Secrecy & Government Bulletin
Issue Number 79
The Cox Committee and the Tsien Case
One of the scariest features of the Chinese espionage scandal is the corruption of language that has accompanied it. In the media, in Congress and in the May 25 report of the Cox Committee, exaggerations and falsehoods have been routinely presented as if they were demonstrable facts.
"The United States might as well have dumped its most sensitive defense secrets on Pennsylvania Avenue for Chinese spies to pick up," the New York Times wrote in a typically inflammatory editorial on May 16.
The Department of Energy bureaucracy "is so unworkable [that] it has allowed all our secrets-- all our secrets-- that we have spent billions of dollars on, to simply pass over to the Chinese," asserted Senator Frank Murkowski in a grotesque bit of posturing on the Senate floor May 27.
A particularly disturbing assault on consensual reality was committed by the Cox Committee in its discussion of the case of Tsien Hsue-Shen (volume 1, Chapter 4, p. 177 ff; rendered there as Qian Xuesen).
Tsien was a Chinese student who received a scholarship in 1935 to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He went on to become a world class aeronautics expert who did much to advance the state of the art in aerodynamics and rocketry. He was deported from the United States during the McCarthy era on suspicion of espionage-- an allegation that was disputed at the time and never proven. He subsequently became a leading figure in China's ballistic missile program.
In the Cox Committee's account, Tsien is presented insinuatingly as the prototype and patriarch of modern Chinese Communist espionage:
"[Tsien] was a Chinese citizen who was trained in the United States and who worked on classified programs including the Titan ICBM program. After being accused of spying for the PRC in the 1950s, [Tsien] was permitted to return to the PRC, where he became the ‘father' of the PRC's ballistic missile and space programs. The illegal acquisition of U.S. technology for the PLA's ballistic missiles and space programs has continued aggressively during the past two decades, up to the present day." (p. 172)
"If the U.S. Government is going to make serious accusations against a man who isn't here to defend himself, then they really should be prepared to back up their accusations with evidence," said Iris Chang, author of the book Thread of the Silkworm (Basic Books, 1995), the most thorough published account of the Tsien case.
"The allegations that he was spying for the PRC are presumed to be true," the Cox Committee declares in a remarkably indecent sentence. (p. 178)
"I'm not here to defend or accuse Tsien," Ms. Chang told S&GB on June 2. "I haven't ruled out the possibility that he was a spy. It's just that I would need to see more evidence to believe that he is, and that's what the U.S. Government has not provided." She noted that "In the 1950s, the government was not able to find any concrete evidence that Dr. Tsien was a spy, or even a communist."
Ms. Chang, whose book is cited several times in the Cox Committee report, said that she contacted the Committee to inquire "if there was any new evidence that had emerged" to support the allegations against Tsien and "they said that anything that wasn't in the footnote section of the report was probably classified and therefore I would have to take their word for it that the report was true."
But the Committee's "word" about Tsien is unreliable, judging from the numerous errors in the Cox Committee account.
For example, the assertion that Tsien worked on the Titan ICBM program is evidently in error since "the contract for the Titan I was not even let until October 1955," according to Mark Wade of the online Encyclopedia Astronautica. Tsien's security clearance had been revoked five years earlier, in June 1950, and he was deported from the United States in September 1955.
China's so-called Great Leap Forward, which took place in 1957-60, is said by the Cox Committee to have occurred in 1963 (p. 182).
These and numerous other errors in factual matters that can be easily checked cast doubt on those assertions of the Cox Committee that cannot be independently verified.
Nevertheless, the Committee's version of the Tsien case has now been propagated through the public domain via Time Magazine (June 7) and a wholly uncritical story in the Washington Times which repeatedly terms Tsien a "spy" without any qualification. ("Chinese Missiles Pioneered by Spy Educated in U.S.," by Bill Gertz, May 26).
"I think this is very irresponsible journalism," said Ms. Chang. "It's reminiscent of the kind of journalism about the Tsien case that came out during the McCarthy era."
