Politics and Proliferation:

Analysis and Summary of the Cox
Committee Report and the Allegations of
Chinese Nuclear Espionage

By Anjali Bhattacharjee
BASIC Research Associate
June 1999

Table of Contents:

I. Introduction

II. The Investigation and the Events leading up to it

III. Discuss fundamental findings:

IV. Comments, Criticisms, and Consequences

V. Recommendations

VI. Endnotes

1. Introduction

On 25th May 1999 the U.S. House of Representatives' Select Committee on US National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the Peoples Republic of China released its long awaited report that exploded onto the political scene, creating furor among the general public and media pundits alike. The Select Committee's report (commonly referred to as the Cox Report) concluded that, inter alia, China had deliberately used an elaborate system of espionage and technology exchanges to modernize its existing nuclear weapons capabilities. It accused the PRC of stealing sensitive data on seven specific U.S. thermonuclear warheads and classified information for an enhanced radiation weapon. The following report summarizes events that lead up to the formation of the select committee, its findings, and how these conclusions have affected policies and safety measures at U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories.

II. The Investigation and the Events leading up to it

The Select Committee, consisting of nine members--four democrats and five republicans, was led by Representative Christopher Cox (R-Ca), was never really formed for the sole purpose of exposing nuclear leaks from the national weapons laboratories. In fact, its original task was to unearth probable offenses against the Clinton Administration for easing export controls in its commercial relations with China.1 However, while questioning Donald H. Rumsfeld, a former Defense Secretary, the committee stumbled upon the topic of the modernization of Chinese nuclear weapons program. Although Mr. Rumsfeld did not answer the committee due to the high level of classification surrounding the subject, the committee approached the CIA looking for answers.2 In doing so, the committee apparently discovered evidence implicating the Chinese in a comprehensive system of espionage and found an appalling lack of security at U.S. weapons labs.

III. Fundamental findings of the Select Committee

Weapons leakage (including warhead information, legacy codes, and neutron bomb)

According to an internal Department of Energy review, security was especially found to be particularly below par at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.3 Among the official findings, the Cox committee resolved that:4

  • The People's Republic of China (PRC) has stolen design information on the United States' most advanced thermonuclear weapons.
  • The PRC has stolen or otherwise illegally obtained US missile and space technology that improves the PRC's military and intelligence capabilities.
  • United States and international and domestic policies and practices have facilitated the PRC's efforts to obtain militarily useful technology.
  • The PRC seeks advanced U.S. military technology to achieve its long-term goals.

Despite all the reports it is still not clear how much information was accrued by the Chinese government and what are the long-term consequences for the United States from a security stand point. The Cox Committee believes that the 'thefts' are not a recent occurrence and date as far back as the late 1970's when the PRC acquired information on the W-70 warhead.5 It was not until 1995 that officials realized the extent of the damage. According to the Cox Committee's report, a Chinese individual approached the CIA and handed agents classified documents from the PRC that outlined illegally acquired design information on at least seven U.S. nuclear warheads including:

  • W-88 Trident D-5 SLBM
  • W-87 Peacekeeper ICBM
  • W-78 Minuteman III ICBM
  • W-76 Trident C-4 SLBM
  • W-70 Lance SRBM
  • W-62 Minuteman III ICBM
  • W-56 Minuteman II ICBM

Apparently using certain elements derived from the W-70 warhead one can create an enhanced radiation weapon (known commonly as the neutron bomb). Such a weapon was tested by the Chinese in the 1980's. Although that particular test proved unsuccessful, the PRC national implied that his/her government had sent agents back to the United States in order to steal further information that would help resolve the problem. This time they were successful.6 The Cox Committee also stated that the stolen technology is used in guidance systems of fighter jets such as the F-14, F-15, and F-117. The guidance technology is particularly useful to the short range CSS-6 missile that the Chinese test fired over the strait of Taiwan in 1996.7 Interestingly, it must be noted that it was later discovered in 1996 that this particular individual was still working under the auspices of a Chinese intelligence agency. The message being delivered (if in fact there was one) is yet to be deciphered.8

Eventually the investigators working for the FBI and the DOE honed in on one particular individual who appeared to be the chief suspect in both the W-88 and the other thefts. The man was Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese born U.S. citizen who had worked for the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) since 1978.9 Officials found out that Mr. Lee, who held a distinguished position at LANL, had traveled to China on two separate occasions for scientific conferences and had also attended a highly classified meeting that reviewed and talked about the design flaws in the original neutron bomb. At this point, the authorities are highly criticized for not having taken immediate actions. Although officials were notified about Mr. Lee in 1996 he was not fired until March 8, 1999. In fact, not only did he maintain his top-security clearance but he was also assigned to a new position at LANL that involved updating legacy codes for five nuclear warheads.10

