Wall Street Journal
May 17, 1999
Letter to the Editor, p. A27

Looking for Spies in Nuclear Kitchen

In regard to the alleged spying and security violations of Los Alamos ("Senate Panel Approves Two Measures to Fight Espionage in Nuclear Labs," May 4): In my opinion those who are screaming the loudest in Washington have little knowledge or understanding with regard to the issues at hand. The Chinese nuclear establishment, most of whom have studied in the West, are extremely competent. They may indeed be curious as to what the U.S. has developed with its technology, but we also have been curious as to what they have developed and fielded. From time to time they have been in our kitchen looking for recipes and we have poked around in theirs. Our general public has no knowledge as to how successful we have been, and their population is also in the dark with regard to their successes.

We in the U.S. fund our intelligence-gathering organizations the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency very generously, and each service has its own intelligence organization. If they aren't trying to get other nation's codes and if they aren't successful, why do we have them? The answer is they are, but we don't talk about it and neither do those who have been violated.

As long as any nation has a demonstrated nuclear capability and a means of delivering its bombs and warheads it doesn't really matter whether the warheads are in a little smaller or painted a color other than red, white and blue. I suspect information published in the open by the National Resources Defense Council has been as useful to other nations as any computer codes they may have received by illegal means.

Being able actually to use information from any of the national laboratories' codes requires a great deal more knowledge than following a cake recipe. It's even questionable as to whether the Chinese computers are compatible with the weapon codes at our national laboratories. It is a fact that scientists, especially those involved with the design of nuclear weapons, have always been reluctant to make "Dutch" copies of other laboratories' designs. Ideas are welcome, but copying seldom, if ever, occurs.

The design of the W88 the most advanced U.S. nuclear warhead, used in the Trident system is actually quite old. The basic test was done by the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (not National Laboratory) when I was director, and I retired 20 years ago. It is a "delicate" and neat package. Having a computer printout as I remember them would give the general idea, but actually being able to manufacture the total system from a computer code is a different matter. No nation would ever stockpile any device based on another nation's computer codes. Maybe for security reasons the originator has included a "virus" that would result in a dud if the codes were to be followed exactly. Not an unreasonable concept.

In any event, whether or not China or any other nation has profited from this information, if indeed they have received it, will be known only if they conduct a nuclear test in the right yield range. If China doesn't resume testing, no harm will possibly have been done other than to our egos.

HAROLD M. AGNEW

New York