U.S. spy reported possible theft of neutron bomb secrets by China in 1996
Whether espionage actually took place remains unclear
April 8, 1999
From Justice Department Correspondent Pierre Thomas
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. officials received a tip from a spy in 1996 that the Chinese government may have stolen secrets from the Lawrence Livermore nuclear laboratory, government sources have told CNN.
The sources say that if the tip was accurate, the information could have improved China's capability to build a neutron bomb. However, it remains unclear whether the espionage actually took place.
Sources also say that federal agencies have uncovered no evidence that China actually improved its neutron bomb capability, and the FBI has been unable to develop any suspects despite an investigation that has lasted more than two years.
"We can't rule out it happened, we can't rule out it did not happen," a senior law enforcement official told CNN.
A neutron bomb is a nuclear device that kills people while causing a limited amount of destruction to buildings. In 1988, China tested a neutron bomb that may have been built with information stolen from Livermore, according to allegations previously raised. But the test wasn't successful.
The spy was told that some Chinese officials claimed they were able to steal additional secrets from Livermore in 1995. Because the spy was considered reliable, and because of the previous allegations, the Department of Energy, the CIA and the FBI immediately began an intensive investigation.
National Security Adviser Samuel Berger and his staff were briefed at least twice about potential Chinese espionage at U.S. nuclear labs, beginning in 1996. However, significant security changes at the facilities did not begin until 1998, after an investigation of lax security at the Los Alamos lab in New Mexico. That probe led to the firing of one scientist.
But Clinton administration officials insist they have acted prudently.
"The president back in February 1998 ordered a systematic and comprehensive review of the labs, and we are implementing that in a determined way," said NSC spokesman David Leavy.
Sources have told CNN that one reason intelligence and law enforcement officials may not be able to develop any cases dealing with the alleged espionage is because security at the labs has been so weak.
Thousands of overseas scientists, including many from China, have visited the labs, even though a number of congressional internal reports have raised concerns about the security.
China: U.S. spying allegations are 'fallacy'
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