The 'legacy' (also referred to as the Langrarian codes) codes are basically the blueprints of the warheads in the existing defense arsenal. They are made up of data that is used to design the weapons and appraise test results and safety features. Another feature of the codes is their use in the creation of a nuclear weapons design via the process of computer simulation. However, when allied with particular information regarding performance data of nuclear tests, the legacy codes can help assemble the design of a U.S. warhead.11 "These codes embody a lot of knowledge gleaned from testing," said Matthew McKinzie of the National Resources Defense Council, "The US has conducted over 1000 tests; the Chinese have only conducted 45. There's knowledge there. The US weapons program is much larger in scale."12

It has been determined by experts that due to a lack of extensive testing and a declared moratorium on future testing of nuclear weapons China would be especially interested in gaining information about the upkeep of nuclear weapons, commonly known as 'stockpile stewardship.' Upon the course of their investigation, the FBI determined that around 1994-95 Wen Ho Lee had (using his high security clearances) downloaded the legacy codes along with data for certain warheads from the restricted computer system at the national laboratory. The information was then concealed under different file names on an open and easily accessed network.13 It could be possible to simply attach these files to e-mails and transmit them among the thousands that are sent daily from LANL. Officials have either yet to determine if this was the case or the conclusion was not published in the Cox Committee report due to national security concerns.

Controversy over HPC and Hughes-Loral dilemma

According to the Select Committee's final report, this particular incident at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico was not the only time U.S. security was jeopardized resulting in an information leak that helped the PRC modernize its nuclear program. The fact that PRC is a known proliferator of weapons and weapon systems to states such as Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, Syria and Libya is of particular concern as well.14 The report also denounces China for having illegally acquired information regarding satellite technology from U.S. based firms and believes it uses U.S. exported High Performance Computers (HPC's) to process operations involving nuclear weapons.15

Upon the failure of several satellites' launches in the early and mid 1990's, satellite manufacturers Hughes Space and Communications International Inc. and Loral Space & Communications Ltd. knowingly ceded information to the PRC without procuring licenses required under the law.16 Over the years, since its missile program began, the PRC has benefited greatly from several foreign countries that have provided technology as well as certain information. However, when the Long March rockets experienced launch failures, their manufacturers Hughes and Loral organized reviews and provided recommendations (on data pertaining to missile design, testing procedures, design analysis, etc.) without obtaining export licenses from the State Department.17 The Cox Committee further published in its report that these Long March rockets serve both commercial as well as military uses. It's military uses are listed as:

  • Military communications and reconnaissance satellites

  • Space based sensors

  • Space based weapons

  • Satellite for modern command and control and sophisticated intelligence collection

IV. Comments, Criticisms, and Consequences

Although the incident involves a serious breach of national security, experts warn against unnecessary panic. It still remains equivocal just how much the Chinese know and to what extent that information compromises the U.S. defenses. Monte Bullard, a former military attaché to the US embassy in Beijing was quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer as saying, "I assume they've been able to close the gap (with the U.S.) a little bit but we haven't exactly been standing still."18 The country still remains way behind the United States in its nuclear weapons capability. A report released by the CIA stated that "to date aggressive Chinese collection effort has not resulted in any apparent modernization of their deployed strategic force or any new nuclear weapons deployment."19 The fact that Sino-American relations have improved considerably over the past twenty years and the likelihood of a nuclear war is extremely remote. Moreover, the Chinese nuclear arsenal consists of merely 400 weapons compared to nearly 12,000 nuclear weapons located in the U.S. stockpile.20

However, not everyone is so relaxed. The security, or rather lack of security, at the national laboratories is ridiculed and calls to strengthen it are being echoed widely. Those supporting the current administration, while calling for reforms, have steadfastly stated that the espionage started way before President Clinton took office. However, critics state that strong enough measures were not placed until it was too late; some have even gone as far as to call for the resignation of Bill Richardson, Secretary of the Energy Department and Janet Reno, U.S. Attorney General.

