Cox Panel Charges China With Extensive Nuclear Espionage

Howard Diamond

THE UNITED STATES has been the victim of a sustained Chinese espionage campaign alleged to have acquired classified information on seven types of U.S. thermonuclear weapons, a bipartisan select committee from the House of Representatives reported May 25. Led by Representative Christopher Cox (R-CA), the panel of five Republicans and four Democrats released a 900-plus page declassified version of its report charging extensive—and probably ongoing—penetration of U.S. nuclear weapons labs by Chinese agents, indications that U.S. weapons technology may be used in China's strategic modernization plans, and widespread Chinese efforts to acquire U.S. dual-use technology through legal and illegal means.

The Cox Report has been subject to criticism both from members of the select committee and outside experts who have questioned the report's charges and conclusions. Beijing has vigorously denied that it engaged in any nuclear espionage and has argued that ample information on U.S. nuclear weapons is available from open sources. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said on May 27, "We have no policy of stealing from other nations and China has never stolen any nuclear secrets from any country, including America."

Initially created in July 1998 to investigate charges that two U.S. space companies had illicitly provided technical assistance to China's ballistic missile program, the Cox panel's focus on Chinese spying in U.S. weapons labs has heightened the political significance of its report, and may lead to changes in U.S. export controls and restructuring of the Department of Energy's control over U.S. nuclear weapons labs. The Cox panel blamed the Clinton administration for responding too slowly to signs of Chinese spying, failing to disseminate information about the espionage to either Congress or the cabinet secretaries responsible for implenting U.S. export controls, and going too far in liberalizing U.S. export controls in order to help U.S. business interests.

The three-volume Cox Report, which was unanimously approved by the select committee, addresses both legal and illegal Chinese technology acquisition programs, including nuclear espionage, purchases of U.S. high-performance computers and commercial satellites, and efforts to take advantage of gaps in U.S. export controls. Among its 38 recommendations, the Cox panel called for bolstering the Energy Department's security and counterintelligence functions, heightening the national security focus in U.S. licensing decisions for dual-use technologies to China, improving U.S. monitoring of dual-use technologies exported to China, and strengthening the multilateral Wassenaar Arrangement on dual-use exports to more closely match the level of control exercised by its predecessor, the Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM).

Much of the public focus on the Cox Report has focused on the question of Chinese nuclear espionage and its effect on U.S. national security. When asked how the Chinese spying described in the report differed from previous instances of espionage, Cox told NBC News on May 21, "No other country has succeeded in stealing so much from the United States. And no other country having stolen such secrets has used it to design weapons that will threaten the United States."

President Clinton thanked the Cox panel for its work on May 25, and said he agreed with "the overwhelming majority" of the report's recommendations. The president insisted that despite Chinese spying, "I strongly believe that our continuing engagement with China has produced benefits for our national security." The Clinton administration received the classified version of the Cox Report on January 2 and published its response to the panel's recommendations on February 2. Aside from pointing out that most of the alleged espionage occurred during previous administrations, the White House has limited its public dissent to the question of whether it responded with sufficient dispatch upon learning of potential Chinese spying.

Addressing reporters May 24, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said the administration had moved quickly to deal with the question of spying at the weapons labs but said that despite all the government's investigations, "I can't point to a case where we know something was stolen, we know who did it, and we know where it went to, and we know where it came from." Lockhart said no rebuttal to the Cox Report would be forthcoming. On the question of improving security at the weapons labs, Lockhart said "there were some things in [the Cox Report] that we were already doing, but there are certainly ideas in there of how to shore up security that we have embraced and we're implementing."

With many of the Cox Report's most serious charges directed at his department, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson asserted that well before the Cox panel was even formed, the administration was already tackling the issue of security at U.S. nuclear weapons labs. Referring to Presidential Decision Directive-61 (PDD-61), which was issued in February 1998, Richardson said, "We have taken enormously aggressive action to deal with the problem. We are fixing the problem. I can assure the American people that their nuclear secrets are safe at the labs." Richardson also cautioned against "oversensationalizing" the allegations of Chinese nuclear espionage. "There is no evidence of a 'wholesale' loss of information," Richardson said.

Since the adoption of PDD-61, the Energy Department has adopted a 46-point security improvement plan in November 1998, a seven-point counterintelligence initiative in March, and an additional 10-part security reform package on May 11. In April, Richardson also instituted a two-week shut-down of the classified computer system in the three nuclear weapons labs to implement a new cyber-security program.

How damaging Chinese spying was to U.S. national security remains unclear. The Cox report has been criticized by two of the panel's Democratic members, Representative Norman Dicks (WA) and Representative John Spratt (NC), as being overly dependent on conditional statements and conclusions based on worst-case scenarios. According to Spratt, "there are statements in the report that will not bear scrutiny" and that despite his objections "not all were deleted or revised, and some of the revisions are still inadequate." Dicks added, "I am certain that academics and experts in and out of government will challenge some of our worst-case conclusions."

At the urging of the Cox panel, an assessment of the damage done by Chinese nuclear espionage was made by the U.S. intelligence community, which was subsequently reviewed by an independent panel led by retired Admiral David Jeremiah. Released on April 21, the intelligence community's "damage assessment," which the Jeremiah panel concurred with, concluded that classified information obtained by China "probably accelerated its program to develop future nuclear weapons." But the assessment concluded that, so far, Chinese nuclear espionage "has not resulted in any apparent modernization of their deployed strategic force or any new nuclear weapons deployment." While China had acquired "classified U.S. nuclear weapons information," the intelligence community assessment noted that "we do not know whether any weapon design documentation or blueprints were acquired."