ANTIGUA, Guatemala —
President Clinton on Thursday strongly defended his administration’s response to suspected Chinese espionage at a key U.S. nuclear weapons design facility, insisting that he and his aides moved quickly to investigate and prevent further breaches of national security.
“We did not ignore evidence,” Clinton said in his first public comments on unfolding allegations of a major security leak at the Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory in the mid-1980s. “Quite the contrary. We acted on it.”
The president spoke to reporters as he completed a four-day trip to Central America that was largely overshadowed back home by a mounting barrage of criticism by Republicans and some Democrats of White House policies toward China.
In recent months, Washington’s relations with Beijing have begun to unravel on several fronts, with complaints about Chinese human rights abuses, a growing trade deficit with China, Beijing’s misuse of U.S. satellite and other sensitive technology, and now the alleged theft of crucial military secrets that may have given China a vast jump in nuclear warhead design.
On Thursday, Clinton defended his administration’s efforts to expand contacts with China through engagement on a broad array of issues.
“Our efforts to have an honest and open policy with China, so that they don’t think that we have made a decision in advance to try to contain and limit them in their economic growth and their development as a nation, has paid dividends,” he said.
As evidence, Clinton cited China’s signing of the international agreement restricting chemical weapons and another banning nuclear tests, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Nor, he said, would the Chinese have restrained their transfer of “dangerous materials”-nuclear technology and missiles-to Iran and Pakistan “if we had not been constructively engaged with them.”
“I do not believe that that evidence justifies an isolated, no-contact relationship with China when we have gotten the benefits-not only to ourselves but to the rest of the world-of our engagement policy,” the president said.
Clinton aides have bristled at even the suggestion that they were less than thorough in their investigation or that they let concerns about diplomacy or trade influence their actions when they learned in April 1996 of the alleged spying at Los Alamos.
On Thursday, Clinton defended his national security advisor, Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger, and rejected calls by several Republicans for Berger’s resignation.
“The record is that we acted aggressively,” Clinton said. “Mr. Berger acted appropriately.”
On Monday, the University of California acceded to a request by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and fired Wen Ho Lee, a computer scientist on a UC contract at Los Alamos, after Lee was twice interviewed by the FBI.
At least some of the questions, and two polygraph tests, apparently focused on his contacts with Chinese officials during a seminar in 1988.
Lee’s phone has been disconnected, and the windows of his home are covered with blankets, according to wire reports.
Neither Lee nor anyone else has been arrested or charged in the case, and no grand jury has been impaneled to hear evidence. A senior FBI official cautioned Thursday that it is still far from clear if espionage or any other crime was committed at Los Alamos.
“No one’s in a position to definitely say that espionage has occurred,” he said.
“We’re a long way from reasonable suspicion or even probable cause to make a case,” he added.
Several Clinton administration officials said Los Alamos experts first grew suspicious of a possible leak in April 1995 after they analyzed a five-year series of Chinese underground nuclear tests and detected unexpected advances in Beijing’s weapons design.
In April 1996, Energy Department officials briefed Berger for the first time about their suspicions and warned that someone at Los Alamos might have passed top-secret information to China on how to build smaller nuclear warheads similar to the W-88 warheads carried aboard Trident II submarines. The FBI launched a formal investigation the following month.
Clinton told reporters that the administration ultimately held 16 closed-door briefings for Congress, including the House and Senate intelligence committees, on the issue.
In recent days, Vice President Al Gore and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have publicly defended the administration and its policy toward China. But the president had avoided public remarks about the matter until Thursday.
In July 1997, Clinton said Thursday, “we were notified that the scope of the potential espionage might be very broad and might be directly related to security at the energy labs.”
He said the administration “moved quickly and decisively not only with the continuing FBI investigation and with the CIA review, but also with an intense review of the counterintelligence capacities of our Energy Department labs.”
Clinton signed a directive in February 1998 intended to improve counterintelligence at the labs, and the government began giving polygraph tests to Energy Department employees, the president said.
In a cellular phone call from Guatemala, where he was traveling with the president, Energy Secretary Richardson said it wasn’t yet clear how much damage was caused by the apparent security breach at Los Alamos.
“We don’t know the extent of the damage yet,” Richardson said. “That probably will be revealed after the CIA does its assessment. We know it’s potentially serious, and it’s a cause for concern.”
A multi-agency review, headed by the CIA, is trying to assess the prospective damage to national security from the alleged leak. The report is due to be completed early next month and will be reviewed by a panel of independent experts before it goes to Congress.
An administration official said the assessment was difficult because the alleged leak occurred more than a decade ago and because the CIA and other agencies were forced to work backward from scientific analysis of Chinese missile tests to try to identify a possible spy.
“Clearly, in some fashion, some information was passed,” the official said. “It’s not clear how much, or where, or how important it was. Part of the problem is the issue of the cultural tension among scientists who share information for the good of all, versus the need to protect national security.”
On Capitol Hill, pressure increased for stronger U.S. action against China.
The House of Representatives voted, 421-0, to urge the Clinton administration to sponsor a resolution next week at an annual U.N. conference in Geneva condemning China’s human rights record.
The House action, which follows a similar overwhelming vote in the Senate two weeks ago, does not carry the weight of law but is an expression of opinion.
The White House annually sponsored resolutions in Geneva condemning China from 1991 to 1997. None passed, and last year the Clinton administration decided against sponsoring such a resolution, citing evidence of growing political and press freedom in China.
A State Department report issued earlier this month documented a sharp deterioration in China’s human rights situation since December, when Beijing sought to crush organized opposition to the ruling Communist regime.
Several congressional committees have announced hearings into the Los Alamos case or U.S. policies toward China.
Gerstenzang reported from Antigua and Drogin from Washington.