- China received secret design information
for the most modern U.S. nuclear warhead, and U.S. officials say the top
suspect is an American scientist working at a U.S. Department of Energy
- The Federal Bureau of Investigation is
still investigating the incident, which occurred in the mid-1980s at the
Los Alamos National Laboratory, but was only uncovered in 1995. No arrest
has been made, but officials say the suspect, whom they declined to name,
has been removed from any sensitive projects.
- U.S. officials describe the loss of data
on the W88 warhead as the most significant in a 20-year espionage effort
by Beijing that targeted the U.S. nuclear-weapons laboratories. The W88
sits atop the submarine-launched Trident II ballistic missile.
- China hasnít developed a weapons
system using the W88 information, and officials say it still faces very
high design hurdles. But U.S. analysts believe it tested a warhead with
characteristics similar to the W88 in the mid-1990s. The information could
ultimately help China design a new generation of smaller, more mobile nuclear
weapons potentially with multiple warheads. The U.S. stopped building new
nuclear warheads in 1990.
- There is considerable debate about how
much information was passed to Beijing. It appears, however, that China
didnít get any equipment, blueprints or advanced designs.
- Instead, officials believe, China was
given general, but still highly secret, information about the warheadís
weight, size and explosive power, and its state-of-the-art internal configuration,
which allowed designers to minimize size and weight without losing power.
"The most important thing is they learned it could be done this way,"
said one U.S. official, adding that that knowledge may have saved China
"between two and 10 years" of warhead-design efforts.
- The W88 case is the third major Chinese
espionage effort uncovered at the U.S. labs over the last two decades.
They have forced the Clinton administration to completely revamp the Department
of Energyís counterintelligence efforts.
- The three cases were also a key part
of a special House committee investigation into American high-technology
transfers to China. The committee, whose chairman is California Republican
Christopher Cox, completed a classified 700-page report in late December
that included recommendations for tightening security at the weapons labs
and greater congressional oversight.
- In the late 1970s, a Taiwan-born American
scientist working at the Lawrence Livermore laboratory in California passed
classified information to Beijing about the U.S. neutron-bomb program.
A decade later, China tested a neutron warhead, but hasnít deployed
one. The scientist was fired but never arrested due to lack of hard evidence,
- In the mid-1980s, another Taiwan-born
American scientist working at New Mexicoís Los Alamos laboratory,
Peter Lee, passed classified information to China about U.S. laser technology.
The lasers, according to officials, can be used to simulate nuclear explosions
for either weapons design or stockpile maintenance. As part of a plea-bargain
agreement, Mr. Lee was sentenced in early 1998 to spend 12 months in a
- In recent years, the Energy Department
has been criticized for lax security at its weapons labs and particularly
for a ballooning number of foreign visitorsóincluding from Russia
and Chinaóto unclassified programs.
- While U.S. officials say there are real
dangers from these official contacts, the three known espionage cases all
preceded the foreign- visitor programs and the Clinton administration.
Instead, they blame a longstanding effort by China to recruit laboratory
scientistsómany of ethnic-Chinese originóto pass on information.
As far as U.S. analysts can discern, no payment has been involved in any
of the three cases.
- In early 1998, President Clinton issued
a classified-decision directiveó PDD-61 -- calling for sweeping
changes to the Energy Departmentís counterintelligence program.
The department has since established an independent intelligence office,
headed up by a Central Intelligence Agency official and a separate office
of counterintelligence, headed up by a former FBI official. It has also
placed counterintelligence officers at all five weapons-design labs, begun
more intensive security reviews for scientists working in sensitive programsóincluding
lie-detector testsóand changed the screening process for foreign
scientists applying to visit any of the labs. The departmentís classified
counterintelligence budget has doubled between fiscal years 1998 and 1999
and is expected to double again next year, officials say.
- Some critics, including members of the
Cox committee, have complained that the Clinton White House still moved
too slowlyówaiting three years between uncovering the W88 case and
issuing the presidential directive. Officials say that resistance to the
changes, and especially to financial reviews and lie- detector tests, was
fierce, especially at the labs.
- Edward Curran, the new counterintelligence
director, says that when he came in early 1998, the Energy Departmentís
spy-catching efforts "didnít even meet minimal standards."
That is now changing, he says, but the threat continues to be very real.
Department labs "have the best computers and the smartest scientists
in the world .. without a question they are the No. 1 target" for
foreign countries trying to steal U.S. technology.