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Background: A Nuclear Bombshell?

May 25, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: After a five-month investigation, a House select committee– five Republicans and four Democrats– reached its conclusions unanimously and released them today in a 900- page report.

It found: China’s penetration of four U.S. national laboratories spans at least the last several decades and almost certainly continues today. Those laboratories are Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, Sandia, and Oak Ridge. China stole design information on all seven thermonuclear warheads currently deployed in the U.S. arsenal, including its most advanced, the W-88. It will exploit elements of those designs in its next generation of weapons. China also obtained missile and space technology from U.S. companies that improved its military and intelligence operations.

When the committee began its investigation last summer, it focused primarily on allegations of the transfer of missile technology to the Chinese by two U.S. companies, Hughes Electronics and Loral Space and Communications. In 1996, a Loral-Hughes satellite aboard a Chinese rocket was lost when the rocket exploded shortly after liftoff. In an attempt, they said, to prevent future accidents, Loral and Hughes shared technical information with the Chinese, but without getting the required approval of the State Department.

The committee’s investigation then went on to examine alleged Chinese espionage at U.S. laboratories. Two months ago, Wen Ho Lee, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, was fired. Lee has been accused of transferring large amounts of classified nuclear technology information from a highly secure computer at Los Alamos to a much more accessible computer network. Though an FBI investigation continues, Lee has not been charged with a crime.

In its report today, the committee made 38 recommendations to the administration, notably that it implement counterintelligence programs at the national laboratories, strengthen export controls of sensitive technology to other countries, and have the Defense Department monitor launches of U.S. satellites in other countries. The Clinton administration says it already has implemented many of the committee’s recommendations.

JIM LEHRER: And to the chairman of the House committee, Christopher Cox, Republican of California, and the ranking Democrat, Norman Dicks, of the state of Washington. Congressmen, welcome. Congressman Cox, are the Chinese the main villains in this story?

REP. CHRISTOPHER COX: Well, of course our select committee focused exclusively on technology transfer from the United States to the People’s Republic of China. And so the one question that we’re really ill-equipped to answer is relatively how this fits into geopolitics, for example, but what we can tell you is that the extent of the espionage that we uncovered is without precedent. This is more than any other country has been able successfully to walk off with from the United States and that is a happy thing but it’s a very unhappy thing that the PRC got it at all. And so while a great deal of the focus of our report is on what went wrong on the U.S. side, would I not be willing to let the People’s Republic of China off the hook and say everybody does it because no other country has gotten this much. And particularly we have to be concerned when we know the purpose of their thefts is the design of weapons that are going to be pointed at the United States.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Dicks, would you agree the major failure here or the major cause of this, what you all found, was more overt acts committed by China than by stupidity or incompetence by people in the United States Government?

REP. NORM DICKS: No, I think it’s quite the contrary. I believe that the real primary fault here rests with the failure in counterintelligence at our national labs. Now I can’t excuse the Chinese for what they did, but they took advantage of us not doing our job. That’s why, when I saw how serious this was last fall, I went to Bill Richardson and I told him “You have got to implement the recommendations that Ed Curran who is going to be in charge of the Office of Counterintelligence is making because we have to strengthen counterintelligence at these labs.” The Chinese should never have gotten this information.

JIM LEHRER: No matter how badly they wanted it, no matter whether they were willing to do anything to get it, they shouldn’t have been able to get it because the U.S. — if the U.S. Government had been doing its job properly – that’s what you’re saying?

REP. NORM DICKS: That’s my view. And I think the most important thing we can do in the near term is get in place this counterintelligence program that started, frankly, with the President signing a Presidential Decision Directive Number 61 in February of 1998. And it took several months to implement it, but Richardson has done it. And I think we’re moving in the right direction.

JIM LEHRER: And, yet Congressman Cox you said today at the news conference, these thefts were still going on as far as you know?

REP. CHRISTOPHER COX: We have to be very, very concerned, because while we have a good deal of information about what was stolen, we don’t know in many of the cases how it went out the door. And when we conduct an inventory of the ways it might have left, for example, in national laboratories, which is one of the places that these thefts have occurred, we find it could be any of a number of ways. And that is why even today when we can say that we have improved our counterintelligence over the last few months, we’re still talking in percentage terms. Next year sometime in the year 2000, according to Ed Curran at the Department of Energy, we’re going to have something sturdy in place. But even then, he said today, it’s not going to be the best counterintelligence we could have. But we’re going to have to still double our efforts to achieve that.

JIM LEHRER: Well, Congressman Cox, explain to us why that is so difficult to keep our secrets? Why is it going to take so long? Why has this not been corrected before now?

