Lies About China
By Michael Kelly
President Clinton's China policy, a mess of corruption and carelessness and naivete, is collapsing under the weight of its own fraudulence, exposing the nation Clinton calls America's "strategic partner" as a threat to America's security and a thief of America's nuclear secrets, and exposing also the president and senior administration officials for their efforts to minimize and hide this unwelcome fact.
For the past six years, the White House has lied about China. It pretended, against all evidence, that the People's Republic was sincere in its promises to curb its persecution of democrats, Catholic priests, Tibetan monks, pregnant women and other enemies of the people. It pretended that China was sincere also in its promises to curb its spread of weapons of mass destruction. It pretended not to understand that China regarded the United States as enemy number one in its campaign to achieve regional dominance, particularly over Taiwan.
The days of pretense are dwindling down to a precious few. In February the PLA installed perhaps as many as 100 ballistic missiles on the Chinese coast opposite Taiwan. That led to new calls in Congress that the United States proceed with a plan to erect a theater missile defense system protecting Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
In the first week of March, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright went to Beijing and attempted to appease Chinese fury over the threat that the United States would defend Taiwan against missile attack. The Washington Post quoted a senior Chinese official as saying Albright, in her private meetings, had "tried to 'pacify' " China, telling officials, "Please don't worry, don't overreact," and assuring them that it would take the United States a decade to put any missile defense system in place. For her troubles, Albright won sneers and threats. "If some people intend to include Taiwan under theater-missile defense, that would amount to an encroachment on China's sovereignty and territorial integrity," said Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan.
Meanwhile, the New York Times, elaborating on earlier stories in the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, gave front-page play to a bombshell.
In April 1996, Energy Department officials informed Samuel Berger, then Clinton's deputy national security adviser, that Notra Trulock, the department's chief of intelligence, had uncovered evidence that showed China had learned how to miniaturize nuclear bombs, allowing for smaller, more lethal missile warheads. And it appeared that the Chinese had gained that knowledge through the efforts of a spy at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Berger was told the spy might be still in place.
The White House took no action. In April 1997 the FBI recommended measures to tighten security at the laboratories. No action. In July 1997 Trulock and other Energy Department officials gave Berger a fuller briefing, and Berger in turn briefed Clinton.
But Trulock's warning came at an awkward time. The administration was on the verge of the 1997 "strategic partnership" summit with Beijing. It was also facing congressional investigations into charges that the People's Republic had illegally funneled money into the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign. Very awkward, really.
So Berger buried the embarrassment. He assigned National Security staffer Gary Samore to look into things, and Samore asked the CIA to come up with a theory of the case other than Trulock's. The CIA dutifully reported that Trulock's analysis was an unsupported "worst-case" scenario, and Samore dutifully told Berger that no one could really say where the truth lay.
Wen Ho Lee, the suspected spy, beavered on at Los Alamos. Leisurely, the security council prepared a new plan to tighten security at the labs. Leisurely, finally, in February 1998, Clinton formally ordered the reforms into effect. Curiously, Energy Secretary Federico Pena never followed the order. The reforms were not instituted until Bill Richardson, Pena's successor, did so in October 1998 -- 30 months after Trulock's first warning, 18 months after the full alarm, nine months after Clinton's directive.
In the meantime, the administration did everything it could to keep things buried. The Times reports that the House Intelligence Committee asked Trulock for a briefing in July 1998. Trulock asked for permission from Elizabeth Moler, then acting energy secretary. According to Trulock, Moler told him not to brief the committee because the information might be used against Clinton's China policy. Moler told the Times she doesn't recall this.
The White House's secret would have remained secret had it not been for a select investigative committee headed by Republican Rep. Christopher Cox. Cox's committee unearthed a pattern of more than two decades of Chinese nuclear spying, including the Los Alamos case. The secret leaked. On March 8, Richardson fired Wen Ho Lee.
Yet still the White House seeks to hide what truth it can. A declassified version of the Cox committee's 800-page bipartisan report is scheduled to be released late this month -- happily enough, just days before a Washington visit by China's prime minister. The White House is waging a desperate rear-guard campaign to force the Republicans to redact evidence about the administration's suspiciously deleterious approach to the Los Alamos spy case and also evidence suggesting linkage between Clinton's China policy reversal and campaign contributions from parties desiring that reversal.
But these tactics will probably fail. An angered Republican leadership is considering taking the matter to the full House, where an unexpurgated report could be voted out over Democratic objections. Good. Let a thousand flowers bloom.
Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal.