Chinese Nuclear Spying On
US Did 'Serious Damage'
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Clinton administration said Monday a leak of nuclear secrets to China in the 1980s did serious damage but denied accusations that it softened its response to avoid damaging relations with Beijing.
``We don't know the extent of the full damage. It is serious but the FBI and our law enforcement people at Los Alamos (nuclear laboratory in New Mexico) are pursuing this vigorously,'' Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said.
The espionage issue, seized on by President Clinton's political opponents, added to strains with Beijing over human rights, trade and Taiwan that have cast a pall over relations just 10 months after a visit to China by Clinton.
Richardson denied charges by Republican members of Congress over the weekend that the administration failed to react decisively after discovering in the mid-1990s that nuclear weapons secrets were leaked to China in the 1980s.
``No. We have moved vigorously, the president, the national security adviser, the FBI, when we learned of these damaging allegations. We investigated. We now have in place some very vigorous measures,'' he said in an interview with CNN.
He said the theft of secrets was serious, although the Central Intelligence Agency and other bodies were still assessing the impact.
But he said measures were put in place late last year, including tighter security at nuclear sites, more checks on outside visitors and a doubling of the counter-intelligence budget. He said this should prevent any recurrence.
Richardson, who brought a new vigor to his office when he took over in August, is responsible for overseeing U.S. nuclear facilities, including the National Laboratory in Los Alamos, the site of the theft of material by China.
The New York Times reported Saturday that China used secrets stolen from Los Alamos to produce small warheads that could be launched from a single missile at multiple targets.
This was not detected until the CIA analyzed Chinese nuclear test results and found similarities with America's most advanced miniature warhead, the W-88, the Times reported.
In 1996, a Chinese-American suspect was identified at the Los Alamos weapons laboratory. It was not until this year that the suspect was given a lie detector test, which one official said he failed. He was not arrested.
State Department spokesman James Rubin told reporters the United States believed it important to continue to engage with China to reduce military and security threats.
But he added: ``Meanwhile we have no illusions that China, like many other countries, seeks to acquire sensitive information and technology for military uses by many different means and we'll act on that front vigorously.''
Clinton's critics have accused him of turning a blind eye to threats to national security and concerns for human rights in his drive to build good relations with China.
Although his officials point out the spying is alleged to have taken place during a previous Republican administration, the opponents blame him for reacting too slowly when the reports surfaced for fear of upsetting Beijing.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Shelby said Sunday he was calling hearings on the issue. ``We've been prodding the administration to do more, to tighten up security,'' the Alabama Republican said. ``They could have done more immediately ... It will damage, if it hasn't already damaged, our national security in a big, big way.''
The latest allegations coincide with a classified congressional report on the commercial use of Chinese rockets for launching U.S. satellites. The authors say China acquired advanced U.S. technology, threatening U.S. national security.
Concern over engagement with China is seen as a profitable weakness for the Republicans to exploit as they try to recover political ground on Clinton after the failed attempt to oust him through impeachment over the Lewinsky sex scandal.
But the administration remains committed to close relations with Beijing, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stressed the advantages of collaboration over confrontation during a visit to China earlier this month.
China has dismissed the reports that it spied at Los Alamos as ``irresponsible'' and without basis, but just how much damage has been done to relations may become clearer during a visit to Washington in April by Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji.