China Stole Nuclear Secrets
Sooner Than Thought
WASHINGTON (Agence France Presse) - U.S. officials believed that China was stealing nuclear weapons secrets from the Los Alamos National Laboratory at least a year earlier than previously acknowledged, the New York Times said Wednesday.
In November 1996, then deputy secretary of energy Charles Curtis ordered security measures to be tightened according to a strict timetable, but the measures were largely ignored or delayed until February 1998, officials told the daily.
The Clinton administration has insisted that the government first learned of alleged security lapses at the New Mexico labs in the summer of 1997.
They said the inaction was largely due to change in leadership at the Energy Department, when Federico Pena was appointed secretary in March 1997. Curtis left one month later.
Pena told the Times that he was briefed about the suspected leaks to China in July 1997, but he was not told of Curtis' proposals a year earlier.
"The first time I heard about (Curtis') plan was two days ago. What happened here?" Pena said in an interview with the daily, adding that it was "a serious issue that should not have fallen through the cracks."
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who succeeded Pena last year, told the daily he was "looking into this possible lapse."
President Bill Clinton said last week that his administration had promptly addressed the security problems at the Los Alamos laboratory as soon as officials learned of the problems.
Clinton, following briefings from Pena, issued a directive on security measures in February 1998.
However, the Times said the White House was alerted as early as April 1996 to suspicions that China had stolen nuclear secrets.
An investigation has been launched to assess the damage to U.S. national security by China's alleged theft of nuclear secrets in the 1980s that reportedly have allowed Beijing to miniaturize its nuclear warheads.
The investigation follows the firing last week of a computer scientist at the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory amid suspicions that he leaked secrets the Chinese government.
China has vehemently denied the allegations and the Taiwan-born scientist, Wen Ho Lee, has admitted having unauthorized contacts with Chinese scientists, but denied spying, according to the New York Times. (c) 1999 Agence France Presse