Cover Story

Red-handed

Declassified Cox report raises new questions about lax security and sheds new light on the magnitude of China's acquisition of U.S. nuclear secrets. The finger-pointing begins

Issue: "There they go again," June 5, 1999

Bodice-rippers not your scandal-reading of choice? You were waiting for the spy thriller? Washington is there to serve, they say, and so lawmakers last week declassified an almost 6-month-old report on how China stole just about every secret in the book on American missile technology.

If the report lacks a certain literary quality, its findings are anything but prosaic. China has stolen data on "every currently deployed thermonuclear warhead in the U.S. ballistic missile arsenal," it says. The booty gives China the ability to leapfrog the competition in the production of long-range, strategic weaponry, as well as the all-important, medium-range, mobile missiles. The report shows Chinese espionage stretching back into the 1980s, but accelerating under the Clinton administration. It also demonstrates security lapses that continued well after President Clinton and intelligence heads like National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and CIA director George Tenet were alerted about the breaches of security.

The House committee's findings have been circulating in Washington since late December (when the report was actually completed), but the implications for national security, once the documentation was released to the public May 25, prompted calls for key officials to resign.

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Clinton ally Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) joined Republicans calling on Attorney General Janet Reno to resign for her failure to investigate the security leaks. Republicans led by House majority leader Dick Armey also called for Mr. Berger to step down.

Last summer, the House select committee, chaired by Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), began looking into the transfer of sensitive technology to China. It focused on data stolen from U.S. weapons labs: Los Alamos and Sandia in New Mexico, Lawrence Livermore in California, and Oak Ridge in Tennessee. Classified information about seven nuclear warheads currently deployed in the U.S. arsenal found its way into Chinese hands from top-secret computers used in those laboratories.

Most significantly, Chinese moles captured the computer technology behind the W-88, a miniaturized, tapered warhead that is the most sophisticated nuclear weapon the United States has ever built. W-88 warheads are wed to submarine-launched ballistic missiles carried aboard Trident nuclear submarines. They form the backbone of U.S. ballistic missile capability.

Government inspectors first learned of that theft in 1995, but they suspect it may have occurred 10 years earlier. Analyzing Chinese nuclear tests, using the United States' own counterintelligence forces, weapons experts found similarities to W-88 technology and were able to track its source to Los Alamos, where the warhead was developed. Wen Ho Lee, a Chinese-American scientist, was fingered in that investigation.

At Sandia, China's defense minister, Gen. Chi Haotian, toured sensitive facilities during a Pentagon-sponsored trip in 1996. Lab officials said they were not told in advance of the visit and said his delegation did not receive proper clearance.

More broadly known are technological giveaways that occurred when U.S. aeronautics and defense contractors shared sensitive satellite guidance know-how, which Chinese officials in turn rushed to military application. Two firms cited in the Cox report are Loral Space and Communications Ltd. and Hughes Space and Communications International. Both firms are suspected of violating their export licenses in granting sensitive technology related to satellite launches in China.

Questions following the report flow in two directions: How good is intelligence gathering, if it required more than 10 years to take any kind of action? And, what is the response of law-enforcement officials?

Rather than dismissing the report, Clintonites tried to stay out in front of the controversy, defending both the attorney general and the intelligence agencies.

"We are fixing the problem," energy secretary Bill Richardson said on NBC. That's not fixing enough, say many diplomats. "The Clinton administration's biggest mistake is to say we have all concerns taken care of," American Enterprise Institute vice president John Bolton told WORLD. "Whatever the extent of the damage, it does not mean there is nothing left to protect. There is a huge follow-up issue at stake."

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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