Chinese Espionage and the New York Times
In a telling editorial error, the Cox Committee report on Chinese espionage included a footnoted reference to a news story by "Jeff Gertz" (volume I, page 256, footnote 32). This obviously conflates the names of Bill Gertz, national security reporter for the agenda-driven Washington Times, and Jeff Gerth, who has led the New York Times reporting on Chinese espionage.
It was an easy error to make. The New York Times coverage of Chinese espionage and related matters has been badly skewed, proving that you really can't believe everything you read, even when it's written by a Pulitzer Prize winner.
The Times produced more tendentious reporting and more unacknowledged errors concerning the Chinese theft of nuclear secrets than can be briefly summarized, but some notable examples included the following:
Everybody makes mistakes. But the Times' mistakes on the Chinese espionage story all tended to exaggerate the consequences of the last two decades of espionage and to inflate the Chinese threat. (And the Times has declined to acknowledge, correct, or run letters to the editor about its recurring bloopers.) This has dangerous consequences.
- On May 20, Mr. Gerth wrote that "The stolen technology has allowed Beijing to leap in a few years from a 1950's-era nuclear capability to possessing the most modern technical information, the officials said." This sentence screams out for an editor. "Nuclear capability" and "possession of modern technical information" are two distinct categories. It is not possible to "leap" from one to the other. The most remarkable thing about Chinese nuclear capability in this context is how little it has changed ("leaped") after twenty years of reported espionage.
- On May 23, following Mr. Gerth's lead, David Johnston wrote that espionage had "enabled China to leap from 1950's technology to an atomic force built on the most advanced research of American laboratories." As non-Times readers may know, China's atomic force is not "built on the most advanced research of American laboratories." Far from it. And the implied notion that China is dependent on the U.S. for scraps of secret nuclear knowledge is based in ignorance. China actually "set a world record" by developing an H-bomb in only two years after detonating its first atomic bomb in 1964, as noted by one Yu Min of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (quoted by Xinhua news service, 6/2/99).
- The Times may have given the kiss of death to the Energy Department's Openness Initiative by portraying it on May 30 as a "gamble" that deliberately "devalued" nuclear secrets and promiscuously declassified them: "For more than a half decade, the Clinton Administration was shoveling atomic secrets out the door as fast as it could, literally by the ton." Anyone who has been paying attention knows that this is not true. Far from "devaluing" nuclear secrets, the Clinton Administration's Fundamental Classification Policy Review identified more nuclear secrets for increased classification than for declassification. Furthermore, a large fraction (about 30%) of the declassifications-- which were recommended by nuclear weapons scientists, not political appointees-- were not approved. And most of the historical documents containing information that was declassified have still not been released. In the preferred New York Times locution, most atomic secrets "leaped" from being classified to... still being classified, being classified at a higher level, or being declassified but unreleased.
- A Times editorial asserted on May 16 that "It is hard to imagine a more damaging American security failure than the serial hemorrhage of nuclear-weapons secrets and other military information to China over the last two decades." The Times editorial writers must have been reading the Times. In fact, it is hard to identify any specific damage from the reported espionage since, as the CIA's Jeremiah Panel concluded, "the aggressive Chinese collection effort has not resulted in any apparent modernization of their deployed strategic force or any new nuclear weapons deployment."
Senator Bob Kerrey noted on May 28 that the Cox Committee report "has left the impression that China is a bigger threat to the United States in terms of nuclear weapons than Russia is. Nothing can be further from the truth." As the leading outlet for unreflective reporting of allegations about Chinese espionage, the New York Times has left much the same impression. A May 29 Time-CNN public opinion poll found that 46 percent of Americans now consider China a serious threat, compared to 24 percent who hold that view of Russia.
"Whatever else might be said of China, its arsenal has been the very model of a minimal nuclear deterrent," said FAS President Jeremy J. Stone. "China has only a small number of missiles, their missiles are de-alerted, and the Chinese have adopted a clear no-first use policy. In this regard, they are the most responsible of the major nuclear powers."