The Cox Report itself has not come out of the whole process untarnished. Many doubt its credibility and warn against drawing hasty conclusions that would damage Sino-American alliances. Experts believe it is quite unwise to focus exclusively on China and, in doing so, isolate the state with which it has taken so long to develop amicable relations. Tensions that developed in the aftermath of the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade have further complicated relations. Former CIA director Stansfield Turner said, "I think it's becoming too much of a political football with very important relationships at stake… Unfortunately people can gain political advantage in our political process by doing so."21 An ABC news report listed several errors that occur in the report. Background information on Mr. Qian Xuesen (cited in the report for having stolen classified information before fleeing to China) and the work he did proved inconsistent in reference to the Titan missile program. Certain figures about payload information and dates of Chinese satellite launches have also been shown listed incorrectly on the Cox Report. Although no significant damage or error was deduced, it was mentioned whether such mistakes affected some of the Committee's conclusions.22

The Chinese official reaction was one of outrage as well, but this one was being directed towards the Cox committee and its findings. It stated that references made to the PRC's elaborate intelligence gathering network. It found the notion that all Chinese that came to the United States are under orders to gather data to be absolutely unfounded and "absurd."23 Mr. Yu Shuning, Minister Counselor (Press) also remarked in his official statement that China was a "peace-loving" country sought to develop its nuclear program in adherence to existing nonproliferation regimes in order to enhance the livelihood of its populace. It by no means poses a threat to another state.24

"This is a great slander against the Chinese nation and is typical racial prejudice," said Zhao Qizheng, the State Council spokesman.25 On May 31 1999, professional Web surfer Fan Nan downloaded technical nuclear weapons information from the Internet. This demonstration was an effort to prove that the Chinese government did not really need to resort to espionage in order to gain sophisticated information about American warheads.26 Mr. Fang's main source of information was the web page of the Federation of American Scientists, an American organization that deals with issues such as nuclear proliferation. However, Charles Ferguson, a senior research analyst for FAS claimed that there is plenty of difference between what is published on their Website and what the U.S. government classifies as top secret.27

The Cox Committee, meanwhile, concluded its report by making thirty-eight recommendations that, it believes, need to be enforced in order to ensure security for American nuclear weapons program. On June 9th 1999, the House unanimously voted 428-0 for the adoption of a measure that would implement these thirty-eight recommendations.

In February 1998, President Bill Clinton issued Presidential Decision Directive 61 (PDD-61) which addressed the problem that has been existing at the national nuclear weapons labs. Under the auspices of the Department of Energy, the PDD-1 calls for:28

  • hiring counterintelligence professionals to be based at weapons labs
  • doubling the budget for counterintelligence
  • changing the screening and the approval process for foreign visits
  • instituting more extensive security reviews (including the use of polygraphs) for DOE scientists working in sensitive programs.

On May 25th 1999 the administration responded to the Cox Committee findings through a Press Release. Among other things, the statement agreed for the need for heightened security and assured that steps were being taken to prevent such incidents from reoccurring. The White House requested a bipartisan Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board lead by Senator Warren Rudman to appraise security at U.S. national weapons laboratories. However, the White House disagreed with the Select Committee's recommendation to revive COCOM; instead it believes proper measures to strengthen the Waasenaar Agreement should be undertaken.

V. Recommendations

Although the allegations of espionage and investigations into such allegations started many years ago, public information is still very limited. Many parts of the Cox Committee Report were censored due to national security concerns and it appears that there is a lot more to be learnt.

The real danger revealed by the Cox report, although ignored by its author, is that of the proliferation of nuclear weapons and of the means of delivery of nuclear weapons. The United States and other nuclear weapon states have a special responsibility to safeguard the information concerning these matters under their control, and to prevent proliferation of such information. The US has conspicuously failed to do so over a long period of time. China is a known proliferator of nuclear weapons technology, and of missile technologies. The US has unwittingly contributed to China's technological base, and to the technology it is able to sell on to others. The world is, in some unknown measure, a less safe place because of American carelessness.

However, while the US and other nuclear weapon states continue to refuse to live up to their obligation to dismantle their nuclear arsenals under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and while they place a high political and strategic value on nuclear weapons, attempts at espionage and proliferation will continue. Other states will continue to seek these technologies. Inevitably, some information will leak out.

In the short term, the only solution is the strengthening of non-proliferation regimes under the NPT, IAEA safeguards, the Wassenaar Arrangement and others. In the long term, the only possible solution is for nuclear weapons states to take their obligations to Article VI of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) seriously and to conclude complete nuclear disarmament.

Unfortunately, there has been little attempt by critics of the current administration to seriously react to the Cox report. Many have taken this particular incident and purposely turned it into a political opportunity to gain the upper hand while the issue remains at large. Without thorough examination of the allegations and the review itself, political opportunists are blindly calling for resignations and demanding immediate responses to actions that are still undermined. Yet another fact worth remarking upon is the fact that even if the United States is facing the worst case scenario, i.e. actual nuclear warhead design information in Chinese hands, as it is already noted it outnumbers the PRC's nuclear arsenal by a vast aggregate. The US strategic arsenal contains some 6000 warheads, the Chinese one somewhere around 20. Those who have sought to use the report to justify spending trillions of dollars on deploying the National Missile Defense (based on unproven, indeed possibly unprovable technologies) are simply looking for domestic political advantage in the run-up to a Presidential election year.

