International Herald Tribune

Paris, Sunday, January 3, 1999

China Stole Nuclear Secrets, House Panel Charges

By John Mintz Washington Post Service

WASHINGTON - A classified report by a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives examining transfers of American technology to China focuses in part on allegations that Beijing developed the neutron bomb in the late 1980s after Chinese spies stole technology from a U.S. Energy Department laboratory, according to congressional sources.

The committee, headed by Representative Christopher Cox, Republican of California, also found that Chinese spies had continued to harvest classified nuclear secrets at U.S. weapons laboratories by taking advantage of lax security. It recommended in its 700-page report that the Energy Department tighten security at the three national nuclear labs, the sources said.

Newspapers first reported in 1990 that U.S. officials had determined that Chinese agents had stolen neutron bomb data from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California around 1986. Reports cited an FBI investigation of the spy operation, which apparently yielded no indictments.

China reportedly detonated its first neutron bomb, a high-radiation nuclear device that kills people while doing minimal damage to property, in an underground explosion at a remote weapons test site in western Xinjiang Province in 1988.

The committee report, submitted to congressional leaders and the administration of President Bill Clinton this week, echoes criticism of the labs' security procedures leveled by numerous other U.S. government reviews over the past decade.

The General Accounting Office concluded last year that Chinese and Russian engineers who visit the labs on scientific exchanges at the behest of their governments' spy agencies have little difficulty obtaining access to classified information.

Sandia and Los Alamos laboratories in New Mexico conduct background investigations of only 1 percent to 2 percent of the visitors from ''sensitive'' countries such as China and Russia, the accounting office said. The foreign engineers apparently often find sensitive data lying unguarded in hallways, and frequently are allowed to roam unescorted 24 hours a day through restricted areas.

The visiting delegations often receive briefings on sensitive topics without the knowledge or approval of the laboratories' managers. In one instance, a lab newsletter containing classified data was sent to foreign nationals, the accounting office said.

Foreign engineers had discussions with lab personnel about such sensitive topics as hydrodynamics codes, which are used in computer simulations to model nuclear explosions; inertial confinement fusion, a technology employed in designing nuclear weapons, and ways of detecting secret nuclear tests in foreign countries, the accounting office said.

''The high number of foreign visitors, as well as some recent investigative cases involving foreign nationals at laboratories, have increased concerns that the laboratories are targets of foreign espionage,'' the report said.

Democrats on the congressional panel pointed out in closed sessions that the inadequacies in Energy Department security did not begin with the Clinton administration, which has come under criticism for loosening safeguards that prevent unauthorized technology transfers abroad, sources said. Chinese agents are alleged to have found the neutron bomb data during the administration of President Ronald Reagan.

In the mid-1980s security at Lawrence Livermore ''was lax, and various delegations - composed ostensibly of Chinese scientists - had visited the facility without appropriate background checks,'' according to a 1994 book, ''Chinese Intelligence Operations,'' by an official of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Nicholas Eftimiades.

The FBI investigation determined that several of the visiting scientists had ties to the Ministry of State Security, China's spy agency, or were intelligence officers, the book said.