"They could have done more," said Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala,. "They could have done more immediately. It will damage if it hasn't already damaged our national security in a big, big, way."
Friday, CBS News first reported the major finding in a classified congressional report: That China was able to "recruit" scientists from the national weapons labs more than a decade ago and steal vital design information for America's most sophisticated nuclear warhead. These designs could have advanced the Chinese weapons program by as much as 4 decades.
But Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who is in charge of the weapons labs, says the Clinton Administration has taken the proper steps.
The Intelligence Committee already is investigating commercial technology transfers that Sen. Shelby and other GOP leaders contend could help the Chinese upgrade their missile forces. The new allegations "will certainly" mean more hearings, said Shelby, who criticized the administration for "lax attitudes toward national security."
The theft was first discovered in 1995, but it was two years before word trickled up to President Clinton. And the White House never told Congress.
"It's a very serious situation particularly since many of those missiles are now aimed at Taiwan and even in some cases at u.s. targets," says Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Critics suspect the Clinton Administration kept the security breach quiet for fear of damaging relations with China. Secretary of State Madeline Albright held trade talks in Beijing just last week. Major security reforms President Clinton ordered were only put in motion last fall, three years after the theft of information was discovered.
Intelligence experts are still assessing how much China was able to do with the stolen nuclear weapons technology. A national security panel will report to Congress at the end of the month.