WASHINGTON -- Senior White House officials were informed that China might have stolen U.S. nuclear secrets nearly a year earlier than the Clinton administration originally disclosed, according to current and former U.S. officials.
The White House was told about China's apparent theft of U.S. nuclear weapons technology in July 1995, soon after it was detected by the Energy Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, several officials said.Until now, the administration has left the impression that the White House first learned about the matter in April 1996, when Sandy Berger, then President Clinton's deputy national security adviser, was briefed on the case by Energy Department officials.
But interviews with current and former officials show that by late 1995, within months of first learning of the case, the director of Central Intelligence was convinced that the evidence showed that China had stolen design information from America's most advanced nuclear warhead, and had briefed Clinton's national security adviser on the matter.
Evidence that China may have stolen nuclear secrets first came to the attention of the White House during a meeting in July 1995, when the White House Chief of Staff, Leon Panetta, was informed of the problem by Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary, Panetta and other officials said.
Panetta then called the CIA director, John Deutch, to find out what the agency was doing about the case, Panetta said. Deutch, who had also just received a call about the same matter from Deputy Energy Secretary Charles Curtis, told Panetta he would investigate.
Deutch called Panetta back a day or two later and told him what the CIA knew about the spy case, officials said. He briefed the national security adviser, Anthony Lake, on the case in November 1995. Lake said he did not recall the briefing, but he and White House officials said there was a record of it.
Clinton was not told of the evidence in 1995 by Panetta, Lake or any of the other officials who had been briefed, according to the National Security Council spokesman, David C. Leavy. Berger also did not tell Clinton about the case following his briefing in 1996.
Berger, now the national security adviser, has said that it was not until after he received a second, more specific briefing in July 1997 that he told Clinton about security problems at the nuclear weapons laboratories.
Berger did take some action after his 1996 briefing, Leavy said, including directing that Congress be secretly informed.