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Tuesday, May 25, 1999 Published at 08:55 GMT 09:55 UK

World: Americas

China N-bombs 'to match US'

Los Alamos is the centre of US nuclear weapons development

China is able to build advanced nuclear weapons to US standards after two decades of espionage, according to a leaked congressional report.

Sections of the report leaked to the AP news agency say China may be able to start testing one weapon as early as this year.

The BBC's Tom Carver: "A damning indictment of America's ability to protect her own secrets"
The leaked report says: "Thefts of nuclear secrets from our national weapons laboratories enabled China to design, develop and successfully test modern strategic weapons sooner than would otherwise have been possible." The new Chinese weapons are likely to be "on a par with our own".

According to AP, the report says:

  • China obtained nuclear secrets, about two warheads, that will allow it to speed up its weapon modernisation programme.
  • Two US companies - Loral and Hughes Aircraft - went "outside the scope" of their export licences to provide China with information that will help improve the reliability of nuclear missiles.
  • Chinese espionage at nuclear laboratories led to the loss of electronic guidance and submarine detection technology.

The leaked report, written by a House select committee, says the Chinese spy network may have set up as many as 3,000 'front companies', to penetrate civilian technology centres.

According to AP, the report says: "With the stolen nuclear secrets, China has leaped, in a handful of years, from 1950s-era strategic nuclear capabilities to the more modern nuclear designs."

Washington Correspondent Tom Carver: "Findings have bi-partisan backing"
Classified information on seven US nuclear warheads and design information for the neutron bomb were among the stolen information, the report said.

The report's authors say China is expected to "exploit elements of the stolen design information" when it introduces its next generation of nuclear weapons.

The BBC's Duncan Hewitt: "Tensions look set to grow"
The leaked report says China has two land-based and one submarine-based mobile nuclear weapon in development that "will be able to strike the US".

In the words of the report: "The first of these new mobile [weapons] may be tested in 1999 and could be deployed as soon as 2002."

Political pressure

In the days before the official release of the report on Tuesday, pressure has mounted in Washington for resignations among President Bill Clinton's most senior officials.

An increasing body of cross-party opinion feels that examples must be made if it is found that there was prior knowledge of a breach of security.

First in the firing line is Attorney General Janet Reno, who came under pressure from senior Republicans to resign over her department's "indefensible" handling of the espionage allegations.

"I believe the attorney general ought to resign, and she ought to take her top lieutenants with her," Sen Richard Shelby, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CBS' Face the Nation.

[ image: Wen Ho Lee denies the charges]
Wen Ho Lee denies the charges
Ms Reno and the Justice Department as a whole have been criticised for repeatedly refusing FBI requests to tap communications made by Wen Ho Lee, a scientist employed at the Los Alamos weapons laboratory.

Mr Lee is suspected of passing high-level nuclear secrets to China, although he has not been charged with any crime.

Justice Department officials say the evidence against Mr Lee, an American citizen of Taiwanese descent, was not firm enough at the time to justify approving the tap.

Chinese denials

China has repeatedly denied obtaining US secrets. It says the charges are the latest example of rising anti-China propaganda among American politicians.

But Representative Christopher Cox, who chaired the committee that produced the report, says the evidence shows spying is still going on.

The potential scandal deepened on Sunday when a senior government official, Notra Trulock, said he had informed the White House three years ago that he was convinced China had spied on American nuclear facilities.

Earlier this year, Mr Clinton said that during his time in office no one had told him of suspected espionage at American weapons laboratories.

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