Chinese Espionage against the United States

Chinese Espionage Against the United States


The question of Chinese espionage against the United States animated policy and intelligence circles during the

In the first case to reach trial under the 1996 Economic Espionage Act, which banned the theft of trade secrets, Hwei Chen "Sally" Yang was found guilty of economic espionage in 1999. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS.
In the first case to reach trial under the 1996 Economic Espionage Act, which banned the theft of trade secrets, Hwei Chen "Sally" Yang was found guilty of economic espionage in 1999.

second half of the 1990s, driven by a number of factors, not least of which were allegations that members of the administration of President William J. Clinton had accepted campaign donations from Chinese sources. An investigation by the House Select Committee on U.S. Nuclear Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People's Republic of China, chaired by Christopher Cox (R-CA), found that the People's Republic of China (PRC) developed a number of key warheads based on U.S. designs, but failed to establish that this information had come through espionage. Still, the issue of Chinese spying simmered, and finally reached a climactic point with the arrest of Wen Ho Lee, a computer scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, in 1999.

In October 1996, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times ran a number of stories detailing a connection between John Huang, principal deputy assistant secretary of Commerce for International Economic Policy, and Indonesia's Riady family, which had close ties to China. It would eventually be revealed that the PRC had funneled sizeable contributions to the Democratic National Committee through a number of intermediaries. Critcs pointed out that, near the same time, the Clinton administration approved the sale of defense satellite technology to the PRC.

Meanwhile, concerns had arisen with regard to Chinese weapons technology, its links with U.S. technology, possible espionage against the United States, and security breaches that had facilitated that espionage. These were the issues that sparked the investigation by Cox's committee in 1998.

The PRC had never been involved in the kind of broadly based espionage on American soil that the Soviet Union had conducted through the KGB and its U.S. agents. The Chinese did, however, have an interest in U.S. technology that had led to efforts at covert acquisition noted as early as 1984, in a report by the Defense Intelligence Agency.

The Cox Report, as the findings of the House committee were called, asserted that the Chinese had appropriated information on seven warheads, including the W88, deployed on the D-5 submarine launched-ballistic missile. This information, the committee concluded, had come from one of the U.S. weapons laboratories operated by the Department of Energy (DOE).

The investigation. The House committee completed its seven-month investigation in December 1998, as Clinton's impeachment on unrelated charges loomed (he would eventually be acquitted by the Senate), and published its report in May 1999. In the meantime, the FBI had undertaken an investigation, code-named "Kindred Spirit," of persons who had access to W88 information.

If the Chinese had indeed stolen data on the W88, the theft had occurred in the 1980s, long before Clinton was president; therefore, the results of the Kindred Spirit investigation had nothing to do with Clinton per se. However, the Clinton administration's handling of the situation resulted in continued criticism.

The Wen Ho Lee incident. Taiwanese-born computer scientist Wen Ho Lee had been an employee at Los Alamos National Laboratory for 21 years when Energy Secretary Bill Richardson fired him in March 1999. Lee was subsequently arrested by the FBI, charged with not properly securing classified materials and failing to report meetings with individuals from "sensitive" countries, and held for a year. During this time, many observers maintained that Lee was a scapegoat, and some Asian Americans charged that his arrest was motivated by racism. At his trial in September 2000, Lee was convicted on only one of the charges against him—illegally gathering and retaining national security data. Though this was a felony count, the court released him on time served, and ordered him to undergo 60 hours of government debriefing.

Many commentators charged that, if there was an information leak from the Los Alamos lab, and if Lee had anything to do with it, he was only a small part of a much larger problem. Security at the laboratory was considered by many security experts to be inadequate, given the sensitive nature of the work that took place there. For example, in April 2000, two computer drives disappeared from a high-security area and reappeared two months later behind an office copier in another part of the facility. Security breaches such as these prompted Congress to create the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) as a means of better protecting sensitive properties—and partially removing oversight of those materials from Richardson's DOE.

The title of an article in the Wall Street Journal called the Wen Ho Lee case a "diversion," and certainly the case did create more questions than answers concerning Chinese espionage. One of the reasons U.S. authorities have had a difficult time pinning charges of spying on the Chinese is that much of their information seems to have come from open sources. This became apparent with the "discovery" of a 1991 volume, published in Chinese in Beijing, titled Sources and Techniques of Obtaining National Defense Science and Technology.

Authors Huo Zhongwen and Wang Zongxiao, both PRC intelligence officers, were frank in stating that Western technical journals "are the first choice of rank and file S&T [science and technology] personnel as well as intelligence researchers." Serendipity, combined with failed security measures, also played a part; in the 1970s, the U.S. government had accidentally declassified more than 19,000 documents on thermonuclear weapons. "This incident," wrote Huo and Wang, illustrates that "…there is a random element involved in the discovery of secret intelligence sources, and to turn this randomness into inevitability, it is necessary that there be those who monitor some sectors and areas with regularity and vigilance." This statement is all the more ironic in light of the fact that a copy of Sources and Techniques, which first came to U.S. attention in 1999, had been sitting in the Library of Congress for seven years.

Though the intricacies of the putative Chinese spy scandal in the late 1990s will perhaps never be known, it appears that much of the information the PRC acquired was not a result of subterfuge, but rather of Western openness—and, in some cases, the incompetence of individuals charged with guarding secrets. In any case, the point became all but moot after September 11, 2001. Not only did the United States have far worse concerns than China, but President George W. Bush needed Chinese support for America's war on terror. The issue of Chinese espionage, therefore, was not so much resolved as it was set aside.



Cox, Christopher. U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People's Republic of China. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1999.

Stober, Dan, and Ian Hoffman. A Convenient Spy: Wen Ho Lee and the Politics of Nuclear Espionage. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.

Trulock, Notra. Code Name Kindred Spirit: Inside the Chinese Nuclear Espionage Scandal. San Francisco, CA: Encounter Books, 2002.


Broad, William J. "Author to Sue U.S. over Book on China's Nuclear Advances." New York Times. (June 18,2001): A6.

Gordon, Michael R. "A Dangerous Game." New York Times. (April 3, 2001): A1.

Gosselin, Peter G. "No Sign Drives Left Lab, Richardson Says." Los Angeles Times. (June 19, 2000): A3.

Markoff, John. "Silicon Valley Concern Says It Thwarted Software Theft." New York Times. (September 20,2002): 1.

Purdy, Matthew, and James Sterngold. "The Prosecution Unravels: The Case of Wen Ho Lee." New York Times. (February 5, 2001): A1.

Richelson, Jeffrey T. "Uncertain Damage." Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 55, no. 5 (September/October 1999): 17–19.

Rosenthal, Elisabeth. "China Changes Its Approach in the Latest Espionage Incident." New York Times. (January 27, 2002): section 1, p. 6.

Schwartz, Stephen I. "A Very Convenient Scandal." Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 55, no. 3 (May/June 1999): 34–39.

"The Wen Ho Lee Diversion." Wall Street Journal. (September 19, 2000): A26.


China's High-Tech Espionage. Counterintelligence News and Developments/National Counterintelligence Executive. June 2000. < > (March 29, 2003).


China, Intelligence and Security
Clinton Administration (1993–2001), United States National Security Policy
DOE (United States Department of Energy)
Los Alamos National Laboratory
NNSA (United States National Nuclear Security Administration)
Satellite Technology Exports to the People's Republic of China (PRC)

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