At the same time these allegations of nuclear espionage have in one way or another seriously hindered the--already strained--U.S. relations with China and it would take some serious diplomatic undertakings from both sides to undo the damage. From a domestic standpoint, efforts need to be taken that such incidents don't prove any anti-Chinese sentiments. Such xenophobic tendencies may well escalate into questioning allegiances of patriotic U.S. citizens who happen to have an ethnic Chinese background. In a speech before the Asian Pacific American group, Secretary Bill Richardson addressed this problem while saying, "Chinese scientists have made important contributions to U.S. programs … and those who have questioned the patriotism of Asian Pacific Americans are also sowing seeds of a darker xenophobia."29 He continued by stating that the U.S. government by no means plans to single out ethnic Chinese during the course of their investigations. "The individual in question was an American citizen and an employee of the Lab."30 Eventually, a lot depends upon the foreign policy the United States chooses to adopt toward the People's Republic of China. Based on its decision the U.S. could either engage this Eastern super power into a serious alliance based on commerce and technology or it could choose to cool relations and force the PRC withdraw into slow and reincarnate the vestiges of the Cold War.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Martin Butcher for his comments on drafts of this paper and all his help.


1 Jeff Gerth and Tim Weiner, "Tracking The Suspicions Of China's Nuclear Spying," New York Times, 23 May 1999, pg.1.

.2 Ibid.

3 James Risen, "Computer Work Is Halted At Nuclear Weapons Labs," New York Times, 7 April 1999, pg.1.

4 Official Report of the United States House of Representatives Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People's Republic of China. Released 25 May 1999. Available on the Internet at http://hillsource.house.gov/CoxReport/

5 Ibid.

6 Jeff Gerth and James Risen, "Intelligence Report Points To Second China Nuclear Leak," New York Times, 8 April 1999, pg. 1.

7 Juliet Eilperin and Vernon Loeb, "Panel Says Chinese Arms Used U.S. Data," Washington Post, 25 May 1999 pg.1

8 Tim Weiner, "Nuclear Thriller With Ending As Yet Unwritten," New York Times, 25 May 1999.

9 James Risen and Jeff Gerth, "U.S. Says Suspect Put Data On Bombs In Unsecure Files," New York Times, 28 April 1999, pg.1.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Linda Feldman, "What Cost Theft OF US Secrets?" Christian Science Monitor, 3 May 1999, pg.1.

13 James Risen and Jeff Gerth, "U.S. Says Suspect Put Data On Bombs In Unsecure Files," New York Times, 28 April 1999, pg.1

14 Official Report of the United States House of Representatives Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People's Republic of China. Released 25 May 1999. Available on the Internet at http://hillsource.house.gov/CoxReport/

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Steve Goldstein, "Experts Say China's Gain Are Political, Not Military," Philadelphia Inquirer, 26 May 1999, pg.1.

19 CIA Press Release, "Key Findings: The Intelligence Community Damage Assessment on the Implications of China's Acquisition of US Nuclear Weapons Information on the Development of Future Chinese Weapons," Available on the Internet at http://www.odci.gov/cia/public_affairs/press_release/0421kf.html

20 "Report: Taking Stock, Worldwide Nuclear Deployments 1998," Natural Resources Defense Council, Available on the Internet at http://www.nrdc.org/nrdc/nrdcpro/tkstock/tssum.html

21 James N. Thurman, "Spying On America: It's a Growth Industry," Christian Science Monitor, 23 March 1999, pg. 1.

22 James Oberg, "Errors Mark the Cox Report," ABCNEWS.com, 3 June 1999, available on the internet at http://www.abcnews.go.com/sections/science/DailyNews/oberg990602.html

23 Yu Shuning, Minister-Counselor (Press), The Embassy of the People's Republic of China, Washington, "The Chinese Embassy Responds," Washington Post, 30 May 1999, pg.B6.

24 Ibid.

25 Matt Forney, "China Blasts Cox Report As 'Prejudice,' Suggests Data Are Available On Internet," Wall Street Journal, 1 June 1999.

26 Michael Laris, "Chinese Surfer Downloads U.S. Nuclear Data," Washington Post, 1 June 1999, pg.10.

27 Ibid.

28 Presidential Decision Directives and Executive Orders, PDD/NSC 61 Energy Department Counterintelligence, February 1998, available on the Internet at http://www.fas.org/irp/offdos/pdd-tscm.htm

29 "Secretary addresses espionage allegations, ethnic concerns," DOE This Month, May 1999.

30 Ibid


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