Clinton finally signed such an order, making the FBI and CIA responsible for security at the labs and requiring employees to undergo routine lie-detector testing.
But even that belated order was delayed for seven months, until Bill Richardson took over the Department of Energy from outgoing Secretary Federico Peña. (Mr. Richardson moved to Energy from the United Nations, where he had offered a job to Monica Lewinsky in an effort to get her out of Washington.)
Meanwhile, Mr. Lee continued his top-secret work undisturbed. And, according to angry lawmakers, the Clinton Administration didn't bother to disturb Congress with the bad news, either. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), one of the Senate's acknowledged experts in foreign affairs, grumbled last week that he learned of the spy scare the same way everybody else did-by reading The New York Times.
Indeed, it was the Times-not the three-year-long investigation by the FBI-that ultimately proved to be Mr. Lee's undoing. On March 6, the paper broke the story of the Los Alamos leak. Two days later a humiliated Mr. Richardson finally fired Mr. Lee.
The timing was too convenient, even for the Washington press corps. "Mr. Secretary," said an incredulous Cokie Roberts on ABC's This Week program, "there was a story in The New York Times on Saturday, you fired the guy on Monday. That does appear to be a direct response to breaking the story." Mr. Richardson, however, insisted that he had delayed taking action in hopes that Mr. Lee, while under surveillance, would provide incontrovertible proof of his guilt. He claimed he finally fired Mr. Lee only when "the FBI gave the green light to me that by firing him we would not compromise any investigation that they were doing."
What he failed to say was that the alleged spy could hardly have been unaware that he was a prime suspect. Mr. Lee had been confronted by the FBI as early as Dec. 23, had already failed two lie-detector tests, and had refused to cooperate any further. Investigators by that time had questioned him about an unauthorized trip he took to the Chinese mainland in 1988. Although he reportedly acknowledged that Chinese agents had approached him during his visit, he insisted that he had rebuffed their advances.
By mid-March, the feds had still not charged Mr. Lee in the spy scandal. He was fired, according to the Energy Department, because he violated departmental guidelines by failing to disclose his Chinese trip, as required by his security clearance.
GOP congressional leaders and presidential hopefuls were outraged at what they charged was a half-hearted investigation, hampered by the administration's cherished goal of "engaging" China. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) blasted Mr. Clinton's "strangely relaxed attitude" toward a major national security crisis and openly questioned whether the administration had been bought off by campaign donations.
Such suspicions will not quickly be allayed. The spy scandal has given new urgency to the long-held belief that Attorney General Janet Reno was covering for the president when she refused to appoint an independent counsel to investigate the Peoples Liberation Army donations and other campaign-finance abuses. To bypass the intractable attorney general, Mr. McCain called for a blue-ribbon panel, similar to the one that investigated the Iran-Contra arms deal, to look further into charges of Chinese influence peddling and spying.
The scandal also provides ammunition for critics of the president's engagement policy. Lawmakers from both parties are already mobilizing to challenge China's privileged trading status with the United States. And Mr. Clinton's most cherished foreign-policy goal-bringing China into the World Trade Organization-may be doomed as well. Last week, Sens. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) announced they will co-sponsor a bill requiring congressional approval before Mr. Clinton can sign a deal admitting China to the WTO.
But the damage has already been done. China has bypassed 10 years of research, acquired state-of-the-art nuclear technology, and made the world a much more dangerous place. In his determination to engage China, President Clinton evidently forgot that it is still a less-than-friendly nation.