Chinese Spying Worse
Than Feared -
'The Penetration Is Total'
CIA analysts find shocking evidence that Chinese spies have cracked even the most secret weapons labs
The news was worse than the CIA had imagined. Last week, in response to recent reports that China may have stolen nuclear secrets from Los Alamos and other U.S. weapons labs, President Clinton ordered a preliminary "damage assessment" to determine just how much Beijing knows about the American nuclear program. CIA analysts had already pulled together intelligence data gleaned from U.S. espionage against China and now began poring through it for clues. It wasn't easy. The material was rich in detail: it included years' worth of communications intercepts and revelations from a 1995 Chinese defector who worked on the Chinese nuclear program and spilled to his U.S. handlers. But most of the data had been languishing unread in intelligence-agency computers"for years. Some hadn't even been translated from Chinese.
NEWSWEEK has learned that when the CIA showed the material to a team of top nuclear-weapons experts, they "practically fainted." Chinese scientists routinely used phrases, descriptions and concepts that came straight out of U.S. weapons labs. "The Chinese penetration is total," says an official close to the investigation. "They are deep, deep into the labs' black programs."
U.S. officials believe that China may have acquired design information over the last two decades about seven U.S. nuclear warheads, including the neutron bomb created in the early 1970s. They may also have stolen secrets about U.S. efforts to devise a nuclear weapon tailored to create an electromagnetic pulse - a man-made lightning bolt that would short out anything in an enemy nation that uses electricity.
The government's damage-assessment team is now trying to figure out who could have given the secrets to Beijing. They do not believe it was a foreign visitor to the labs, or leaks through U.S. allies - none had access to the closely guarded material. Which leaves an unsettling possibility: "This was done by American citizens," says one source close to the investigation. Yet officials say only a handful of top insiders at the labs and the Energy Department even knew about some of the secret programs, which has left the close-knit nuclear community wondering if a colleague could have done the unthinkable. (Security breaches aren't the only way China has acquired U.S. nuclear secrets. NEWSWEEK has learned that Beijing recently got hold of two U.S. cruise missiles that failed to detonate during last fall's retaliatory attack on terrorist Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. U.S. intelligence agencies want to know if the Chinese have attempted to copy the weapon's sophisticated guidance and avionics technology.)