- WASHINGTON -- Working with nuclear secrets stolen from a U.S. government
laboratory, China has made a leap in the development of nuclear weapons:
the miniaturization of its bombs, according to administration officials.
- Until recently, China's nuclear weapons
designs were a generation behind those of the United States, largely because
Beijing was unable to produce small warheads that could be launched from
a single missile at multiple targets and form the backbone of a modern
- But by the mid-1990s, China had built
and tested such small bombs, a breakthrough that officials say was accelerated
by the theft of U.S. nuclear secrets from Los Alamos National Laboratory
in New Mexico.
- The espionage is believed to have occurred
in the mid-1980s, officials said. But it was not detected until 1995, when
American experts analyzing Chinese nuclear test results found similarities
to America's most advanced miniature warhead, the W-88.
- By the next year, government investigators
had identified a suspect, an American scientist at Los Alamos laboratory,
where the atomic bomb was first developed. The investigators also concluded
that Beijing was continuing to steal secrets from the government's major
nuclear weapons laboratories, which had been increasingly opened to foreign
visitors since the end of the Cold War.
- The White House was told of the full
extent of China's spying in the summer of 1997, on the eve of the first
U.S.-Chinese summit meeting in eight years -- a meeting intended to dramatize
the success of President Clinton's efforts to improve relations with Beijing.
- White House officials say they took the
allegations seriously; as proof of this they cite Clinton's ordering the
labs within six months to improve security.
- But some U.S. officials assert that the
White House sought to minimize the espionage issue for policy reasons.
- "This conflicted with their China
policy," said a U.S. official, who like many others in this article
spoke on condition of anonymity. "It undercut the administration's
efforts to have a strategic partnership with the Chinese."
- The White House denies the assertions.
"The idea that we tried to cover up or downplay these allegations
to limit the damage to United States-Chinese relations is absolutely wrong,"
said Gary Samore, the senior National Security Council official who handled
- Yet a reconstruction by The New York
Times reveals that throughout the government, the response to the nuclear
theft was marked by delays, inaction and skepticism -- even though senior
intelligence officials regarded it as one of the most damaging spy cases
in recent history.
- Initially, the FBI did not aggressively
pursue the criminal investigation of lab theft, U.S. officials said. Now,
nearly three years later, no arrests have been made.
- Only in the last several weeks, after
prodding from Congress and the secretary of energy, have government officials
administered lie detector tests to the main suspect, a Los Alamos computer
scientist who is Chinese-American. The suspect failed a test in February,
according to senior administration officials.
- At the Energy Department, officials waited
more than a year to act on the FBI's 1997 recommendations to improve security
at the weapons laboratories and restrict the suspect's access to classified
information, officials said.
- The department's chief of intelligence,
who raised the first alarm about the case, was ordered last year by senior
officials not to tell Congress about his findings because critics might
use them to attack the administration's China policies, officials said.
- And at the White House, senior aides
to Clinton fostered a skeptical view of the evidence of Chinese espionage
and its significance.
- White House officials, for example, said
they determined on learning of it that the Chinese spying would have no
bearing on the administration's dealings with China, which included the
increased exports of satellites and other militarily useful items. They
continued to advocate looser controls over sales of supercomputers and
other equipment, even as intelligence analysts documented the scope of
- Samore, the Security Council official,
did not accept the Energy Department's conclusion that China's nuclear
advances stemmed largely from the theft of U.S. secrets.
- In 1997, as Clinton prepared to meet
with President Jiang Zemin of China, he asked the CIA for a quick alternative
analysis of the issue. The agency found that China had stolen secrets from
Los Alamos but differed with the Energy Department over the significance
of the spying.
- In personal terms, the handling of this
case is very much the story of the Energy Department intelligence official
who first raised questions about the Los Alamos case, Notra Trulock.
- Trulock became a secret star witness
before a select congressional committee last fall. In a unanimous report
that remains secret, the bipartisan panel embraced his conclusions about
Chinese espionage, officials said. Taking issue with the White House's
view, the panel saw clear implications in the espionage case for U.S.-China
policy, and has now made dozens of policy-related recommendations, officials
- A debate still rages within the government
over whether Trulock was right about the significance of the Los Alamos
nuclear theft. But even senior administration officials who do not think
so credit Trulock with forcing them to confront the realities of Chinese
- China's technical advance allows it to
make mobile missiles, ballistic missiles with multiple warheads and small
warheads for submarines -- the main elements of a modern nuclear force.
- While White House officials question
whether China will actually deploy a more advanced nuclear force soon,
they acknowledge that Beijing has made plans to do so.
- In early 1996 Trulock traveled to CIA
headquarters to tell officials there of the evidence his team had gathered
on the apparent Chinese theft of U.S. nuclear designs.
- As Trulock gathered his charts and drawings
and wrapped up his top-secret briefing, the agency's chief spy hunter,
Paul Redmond, sat stunned.
- At the dawn of the Atomic Age, a Soviet
spy ring that included Julius Rosenberg had stolen the first nuclear secrets
out of Los Alamos. Now, at the end of the Cold War, the Chinese seemed
to have succeeded in penetrating the same weapons lab.
- "This is going to be just as bad
as the Rosenbergs," Redmond recalled saying.
- The evidence that so alarmed him had
surfaced a year earlier. Senior nuclear weapons experts at Los Alamos,
poring over data from the most recent Chinese underground nuclear tests,
had detected eerie similarities between the latest Chinese and U.S. bomb
- From what they could tell, Beijing was
testing a smaller and more lethal nuclear device configured remarkably
like the W-88, the most modern, miniaturized warhead in the U.S. arsenal.
In April 1995, they brought their findings to Trulock.
- Officials declined to detail the evidence
uncovered by the Los Alamos scientists, who have access to a wide range
of classified intelligence data and seismic and other measurements.
- But just as the scientists were piecing
it together, they were handed an intelligence windfall from Beijing.
- In June 1995, they were told, a Chinese
official gave CIA analysts what appeared to be a 1988 Chinese government
document describing the country's nuclear weapons program. The document,
a senior official said, specifically mentioned the W-88 and described some
of the warhead's key design features.
- The Los Alamos laboratory, where the
W-88 had been designed, quickly emerged as the most likely source of the
- One of three national weapons labs owned
by the Department of Energy, Los Alamos, 35 miles outside Sante Fe, N.M.,
was established in 1943 during the Manhattan Project. Trulock and his team
knew just how vulnerable Los Alamos was to modern espionage.
- The three labs had long resisted FBI
and congressional pressure to tighten their security policies. Energy officials
acknowledge that there have long been security problems at the labs.
- Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories,
also in New Mexico, had in 1994 been granted waivers from an Energy Department
policy that visiting foreign scientists be subjected to background checks.
- Lab officials resented the intrusions
caused by counterintelligence measures, arguing that restrictions on foreign
visitors would clash with the labs' new mandate to help Russia and other
nations safeguard their nuclear stockpiles.
- The Clinton administration was also using
increased access to the laboratories to support its policy of engagement
with China, as had been done under previous, Republican administrations.
- In December 1996, for example, China's
defense minister, Gen. Chi Haotian, visited Sandia on a Pentagon-sponsored
trip. Energy Department officials were not told in advance, and they later
complained that Chi and his delegation had not received proper clearances,
- Still, there is no evidence in this case
that foreign visitors were involved in the theft of information.
- In late 1995 and early 1996, Trulock
and his team took their findings to the FBI. A team of FBI and Energy Department
officials traveled to the three weapons labs and pored over travel and
work records of lab scientists who had access to the relevant technology.
- By February the team had narrowed its
focus to five possible suspects, including a computer scientist working
in the nuclear weapons area at Los Alamos, officials said.
