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Washington: The Yellow Peril

Report of the Select Committee on US National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People’s Republic of China

submitted by Mr. Cox of California, Chairman.
US Government Printing Office, three volumes, 909 pp., $81.00 (paper)

In the early 1950s, at the height of the McCarthy era, “allegations arose” (as the Cox report so vaguely and aptly puts it) that Qian Xuesen, a Chinese-born American rocket scientist, was a spy for the People’s Republic of China. Qian had fled the Japanese invasion of China in 1935, emigrated to the United States, and earned a master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology. He was recognized as one of the world’s foremost experts on jet propulsion, commissioned as a colonel in the US Air Force, and honored for the pioneering work he had done for his adopted country, including development of the Titan intercontinental ballistic missile.

Yet, when the “allegations arose,” Qian was stripped of his security clearances and removed from missile work. In his disgrace, China invited him to return home, and in 1955 the United States let him go. He took four fellow Chinese scientists with him and, together, they created the Chinese ballistic missile system, including the CSS-4 missile, which is currently targeted against the United States. China’s nuclear missiles, which carry about two dozen warheads compared to the eight thousand or so possessed by the United States, are universally believed to be intended as a retaliatory force, threatening the US with, say, the loss of Los Angeles if it ever went to war against China. One credible missile is all China needs to deter the kind of US military operation that was waged against Serbia. This is what Qian gave China.

Qian’s history, recounted in the House investigating committee’s report on Chinese espionage, offers the best explanation for the bizarre sequence of events that has led America once again into a witch hunt for Communist spies burrowed within our most secret defense establishments. Once again, as in the 1950s, the most reckless charges have been made against apparently innocent people, an opponent’s military capabilities have been grossly exaggerated, and unscrupulous politicians have blamed this overdrawn national security threat on the complaisance and possible corruption of their political foes, in this case the Clinton administration.

On the basis of scanty evidence, Republicans and even a few Democrats have demanded the resignations of Attorney General Janet Reno and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger. A Chinese-American scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Wen Ho Lee, has been identified by unnamed government officials—and convicted in parts of the press—as a spy for China on the basis of evidence that is laughably thin. And, most irresponsibly, the Cox report suggests that every Chinese visitor to this country, every Chinese scholar, every Chinese student, every Chinese permanent resident, and even every Chinese-American citizen is a spy, potential spy, or “sleeper agent,” merely waiting for the signal to rise up and perform some unimaginable act of treachery.

Congressional Democrats and the Clinton administration, the intended main target of this Republican-led investigation, refuse to fight back, apparently unwilling to be seen as minimizing the dangers of Chinese espionage. All four Democrats on the Cox committee signed the report, even though one of them, Representative John Spratt of South Carolina, forcefully and eloquently rebutted its leading conclusion that as a result of its technology thefts, China now has nuclear weapons design information “on a par” with the United States.

The leading Democrat on the committee, Representative Norman Dicks of Washington, apparently thought that, if he went along with the report’s broad conclusions, he would both wake up the Energy Department from its past lethargy about admittedly lax security at the nuclear weapons labs and also defuse any Republican attempt to turn the report into a partisan political weapon. A White House official explained the Clinton administration’s supine response this way: “They thought this thing would fall apart of its own weight as soon as it saw the light of day.”

It is true that many nuclear weapons experts dismissed the Cox report’s key findings. “This is completely overblown,” Spurgeon Keeney, president of the privately funded Arms Control Association, told me. “There is nothing to back up the assertion that this information puts China on a technical par with the United States. A lot of the stuff they are making a big deal about you will find in the Nuclear Weapons Databook that was put out [in the 1980s] by the Natural Resources Defense Council, including pictures.” Harold Agnew, a former director of Los Alamos, wrote to The Wall Street Journal that stolen warhead information would have limited value for the Chinese and suggested that any purloined computer codes may have a hidden virus that would thwart attempts to replicate weapons. John Foster, former director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, told The Washington Post that basic design data—size, weight, shape, and yield—even though highly classified, would not enable the Chinese to build a nuclear weapon.

Charles Ferguson, a nuclear physicist and former Navy officer now at the Federation of American Scientists, described the main Cox charges to me as “scaremongering,” probably part of the ongoing conservative campaign to justify the creation of a costly and controversial national ballistic missile defense system. Similarly, Stephen Schwartz, publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, wrote in an editorial entitled “A Very Convenient Scandal”* that “the story broke at a fortuitous time for advocates of legislation promoting the swift deployment of ballistic missile defenses.” Schwartz also noted that the first public allegations that China had stolen US nuclear weapons technology had been published in 1990, when George Bush was president, and resulted in no similar outcry—and no improvement in security at the labs. And the CIA released a damage assessment that concluded that while China had obtained basic design information on US nuclear warheads, (1) it was not clear how comprehensive its information was, (2) it was impossible to tell how much had been obtained through espionage rather than dogged research, and, in any event, (3) China had not modernized its nuclear weapons arsenal as a result. On June 14, the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, headed by former Republican Senator Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, scorned the Cox report in these words: “Possible damage has been minted as probable disaster; workaday delay and bureaucratic confusion have been cast as diabolical conspiracies. Enough is enough.”

