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Wednesday, May 26, 1999 Published at 03:15 GMT 04:15 UK

World: Americas

China 'spying for 20 years'

The report says China has information on every US nuclear weapon

China has been stealing America's most sensitive nuclear secrets "for at least the past several decades" and is almost certainly continuing to do so, according to a US Congressional report.

Tom Carver in Washington: The White House admits there was a breakdown in security
China is now thought to possess detailed information on every nuclear warhead in the US arsenal and the neutron bomb.

Beijing could begin testing advanced thermonuclear weapons as early as this year and deploy them by the year 2002, says the report, released on Tuesday.

[ image:  ]
But despite high-level knowledge of the thefts, security at United States nuclear laboratories still "does not meet even minimal standards", it adds.

Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart said the White House did not agree with all of the findings, but most of the recommendations for improved security were "constructive".

The BBC's Duncan Hewitt in Beijing: Tensions look set to grow
The stolen information has allowed China to jump from 1950s to 1990s technology in a matter of years.

It says China intends to use the weapons to ''fulfil its international agenda'', including becoming the ''primary power in Asia''.

The theft "could have a significant effect on the regional balance of power, particularly with respect to Taiwan," it concludes, and the possibility of a US-China confrontation "cannot be dismissed".

Stolen information included details on:

  • US thermonuclear warheads, including the W-88 - the most sophisticated weapon the US has ever built.

  • An enhanced neutron bomb that has never been deployed by any country.

  • Developmental technology that could be used to attack US satellites and submarines.

The report adds that one submarine-based and two land-based weapon systems have the capability to reach the US mainland.

[ image: President Clinton says he was never told of the leaks]
President Clinton says he was never told of the leaks
Many analysts say the case appears to be the most serious breach of nuclear security since the Soviet Union stole atom bomb secrets in the 1940s.

Beijing primarily focused on Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, Oak Ridge and Sandia national laboratories.

China obtained the information using direct spying and "front companies" in the US, the report says.

The report also picks out two US companies - Loral and Hughes Aircraft - which went "outside the scope" of their export licences to provide China with information, helping to improve the reliability of nuclear missiles.

It says China may have set up around 3,000 "front companies" to act as conduits for technology.

The three-year investigation, led by Republican Congressman Christopher Cox, concludes that despite high-level knowledge of the leaks, little was done to tighten control.

Allegations 'groundless'

Beijing rejected the report as "groundless" and "highly exaggerated", even before its official publication. It accuses the US of faking information in order to damage China's credibility.

The BBC's Tom Carver: "A damning indictment of America's ability to protect her own secrets"
About a third of the report will remain classified, as the information is considered too sensitive for release.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson is expected to announce a series of disciplinary measures against staff within the next few days.

Political fallout

[ image: Submarine detection technology is also thought to be involved]
Submarine detection technology is also thought to be involved
There are growing calls for heads to roll, including that of Attorney General Janet Reno.

She is under fire for refusing to authorise FBI requests for a communications tap on Taiwanese-born scientist Wen Ho Lee.

Sacked from his position at the Los Alamos weapons research laboratory, he is suspected of passing nuclear secrets to Beijing, although he has not been charged with any crime.

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