Through aggressive spying, China managed to obtain classified information on a variety of U.S. nuclear weapons. Intelligence officials have told Congress that as a result, it is now possible for Beijing to modernize its arsenal within the next few years.
In a long-awaited damage assessment, administration officials on Wednesday disclosed for the first time that China gathered classified information on not just the W-88 warhead and the neutron bomb but also on several modern U.S. warheads, particularly re-entry vehicles, nuclear weapons mounted on multiple-warhead rockets.
"China obtained by espionage classified U.S. nuclear weapons information that probably accelerated its program to develop future nuclear weapons," according to a declassified version of the assessment.
But the intelligence team said China also gained some valuable weapons information in open venues such as public conferences and scientific exchanges.
President Clinton, who was briefed on the findings Wednesday, ordered a review to assess potential vulnerability to espionage beyond the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories. "Measures to protect sensitive nuclear weapons information must be constantly scrutinized," Mr. Clinton said.
A 1988 Chinese document, obtained by U.S. intelligence, as well as close analysis of Chinese weapons tests, touched off a 1995 investigation of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. A Taiwanese-American fired from the lab last month is under investigation in connection with the W-88 case.
Chinese espionage at U.S. weapons labs developed into a political storm for the president as Republicans accused his administration of being lax in responding to the FBI's initial concerns in 1995. The issue followed on the heels of allegations that the administration promoted commercial satellite exports that allowed Beijing to improve its ballistic missiles.
Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, Sen. Richard Shelby, said the briefing Wednesday made it clear that Chinese spying continued into the Clinton administration, something the president in the past has denied knowledge of.
"It confirms my worst fears," Shelby, R-Ala., said. "We made it easy for the Chinese because of weak security at our national labs....We took too long to find out what was going on and we still don't know how deep and wide the problem is."
China has denied the espionage charges, saying its own scientists achieved improvements in nuclear weapons design.
One of the assessment team's conclusions was that China has not yet deployed any weapons based on stolen U.S. technology but may be developing them.
The Chinese nuclear arsenal, estimated at 18 to 20 single-warhead ICBMs and perhaps 400 single-warhead short and medium-range nuclear missiles, never has rivaled those of the United States and Russia. Nor does Beijing appear to have any plans to do so, the assessment said. The United States has about 10,000 nuclear warheads in it arsenal.
Instead, China is trying to improve the credibility of its nuclear threat by improving its retaliatory capability, according to the intelligence assessment. Doing so involves developing lighter, more mobile and therefore more survivable warheads, such as the W-88, a miniaturized warhead mounted on a submarine-launched missile. China has a no-first-use nuclear policy, making survivability of its arsenal a key priority.
China also is seeking to improve the forces it has against potential regional enemies, according to the assessment team.
By John Diamond