China: Suspected Acquisition ofU.S. Nuclear Weapon Secrets
This CRS Report discusses China’s suspected acquisition of U.S. nuclearweapon secrets, including that on the W88, the newest U.S. nuclear warhead. Thisserious controversy became public in early 1999 and raised policy issues aboutwhether U.S. security was further threatened by China’s suspected use of U.S.nuclear weapon secrets in its development of nuclear forces, as well as whether theAdministration’s response to the security problems was effective or mishandled andwhether it fairly used or abused its investigative and prosecuting authority. TheClinton Administration acknowledged that improved security was needed at theweapons labs but said that it took actions in response to indications in 1995 thatChina may have obtained U.S. nuclear weapon secrets. Critics in Congress andelsewhere argued that the Administration was slow to respond to security concerns,mishandled the too narrow investigation, downplayed information potentiallyunfavorable to China and the labs, and failed to notify Congress fully.On April 7, 1999, President Clinton gave his assurance that partly “because of our engagement, China has, at best, only marginally increased its deployed nuclearthreat in the last 15 years” and that the strategic balance with China “remainsoverwhelmingly in our favor.” On April 21, 1999, Director of Central Intelligence(DCI) George Tenet, reported the Intelligence Community’s damage assessment. Itconfirmed that “China obtained by espionage classified U.S. nuclear weaponsinformation that probably accelerated its program to develop future nuclearweapons.” It also revealed that China obtained information on “several” U.S. nuclearreentry vehicles, including the Trident II submarine-launched missile that delivers theW88 nuclear warhead as well as “a variety of” design concepts and weaponizationfeatures, including those of the neutron bomb.On May 25, 1999, the House’s Cox Committee reported that China stoleclassified information on the W88 and six other U.S. nuclear warheads. On June 15,1999, the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) called theDepartment of Energy a “dysfunctional bureaucracy” and urged the creation of asemi-autonomous or independent agency to oversee nuclear weapons. In September1999, Congress passed the FY2000 National Defense Authorization Act to create aNational Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) within DOE on March 1, 2000.As one result of the W-88 case, the FBI investigated a Taiwan-born U.S.scientist at the Los Alamos lab, Wen Ho Lee. He was never charged with espionage.In December 1999, the Justice Department indicted Lee on 59 felony counts formishandling nuclear weapons information (not classified at the time). Lee was jailedwithout bail until a plea agreement on September 13, 2000, when he pleaded guiltyto one count of mishandling national defense information (for making copies of hiscomputer files). The judge apologized to Lee. Meanwhile, in April 1999, the FBIexpanded its counterintelligence investigation beyond the focus on Los Alamos, andin 2000, the probe shifted to missile secrets and to the Defense Department. In April2003, an ex-FBI agent, James Smith, and his informant, Katrina Leung, were arrestedfor allegedly mishandling national defense information related to China.