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Chinese Espionage Was a Reagan-Bush Scandal

By Robert Parry
February 16, 2001

As recently as Tuesday, in a televised infomercial for right-wing Judicial Watch, the charge resurfaced that the Clinton administration’s role in Chinese nuclear espionage had not been investigated fully.

This time, the claim came from onetime-leftist journalist Christopher Hitchens as he chewed over old “Clinton scandals” with Judicial Watch leader Larry Klayman. According to the Judicial Watch infomercial, the culprits who curtailed this investigation were Clinton sympathizers in the press.

Beyond helping Judicial Watch raise money, this recurring China allegation has become something of a touchstone for many conservatives -- as well as other Americans -- who believe that the Clinton administration somehow traded nuclear secrets to China for campaign donations in 1996 -- and got away with it.

Indeed, many American voters may have gone to the polls last November with concerns that Al Gore's 1996 visit to a Buddhist temple in California had some connection to the alleged loss of nuclear secrets from Los Alamos. Bush supporters certainly did all they could to leave that impression.

But as we have pointed out before, these allegations were based on bogus history and false logic. Indeed, the evidence always has pointed in a very different direction: that the alleged Chinese theft of secrets for building the miniaturized W-88 nuclear warhead occurred during the mid-1980s, under the watch of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

The key facts were these: A purported Chinese defector walked into U.S. government offices in Taiwan in 1995 and handed over Chinese documents indicating that Chinese intelligence apparently had stolen the secrets of the W-88 warhead “sometime between 1984 and 1992.” The Chinese then tested their miniaturized warhead in 1992 while the elder Bush was still president. Indeed, the suspicious trips that made Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee an espionage suspect occurred between 1986-88, while Reagan was president. 

Yet, these salient facts have never been highlighted in the national news media, which seemed to have become addicted to “Clinton scandals” by the time the possible W-88 espionage was revealed to the public in 1999.

New Corroboration

Somewhat correcting that media failure this month was a long retrospective on the Wen Ho Lee case by The New York Times, a newspaper whose early imprecise reporting had helped drive the "Chinagate" media stampede.

Over two days – Feb. 4 and 5 – the Times laid out the detailed chronology of events and confirmed that the suspected loss of the nuclear secrets dated back to the Reagan-Bush administration and to its cozy strategic relationship with communist China.

The Times noted that limited exchanges between the two countries’ nuclear scientists began after President Jimmy Carter officially recognized China in 1978. But those meetings grew far more expansive and less controlled during the 1980s.

“With the Reagan administration eager to isolate the Soviet Union, hundreds of scientists traveled between the United States and China, and the cooperation expanded to the development of torpedoes, artillery shells and jet fighters,” the Times reported. “The exchanges were spying opportunities as well.”

Oliver North's Gambit

The full story of the Republican-Chinese collaboration was even worse than the Times described. As we reported last September, Ronald Reagan's White House had decided to share sensitive national security secrets with the Chinese communists by 1984.

That year, Ronald Reagan’s White House turned to the Chinese because the U.S. Congress had banned U.S. military assistance to the Nicaraguan contra rebels. Despite that ban, the White House was determined to secure surface-to-air missiles that the contras could use to shoot down Soviet-made attack helicopters that had become an effective weapon in the Nicaraguan government’s arsenal.

Some of the private U.S. operatives working with White House aide Oliver North had  settled on China as a source for SA-7 missiles. In testimony at his 1989 Iran-contra trial, North called the securing of these weapons a “very sensitive delivery.”

For the Chinese missile deal in 1984, North said he received help from the CIA in arranging false end-user certificates from the right-wing government of Guatemala. North testified that he “had made arrangements with the Guatemalan government, using the people [CIA] director [William] Casey had given me.”

But China was opposed to the Guatemalan government, which was then engaged in a scorched-earth war against its own leftist guerrillas. China balked at selling missiles to the Guatemalan military.

To resolve this problem, the White House dispatched North to a clandestine meeting with a Chinese military official. The idea was to bring the Chinese communists in on what was then one of the most sensitive secrets of the U.S. government: the missiles were not going to Guatemala, but rather into a clandestine pipeline arranged by the White House to funnel military supplies to the contras in defiance of U.S. law.

This was a secret so sensitive that not even the U.S. Congress could be informed, but it was to be shared with communist China.

In fall 1984, North enlisted Gaston J. Sigur, the NSC’s expert on East Asia, to make the arrangements for a meeting with a communist Chinese representative, according to Sigur’s testimony at North’s 1989 trial. “I arranged a luncheon and brought together Colonel North and this individual from the Chinese embassy” responsible for military affairs, Sigur testified.

“At lunch, they sat and they discussed the situation in Central America,” Sigur said. “Colonel North raised the issue of the need for weaponry by the contras, and the possibility of a Chinese sale of weapons, either to the contras or, as I recall, I think it was more to countries in the region but clear for the use of the contras.”

North described the same meeting in his autobiography, Under Fire. To avoid coming under suspicion of being a Chinese spy, North said he first told the FBI that the meeting had been sanctioned by national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane. Then, North went ahead with the meeting to gain the help of communist China.

 “Back in Washington, I met with a Chinese military officer assigned to their embassy to encourage their cooperation,” North wrote. “We enjoyed a fine lunch at the exclusive Cosmos Club in downtown Washington.”

North said, in part, the Chinese communists saw the collaboration as a way to develop “better relations with the United States.” Possession of this knowledge – one of the Reagan administration’s most politically dangerous secrets – also put Beijing in position to leverage U.S. policy in the future.

It was in this climate of cooperation that other secrets, including how to make miniaturized hydrogen bombs, allegedly reached communist China.

page 2: Enter Wen Ho Lee