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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 36, April 1999

Major Concerns over Security of US Nuclear Labs As China Espionage Controversy Rages

As covered in detail in the last issue a major scandal has broken in the US over alleged Chinese nuclear espionage in US nuclear laboratories. The main incident sparking the controversy was the dismissal on 8 March of Wen Ho Lee, a scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) on the grounds of serious violations of procedures surrounding the handling of classified information. On 21 April, the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) - George Tenet, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) - released a 'damage assessment' which concluded that espionage had occurred and that highly-sensitive information, particularly concerning the design of miniaturised nuclear warheads, had been obtained by the Chinese. See Documents and Sources for details of, and reaction to, the damage assessment.

The Clinton Administration accepts that there has been a serious problem with regard to the security of US weapons labs; it is adamant, however, that it is a problem it inherited and that it has been trying strenuously to tackle. In the words of the President (8 April): "We are determined to prevent the diversion of technology and sensitive information to China... When we first learned in 1995 that a compromise had occurred at our weapons lab, our first priority was to find the leak, to stop it, and to prevent further damage..." However, at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on 13 April, Notra Trulock, an Energy Department intelligence officer, made the serious claim - denied by the Department - that he had made proposals to improve lab security in 1996 and 1997 which were "ignored," "minimised," and "occasionally even ridiculed." Trulock told the Committee: "By early 1996 we had identified a number of suspects, these suspects however retained their clearances and access to sensitive nuclear weapons design information until December of 1998. ... By the spring of 1996, we were repeatedly warning about continuing targeting efforts by the Chinese against our national laboratories..."

At a press conference in Washington on 9 April, China's Premier, Zhu Rongji, addressed the issue in what he described as a "solemn statement": "I have no knowledge whatsoever of any allegation of espionage or the theft of nuclear technology and I do not believe such stories. I've also asked President Jiang, and he does not have any knowledge of that at all. It is not the policy of China to steal so-called military secrets from the United States... Don't underestimate the ability of the Chinese people to develop their own technology." Premier Zhu also referred to a claim reportedly made by President Clinton on 7 April that China only had 20-30 nuclear weapons: "I really, truly and honestly don't know how many nuclear weapons China has and I'm not sure how President Clinton knows this number!" The main theme of Zhu's remark was that "there is no way China poses a threat to the US... Americans should convert the theory of China as a threat into the theory of China as an opportunity." This theme had been echoed earlier in the month by President Clinton (7 April): "As the next Presidential election approaches, we cannot allow a healthy argument to lead us toward a campaign-driven Cold War with China, for that would have tragic consequences..."

Congressional investigations into the affair have certainly sometimes revealed a predisposition against China. For example, according to Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John Warner (Republican - Virginia) on 13 April: "China is America's, and indeed the West's, natural enemy in the next millenium. ... China is striving to elevate its Superpower status, both in terms of its military capabilities as well as its economic and political [standing]..."

Reports: Clinton warns of icy China relations, Associated Press, 7 April; Report cites nuke intelligence leak, Associated Press, 8 April; Zhu - 'no knowledge' of stealing US nuclear secrets, Reuters, 9 April; Leader says China no threat to US, associated Press, 9 April; Panel holds China espionage gearing, Associated Press, 12 April; Senate Panel looks at Chinese espionage case, Reuters, 13 April; Panel holds espionage hearing, Associated Press, 13 April.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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