The claim arose from a US Congressional investigation into Chinese penetration of American nuclear security, and appeared to be partly confirmed by Senator Jon Kyl .
Senator Kyl, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, was quoted as saying that China now had the technology to detect British and American nuclear submarines. "Whether or not the technology is used against us, it was a significant breach of security that the information was revealed," he told the BBC, indicating for the first time that America's ever-expanding Chinese espionage scandal was now lapping at British shores.
Given the close defence and intelligence co-operation between Britain and the United States, and Britain's dependence on the US for its nuclear capability, it was only a matter of time before the implications for British security were broached. And because Trident submarines are Britain's only nuclear deterrent, any damage is potentially far more serious than it would be to the United States, which has other nuclear defences.
While the bare revelation can only shock, the details are complex, confusing, and the actual effects on security largely unproved - which is doubtless how the defence and intelligence establishments on both sides of the Atlantic would like them to stay.
It is a tale of two nuclear projects, two US laboratories, and - most confusing of all - two Dr Lees, both of whom may have jeopardised British, as well as US, defences.
The first Dr Lee, Wen Ho Lee, worked at the US National Laboratory at Los Alamos for almost 20 years, specialising in nuclear weapons design.
After suspicions about his loyalties, the Taiwan-born scientist was dismissed two months ago, but the proof needed for prosecution is lacking, says the FBI - which means that his guilt or otherwise will never be tested in court.
According to a succession of revelations published by The New York Times since February, Wen Ho Lee downloaded hundreds of top-secret files from his own secure computer system on to an unclassified computer, where they may have been accessed by Chinese intelligence. According to US sources, among the data transferred and subsequently accessed were details of British nuclear tests contained in so-called "legacy codes".
Wen Ho Lee's name was first mentioned in connection with China's apparent acquisition of US designs for a miniaturised nuclear warhead, which enable a missile to be armed with multiple warheads.
The theft, assumed to have taken place in the mid-Eighties, came to light only when China tested one of the new missiles in 1995, and a close similarity was observed to its US equivalent. The theft claim, published in The New York Times, precipitated Dr Lee's dismissal and a welter of inquiries - intelligence, criminal and administrative - which are still not complete.
Among the measures already announced, however, is a slew of new precautions, including the imminent appointment of a security "Tsar" to oversee all the Department of Energy's laboratory security. It is this department that has overseen US nuclear research.
In announcing the changes, the Energy Secretary, Bill Richardson, conceded what had been steadfastly denied - that China had been systematically spying on US research laboratories for two decades, up to and including the six years of Mr Clinton's presidency. Republican Congressmen are using reports of Chinese espionage to attack Mr Clinton, which gives the whole affair a strongly party political flavour in the United States.
For Britain, however, it is another laboratory and another Lee who may have done the most damage - a Chinese-born physicist, Peter Lee, workingunder contract to the US Navyat the Lawrence Livermore national laboratory in California on a classified British-American project to develop radar that could detect submarines from the air.
The project had been in train for 20 years, but in May 1997, according to US officials, Dr Lee passed the information to Chinese scientists during a two-hour lecture in Peking.
The technology is believed to be synthetic aperture radar, a satellite technology for tracking submarines by detecting their wake, or other minute changes in the sea.
"The bump on the ocean is what you're looking at," said Chuck Ferguson, a physicist and former US Navy submarine officer at the Federation of American Scientists, who worked on a similar project.
A Tale Of Two Espionage Suspects
WEN HO LEE
1978 - Wen Ho Lee (right) is hired at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
1983 - Transfers nuclear data from a classified computer system to an unclassified network.
1986 - 88 Delivers papers at conference in Beijing.
1995 - FBI officials begins searching for a mole at Los Alamos.
1996 - FBI starts inquiry.
1999 - Lee is interviewed by the FBI and fired.
1976 to 1984 - works as a physicist at Lawrence Livermore laboratory.
1985 - Visits Peking and discusses laser work.
1991 - Joins TRW, a private space and electronics firm, and works on radar imaging.
1997 - Delivers lectures in Peking
1998 - Sentenced to prisonReuse content