Cox Commission:
Assuming the Worst
Jude Wanniski
May 25, 1999


There is no conclusive evidence of spying presented in the Cox Commission report on "U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People's Republic of China." The three-volume report flatly states throughout that the PRC "stole" from the United States, but the evidence to back up the findings all rests on a worst-case scenario that strains credibility. In fact, it refrains from even mentioning in the 'redacted' version the 'evidence' upon which the 'worst case scenario' is based. It requires us to assume that a Chinese-American computer scientist who had access to files that would be extremely useful to China, if it wished to embark on a new weapons-development program, actually had ‘stolen'and transmitted those files to the PRC. The scientist, Wen Ho Lee, was fired in March from the job he held at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico for 17 years, by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, when the NYTimes reported that Lee was suspected of espionage. Lee says he did no such thing and the FBI says it has no evidence he did. From the earliest point in this unfolding story, I've had it vetted on a daily basis by an expert -- a Ph.D. physicist involved in nuclear weapon development as a young man, and who worked at high levels of our government. I've used his expertise for this purpose in recent years when political debates arise that involve technical matters outside my competence. In covering the ABM debate for Dow Jones in 1969, I learned that politicians will use highly complex technical issues that they themselves do not understand to scare the public into supporting projects that might be viable, but might not.

In this case, there is almost nothing to be "scared" about vis-a-vis China. I have great concern, though, that the unintended side effect of the Cox Commission report will be a congressional reign of terror at the national labs that will disrupt their work in managing Russia's stockpile of 30,000 nuclear warheads. The PRC by comparison has 23 ancient warheads that might threaten us but are in mothballs. The CIA has disputed the Cox Commission's findings, which are based on an assumption by the Energy Department's intelligence chief from 1994-1998, Natra Trulock, that the secrets went out the door. His successor, Edward Curran, last week told a Senate committee: "There is no information that we have to say, ‘This information is in their hands.'" Nor does Trulock have the support of the CIA, which can't make the leap to a worst-case scenario from its own sources of intelligence. If they have what they have, we know at least that they have not developed any weapons from that knowledge.

What would they have if they got what the "unredacted" Cox Commission seems to think they got? They would have "Legacy Files" that would help them develop weapons in the future without having to test them. The PRC tested its last device in an underground blast two years ago. The Cox Commission believes it was an advanced W-88 warhead. My expert source not only persuaded me that it would be almost impossible for the labs to tell anything about the PRC warhead but its yield. He also explained that there was nothing revolutionary or miniaturized about this W-88, as has been widely reported. It is the same size as a much older W-70 warhead. This was the original reason for suspecting Lee, since the W-88 came out of Los Alamos. Now the story has shifted to another weapon, the W-87, which was developed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a division of the University of California at Berkeley. (Remember that none of the scientists at the labs work for the government. They work for private contractors to the government.) If Lee wasn't connected to W-87, which did not come out of his lab, what was he doing with the Legacy files on his computer? Here is how my source has pieced together what has happened:

In 1993, the labs decided that because we had halted underground tests, institutional memory was beginning to fade as the old designers retired. A project was undertaken to pull out of the archives all material relevant to the design of seven old weapons systems, which were tested underground. This information would be translated from the many codes and computer languages that separated them. This "legacy" would be so that future physicists would be able to draw upon that knowledge in designing a new weapon -- which could not be tested underground because of the agreement to which we and the PRC now adhere. This would explain Lee's work at his computer station on supersecret data. It would also mean, of course, that perhaps several dozen people had the same data on their local networks, and that as many as 1000 people would be able to tap into the files as they were being compiled. It is of course prudent for security people to now assume that Lee, or any of a thousand other people who had access to the Legacy files, did in fact find a way to transmit them to the PRC. It would be imprudent, though, to base national policy on a worst-case scenario that seems so feeble when we get to the bottom line. There certainly does not seem to be reason to now demand the resignation of Attorney General Janet Reno, whom Sen. Bob Torricelli now accuses of dereliction for refusing to wiretap Lee when asked to do so by Trulock.

In following this story with my physicist friend, I have also learned that a great many "secrets" in our national labs involving weapons systems were made available to the general public in 1994, by then Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary.  The Commission, named for chairman Rep. Chris Cox [R-CA], goes as far as to accuse the Chinese of "stealing" material from these PUBLIC archives -- which is the equivalent of Republicans accusing the Democrats of "stealing" their issues. What the PRC has gotten from us that we know about for sure has been purchased from us, and that is what the GOP will make the most fuss about as 19 different committees jump on this political bandwagon. This is more old hat, resulting from the inevitable decision to permit U.S. telecom firms to use Chinese launches for their satellites -- or have this business grabbed by other countries. In this case, Loral/Hughes gave the PRC launch company some helpful hints on how not to blow up a rocket with one of their satellites perched on it as payload. Nothing wrong with that. We're friends with China, no? The Cox Committee asserts: "The PRC intelligence collection program included espionage, review of unclassified publications, and extensive interactions with scientists from the Department of Energy's national weapons laboratories."

Hey! Because we are friends with China, the Clinton Administration encouraged the labs to institute with the PRC a Lab-to-Lab program, modeled on the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici U.S.-Russian cooperative nuclear threat reduction programs. This, despite Congressional objections. In other words, our exchange with Moscow was working so well, the President decided to instruct the labs to be nice to the Chinese too. This is how we find out what they are up to, to make sure their ancient warheads remain in mothballs. Instead, Congress will now make sure we isolate ourselves from the PRC and from Russia on these nuclear issues. Why am I practically alone in disputing these findings? Because nobody else, including the Cox Commission, thought to have a Ph.D. physicist with a background in weapons design check things out. No kidding.