By JAMES RISEN and JEFF GERTH
Published: March 6, 1999
WASHINGTON, March 5— Working with nuclear secrets stolen from an American Government laboratory, China has made a leap in the development of nuclear weapons: the miniaturization of its bombs, according to Administration officials.
Until recently, China’s nuclear weapons designs were a generation behind those of the United States, largely because Beijing was unable to produce small warheads that could be launched from a single missile at multiple targets and form the backbone of a modern nuclear force.
But by the mid-1990’s, China had built and tested such small bombs, a breakthrough that officials say was accelerated by the theft of American nuclear secrets from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
The espionage is believed to have occurred in the mid-1980’s, officials said. But it was not detected until 1995, when Americans analyzing Chinese nuclear test results found similarities to America’s most advanced miniature warhead, the W-88.
By the next year, Government investigators had identified a suspect, an American scientist at Los Alamos laboratory, where the atomic bomb was developed. The investigators also concluded that Beijing was continuing to steal secrets from the Government’s major nuclear weapons laboratories, which had been increasingly opened to foreign visitors since the end of the cold war.
The White House was told of the full extent of China’s spying in the summer of 1997, just before the first American-Chinese summit meeting in eight years — a meeting intended to dramatize the success of President Clinton’s efforts to improve relations with Beijing.
White House officials say that they took the allegations seriously; as proof of this, they cite Mr. Clinton’s ordering the labs within six months to improve security.
But some American officials assert that the White House sought to minimize the espionage issue for policy reasons.
”This conflicted with their China policy,” said an American official, who like many others in this article spoke on condition of anonymity. ”It undercut the Administration’s efforts to have a strategic partnership with the Chinese.”