Pols and spying

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Los Angeles Times said in an editorial Thursday:

REPUBLICAN presidential candidates and congressional leaders have seized on the Los Alamos nuclear spying story to attack the whole of President Clinton's China policy.

This is not the first time efforts have been made to wring partisan advantage from a national security problem, nor is it the first time an administration's clumsiness has invited such an assault. There is a lot yet to be learned about the security breakdown at Los Alamos, and a lot about relations with China in recent years that can be questioned. How responsibly that will be done remains to be seen.

This week's Senate hearing on the Los Alamos case could provide an answer. Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, says the focus will be on why the Clinton administration took so long to impose tougher security safeguards once it knew there was a problem.

Republicans accuse the administration of deliberately dragging its feet because it didn't want to jeopardize the diplomatic ties it was cultivating with Beijing or give the GOP a campaign issue. The White House learned of the security problem in late 1995, but not until February 1998 was a presidential directive issued to tighten security at the labs. Closed-door testimony on Wednesday by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and FBI Director Louis J. Freeh is expected to shed light on the delay.

But the Intelligence Committee's hearings should ask other questions as well. The reported spying at Los Alamos began in the mid-1980s, during Ronald Reagan's administration, and apparently continued through the term of George Bush, another president (and former ambassador to China) who was eager to nurture closer ties with Beijing.

What accounts for the security lapses in this period, which may have seen information slipped to China that let it leap ahead in developing multiple-warhead missiles? An investigation that is limited to trying to hold Democrats solely accountable for security laxity will be an investigation whose credibility is in doubt.

Pub Date: 3/14/99

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