But this is a political uproar, not a scientific or military one. Instead of collapsing from its own overreaching, the Cox report has become a feature of talk radio and a staple of the Republican presidential campaign for 2000, which is already underway. Republican politicians and their supporters in the press and television have tried to make a scandal about when, precisely, President Clinton was first briefed on the suspicions of espionage, whether Berger dragged his feet, and whether Reno’s Justice Department improperly thwarted an FBI request for wiretaps on a suspected spy. It does appear that Clinton and Berger were slow to respond, but their defense is that the information they received both was vague and referred to losses that had occurred a decade earlier. Reno herself told a news conference on May 27 that the FBI had never produced evidence that Wen Ho Lee had knowingly committed a crime, which is the prerequisite for ordering a tap on a UScitizen. In the end, Clinton ordered a tightening of security at the nuclear laboratories.

From the information in the Cox report—as opposed to the unsourced and far more dire leaks that preceded it—it is clear that suspicions about espionage were sketchy, and it is not certain to this day whether any espionage, in the traditional cloak-and-dagger sense, occurred. So far, Wen Ho Lee has not been charged with any crime.

The press, which is supposed to function as a check on the excesses of government, has generally suspended its skepticism about the thinly grounded charges—no newspaper has been more credulous than The New York Times—and occasionally exaggerated them in defiance of common sense. In a front-page article on May 14, for example, the Times quoted its sources as asserting that China was installing a small nuclear warhead on a new mobile missile, the DF-31, even though it was clear from reading the story that China has not yet flight-tested the DF-31. According to Howard Diamond, a senior specialist on China at the Arms Control Association, it would be most unlikely that the characteristically prudent Chinese would place nuclear explosives on an untested missile that may or may not go where it is aimed. A US government official says more simply, “The Times just got it wrong.” There has been greater skepticism—and far more balance—in the reporting of The Washington Post (especially that by Walter Pincus and Vernon Loeb), The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. But The New York Times, now a national paper, has single-handedly set the tone for the national debate.

The facts are these: in the late 1970s, China apparently stole information relating to the US neutron bomb, an enhanced-radiation weapon that kills people but is relatively harmless to property. The theft was disclosed in October 1990 by George Carver, former deputy director of the CIA, who told employees of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory that Chinese agents had taken the information from their lab. The information was apparently not all that complete; it took the Chinese ten years to test a neutron weapon, and to this day they have not deployed one. Then, between 1992 and 1996, China conducted a series of underground nuclear tests whose seismic patterns and other characteristics led some US weapons experts to believe it had managed to make a modern, small nuclear explosive like the US W-88, an aspherical weapon deployed as one of the multiple, independently targeted warheads on the D-5 missile aboard Trident submarines. In 1995, a Chinese intelligence agent, who claimed to be betraying secrets obtained by China, approached the CIA and handed over a document containing highly classified design information on the W-88 and technical information on other US nuclear weapons.

Much of this information had been published during the 1980s by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental and antinuclear activist group; even though it has been made public, some of it is still classified. But two sensitive pieces of information on the W-88 were not available anywhere, a US government official says. The design and technical information was apparently fragmentary; there is no evidence that actual blueprints or complete designs have been lost to China. In addition—and perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this strange episode—the “walk-in” agent was soon determined to have been a plant, a controlled agent sent by the Chinese Ministry of State Security.

Despite this ambiguity—a double agent providing information that was largely in the public domain—the agent’s document set off a hunt for a spy in US weapons laboratories. Investigators, chief among them the Energy Department’s Notra Trulock, homed in on Wen Ho Lee, who knew how the W-88 was designed and who had visited China on an approved exchange mission in 1988. In addition, “allegations arose” that Wen Ho Lee was once seen hugging a person believed to be a Chinese intelligence agent; and he had once made a telephone call to another suspected spy that sounded as if they were in sympathy. Most damaging, Wen Ho Lee was later found to have downloaded so-called “legacy codes,” a computer database that contains the history of US nuclear weapons development, into an unclassified computer.

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    Vol. 55, No. 3 (May/June 1999).

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