- This suspect "stuck out like a sore
thumb," said one official. In 1985, for example, the suspect's wife
was invited to address a Chinese conference on sophisticated computer topics
even though she was only a secretary at Los Alamos. Her husband, the real
expert, accompanied her, a U.S. official said.
- By April 1996, the Energy Department
decided to brief the White House. A group of senior officials including
Trulock sat down with Sandy Berger, then Clinton's deputy national security
adviser, to tell him that China appeared to have acquired the W-88 and
that a spy for China might still be at Los Alamos.
- "I was first made aware of this
in 1996," Berger, now national security adviser, said in an interview.
- By June the FBI formally opened a criminal
investigation into the theft of the W-88 design. But the inquiry made little
progress over the rest of the year. When Energy Department officials asked
about the inquiry at the end of 1996, they came away convinced that the
bureau had assigned few resources to the case.
- A senior bureau official acknowledged
that his agency was aware of the Energy Department's criticism but pointed
out that it was difficult to investigate the case without alerting the
- The bureau maintained tight control over
the case. The CIA counterintelligence office, for one, was not kept informed
of its status, according to Redmond, who has since retired.
- Energy Department officials were also
being stymied in their efforts to address security problems at the laboratories.
- After Frederico Pena became energy secretary
in early 1997, a previously approved counterintelligence program was quietly
placed on the back burner for more than a year, officials said.
- In April 1997, the FBI issued a classified
report on the labs that recommended, among other things, reinstating background
checks on visitors to Los Alamos and Sandia, officials said. The Energy
Department and the labs ignored the FBI recommendation for 17 months. An
Energy Department spokeswoman was unable to explain the delay.
- Another official said, "We couldn't
get an order requiring the labs to report to counterintelligence officials
when the Chinese were present. All those requirements had been waived."
- In early 1997, with the FBI's investigation
making scant progress and the Energy Department's counterintelligence program
in limbo, Trulock and other intelligence officials began to see new evidence
that the Chinese had other, ongoing spy operations at the weapons labs.
- But Trulock was unable to quickly inform
senior U.S. officials about the new evidence. He asked to speak directly
with Pena, the energy secretary, but had to wait four months for an appointment.
- In an interview, Pena said he did not
know why Trulock was kept waiting until July but recalled that he "brought
some very important issues to my attention and that's what we need in the
- Pena immediately sent Trulock back to
the White House -- and to Berger.
- "In July 1997 Sandy was briefed
fully by the DOE on China's full access to nuclear weapons designs, a much
broader pattern" said one White House official.
- Officials said Berger was told that there
was evidence of several other Chinese espionage operations that were still
under way inside the weapons labs.
- That news, several officials said, raised
the importance of the issue. The suspected Chinese thefts were no longer
just ancient history, problems that had happened on another administration's
- Berger quickly briefed Clinton on what
he had learned and kept him updated over the next few months, a White House
- As Trulock spread the alarm, his warnings
were reinforced by CIA Director George Tenet and FBI Director Louis Freeh,
who met with Pena to discuss the lax security at the labs that summer.
- "I was very shocked by it, and I
went to work on shifting the balance in favor of security," Pena said.
He and his aides began to meet with White House officials to prepare a
presidential order on lab security.
- The FBI assigned more agents to the W-88
investigation, gathering new and more troubling evidence about the prime
- According to officials, the agents learned
that the suspect had traveled to Hong Kong without reporting the trip as
required by government regulations. In Hong Kong, officials said, the FBI
found records showing that the scientist had obtained $700 from the American
Express office. Investigators suspect he used it to buy an airline ticket
to Shanghai, inside the People's Republic of China.
- With Berger now paying close attention,
the White House became deeply involved in evaluating the seriousness of
the thefts and solving the counterintelligence problems at the laboratories.
- Trulock's new findings came at a crucial
moment in U.S.-China relations. Congress was examining the role of foreign
money in the 1996 campaign, amid charges that Beijing had secretly funneled
money into Democratic coffers.
- The administration was also moving to
strengthen its strategic and commercial links with China. Clinton had already
eased the commercial sale of supercomputers and satellite technology to
China, and now he wanted to cement a nuclear cooperation agreement at the
upcoming summit, enabling American companies to sell China new commercial
- In August 1997, Berger flew to Beijing
to prepare for the October summit. He assigned Samore, a senior NSC aide
in charge of proliferation issues, to assess the damage from the Los Alamos
- After receiving a briefing from Trulock
in August, Samore asked the CIA's directorate of intelligence to get a
second opinion on how China had developed its smaller nuclear warheads.
It was, an NSC aide said, "a quick study done at our request."
- The analysts agreed that there had been
a serious compromise of sensitive technology through espionage at the weapons
labs, but were far less conclusive about the extent of the damage. The
CIA argued that China's sudden advance in nuclear design could be traced
in part to other causes, including the ingenuity of Beijing's scientists.
- "The areas of agreement between
DOE and CIA were that China definitely benefited from access to U.S. nuclear
weapons information that was obtained from open sources, conversations
with DOE scientists in the U.S. and China, and espionage," said a
- "The disagreement is in the area
of specific nuclear weapons designs. Trulock's briefing was based on a
worst-case scenario, which CIA believes was not supported by available
intelligence. CIA thinks the Chinese have benefited from a variety of sources,
including from the Russians and their own indigenous efforts."
- Samore assembled the competing teams
of CIA and DOE analysts in mid-October for a meeting in his White House
office that turned into a tense debate.
- The CIA report noted that China and Russia
were cooperating on nuclear issues, indicating that this was another possible
explanation of Beijing's improved warheads.
- Trulock said this was a misreading of
the evidence, which included intercepted communications between Russian
and Chinese experts. The Russians were offering advice on how to measure
the success of nuclear tests, not design secrets. In fact, Trulock argued,
the Russian measurement techniques were used to help the Chinese analyze
the performance of a weapon that Los Alamos experts believed was based
on a U.S. design.
- "At the meeting, Notra Trulock said
that he thought the CIA was underplaying the effect that successful Chinese
espionage operations in the weapons labs had had on the Chinese nuclear
weapons program," said one official.
- Relying on the CIA report, Samore told
Berger in late September that the picture was less conclusive than Trulock
was arguing. Officials said he began to relay that view before hearing
Trulock's rebuttal of the CIA study at the October meeting.
- Samore told Berger "there isn't
enough information to resolve the debate, there is no definitive answer,
but in any event this clearly illustrates weaknesses in DOE's counterintelligence
capability," said one official familiar with Samore's presentation.
- CIA officials strenuously deny that the
agency's analysts intended to downplay Trulock's findings.
- The FBI inquiry was stalled. At a September
1997 meeting between FBI and Energy Department officials, Freeh concluded
that the bureau did not have enough evidence to arrest the suspect, according
- The crime was believed to have occurred
more than a decade earlier. Investigators did not then have sufficient
evidence to obtain a secret wiretap on the suspect, making it difficult
to build a strong criminal case, according to U.S. officials. FBI officials
say that Chinese spy activities are far more difficult to investigate than
the more traditional espionage operations of the former Soviet Union.
- But even if the bureau couldn't build
a case, the Energy Department could still take some action against someone
holding a U.S. security clearance. Freeh told DOE officials that there
was no longer an investigative reason to allow the suspect to remain in
his sensitive position, officials said. In espionage cases, the FBI often
wants suspects left alone by their employers for fear of tipping them off
- But the suspect was allowed to keep his
job and retain his security clearances for more than a year after the meeting
with Freeh, according to U.S. officials.
- In late 1997, the NSC did begin to draft
a new counterintelligence plan for the weapons labs, and Clinton signed
the order mandating the new measures in February 1998. In April, a former
FBI counterintelligence agent, Ed Curran, was named to run a more vigorous
counterintelligence office at Energy Department headquarters.
- The administration explained aspects
of the case to aides working for the House and Senate intelligence committees
beginning in 1996. But few in Congress grasped the magnitude of what had
- In July 1998, the House Intelligence
Committee requested an update on the case, officials said. Trulock forwarded
the request in a memo to, and in conversations with, Elizabeth Moler, then
acting energy secretary. Ms. Moler ordered him not to brief the House panel
for fear that the information would be used to attack the president's China
policy, according to an account he later gave congressional investigators.
Ms. Moler, now a Washington lawyer, says she does not remember the request
to allow Trulock to brief Congress and denies delaying the process.
- In October, Ms. Moler, then deputy secretary,
stopped Trulock from delivering written testimony on espionage activities
in the labs to a closed session of the House National Security Committee.
- Ms. Moler told Trulock to rewrite his
testimony to limit it to the announced subject of the hearing, foreign
visitors to the labs, an Energy Department spokeswoman said. The issue
came up nonetheless when committee members asked follow-up questions, Energy
Department officials said.
- Key lawmakers began to learn about the
extent of the Chinese theft of U.S. nuclear secrets late in 1998, when
a select committee investigating the transfers of sensitive U.S. technology
to China, chaired by Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., heard from Trulock.
- Administration officials say that Congress
was adequately informed, but leading Democrats and Republicans disagree.
Rep. Norman Dicks, D-Wash., the ranking minority member on the House Intelligence
Committee and also a member of the Cox committee, said that he and Rep.
Porter Goss, R-Fla., chairman of the House intelligence panel, were not
- "Porter Goss and I were not properly
briefed about the dimensions of the problem," he said, adding: "It
was compartmentalized and disseminated over the years in dribs and drabs
so that the full extent of the problem was not known until the Cox committee."
- Last fall, midway through the Cox panel's
inquiry, a new secretary of energy, Bill Richardson, arrived on the job.
- After being briefed by Trulock, Richardson
quickly reinstated background checks on all foreign visitors, a move recommended
17 months earlier by the FBI. He also doubled the counterintelligence budget
and placed more former FBI counterintelligence experts at the labs.
- But Richardson also became concerned
about what the Cox panel was finding out.
- So in October he cornered Berger at a
high-level meeting and urged him to put someone in charge of coordinating
the administration's dealings with the Cox committee.
- Berger turned again to Samore, officials
- By December, Dicks, in his role as the
ranking Democratic member of the Cox panel, was growing impatient with
the administration's slow response to ongoing requests from the committee
and its inaction on the Los Alamos spy case. Dicks told Richardson, a former
colleague in the House, that he needed to take action, Richardson recalled.
- Dicks' complaints helped prompt Richardson
to call Freeh twice in one day in December about the inquiry, an official
- The suspect was given a polygraph, or
lie-detector test, in December, by the Energy Department. Unsatisfied,
the FBI administered a second test in February, and officials said the
suspect was found to be deceptive. It is not known what questions prompted
the purportedly deceptive answers.
- As the FBI investigation intensified,
the Cox Committee completed a 700-page secret report which found that China's
theft of US secrets had harmed U.S. national security -- saving the Chinese
untold time and money in nuclear weapons research.
- After hearing from both the CIA and Energy
Department analysts, the bi-partisan panel unanimously came down on the
side of Trulock's assessment, officials said.
- Now, the CIA and other agencies, at the
request of the Cox Committee, are conducting a new, more thorough damage
assessment of the case, even as the debate continues to rage throughout
the intelligence community over whether Trulock has overstated the damage
from Chinese espionage.
- Meanwhile, Trulock has been moved from
head of DOE's intelligence office to acting deputy. While Richardson and
other Energy Department officials praise Trulock's work and deny he has
been mistreated, some in Congress suspect he has been demoted for helping
the Cox Committee.
- Redmond, the CIA's former counterintelligence
chief, who made his name by unmasking Soviet mole Aldrich Ames at the CIA,
has no doubts about the significance of what Trulock uncovered.
- He said: "This was far more damaging
to the national security than Aldrich Ames."
- Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company