Atomic Bombshell

Atomic Bombshell

Atomic Bombshell

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
March 6 1999 5:57 AM

Atomic Bombshell

The New York Times lead reveals China's plunder of nuclear technology from American government laboratories, and the U.S.'s subsequent mishandling, avoidance, and suppression of follow-up investigations. The story, sourced to unnamed "U.S. officials," gives damning shape and detail to recent news rumblings about illicit Chinese acquisition of U.S. defense technology. In the mid-1980's, reports the paper, a Chinese-American scientist working at the Los Alamos government laboratory sold China the recipe for launching multiple warheads from a single missile, thus providing China with the "backbone of a modern nuclear force" and a near-duplicate of one of America's most advanced atomic tools. The espionage was detected in 1995 when researchers noticed the stunning similarity between Chinese and U.S. systems. They also found evidence that China had been continually exploiting lax U.S. security measures to steal information. But the thefts were only haltingly investigated by the FBI, and no arrests have ever been made.

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Notra Trulock, the Energy Department's chief of intelligence and the sole hero of the account, continually tried to alert higher-ups at his agency, the FBI, and the White House about the size and impact of the theft. But his repeated warnings were brushed off ; last year, Elizabeth Moler, the then-acting Energy Secretary, told him to withhold his findings from Congress, who could use them to criticize Clinton's policy towards China. The Times also suggests that the White House itself downplayed the findings in order to protect its delicate rapport with China. Finally, last fall Trulock secretly shared his findings with a bipartisan congressional panel monitoring the U.S.-China security situation.

Lest readers underestimate the story's import, the Times quotes officials who rank the breach as far worse than the one committed by Aldrich Ames, and on a par with the misdeeds perpetuated (also at Los Alamos) by Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post front page reports that Chinese officials are threatening military strikes against Taiwan if the U.S. provides Taiwan with missile defense systems. The story carries no mention of the Times' revelations, but emphasizes that U.S.-China tensions have already chilled to their coldest point in years.

The NYT and the Los Angeles Times front ebullient reactions-- from the stock market, the bond market, and economists cheering in the bleachers-- to the Labor Department's announcement of February's strong job growth and low inflation. The Post tucks the story inside. The Dow Jones average hit new highs yesterday with a 2.8% rise to 9,736 points, and bond and interest rates dipped in deference to the good news. The LAT notes that even manufacturing, the one sector to suffer job losses, has become bifurcated between commodities-based industries, which are vulnerable to overseas recession, and consumer products, which are less so. The NYT story offers a more measured tone, with now-familiar caveats about unsustainable pace. It also backgrounds the jobs report with helpful descriptions of its methodology. (Example: the Labor Department's job growth stats are based on the relatively small and volatile 'household' survey, which polls Americans on how many members of their household are working, instead of wage reports from employers. The latter are considered broader and more reliable).

The WP reports that a U.S. appeals court has struck down the ability of rape and domestic violence victims to sue their attackers under federal civil rights laws, a power first granted by the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. Federal courts are desirable venues for victims because of their high damage awards and relatively lax statutes of limitations, but the court found the victims' claims outside the constitutional scope of its jurisdiction. The account doesn't remind readers that even at the time of the bill's passing, the provision was generally considered a socially sympathetic but legally overambitious expansion of federal court power.

In the latest report of IRS mishaps, the LA Times fronts the agency's sheepish acknowledgment that it has been treating 630,000 taxpayers to special natural-disaster-area privileges, even though most haven't been beset by any natural catastrophes at all. The poorly written rules give interest-free loans on late taxes to any and all residents of areas deemed disaster areas, instead of those actually impacted by the event.

Finally, the WP explains how the House Ethics Committee ruled that swanky Club seats in Washington's new sports arena are actually-- whaddya know!-- inexpensive enough to be considered 'nominal' gifts from lobbyists to House members and staff. The seats usually retail for $98 a pop, but if the Hill types refrain from reading the free programs and parking in the complimentary garage, the Ethics Committee will consider the seats worth a much more acceptable $49.50.