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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Wednesday, August 19, 1998

China inquiry is under veil of secrecy

GOVERNMENT: Cox and other committee members begin hearing from analysts about the rocket/satellite explosion and consequences.


The Orange County Register

WASHINGTON — Code-word classification. Secure space. Security briefing.

It sounds very Tom Clancy-ish. But those phrases have become part of Rep. Christopher Cox's vocabulary as his select committee on China has gotten down to work.

For three days this week, the nine-member panel is hearing from top intelligence community analysts.

Just what happened in February 1996 when a Chinese rocket exploded when it was about to launch an American sat? And in that aftermath, did Loral Space Systems, the satellite's builder, pass on secrets to the Chinese government? If so, why should we care?

So far, everything the committee has been told has come via classified, secure briefings.

In a town where leaks and partisan bickering are as expected as a hot, humid August, so far Cox, R-Newport Beach, and the ranking Democrat, Rep. Norman Dicks of Washington, have managed to keep rank politics out of this inquiry. And they are being very careful not to divulge anything that might remotely resemble a leak.

What they will say is that after listening to the country's highest-level intelligence community officials, they want to not only know about what information the Chinese got but whether the Chinese passed on that information to unsavory regimes that could use them for no good.

"When technology is transferred to Beijing it doesn't stop there," Cox said in an interview this week. "There is substantial evidence of technology transfers to countries that pose a much more serious short-term threat to the United States."

When the committee meets, security is tight. Even the room where the panel meets — tucked away in the Capitol's attic — is unknown to most members of Congress.

To get there, members use an unmarked elevator, set apart from the Capitol's crypt by a burgundy velvet rope. A sign reads: "Authorized Personnel Only."

The elevator opens onto a stark white hallway. A heavy door is shut. There's a combination lock on the outside. A Capitol Police officer stands guard. The windowless hearing room is routinely swept for electronic surveillance.

As the ranking Democrat on the Select Committee on Intelligence, Dicks is one of four House members who have such a high security clearance that they are entitled to know virtually everything the intelligence community does. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Minority Leader Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., and Intelligence committee Chairman Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., are the others.

For the life of his panel, Cox has been added to that group.

Experts watching the committee are not surprised there have not been any leaks thus far.

First, they say, there's not much to leak yet. Second, members take such national security concerns very seriously.

John Pike, head of the space project for the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington-based arms control think tank, says the secrecy may add to the legitimacy of the panel.

"I think it's going to be an awful lot easier to keep the political truce and make this a serious investigation if it completely avoids any odor of a show trial," Pike said.

Dicks said partisanship would be inevitable at public, televised sessions.

"When they (Republicans) say something our side thinks is blaming Clinton, Democrats are going to jump in and blame it on Bush and Reagan," Dicks said during an interview this week. "That's Politics 101. Both sides should say this was a bipartisan policy. What we have to find out is whether it was wrong."

Dicks and Cox agree that they've narrowed the scope of what they're going to do in the next five months to three areas:

Missiles and rockets: This centers on the Loral incident and whether and what terminology was transferred, and to whom.

Manufacturing: This refers to the McDonnell Douglas sale to the Chinese government of a manufacturing plant in Ohio that ended up being used to manufacture cruise missiles.

Supercomputers: The question here is whether computers sold to China supposedly for commercial reasons are really being used for military purposes.

Cox says he expects eventually there will be a public airing of the investigation.

"Right now, we're kicking the tires on the government's investigations so we can uncover additional facts," Cox said. "Any information enterprised by our committee is likely to be unclassified" and could be aired in an open setting.

The panel's investigative staff includes Democrats and Republicans. Most are on loan from the security agencies. Six come from the FBI, three from the CIA and four from the Pentagon.

Defense and military experts hope the committee answers the broader question of what to do about foreign satellite launches and not just on what happened in this case.

"I think slowly people are coming to recognize that these Chinese launch controversies are a tip of an iceberg of difficulties," said Henry Sokolsi, executive director of the Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center and a senior official in the Bush Pentagon. "This has to do with Americans' increasing reliance on foreign launch services generally."

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