For nearly a year now, the media have detailed how China has been stealing America’s best strategic technology. Last week, though, the New York Times dropped a bombshell. Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist already suspected of handing China information about a U.S. nuclear warhead known as the W-88, may have compromised every nuclear weapons design in America’s arsenal.
Unlike previous stories of Chinese thefts instigated in the Carter and Reagan years, this news immediately put President Clinton in the penalty box. In mid-March, the president insisted he had not been told of any espionage that had occurred on his watch. Wen Ho Lee, however, transferred the bulk of several thousand secret nuclear weapons files in 1994 and 1995. Worse yet, White House officials, including the president, had reason to know.
In fact, the FBI began a formal criminal investigation of Lee in 1996. On at least three separate occasions, the FBI subsequently briefed the president’s national security adviser on the Lee case and the “acute threat” of Chinese nuclear computer espionage at the laboratories. The last briefing, in November 1998, detailed more examples of spying at the laboratories. Finally, early in January, Congress sent the president an additional written warning.
And the White House’s response? Wen Ho Lee was allowed continued access to all of Los Alamos’s most sensitive weapons information until late last year and was only fired on March 8. As for highly visible corrective actions, the Department of Energy did—regrettably—take one step: It removed its security chief, an official known for persistently criticizing the department’s lax security procedures.
Now, no fewer than nine congressional committees are investigating. So far, their aim has been to prevent anything like this from happening again. And in this, they can’t help but succeed: After what Wen Ho Lee stole from the laboratories, there are hardly any nuclear weapons design secrets left to protect. So, what did he lift? Two kinds of nuclear weapons design information: the national laboratories’ “legacy code” and their input data. The legacy code is a computer file containing all the information scientists have gleaned from over four decades of U.S. nuclear testing. It’s designed to predict how nuclear weapons will perform. What it won’t tell you are the key aspects of any given warhead design. That is largely captured by input data. Put the two together and you not only can project a weapon design’s likely performance, you can generate a blueprint of the weapon itself.
Before he was fired, Wen Ho Lee was updating these codes and, from the FBI’s investigation of what he downloaded onto his home computer, it looks as though he pretty much stole everything Los Alamos had. Intelligence officials recently established that someone accessed his home computer. They even have documents proving that China secured exact data on at least a half-dozen of America’s most advanced weapons. What they lack is legal proof that Lee passed this information on to China.
Still, given Lee’s known communications with convicted Chinese spies and his effort to hide evidence (he tried to erase between 1,000 and 2,000 of the stolen files after his last interview with investigators), it’s reasonable to assume the worst.
China currently has a relatively small strategic stockpile: 20 ponderous intercontinental-range nuclear rockets and about 400 nuclear weapons that can threaten its Asian neighbors. The systems that can reach the United States, because of their crudity and enormous size, are vulnerable on the ground and would be relatively easy to deflect with missile defenses.
In the next decade, expect all of this to change. China, ever eager to increase its production of nuclear weapons materials, recently acquired the latest in uranium enrichment technology from Russia. With the new, highly efficient nuclear designs it has stolen, though, it will require only a fraction of what it previously needed to modernize its arsenal. Not 20, then, but hundreds of weapons could before long be trained at the United States; and thousands more deployed to face down our Asian allies.
These new systems, moreover, would be small enough to be placed on hard-to-target mobile launchers (which China is developing) and could be clustered on their intercontinental rockets in numbers sufficient to challenge planned U.S. national missile defenses. Larger in number, smaller in size, higher in accuracy, and with faster reentry speeds, these new Chinese warheads are guaranteed to complicate development of U.S. missile defenses for Asia.
Finally, because of the codes it has stolen and the advanced U.S. computer technology our government has allowed to be transferred, China will be able to build this force without the warning afforded by nuclear testing. The White House may still argue that ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is our best hope to prevent further nuclear proliferation. But China—which signed the treaty only months after Wen Ho Lee downloaded the last of Los Alamos’s nuclear weapons codes—knows better.
Whether Beijing will actually build up its nuclear forces and spread the strategic technology it has gained to others remains to be seen. If the United States and its allies can close ranks and convince Beijing that such moves would be self-defeating, China may well decide to restrain itself. This prospect, however, will depend far more on what Congress and the White House do now to strengthen U.S. and Asian security than on anything they might belatedly attempt concerning the security of our national laboratories.