Assessing the Cost vs. Benefit Of U.S.-Chinese Scientific Cooperation

Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky

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The Cox Report nominally addresses concerns about U.S. national security originating from scientific and technical interactions with the People's Republic of China (PRC). It alleges extensive losses of valuable national security information but does not attempt to balance cost vs. benefit of the extensive U.S.-Chinese technical and scientific interactions.

The report alleges that classified information on all of the most advanced U.S. thermonuclear weapons has been "stolen," but provides no evidence that actual documents containing detailed designs of U.S. nuclear weapons have been transmitted. The report does not provide any information that would lead to the conclusion that the "stolen" information in itself provides China material of sufficient merit to permit deployment of new nuclear weapons not in its stockpiles today, certainly not without resumption of nuclear tests. Nor are the allegations that information acquired through spying has "saved the PRC years of effort" substantiated.

Since a great deal of technical information about U.S. and Chinese nuclear weapons is publicly available, three fundamental questions remain unanswered. What, if any, range of information has been compromised between what is publicly known and what allegedly has been stolen? More importantly, is that information of sufficient value to the PRC to lead to new designs that can be fielded without nuclear tests, which are precluded by China's signature of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)? Finally, what impact would such weapons have on U.S. national security?

It is difficult to appraise in detail the allegations of the Cox Report as to Chinese spying. They are couched in generalities but by implication signal a depth of overall penetration that appears vastly overstated. The findings are formulated in a spirit to arouse animosity rather than as an objective analysis of known facts.

The declassified version of the report makes it difficult to examine the validity of most of the cited security breaks. Many of the technical facts cited, particularly in respect to the alleged compromises of U.S. missile technology, are simply wrong: dates of events, payloads and dimensions are incorrect. The alleged export of the design of the Titan missile by a senior Chinese scientist returning from the United States cannot have happened, because the time of design of the Titan and the date of return of the scientist make this impossible. The evidence in the area of violations of export controls may have resulted in improvements of reliability of Chinese rockets, but not, as claimed, in improved performance or accuracy.

Under the heading of "PRC Theft of U.S. Thermonuclear Weapons Design Information," the Cox Report cites statements by Premier Zhu Rongji when he received the U.S. delegates, of which I was one, attending the 19th meeting of the Sino-U.S. Joint Committee on High-Energy Physics in November 1998. Zhu expressed appreciation about the "two nations having conducted wide-ranging in-depth exchanges during the meeting and put forward many helpful proposals." The discussion dealt entirely with cooperation in fully open basic work in high-energy physics. In the meeting with the premier, U.S. and Chinese physicists pled for more financial support from the Chinese government for their efforts. The relationship of this meeting to "PRC theft of U.S. thermonuclear weapons design information" was zero!

In the nuclear weapons area, the significance of the so-called losses is unclear. While there are general allegations about a whole class of thermonuclear warheads, specifics are given only regarding the W-70 and the W-88 warheads. The W-70 exists in two versions, one being an "enhanced radiation" weapon, in which the neutron flux is augmented in addition to the mixture of lethal affects of nuclear weapons. The basic design principle of this so-called neutron bomb was compromised a long time ago and the Chinese carried out a test of such a device. The U.S. developed the W-70 enhanced radiation warhead to be carried by the short-range Lance missile. China never deployed such a neutron weapon, and the U.S. abandoned the deployed system having concluded justifiably that it lacks military value. The much publicized story about the W-88 is based in the Cox Report on the account of a Chinese "walk-in" agent giving the CIA a classified document containing design information on the W-88 that China allegedly obtained from U.S. weapons laboratories. Why a Chinese agent voluntarily gave this document incriminating himself to the CIA remains obscure. Most important, no evidence is presented that this loss of W-88 design information has had any direct influence on Chinese weapons.

It is ludicrous to claim that the alleged espionage outlined in the Cox Report would put Chinese "design information on thermonuclear weapons on a par with our own." A great deal is known about the numbers and characteristics of Chinese nuclear weapons. About 450 weapons are deployed, compared to about 10,000 for the U.S. China has carried out only 5 percent as many nuclear tests as the United States has. China has not deployed any multiple-warhead missiles and has subscribed officially to a no-first-use policy, meaning that the only mission of their nuclear weapons is to respond to attack or threat of attack with nuclear weapons.

Whether China will deploy multiple warheads based on designs making it possible to build nuclear weapons of a larger yield-to-weight ratio is unknown. In the future, China might utilize smaller warheads for deploying land-mobile rather than fixed silo-based missiles. This would enhance the survivability of Chinese weapons under attack. This, in contrast to the assertions made in the Cox Report, would be fully consistent with a continued Chinese no-first-use policy. Thus, there is little, if anything, alleged, and certainly not proven, in the report that significantly affects U.S. national security.

In view of the foregoing, the report should not modify U.S. views on Chinese intentions or plans. China is a nation of growing economic strength and increasing sophistication in its military deployments. I conclude that the damage to U.S. national security from Chinese intelligence activities alleged in the report is less than would be accrued if all the remedies that are being proposed to prevent recurrence of the alleged transgressions were to become reality.

The Cox Report charges that in addition to China's formal intelligence organizations, many other agencies with technical missions are also tasked with intelligence collection. In so doing, the report—without supporting evidence—effectively paints all visiting Chinese scientists and engineers with the same brush as being potential spies.

