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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 37, May 1999

China Nuclear Espionage Controversy Deepens Further

As covered extensively in Documents and Sources, the end of May saw the publication of the unclassified version of the House of Representatives Report, headed by Republican Representative Christopher Cox (California), into the many allegations of Chinese nuclear espionage reported in recent issues of Disarmament Diplomacy. The report is both shocking in its claims of the extent of the espionage, and scathing in its condemnation of the efforts of the Clinton Administration to tackle the issue. See next issue for coverage of the predictably turbulent and intense reaction to the report's findings.

The Clinton Administration has been maintaining that it inherited the problem, had been working conscientiously to deal with it, and that it was not aware that China had succeeded in obtaining any nuclear secrets since it assumed office. However, on 10 May, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, speaking on NBC television, conceded: "There have been damaging security leaks... The Chinese have obtained damaging information...during past Administrations and the present Administration."

Speaking to the National Academy of Sciences in Washington on 12 May, Richardson spoke of his fears that his Department's programmes of exchange visits with foreign scientists might be indiscriminately singled out for criticism, and possible total cancellation, in "overreaction" to the spying scare: "I need your help in fighting some very unguided efforts in the Congress to curb the foreign scientist programme... If we follow those who propose that we isolate our labs from the world, we will weaken our national defence... I think it would hurt our national security if there were restrictions on sensitive countries like Russia and China. I don't want those restrictions. We have been on background checks. We have put on other screening procedures. That is sufficient..."

Earlier, on 28 April, Richardson issued a statement confirming media reports that transfers of classified information within the Energy Department's computers had taken place: "While I cannot comment on the specifics, I can confirm that classified nuclear weapons computer codes at Los Alamos were transferred to an unclassified computer system." Richardson acknowledged: "This kind of egregious security breach is absolutely unacceptable, and we now have strong barriers in place that will prevent these kinds of transfers."

Reports: Statement by Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson, US Department of Energy, L-99-026, 28 April; Richardson - China stole secrets on Clinton watch, Reuters, 10 May; US Energy Dept. opposes curbing scientist visits, Reuters, 12 May.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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