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Congressional Research Service, “China: Suspected Acquisition of U.S. Nuclear Weapon Secrets,” February 1, 2006

This report was written by Shirley A. Kan.
February 1, 2006


This CRS Report discusses China’s suspected acquisition of U.S. nuclear weapon secrets, including that on the W88, the newest U.S. nuclear warhead. This serious controversy became public in early 1999 and raised policy issues about whether U.S. security was further threatened by China’s suspected use of U.S. nuclear weapon secrets in its development of nuclear forces, as well as whether the Administration’s response to the security problems was effective or mishandled and whether it fairly used or abused its investigative and prosecuting authority. The Clinton Administration acknowledged that improved security was needed at the weapons labs but said that it took actions in response to indications in 1995 that China may have obtained U.S. nuclear weapon secrets. Critics in Congress and elsewhere argued that the dministration was slow to respond to security concerns, mishandled the too narrow investigation, downplayed information potentially unfavorable to China and the labs, and failed to notify Congress fully.

On April 7, 1999, President Clinton gave his assurance that partly “because of our engagement, China has, at best, only marginally increased its deployed nuclear threat in the last 15 years” and that the strategic balance with China “remains overwhelmingly in our favor.” On April 21, 1999, Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) George Tenet, reported the Intelligence Community’s damage assessment. It confirmed that “China obtained by espionage classified U.S. nuclear weapons information that probably accelerated its program to develop future nuclear weapons.” It also revealed that China obtained information on “several” U.S. nuclear reentry vehicles, including the Trident II submarine-launched missile that delivers the W88 nuclear warhead as well as “a variety of” design concepts and weaponization features, including those of the neutron bomb.

On May 25, 1999, the House’s Cox Committee reported that China stole classified information on the W88 and six other U.S. nuclear warheads. On June 15, 1999, the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) called the Department of Energy a “dysfunctional bureaucracy” and urged the creation of a semi-autonomous or independent agency to oversee nuclear weapons. In September 1999, Congress passed the FY2000 National Defense Authorization Act to create a National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) within DOE on March 1, 2000.

As one result of the W-88 case, the FBI investigated a Taiwan-born U.S. scientist at the Los Alamos lab, Wen Ho Lee. He was never charged with espionage. In December 1999, the Justice Department indicted Lee on 59 felony counts for mishandling nuclear weapons information (not classified at the time). Lee was jailed without bail until a plea agreement on September 13, 2000, when he pleaded guilty to one count of mishandling national defense information (for making copies of his computer files). The judge apologized to Lee. Meanwhile, in April 1999, the FBI expanded its counterintelligence investigation beyond the focus on Los Alamos, and in 2000, the probe shifted to missile secrets and to the Defense Department. In April 2003, an ex-FBI agent, James Smith, and his informant, Katrina Leung, were arrested for allegedly mishandling national defense information related to China.

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Click here for a listing of reports released by the Congressional Research Service.