NOTRA TRULOCK'S BOOK "Code Name Kindred Spirit: Inside the Chinese Nuclear Espionage Scandal" is unique among histories of U.S. intelligence failures. It doesn't just describe what went wrong when the Clinton administration tried to handle China's theft of America's nuclear-weapon designs; it is also a firsthand account of personal and bureaucratic cowardice, incompetence, malfeasance, venality, and betrayal. It's enough to convince anyone but the most base or patriotic to avoid government defense work, or, if so employed, to proceed with extreme caution.
In this arena, as with work in large American organizations generally, no one is responsible for anything but success. Detecting or limiting failures is, at best, a dogcatcher's job: Nothing good can come from it, only resistance and denial from those whose performance, policies, or organizations might be questioned. To prevail in such ventures, one must have the support of both superiors and subordinates--as well as of outsiders who might benefit from such discoveries. Being right about what's wrong is not enough: One has to persuade those in charge that ignoring or glossing over a failure will be more costly than addressing it.
Sadly, this is true even when one is trying to protect America's most important military secrets. One would think that getting the president and Congress to keep nuclear-weapon designs from a strategic competitor wouldn't require a complicated political defense or bureaucratic game plan. But, as Notra Trulock makes clear in describing the Clinton administration's prevarications and the unfocused, self-serving oversight of Congress, you'd be wrong. Certainly, "Kindred Spirit" puts a painfully bright spotlight on how the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Council, and the Department of Energy bungled and denied clear evidence that China was stealing nuclear secrets.
The FBI, we learn, couldn't or wouldn't investigate ten of the twelve spy leads it was given. It preferred to fight crime, and it was also conflicted--having previously employed two of the top suspects, Sylvia and Wen Ho Lee, as informants (a fact it conveniently kept to itself until late in the day). Meanwhile, the National Security Council and the Department of Energy were preoccupied supporting nuclear cooperation with China, particularly Chinese accession to the Comprehensive Test Ban. They chose to downplay China's nuclear spying and kept it from the public for nearly two and a half years. When their foot-dragging was finally exposed (too late to prevent further leakage), they simply did the dishonorable thing: attempted to discredit the official who most persistently tried to get them to act, Notra Trulock.
Congress similarly failed to get its oversight of Chinese spying on target. One committee wanted to assure continued funding for the national laboratory where most of the spying took place. Another broke the news on the scandal but then backed away and cut off contact with Trulock when administration officials raised the canard of racial bigotry. Yet another committee wanted to name names to reverse the damage, but decided to do so only when timely corrective action was no longer possible.
The final result was that Congress scampered to reorganize the Department of Energy, threw more money at counterintelligence, and then washed its hands of the matter. Follow-up was minimal and soon the Department of Energy was back to business as usual. The department's top counterintelligence post is now held by the FBI section chief who, despite pleas from his subordinates, stood by and withheld information in the Chinese case for nearly two years.
Early this January, the Department of Energy's inspector general reported that security at the laboratories is still egregiously lax. Foreign scientists from sensitive nations--including Iran--are still getting into these facilities without the required approval of the secretary of energy, necessary background checks, or clearance from counterintelligence officials. Again, officials say they are fixing things, but no one has been disciplined.
This sorry charade might be laughable if it weren't so worrisome. What chance do we have to detect domestic terrorists or nuclear dangers over the horizon if we can't even stop nuclear espionage after nearly a decade of repeated warnings? How are we to attract and hold on to the talent needed to alert us to these dangers if their reward for speaking up is punishment--and if the slow-rollers and foot-draggers are the ones who get rewarded? If we are serious about getting the answers and avoiding a future even worse than the recent past, we owe it to ourselves and our country to begin by reading Trulock's work.
Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington.