The skeleton in the GOP's China closet

The GOP's spy scandal: How the Los Alamos-China connection occurred on Bush/Reagan's watch.

Published March 23, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Despite all their professed outrage, many Republicans seem oddly delighted by the recent revelation that China may now be able to arm its missiles with smaller nuclear warheads on multiple re-entry vehicles. Perhaps conservatives feel they have finally discovered a suitably scary substitute for Soviet communism, the defunct threat that used to give unity and coherence to their own movement. Just the other day, the Washington Times -- a daily compendium of right-wing propaganda subsidized by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, also known as the Messiah -- published a drooling front-page story comparing the current "Chinese espionage scandal" with the capture and trial of the Rosenberg Soviet spy ring in the 1950s.

Bursting their bubble may be dirty work, but somebody has to do it, because playing with this fire could leave the right-wingers scorched worse than their liberal enemies. Not only did the alleged theft of nuclear secrets by China occur on their watch, during the Reagan and Bush administrations, but there is a likelihood that the security breaches at Los Alamos and the other national laboratories were made worse by one of the right's favorite public policies: privatization.

First, however, let's dispense with the righteous nonsense about freezing relations with China because their spies may have spied on us. If the United States used espionage as the chief criterion for judging allies and enemies, we would have few allies bigger than Burkina Faso and all too many enemies. And if other countries applied the same ludicrous test to their relations with the United States, we would have no allies and countless enemies.

As everyone who can read should know by now, we spy incessantly on friendly governments and hostile regimes alike, employing the largest, most technologically sophisticated and expensive espionage apparatus the world has ever seen. Our closest allies spy on us in return, and rather than cut off relations, we share intelligence data with them and send billions of dollars in annual aid. When Jonathan Pollard was caught selling U.S. military secrets to Israel, he was sent to prison for life -- and relations with his spymasters went on undisturbed. It is safe to assume that our friends from Paris, Moscow, Berlin and even London gather intelligence about our statecraft and defense whenever their own national interests are implicated.

That doesn't mean the Clinton administration's policy of engagement with China is necessarily wise or moral. Having covered the Tienanmen Square massacre and its aftermath in Beijing almost 10 years ago, I regard the dictatorship there with revulsion and deep suspicion. Back when the president first announced his turnabout on trading with China in 1994, I complained that he had buckled to the business-dominated China lobby and given comfort to the aging oppressors of democratic Chinese youth. But the debate over how to cope with the world's biggest nation, with its human rights abuses and military adventurism, has little to do with whether the Chinese spy on us. They do -- and we spy on them, as we have done for a half century. Otherwise how would we know anything about their nuclear arsenal?

Such routine espionage and other unpleasant facts of international life were well-known to the policymakers of the Bush and Reagan administrations when they pursued their own engagement with Beijing. They may affect shock now, but that is merely politics. So is the insinuation that China-linked campaign contributions somehow affected national security decisionmaking in the Clinton White House. Although the conservative critics don't come right out and say so, what they would like the public to believe is that Chinese spymasters paid off the Democrats to allow leakage of classified information. That would be treason, of course.

But if such ugly accusations are going to be smeared around for political gain, there are alternative scenarios that are equally nasty and just as plausible (or implausible). With a little imagination, the case can be made that it was the Republicans, not the Democrats, who sold out American security to China.

Dire warnings about inadequate security at Los Alamos and the other national laboratories date back to the Reagan era. In 1986, officials at the Department of Energy shut down a wide-ranging, nine-month probe of narcotics trafficking at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near San Francisco because they feared bad publicity about the lab. Officials said they were still pursuing leads on 127 suspects among the lab's 8,500 employees -- many of them working on missile defense and other supersecret programs -- when they were ordered to abandon the investigation.

Instead of placing stricter controls on access to the national laboratories, however, the Reagan administration issued an executive order in 1987 that loosened controls so that scientific advances could be more easily commercialized by the private sector. That order also gave freer entry to foreign citizens and corporations. Then in 1988 an alarm arose from within the government: The General Accounting Office reported to Congress that security procedures to protect sensitive data at the national labs were fearfully lax, and needed immediate improvement.

According to Rep. Floyd Spence, R-S.C., the chairman of the House National Security Committee, not much was done in response to that report over the past decade -- a period that of course includes the entire Bush administration. So perhaps the most pertinent question is why didn't the tough weenies in the Bush White House tighten security against spies seeking nuclear secrets?

The logical answer is bureaucratic inertia and incompetence, the usual suspects. Former Bush administration officials have claimed in recent days that they didn't even know about the GAO report when it was issued, a poor testament to their self-proclaimed brilliance in the field of national security. But if we adopted a more suspicious attitude, like the Republicans now direct toward the Clinton White House, we might have to consider the broader context of Republican and conservative dealings with the Chinese.
We might, for instance, recall that during those years of alleged Chinese spying and inept American security, the president's brother Prescott Bush was earning a fortune in commercial ventures in China. The same could be said of Henry Kissinger, and later of President Bush's national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, who joined Kissinger's firm when he left the White House. Scandalously soft in its initial response to the Tienanmen atrocity, the Bush administration harbored many Republican statesmen who cashed in on U.S. ties with Beijing.

Obviously, to draw any inferences connecting Republican boodling in China with that regime's apparently easy access to American secrets would be terribly unfair. But no more so than Republican attempts to connect security breaches in the Clinton administration with alleged Chinese contributions to the Democrats. Before they start hurling accusations about China policy, the Republicans ought to examine their own culpability more closely. The first victim of hysterical overreaction to the latest headlines could be their own front-running presidential candidate, George W. Bush, heir to his father's soft-on-China legacy.

The real problem at the national laboratories may lie in a Republican policy that the Democrats have too willingly endorsed. When Congress gets around to investigating security issues at Los Alamos and the other labs, its findings could be quite disturbing to conservative ideologues -- because responsibility for maintaining secrecy at those institutions began to be privatized during the Reagan era.

At Los Alamos, says spokesman John Gustafson, the armed guards who work
directly for the Atomic Energy Commission and then the Department of Energy
have been provided by a private firm since the early years of the Reagan
administration. In 1996, a similar policy pursued by the Clinton
administration contracted out routine daily security
tasks within the lab facilities to another company.

If Rep. Spence is to be believed, privatized security at the national labs has failed badly. The efficiencies of the private sector may have saved a few dollars, but at what greater price? How ironic it would be to learn that Washington's free-marketeers -- those most ardent anti-communists -- have unwittingly aided Chinese Communist spies by allowing their ideology to compromise the national interest.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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