Web Video: China's Cyber Spying

May. 18, 2016 AT 6:25 p.m. EDT
The Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns are facing cyber hacking, according to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. The likely culprit? China, which U.S. intelligence officials also blame for the 2015 cyber theft of millions of federal workers' personal information in an attack on the Office of Personnel Management and for hacking several U.S. companies to steal trade secrets. Threats of state-sponsored cyber spying from China are nothing new. In 1999, Congress released a report alleging China was responsible for years of espionage and stealing U.S. nuclear secrets. As Haynes Johnson explained on Washington Week, the threat didn't come from traditional spies, but was a threat "in cyberspace." "It's about computers," he said. But in 1999, just as now, how to respond to China's attacks was a topic of debate because of the complicated trade relationship between the two nations.

Get Washington Week in your inbox


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

DUKE: Well, you're back just in time to tell us about the great spy scandal that erupted this week.

Mr. JOHNSON: If we were writing a fictional story, this would have Inspector Clouseau bumbling around and you'd have the denouement; someone found out that there's been--at the heart of American politics and culture for the last 20 years, they've been stealing us blind. OK? That's--that's the one side of it. The truth is, what we've got here is a really remarkable situation. The Cox Committee--Christopher Cox, Republican from California, finally produced his report this week, and it does have some very disturbing, in fact shocking, news in it. They allege that the Chinese, who in espionage have taken America's nuclear secrets over the seven major nuclear weapons programs, and taken that information, stole it--espionage, number one. Not only that, but they've also had material about all the warheads that are now on top of America's missiles. They--they've got that.

That's not the worse of it, and you go on from there. The neutron bomb--you remember the neutron bomb came up. They've--they've got information on enhancing that. They've got--they got out of this operation intelligence about guided missiles and submarines and satellites over there that are so part of intelligence today. And the worst part of it, Paul, may be that this took place for 20 years, under every administration from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan to George Bush and up until right now, Mr. Clinton. And not only that; there were warnings all over the place about that there was espionage that took place in the laboratories over which the government was responsible for keeping security of our most treasured secrets.

And if there's any reason why people doubt about whether the government works well, this is another mark for cynicism about the functioning of the federal government.

DUKE: Now, Haynes, you and I go back a long time in this town...

Mr. JOHNSON: Yes, we do.

DUKE: ...and you've covered many, many spy stories in the past. How does this one deal with those of the past?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, Paul, what we're talking about here is this--the new age and the old age. I mean, when we came to Washington and you had the Alger Hiss and the `pumpkin papers' and you had the cloak and the dagger, it was human beings breaking in and cutouts and--and James Bond derring-do, and--and you--you have covert operations and assassination plots. You're--you'd uncover those through human intelligence. That's not the world that exists now, as Tom's new book makes so clear. We're in--we're in cyberspace. That's what this story is about. It's about technology. It's about science. It's about computers. It bou--it's about the secrets that--that human beings, geniuses, have produced, and--in theorems, and--and there it is, and it's locked in these machines. That's where intelligence is now. These are the great spy stories now. It's how you control the technology and the scientific material, or can you really totally control them?

Mr. THOMAS FRIEDMAN (The New York Times): Seems with--with all the secrets that have been stolen here, how much more threatened are we today from China than we were 10, 15 years ago?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yes. That's--tha--that's the critical point. If--if we were talking about--in the Manhattan Project, which produced the atomic bomb, and we had the Alger Hiss case and the Rosenbergs, who were executed later--40 or 50 years ago at that time, they gave the secrets to the Russians, who could then have the bomb...

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Right.

Mr. JOHNSON: ...that could blow us up, and we were about to be poised in this nuclear world and incineration. But that's not--that--that...

Mr. FRIEDMAN: China's had nuclear power for 35 years. Yeah.

Mr. JOHNSON: Exactly. They've had--they've had nuclear weapons.


Mr. JOHNSON: And, in fact, there is no prospect at this moment--as we said, anybody who's terrified--that we are no more threatened today than we were last week or a year ago or five years ago from this process. The United States has overwhelming power, 6,000 to 7,000 of these nuclear weapons. China may have a dozen or two dozen at most. They are not deploying these weapons at this p--they may later on with this technology. So that isn't the threat. There is a danger of how they will use the information they have in the future. Will it make them more powerful in Asia? Does it affect Taiwan? Do they use--do they give the technology to rogue states like North Korea and--and the rest of--that's a really--or--or Iraq or Iran? Those are real questions. The--the nuclear--nuclear race is not ending with this century. It may in--it may intensify down the road. But this is not a threat that is going to put us into shelters again.

Ms. LINDA GREENHOUSE (The New York Times): You--you made the point that this has been going on--this spying has been going on for 20 years, yet you don't hear many people blaming Ronald Reagan.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah.

Ms. GREENHOUSE: President Clinton's the one who's taking the blame. And what--what are the--what are the politics there?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, the politics--we are going to see a replay in this next election--you can see it already--already started this week. There are people today actually saying this is treason, traitors, that there--that there are--people should fired, that the attorney general, Janet Reno, should be dismissed, that the national security adviser was woefully remiss in this--his whole standing of this thing, and that's where we are. The politics is going to be that this administration was the weak administration. It wasn't minding the store. It was given to scandal and it w--it allowed these things to take place on their watch. And we--hopefully you just forget the past. You focus on the present.

Mr. HAYNES JOHNSON (Independent Journalist): And one of the things that's so complicated in this process is our relationship to trade. We had 1.3 million--billion Chinese in the world...

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Right.

Mr. JOHNSON: ...and here we are. That's a great market. It has been a dream throughout American history, this endless market in China. And now, in fact,
that's one of the reasons that this spy case went the way it did...

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Well, the--the Republicans are...

Mr. JOHNSON: ...because we need the--you need those markets.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: The Republicans--you really see that issue, Haynes, in looking at the Republican Party today.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. Right.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: On one hand, boy, they want to--a--as you said and Paul said, they want to beat the drum here and make this a huge political issue.

Mr. JOHNSON: That's right.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Meanwhile, Boeing is calling them up.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yes. Yes.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Meanwhile, all the--you know, the business roundtable is calling them up, their traditional funders and supporters, and saying, `Hey, we want this relationship.'

Mr. JOHNSON: Right.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: That's not--that doesn't mean we should turn a blind eye to this, but it's going to be--you know, that's the--the issue the Republicans are going to have to balance here.


Support our journalism

Washington Week Logo

© 1996 - 2024 WETA. All Rights Reserved.

PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization

Support our journalism


Contact: Kathy Connolly,

Vice President Major and Planned Giving

kconnolly@weta.org or 703-998-2064