America's stolen secrets
New York, Wednesday, May 26, 1999
A devastating pattern of security lapses is laid out in the Congressional report on China's acquisition of America's most vital nuclear and missile secrets. Beijing remains far from nuclear parity with the United States. But a bipartisan House committee, headed by Christopher Cox, Republican of California, found that China has systematically exploited poor security at American nuclear weapons labs, lax satellite licensing and weak export control laws to speed work on a new generation of nuclear weapons and missiles.
Though some of the committee's findings have been outlined in news accounts over recent months, the report adds fresh detail and serves as a powerful indictment of failed security and law enforcement by Democratic and Republican Administrations dating back to the 1970's. The Clinton Administration, in particular, has a great deal of explaining to do about its anemic response when it first learned of possible Chinese espionage. The Cox committee has performed an invaluable public service with its unsparing investigation.
The committee found that China had obtained classified information on seven of America's most modern thermonuclear weapons. These include the miniaturized bombs used in multiple-warhead missiles as well as in missiles launched from mobile platforms and from submarines. With this information, China may be able to produce similar weapons of its own. The stolen material, including computer codes that are essential to warhead design, most likely came from supposedly secure computers at America's nuclear weapons laboratories.
The report also found that Beijing had exploited commercial deals with American aerospace companies to learn how to avoid launch failures and design missiles more capable of delivering multiple warheads. The committee specifically found that two companies, Hughes Space and Communications International and Loral Space and Communications, improperly advised the Chinese on rocket design in the mid-1990's without obtaining State Department licenses for such discussions. Despite these breakdowns, the Clinton Administration shifted authority for licensing satellite sales from the security-minded State Department to the business-oriented Commerce Department, a decision wisely reversed by Congress last year. Though earlier administrations also failed to secure America's nuclear secrets, the Clinton Administration's performance seems especially abysmal.
In particular, the failure of the national security adviser, Samuel Berger, to respond more vigorously when first briefed about possible nuclear espionage three years ago requires further inquiry. At a minimum Mr. Berger should have informed President Clinton and Vice President Gore, coordinated investigative efforts and made sure that his request for tightened security at the labs was carried out immediately. He also played an important role in the mistaken decision to give the Commerce Department lead authority in satellite licensing decisions.
Republican calls for Mr. Berger's resignation feel premature, but his fitness is in question and must be carefully weighed in the days ahead.
Similarly disturbing is the failure two years ago by Janet Reno's Justice Department to authorize Government investigators to pursue a wiretap of the principal suspect, Wen Ho Lee. Justice's handling of the Lee investigation was lackadaisical. This is but the latest in a series of law-enforcement lapses or political blunders that would have led to Ms. Reno's removal in any recent Administration other than this one. Serious lapses also occurred at the Energy Department, which, at least until Bill Richardson took over as Secretary last fall, failed to assert managerial control over the national weapons labs.
Congress must continue investigating these issues of responsibility, taking care, as the Cox committee did, to avoid sensationalism and undue partisanship. Together with the Administration, it should also move quickly to assure better protection of America's national security secrets.
Better coordination is needed among the various intelligence and law enforcement agencies in detecting, investigating and prosecuting nuclear espionage. The Energy Department must clearly demonstrate that it can manage the labs. Otherwise it may make sense to transfer them to Pentagon control. Whichever department is in charge, more rigorous security screening is needed for those engaged in the most sensitive weapons work.
Export-control laws, excessively relaxed at the end of the cold war and further loosened as part of the Clinton Administration's efforts to encourage commerce with China, must be significantly tightened, particularly with regard to satellites and supercomputers.
The Cox report makes clear the seriousness of Chinese efforts to acquire militarily sensitive technology and underscores America's vulnerability to such efforts. Stricter export laws and tighter security at nuclear weapons laboratories will help safeguard American secrets. But at least as important is a more careful approach on the part of the Clinton Administration to dealings with China. Beijing is worth cultivating as a diplomatic and commercial partner. But its potential threat to American national security should never be ignored or underestimated.