Bill Gertz INSIDE THE RING, The Washington Times
President-elect Barack Obama plans to resume scientist exchanges between U.S. nuclear-weapons laboratories and Chinese facilities, a program halted in the late 1990s after the loss of U.S. nuclear-warhead secrets to China.
Mr. Obama stated in an interview with Arms Control Today magazine that in addition to continuing efforts to hold a strategic nuclear dialogue with China, he wants to "resume laboratory-to-laboratory exchanges that were terminated in the 1990s."
The laboratory-exchange program during the 1990s is blamed by U.S. intelligence and security officials for leading to a strategic espionage failure. China's communist government used the program to target U.S. nuclear scientists under an elaborate program of intelligence "elicitation" - meeting lab weapons designers in conferences and hotels in China and seeking classified data through question-and-answer sessions.
The program led to the case of Los Alamos National Laboratory nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was accused but not convicted of passing nuclear secrets to China. After FBI missteps in the investigation, Lee was convicted on lesser charges of mishandling classified information, and he later sued news reporters who had reported on his case.
By May 1999, however, the CIA produced a damage assessment that concluded that the Chinese obtained data on every deployed nuclear weapon, including the W-88 small warhead for missiles and the enhanced-radiation or neutron bomb.
The FBI has failed to uncover the spy or spies who gave China the data but says it is continuing to investigate.
A U.S. counterintelligence report from 1998 stated that Department of Energy laboratories were "under attack" from foreign spies and that one method of obtaining secrets was through scientific, academic and commercial exchanges and "elicitation" of information. "China has specifically targeted DOE for collection of technical intelligence related to the design of nuclear weapons, and seeks information relating to stockpile stewardship and reliability," the report said. "This effort has been very successful, and Beijing's exploitation of U.S. national laboratories has substantially aided its nuclear weapons program."
Notra Trulock, former intelligence chief for the Energy Department, testified in 2000 to the Senate Judiciary oversight and courts subcommittee that nuclear-lab security in the 1990s was so poor that investigators identified 11 U.S. spy suspects, including Lee, who had access to warhead secrets and had traveled to China and met Chinese nuclear officials. Mr. Trulock resigned in 1999 when a government report did not back his allegations against Lee
Under the Bush administration, the Pentagon has sought to hold strategic nuclear talks with China, but the Chinese military has balked at engaging in detailed discussions, according to defense officials.
On China's nuclear buildup, Mr. Obama stated in written answers to questions posed by the magazine that China appears to be building up its nuclear forces and "as president, I will ensure that the United States continues to maintain our own military capabilities so that there can be no doubt about the strength and credibility of our security commitments in the Asia-Pacific region."
Mr. Obama said he supports continuing military exchanges with China that were halted by Beijing in response to the October announcement by the Pentagon of a long-delayed $6.5 billion arms package for Taiwan.
"I will urge China to increase transparency of its nuclear weapons policies and programs - indeed, of its military and defense policies more generally," Mr. Obama stated. "We are not enemies. I will engage the Chinese leadership in discussions that convey how greater openness in military spending and nuclear force modernization is consistent with China's and the United States' national interests and more likely to lead to greater trust and understanding."
A spokesman for the Energy Department National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the nuclear laboratories, had no immediate comment on Mr. Obama's plans to resume lab exchanges.