The Central Intelligence Agency has asked Attorney General Janet Reno to rescind the authority of the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) to declassify CIA documents. The ISCAP, which was created by executive order 12958, is composed of representatives of the Departments of Justice, State, and Defense, CIA, NSC, and the National Archives. Remarkably, in more than 50% of the appeals for declassification that it has ruled on, the ISCAP has overturned the originating agency's position and declassified the document. CIA, whose classification policies cannot withstand independent scrutiny even within the executive branch, has been particularly vulnerable to this review procedure. And rather than adjust its classification policies, the Agency now seeks to eliminate the independent scrutiny. The Attorney General's decision is expected within several weeks.
Bulletins: Declassification Threatened
On May 19, the House Armed Services Committee adopted a provision that would limit Pentagon spending on declassification to no more than $20 million in the coming fiscal year. This is a severe 90% reduction from the estimated $200 million cost of implementing declassification throughout the Department of Defense. While $20 million might still seem like a lot of money, it represents less than one percent of the Department's classification-related costs, which exceed $3 billion annually, according to an estimate prepared by the Information Security Oversight Office. The House action reflects a widespread failure in Congress and elsewhere to understand that declassification is an essential component of an effective information security program.
"While we are rightly concerned about what nuclear weapons design or other sensitive information has been stolen through espionage," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott on May 26, "at the same time we must be vigilant in ensuring that [former Energy Secretary Hazel] O'Leary's [openness] initiative was not used, and any future declassification measures will not be used, to provide nuclear know-how to would-be proliferators in Iran, North Korea, and elsewhere." With that outrageous coupling of espionage and declassification, Senator Lott offered an amendment that calls for (though it does not exactly require) the page by page review of the hundreds of millions of pages that have already been declassified since 1995. The amendment, part of a package of security "reforms," was adopted by acclamation in the Senate on May 27.
One of the extraordinary provisions of executive order 12958 was its requirement that 25 year old records not otherwise exempted would be automatically declassified in April 2000 "whether or not the records have been reviewed." A new amendment to the executive order will extend that April 2000 deadline by 18 months for most affected records, and by 36 months for certain intelligence records and multi- agency records. In an excess of zeal, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced the extension on May 11, though it had not been approved yet, and claimed he had proposed it to the President, which was not the case. Comparatively few Energy Department records will even be affected by the change, since most of them are classified under the Atomic Energy Act, not the executive order.
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson also announced on May 11 that the DOE Office of Declassification would henceforth be known as the Office of Nuclear and National Security Information. He did not offer an explanation for the change, but presumably it was intended to appease congressional critics by highlighting the departure from the Openness Initiative of former Secretary Hazel O'Leary. She had renamed the Office in 1993 so as to emphasize the importance of declassifying information that no longer warranted protection.
Chinese officials in Beijing cited the Federation of American Scientists web site at a press conference on May 31 as evidence for their claim that information about U.S. nuclear weapons is widely available on the Internet. However, the web site does not provide detailed weapon designs that would enable readers to construct a nuclear weapon, a practice that is frowned upon by FAS.
The Federation of American Scientists web site is made available on Intelink, the intelligence community's classified computer network, by the Army's prestigious 66th Military Intelligence Group, according to a spokesman for the 66th MI Group in Germany. A public affairs officer at the Army's Intelligence and Security Command at Fort Belvoir declined to elaborate, but another official told S&GB that "the entire FAS web site [on Intelink] is updated on a daily basis," and "sometimes hourly." The Intelink version of the FAS web site is classified Top Secret, and is used in support of the "indications and warning" intelligence function, the official said. Asked whether FAS could now expect to receive a portion of the secret intelligence budget as compensation, the official said No.
Secrecy & Government Bulletin is written by Steven
Aftergood and published by the Federation of American
The FAS Project on Government Secrecy is supported by grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Rockefeller Family Fund, and the HKH Foundation.