The allegations elicited denials from Peking, calls for an investigation in Washington and cautious admissions of shortcomings from senior US officials, who disclosed that top-level inquiries were already in train. The chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Richard Shelby, promised hearings to determine the truth of the charges.
According to The New York Times, a Chinese spy operating at the Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory in New Mexico in the Eighties had stolen, among other secrets, a technological blueprint for the W-88, described as America's most advanced nuclear warhead. The espionage was detected, according to the newspaper, only after the CIA analysed results of China's nuclear tests a decade later and found disturbing similarities.
The paper said that a suspect had been identified in 1996 and given a lie detector test last month, which he failed. But he was not arrested. According to yesterday's Washington Post, he is a Taiwan-born American who has worked on classified weapons designs at Los Alamos for almost two decades.
The New York Times report suggests the Clinton administration kept the case quiet so as not to derail Washington's objective of building a "strategic partnership" with Peking. Yesterday, the US National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger, acknowledged "a serious security problem" at the national nuclear laboratories dating from the mid-Eighties and admitted that the administration was too slow to address it. David Leavy, spokesman for the security council, said an investigation was in progress "to determine if there was criminal conduct and we continue to assess the implications for national security".
The Energy Secretary, Bill Richardson - whose department is responsible for Los Alamos - said that "major reforms were instituted in October 1998, a month after I came in" to the post. This was, in fact, eight months after Mr Clinton had ordered tighter security at the laboratories.
Experts were divided yesterday about the import of the latest New York Times claims. While some described the apparent theft of the W-88 technology as a blow to US security, others saw purely political interests in play at a time when suspicions between the US and China are mounting. Issues such as human rights and Taiwan are back on the agenda, and a visit to China last week by the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, brought no new detente. China has been incensed over the possibility that the US could extend a nuclear "shield" to Taiwan.
Peking protested yesterday that the spying charges were groundless and politically motivated. The Foreign Minister, Tang Jiaxuan, described the New York Times report as irresponsible and without basis. "There are some people," he said, "who want to stop the United States from exporting normal high-technology products to China. I think that this will not be beneficial to the interests of the United States."Reuse content