Clinton On Defensive Over China

By the map, President Clinton was in Guatemala Thursday, attending a summit meeting with Central American leaders. But as CBS White House Correspondent Bill Plante reports, the hot topic was stolen U.S. nuclear secrets, now in the hands of China's military.

The president denied charges that his administration ignored evidence that U.S. nuclear secrets were being smuggled out of the nation's top-secret laboratories and given to China and other nations. He also rejected criticism that the security breach makes a mockery of his policy of engagement with China. "We continue to investigate it," said Mr. Clinton. "We have dramatically increased our counter-intelligence. I believe we have taken all appropriate steps."

Despite the fact that two years elapsed between the discovery of the stolen secrets and the administration's new security policies Mr. Clinton maintained that he dealt with the issue in a timely manner.

He also noted that the secrets were stolen in the 1980s. But CBS News has been told that there have been serious acts of espionage at U.S. labs during this administration as well.

Republicans charge that the leaks have allowed China to build miniature nuclear warheads and that the White House has tried to hide the seriousness of the damage done. The White House views this, as it views almost all criticism, as a political attack, as a wedge issue for the Republicans.

Briefed in 1996 about possible espionage at the Los Alamos laboratory, top White House national security officials did not determine until almost a year later there were "serious problems" requiring changes at the nuclear weapons labs, officials acknowledge.

It was not until early 1998 that the concerns led to a presidential directive to raise security and hire more counterintelligence experts at the federal labs holding America's top nuclear secrets.

National security adviser Sandy Berger said in an interview that he first received word in 1996 that China may have obtained critical nuclear warhead information from Los Alamos. But only after a more detailed briefing in July 1997 from the Energy Department were security problems involving China and the labs brought into sharp focus. "I heard enough in the July '97 briefing to believe we had a serious problem," said Berger, traveling with the president in Guatemala.

Lawmakers are renewing criticism of lab security after the dismissal of Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwan-born scientist at Los Alamos under investigation for three years for possible espionage. He has not been charged with a crime, but an FBI investigation is continuing.

One GOP presidential aspirant, Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire, said Berger should be fired if reports about the security lapses and delay in investigating are true. "Berger is the responsible authority here, he ought to explain his actions to the country or resign," said Patrick Buchanan, another GOP presidential hopeful.

Administraion officials insisted the Los Alamos investigation was conducted in a timely manner and changes were made.

With China's vice premier due to visit next month, the questions and debate over the loss of these nuclear secrets can only intensify.