REP. CHRISTOPHER COX: It ought not to have been so difficult. It ought to have been corrected before now. There have been a number of efforts made over the years to deal with counterintelligence at the national laboratories, for example. But I want to add that our report details espionage directed against our military technology, some of which is at the labs but it goes well beyond that. But the problem specifically at the laboratories has been that they have resisted Department of Energy Control. And frankly, the Department of Energy hasn’t imposed a heck of a lot of control over many years. Since 1995, when, as our report states, the full dimensions of the problem became known, the urgency really ought to have increased. Finally in 1998, as Congressman Dicks just said, we got this thing kickstarted and with the advent of our select committee in the summer of 1998, I think even though it was behind the scenes, we put a lot of pressure on the administration and on the Department of Energy to get this thing moving. And today it’s moving. It’s a good example of Congressional oversight working.

REP. NORM DICKS: Jim, can I just say — on this point?

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

REP. NORM DICKS: The reason it failed — there were two previous efforts, maybe even three, to strengthen counterintelligence at the lab. And yet they forgot to give them the money, the staffing, the resources, the mandate to get the job done.

JIM LEHRER: Who’s “they” Congressman?

REP. NORM DICKS: This is the officials who are trying to put this program into place and the people from the FBI who were given the responsibility were not given direct access to the Secretary of Energy’s office. And one thing that Bill Richardson has done is accept Ed Curran’s recommendation that he have direct access. And I intend with Congressman Sprat to introduce an amendment on the Defense Authorization Bill to make that a statutory fact, because I think if you’re going to be able to get the Secretary involved, you have got to be able to walk into that door and say “We’ve got a problem. I need your help.”

JIM LEHRER: Well, Congressman Dicks, do you agree with Congressman Cox that as we sit here tonight, it’s possible that the Chinese are still stealing our nuclear secrets?

REP. NORM DICKS: Well, I hope not. I think tremendous improvements have been made since we finished our report back in January. And just yesterday I got a letter from Secretary Richardson and a phone call telling me that he believes that he can get this counterintelligence program in place before the start of the next fiscal year, which will be on October 1st. And they are working day and night out there to get this job done. So I know it’s much tougher now to do things, but as the chairman said, until the plan is fully in place, we can’t be assured that something isn’t possible.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Cox, do you believe that this is such a serious matter from the Chinese side of this story now, that the United States should reconsider its relationship in some way with China?

REP. CHRISTOPHER COX: Well, certainly we need to reconsider our own counterintelligence to begin with. Second, we need to reconsider and reconstruct our security relationship with the People’s Republic of China because if we had a strategic partner, that strategic partner wouldn’t be stealing us blind and then using the information to construct new weapons targeted at the United States. I don’t think we should have any illusions about the Communist’s Party security policy in that sense. But beyond that, there’s nothing in our report that mandates a particular outcome when it comes to the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China. And I personally find it very easy to distinguish, for example, thermonuclear weapons, or missile technology, on the one hand, and commercial products on the other. I think it is in our national security interests to lower the trade barriers in the People’s Republic of China and to have more commercial dealings with them provided that it’s on fair terms.

JIM LEHRER: So you don’t think there should be any recrimination of any kind against China for what they’ve been doing all these years if they in fact have been doing it?

REP. CHRISTOPHER COX: I don’t know what you mean by recrimination. If we could lay our hands on one of the spies who was acting on behalf of the MSS and the People’s Republic of China, we can prove that that person did it, I like to see them executed. And I think that’s recriminations.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Congressman Dicks.

REP. NORM DICKS: One thing I want to point out. This is very bad. They got information on the W-88, the D-5 warhead and on the W-70, which creates the neutron bomb. Now having said that, they tested their version of the W-70 back in 1988 and their version of the W-88 between 1992 and 1996. Now they’ve deployed it — they’ve tested it, but they’ve not yet deployed anything. So the chairman and I are watching to see what they are going to do with the information that they have received. And as you know, we have 6,000 nuclear warheads. They have about two dozen. So we have overwhelming nuclear superiority at this moment. But we’re concerned about the fact that by gaining these secrets, they can improve their nuclear program if they so choose. And yet we’ve got to wait and see whether they are actually going to do it.

JIM LEHRER: Well, then, do you agree with Congressman Cox that there’s nothing in this report, nothing that you found out that should change the basic relationship between the United States and China?

REP. NORM DICKS: Well, I think we have to have an honest, straightforward relationship with China. I believe in engagement. I think we need to work with these people. I don’t want to see us go to a Cold War setting with China. I want us to continue to trade with them. But I think we have to make it clear that we disagree with them on human rights. We want to see them move towards democracy. And we shouldn’t be afraid to have an honest, open relationship with them.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Cox, how would you assess the threat China now poses to the United States as a result of these nuclear secrets that they now have that they wouldn’t otherwise have had had it not been for all the things that you all have been talking about?

