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Wednesday, May 26, 1999 Published at 00:37 GMT 01:37 UK

World: Americas

China stirs the Washingon blame game

The report's release followed months of wrangling

By Washington Correspondent Stephen Sackur

Not since Kenneth Starr wrote his epic report on sex and an alleged cover-up in the Clinton White House has Capitol Hill been so consumed with the publication of a single document.

The Cox Report on two decades of Chinese espionage is short on lurid detail, but its content is truly shocking. And of course this being Washington - where partisan politics is regarded as a spectator sport - the blame game has already begun.

Although China started to filch America's most valuable nuclear secrets in the late 70s - and arguably garnered its most valuable information during the Reagan-Bush years - it is the incumbent president and his most senior officials who now find themselves at the centre of the political storm.

Ammunition for partisans

This should come as no surprise to students of the relationship between the Republican-controlled Congress and President Clinton.

[ image: Christopher Cox: Spying is probably still going on]
Christopher Cox: Spying is probably still going on
Long before the Cox Report was made public - indeed while the impeachment saga was still being played out on Capitol Hill - senior Republicans were predicting that the Clinton administration would be blown apart by explosive revelations concerning China.

They pursued allegations of Chinese money funding the Clinton-Gore campaign effort in 1996.

They pointed to the close ties between the Democratic Party and the top bosses of the US companies accused of selling secrets to Beijing.

In short, the President's most die-hard opponents were suggesting that he had been bought by the Chinese Communists.

Report exception to partisan rule

To its credit, the Cox Report is free of that kind of strident partisanship.

The result of months of work from a bi-partisan House committee, it is based on fact (much of it still classified), rather than speculation and supposition.

When he presented the 700-page document to reporters, Congressman Cox commended his Democratic colleagues for their efforts.

The compliments were returned. By Congressional standards it was a striking display of cross-party civility.

But that does not mean that China's spying activities have been taken out of the political arena.

Lieutenants targeted

For the moment the most intense Republican fire is aimed, not directly at the president, but at two of his lieutenants.

The first target is the Attorney-General Janet Reno; accused of failing to respond to allegations of spying at the Los Alamos weapons laboratory.

In particular she is said to have bungled the FBI investigation into the suspicious activities of Wen Ho Lee, the nuclear scientist who downloaded some of America's most precious nuclear secrets onto his personal computer.

Also vulnerable is the president's loyal national security adviser Sandy Berger.

Mr Berger was first made aware of China's suspected spying in 1995, but he was unwilling to act, or galvanise his boss, because of his commitment to the Clinton administration's policy of "constructive engagement" with China.

A host of Republican politicians led by Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama has called for heads to roll, starting with Ms Reno; but the White House is standing by the Attorney General and has castigated the GOP for playing politics with issues of national security.

Timing is everything

The Democrats' most potent argument lies in the sheer scale and persistence of China's spying activities. How can all the blame be pinned on the Clinton administration when China was testing a 'neutron bomb' - based on a US design - back in 1988?

In politics timing is everything. China's espionage was uncovered on Bill Clinton's watch; in some ways he is the fall guy for years of complacency within the intelligence community.

Even more significant, Bill Clinton is identified with a strategic view of China which many Republicans find unprincipled and dangerous.

In his pursuit of engagement rather than isolation Mr Clinton may have been less than zealous in his response to first reports of China's spying activities.

Indeed as Congressman Cox claims, Los Alamos and other facilities may still be exposed to Beijing's prying eyes.

Not for the first time the Clinton White House is conducting a damage limitation exercise. Much is being made of the President's acceptance of at least 30 of the 38 recommendations listed by the Cox committee.

US policy for China?

But beefed up security inside America's nuclear labs and tighter trade restrictions will not resolve the central political dispute.

How does the US most effectively deal with China - a nation determined to modernise and expand its nuclear arsenal?

On that question the political debate will continue, fast and furious, right up to the next presidential election.

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