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Senators Hear Divergent Views on China Spying

Espionage: Two Energy officials at odds on breach at Los Alamos. But House report to rely on more dire assessment.

May 24, 1999|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Two senior Energy Department officials who have helped expose suspected Chinese espionage at the Los Alamos nuclear weapon laboratory gave a Senate committee last week starkly different assessments of the damage to national security.

Notra Trulock, acting deputy director of intelligence, called the case among the worst in U.S. history. China's theft of nuclear secrets, the 25-year intelligence veteran said, "is on a parallel with the Manhattan Project compromises," referring to the Soviet spy ring that stole blueprints from Los Alamos National Laboratory in the 1940s and helped Moscow build its first atomic bomb.

But Edward Curran, director of counterintelligence, was far less certain. "We all agree that there was a breach" of security, said Curran, who has logged 37 years with the FBI and CIA. "I think it's yet to be determined the degree of that breach. . . . As far as I know, there is no information available that we have to say this information is in their hands."

But it is Trulock who was the star witness for a select House committee that investigated Beijing's efforts to acquire sensitive U.S. technology. And it is his dire assessment that is central to the long-awaited report that the nine-member panel will release Tuesday.

The "Cox committee," named for its chairman, Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), concludes that China acquired numerous U.S. nuclear warhead designs and other military secrets during the last 20 years and that China continues to maintain an aggressive spying operation, according to Cox and other members of the committee.

The unanimous, bipartisan report also asserts that China secretly controls as many as 3,000 "front companies," especially on the West Coast and in Massachusetts, to obtain U.S. satellite and other civilian technology with potential military uses.

The front companies are often incorporated by Chinese nationals living here, the report says, and includes large corporations as well as small nonprofit groups.

The report also alleges that the Chinese government gives specific intelligence "collection requirements" to many of the thousands of students, tourists and other Chinese visitors who come to the United States each year. The committee was told that China's "mosaic approach" is similar to building a sand castle one grain at a time.

Not everyone is likely to agree. The head of a prominent U.S.-Chinese group, who asked not to be identified, said his members were "deeply offended" by the charge during a background briefing by a member of Cox's committee last week.

Other sections of the Cox committee report allege that Hughes Electronics Corp. and Loral Space & Electronics Ltd. violated U.S. export licensing laws and regulations when they helped China investigate why two Long March rockets carrying their satellites crashed in 1995 and 1996.

The report does not refer new information to the Justice Department, which has investigated the case for several years without bringing any charges. Spokesmen for Loral and Hughes, the nation's largest and third-largest satellite manufacturers, said last week that company employees cooperated with Cox's committee. Both companies have denied any wrongdoing.

One chapter also looks at how the U.S. companies hired Chinese sentries or security companies to guard U.S. satellites and other sensitive equipment. It says some were found drunk or asleep, or were allowed to take photographs. The report specifically recommends that U.S. soldiers or security guards be used to guard launches of U.S. satellites in China.

Another part of the report examines the role of U.S. and multinational companies that insure the satellites, and whether they bend the rules to aid their customers.

"Their financial incentive is to make sure these rockets don't crash, which is in conflict with our aims not to improve China's Long March rockets," Cox said recently. The Long March rockets are similar to the intercontinental ballistic missiles in China's nuclear strike force.

A key finding accuses the Clinton administration of not complying with the National Security Act, which requires regular reporting to the intelligence committees and the leadership of the House and the Senate.

But the report's most dramatic section details China's nuclear espionage over the last 20 years--as well as how various administrations, Democrat and Republican, have ignored the problem.

Two cases of Chinese spying at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory from the 1970s and 1980s are cited, as well as the current investigation into suspected espionage at Los Alamos.

Political leaders from both parties took to the airwaves Sunday to blast the Clinton administration for responding too slowly to Trulock's claims of Chinese espionage at Los Alamos, first made after three Los Alamos scientists approached him with their concerns in May 1995.

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