At the same time, the report does not address the valuable information that has been gathered by American visitors to China. Clearly the Chinese must assume that such visitors are likely to be debriefed after they return home. I can certify from my own experiences that my Chinese hosts have always been, if anything, more forthcoming with information than Americans are when Chinese technical professionals visit U.S. laboratories. I have twice visited the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics (approximately the counterpart of the Lawrence Livermore and the Los Alamos laboratories combined) and have been able to communicate with Chinese colleagues under restraints very similar to those imposed on Chinese visitors to U.S. labs.

There is a basic tension between what I call security by restriction and security by achievement. One must recognize that however stringent security restrictions can be made, sooner or later such information will spread across the globe either through independent discovery or through open or clandestine conveyance. Thus, security in the broadest sense must be achieved through accumulation of new knowledge and wise application of it. Restrictions on existing information are, in essence, a delaying tactic to permit new achievements more time to evolve. Such new achievements should enhance security in many ways, building economic strength, morale, confidence in governmental institutions, as well as military strength.

The process for protecting knowledge in the United States is straightforward on the surface: information is classified and disseminated only to those with a security clearance and a certified, "need to know" connection with an authorized program. In practice, the system is very complex and, in addition, has become enormous, making it subject to bureaucratic failures associated with that size. Depending on their level of clearance, individuals have access to confidential, secret, top secret or further compartmentalized information, but the volume of such information remains a problem. The Department of Energy (DOE) has about 200 million pages of secret documents and the Defense Department many more.

We are facing a basic tension: if too much is classified at too high a level, then the bureaucratic burden in guarding all that information becomes excessive. Moreover, in a democratic society the public has a right to know what the government is doing unless there are overriding reasons to bar such knowledge. In the past, classification clearly became excessive. For instance, some information on environment, safety and health relating to nuclear facilities was classified in case it might have contained sensitive material. Many restrictions on information beyond classifications have grown, such as "unclassified nuclear information." Such designations erect moderate barriers and bureaucratic restrictions but do nothing to protect really important information.

The intent of clearance is to minimize the probability that the to-be-cleared individual will at sometime in the future transmit information to those not authorized to receive it. During the Cold War the clearance process understandably focused on the ideology of the individual in respect to communism or sympathy with the Soviet bloc. In addition, the clearance process aims to evaluate whether an individual may be subject to blackmail because of past criminality, drug use, or other liability. While the latter factors are still valid criteria, the question of ideology has lost its specific focus with the end of the Cold War. Rather, as the famous Ames case indicated, old-fashioned greed remains a major factor. It remains extremely difficult to predict who, among the tens of thousands of individuals to be cleared, may in the future succumb to offers of money. Yet the granting of clearance requires that cleared individuals must be trusted; it is impossible and undesirable to isolate them from contact with uncleared persons.

Reviews of this process by the National Academy of Sciences and government agencies have resulted in a clear message: we should build high fences around truly sensitive information but omit restrictions on less sensitive information because they largely have only nuisance value. Yet in the wake of the Cox Report we see a "feeding frenzy" in Congress and within the government to impose all sorts of far-reaching restrictions. Examples include increasing export controls on scientific information, restrictions on visitors from "designated countries" to purely scientific activities within DOE laboratories, and the like. The Cox Committee recommends that the inspectors general of five government agencies be directed "to examine the risks [not the benefits!] to U.S. National Security of international scientific research programs.…" Yet the Cox Report presents no evidence that laboratory visits and scientific exchanges have resulted in any "losses" of classified information. This conclusion is reinforced by a recent review by the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB). This is a case of closing the barn door to a stable from which no horse has been stolen.

We also should not vilify China simply for spying on the U.S.—espionage is a fact of international politics. All major nations maintain institutions dedicated to collecting information from other countries, be they adversaries or friends. The U.S. jailed an Israeli spy for life, yet no accusations were levied against Israel for improper conduct. At this time, evidence is insufficient to file charges against, arrest or convict anyone mentioned in the Cox Report for having collected information for China's benefit.

Nations are generally silent regarding their successes in penetrating the secrecy of other nations and the compromise of their own secrets. The Cox Report breaks this pattern by trumpeting alleged losses of secret information from the U.S. even though no official charges have been brought against individuals. Thus, there is no way to judge whether on the global scale of spying the events cited are in any way unusual. The U.S. spends nearly $30 billion annually for support of the intelligence community, including CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and the intelligence agencies of the armed services. This is very much larger than the spying effort of any other nation.

Indeed, there are defects in the huge bureaucracy that is charged with protecting highly classified information, and these deficiencies must be addressed. But the remedies restricting scientific and technical communications with the PRC and inhibiting unclassified scientific exchanges will impede scientific progress in the U.S. and, most important, will make it even more difficult to attract capable scientific and technical personnel to the nation's nuclear weapons laboratories. With the termination of nuclear weapons testing and the initiation of the science-based stewardship program, the quality of personnel at the nuclear weapons laboratories remains important to U.S. security.

Overly restrictive remedies will also seriously interfere with important, on-going "laboratory-to-laboratory" programs in which personnel from U.S. weapons laboratories visit their sister establishments in Russia, and to a lesser extent in China, with the goal of helping those countries upgrade their materials, protection, control and accounting activities relating to their nuclear weapons. Improving the safety and security of foreign weapons against theft or diversion, or against inadvertent detonation, are of greater value to the security of the U.S. than the potential impact of Chinese spying alleged in the report.

The Cox Report paints a very misleading picture of the impact of foreign intelligence activities on U.S. security. Some of the remedies proposed in response to the committee's findings are apt to be more damaging to national security than the deficiencies the report addresses.


Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky is director emeritus of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in California.