Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel B. Poneman is working on a major Obama administration initiative that would renew scientist exchanges between U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories and Chinese nuclear facilities.
The idea is aimed at promoting openness and transparency by China’s military about its secret, large-scale buildup of nuclear weapons, according to U.S. officials.
Critics say the plan is similar to an exchange program in the 1990s that sent U.S. nuclear scientists to China and produced one of the worst cases of nuclear espionage. Secrets about every deployed warhead in the U.S. arsenal were compromised, including the W-88 small nuclear warhead deployed on submarine-launched missiles.
“We’ve seen this movie before, and it has a bad ending,” one official said.
Officials familiar with the plan told Inside the Ring that the initiative was discussed during a recent policy committee meeting of senior national security officials at the White House.
The initiative is part of the administration’s arms-control-centered security policies. According to the officials, the administration hopes to coax the reluctant Chinese communist leadership and its military into engaging the United States in strategic nuclear talks, something China so far has refused.
“This is a way to reach out to [the Chinese] with multilateral arms-control programs,” said a second U.S. official familiar with the plan.
The initiative likely will face opposition from Congress.
House Republicans added language to the 2012 Defense Authorization Act that restricts the Pentagon and Energy department from cooperating with Beijing in setting up a nuclear security center in China. The provision, when signed into law, will block funding for the center until the secretary of defense certifies that China has halted nuclear proliferation and that the center will be in line with U.S. interests.
U.S. intelligence has linked China to nuclear arms proliferation in Pakistan and other emerging nuclear states.
The second official said the plan evokes memories of the 1990s case of Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Wen Ho Lee.
Former Energy Department intelligence chief Notra Trulock stated in his 2003 book that Lee, a scientist at Los Alamos’ weapons-designing X Division, provided sensitive nuclear weapons data to China during unreported meetings with nuclear weapons scientists as part of Energy’s exchange programs.
Lee was the U.S. government’s chief suspect in the compromise of W-88 warhead secrets to China.
The FBI, however, mishandled the case against him, and he was never charged with espionage. Instead, he pleaded guilty in September 2001 to a felony charge of mishandling classified information.
Lee denied being a spy and said he was targeted by the FBI because he is Chinese-American.
The FBI has said as recently as last year that it is still investigating the theft of U.S. nuclear secrets by China from the 1990s. But no one has been arrested for the crime since the Lee case.