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Rep. Cox Sees Ulterior Motive in Criticism of Spy Report

Espionage: Lawmaker says document from House panel's inquiry is unfairly targeted for political reasons and may even understate problem.

May 28, 1999|DOYLE McMANUS and BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) said Thursday that critics of his House committee's report on Chinese espionage are either misinformed or politically motivated, noting that the panel may even have understated the threat to U.S. security.

"This is a report whose credibility is being questioned unfairly," said Cox, who chaired the bipartisan committee that released its report Tuesday. "The lion's share of the information comes from the Clinton administration."

In particular, Cox said the report has been unfairly criticized for implying that as many as 3,000 Chinese firms may be operating in the United States as "front companies" for intelligence gathering.

"We didn't state that," he said. "What we stated is that there are more than 3,000 [Chinese] corporations in the United States . . . [and] there are significantly more front companies than was previously disclosed in public."

The report concludes that there are "more than 3,000 [Chinese] corporations in the United States, some with links to the [Chinese military], a state intelligence service, or with technology targeting and acquisition roles."

Cox took exception to a story in Thursday's Times that characterized the report as saying "as many as 3,000" of the Chinese companies operating in the United States are fronts to "acquire military technology."

Some conclusions in the report, which was endorsed by the panel's five Republicans and four Democrats, have drawn criticism from the Chinese government, the Clinton administration, U.S. technology firms, several members of Congress, outside experts and even some Democrats who signed it.

Cox said he expected criticism from China and from U.S. firms named in the report but is disappointed at the administration's response.

"We have always seen politics as the greatest threat to solving this problem," he said. "If for political reasons the gravity of the problem is diminished, we won't be able to take the steps to fix it."

The Orange County congressman said critics of his panel's report have focused on a few controversial issues in an effort to undermine its larger findings. "They are focusing on a tree rather than on the forest," he said.

He noted that Rep. Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the panel, had warned that the report's projections of China's future behavior are "worst-case conclusions."

"My view is that this is a best-case analysis in that it represents only those thefts [of U.S. technology] that have actually occurred and been discovered," he said. "One could just as well report that this is necessarily incomplete, because our intelligence sources and methods don't permit us to know everything."

Cox said he could not offer an estimate of the number of Chinese front companies in the United States because the government's estimates are secret.

But, he said, the committee had offered the number of "more than 3,000 [Chinese] corporations in the United States" to suggest the possible scope of the problem.

"There are significantly more front companies than was previously disclosed in public," he said.

"The challenge for the FBI and our counterintelligence is that they are required to track a much larger number of collection points than is usually the case with foreign espionage," he said.

The report said a 1997 estimate of 20 to 30 U.S. firms linked to the Chinese army by the Santa Monica-based Rand Corp. think tank was "far below the true figure." A committee aide said the current official estimate is "a lot closer to 3,000 than it is to 20."

"The number of front companies identified by the United States--which is not disclosed in the report--is significant . . . because it is large in relation to the number of agents available to track it, especially when they are also responsible for the rest of the world. That's the point. It overwhelms our limited resources," Cox said.

Cox said critics also have mischaracterized the report's findings on spying by Chinese visitors to the United States.

The report notes that more than 80,000 Chinese nationals visited the United States in delegations in 1996 and adds that "almost every [Chinese] citizen allowed to go to the United States as part of these delegations likely receives some type of collection requirement, according to official sources."

Another paragraph notes that more than 100,000 Chinese nationals either attend U.S. universities or stay behind after graduating. The next sentence states that these students and former students "provide a ready target for [Chinese] intelligence officers" and government-controlled organizations.

"The report says that members of official Chinese delegations are given [intelligence] collection requirements," Cox said. "It doesn't say all visitors or all students."

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