REP. CHRISTOPHER COX: We have to be concerned that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been a marked and significant increase in military spending by the People’s Liberation Army. They are already the largest standing army on earth but they were militarily backward in the technological area.

Now having acquired significant western technology, not only from the United States, but as we mentioned in our report, from Russia as well, we have to be very concerned that their missiles that they have a raid against Taiwan might be equipped with neutron warheads. We haven’t deployed them but they stole that from us. We have to be concerned when they test later this year, as we expect they will, their new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile and then possibly deploy it in 2002, that that we judge that will have a nuclear warhead that is based on the stolen U.S. designs. These will be used to threaten U.S. forces in the region, our forces in Japan, our forces in Korea, our forces near the Taiwan Strait and, of course, we have a defensive cooperative relationship with Taiwan. So it is the regional picture that I think is very much affected by not only the nuclear weapons but also the anti-submarine technology, the insensitive high explosives, the array of information that has been stolen on military technology of all kinds that we have to concern ourselves with over the future.

One last point is that we have to worry about the People’s Republic of China as a proliferator. We have, if not a government we approve of, a stable government in Beijing run by the Communist Party. But their track record as a proliferator, according to the Clinton administration, the world’s number one proliferator of weapons of mass destruction technology, we have to be concerned that five years, ten years, fifteen years down the road from now, the information that until very recently we monopolized, the advanced nuclear weapons technology that we’re talking about, is going to find its way into the hands of third world countries and rogue regimes that are much less stable and possibly more hostile to the interest of the United States.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Dicks, clearly there is no way to put the secrets back in the bottle now. They have them, they have the capability. What do we do about this now?

REP. NORM DICKS: Well, I think what we do is take the recommendations that we’ve made in our report – President Clinton – I met with him with Chris – and he has said that he will implement the recommendations from our report. We need to also take some legislative steps. But beyond that, I think the most important thing is the United States must maintain a critical and capable strategic deterrent. And we have one today with those 6,000 warheads that I just mentioned. And they have 24. So I don’t see a threat to the United States in the near term. I also think that we have to be careful about the regional situation as the chairman has mentioned, and also we must insist that China not be a proliferator. And of course they’ve signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and other agreements saying they won’t be a proliferator. But we have got to make certain that that happens.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Cox, should some heads in the U.S. Government roll as a result of what you all know and found out and published today?

REP. CHRISTOPHER COX: Well, there is a great deal of finger pointing within the administration, the Secretary of State saying she wasn’t told. The Secretary of Commerce we know was not told. And even though those are the two cabinet departments responsible for determining which militarily sensitive technology can be exported to the People’s Republic of China, there is finger pointing from outside the administration looking in. A lot of that is based on who knew what when. With some exceptions, that’s not what our committee investigated. In particular, we have precious little information about how the Department of Justice handled this because the Department of Justice didn’t share that with us. One of our criticisms, frankly, is not only that the Justice Department did not facilitate our investigation, but also that they did not share information with the rest of the executive branch so that in many cases, people who should have known were left in the dark about national security matters which were treated exclusively as law enforcement matters.

REP. NORM DICKS: Jim, on this subject I believe Secretary Richardson has already said he is doing a disciplinary review in the Department of Energy. Clearly there were people in the Department of Energy who did not do their jobs and who obstructed the efforts to clean up the problem in counterintelligence. They should be disciplined. Now I don’t favor, as Congressman Armey called for Sandy Berger to step down –I don’t think that’s appropriate nor do I think that Janet Reno should be forced to step down. None of us are pleased that we have not been able to catch the people who were involved in this espionage but I’ve served for eight years on the Intelligence Committee. These are very hard cases to prove in certain circumstances.

JIM LEHRER: Should Berger and Reno go, Congressman Cox?

REP. CHRISTOPHER COX: Well, as I say, in particular with respect to Janet Reno, the reasons that people are calling for her resignation, I take it, are that she was personally involved in the decision not to go to the court and ask for authority to wiretap Wen Ho Lee. But that information was developed by the Senate Intelligence Committee after we completed our investigation. And I’ve got the information secondhand. What we know about the Justice Department firsthand is that they were not forthcoming when we asked for information, as the intelligence community were, as the Pentagon was. And with respect to the national security advisor, I would just point out that the President told us in March that no one had told him about these things, notwithstanding our report was sent up there on January 3. If the President was leveling with us, then I think somebody was ill-serving him.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Gentlemen thank you both very much.