Battening the Hatches:
Chinese "Nuclear Thefts" Provokes Wrong Response
by Alyn Ware


On March 6, 1999, the New York Times published a long front page article, "China Stole Nuclear Secrets for Bombs". The scandal was further fueled by the later release of the Cox Committee report. Results included the firing of Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee, the restructuring of security in the Department of Energy (DOE), and a clamp down on information availability from the DOE.

However, according to The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) publisher Stephen Schwartz (60 Minutes, August 1, 1999), as well as Robert S. Vrooman, former head of counterintelligence at Los Alamos (New York Times, August 18, 1999), there is no evidence that Lee actually passed classified information to Chinese officials. Lee has not been charged with any crime. Further, there is considerable controversy as to the extent and significance of the alleged espionage, whatever its source or means.  Yet the scandal has had considerable impact on Congress and the Department of Energy.

On March 17 and 18, Congress voted overwhelmingly in favor of a bill on Ballistic Missile Defense, a program ostensibly to counter possible missile threats from China among others. This bill, which threatens the ABM Treaty, had failed in 1998.

The DOE, which came under intense congressional criticism for this supposed leak, has responded by battening down the hatches. The declassification of material which was begun in the Openness Initiative has ground to a halt. Public access to millions of pages of previously classified documents has been blocked. The DOE Office of Declassification has been renamed the Office of Nuclear and National Security Information.

This approach is misconceived and counterproductive. The idea that such a restriction of information availability could prevent China, or any other country, from either developing or modernizing nuclear forces is erroneous, because the necessary knowledge has already spread widely.  In commenting on a critical question concerning "Knowledge and Reversibility" in Security and Survival: The Case for a Nuclear Weapons Convention , Theodore Taylor, former weapons designer, states:  "I therefore tend not to be hopeful that control of information is likely to be very effective in curbing the proliferation of nuclear weapon concepts in countries with either rudimentary or advanced understanding of the relevant design principles."

On the contrary, Schwartz contends that overcontrol of information may "impede the detection of alleged nuclear espionage". He notes that "[b]ecause nuclear weapons information is so tightly held, U.S. intelligence analysts,according to Newsweek, apparently didn't know what to look for when reviewing intercepted communications and other raw intelligence." (BAS, May/June 1999)

While the US continues to research, design, test and maintain nuclear weapons, other countries will follow suit with their own programs. Weapons concepts and information will inevitably be discovered or leaked. The only rational approach is to negotiate for the elimination of nuclear weapons and to employ weapons research and information in a program for dismantling and destroying the weapons and controlling weapons usable materials and for monitoring and verifying their elimination and control.

China has at least rhetorically supported this approach, calling for negotiations on a nuclear weapons convention. BAS editor Mike Moore argues that the US should "call China's hand", stating: "If the United States can find a way to bring China and the other nuclear powers into negotiations on a nuclear disarmament treaty - admittedly not a likely prospect - that would set an engagement standard worthy of a new millennium." (BAS, July/August 1999)



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