It's time for National Security Adviser Sandy Berger to go. Not only has his knee-jerk reaction to the Chinese espionage scandal -- "We're talking about breaches of security that happened in the mid 1980s," when Ronald Reagan was president -- been tired and old, but his explanation for what happened on his watch after the security breach became known is as disingenuous as any explanation ever offered by the Clinton White House. Which is saying something.
If Berger's performance on NBC's Meet the Press on March 14 is any guide, is it any wonder why the White House is fighting so desperately to keep classified as much of Rep. Chris Cox's select-committee report on China's acquisition of U.S. military technology as possible? That report, endorsed unanimously by Democratic and Republican committee members alike, cataloged China's successful efforts during the last 20 years to acquire -- by legal and illegal means -- the most sensitive U.S. military technology, damaging U.S. national-security interests in the process.
Berger asserted that the initial briefing about Chinese espionage which he received at the White House in April 1996 was "very general" and "very preliminary." According to Berger, that briefing -- which was conducted by a group of senior Energy Department officials, including its chief counterintelligence officer, Notra Trulock -- merely "indicated" that there was "some evidence" that China "may have" obtained "in some fashion" sensitive nuclear-weapons information.
"At that stage," Berger told NBC's Tim Russert, "we did not know who, we did really not know how and we really did not know what." Later, Berger told Russert, "The FBI hadn't even begun its investigation. We did not have a suspect. We did not know at this point what they had gotten."
In fact, however, Trulock had begun his counterintelligence investigation of China's theft of one of the United States' most advanced warheads 12 months before briefing the White House. Moreover, in late 1995 the FBI already had begun its own investigation, poring over travel and work records of lab scientists and building a list of five suspects. By February 1996, two months before briefing the White House, Energy Department counterintelligence officers had identified one particular suspect: a scientist who "stuck out like a sore thumb," as one official told the New York Times.
Before visiting the White House in April, Trulock briefed Paul Redmond, the CIA's chief spy hunter who had unmasked Aldrich Ames. Redmond considered Trulock's briefing, which was replete with charts and graphs, to be anything but "very general," as Berger characterized Trulock's subsequent White House briefing. It is instructive to compare Redmond's anguished reaction -- "This is going to be just as bad as the Rosenbergs," who gave the Soviets secrets to the atomic bomb, he recalled saying at the time -- with Berger's laidback reaction to what he perceived to be a "very general" and "very preliminary" briefing.
Berger also asserted that the FBI began "a thorough formal investigation" within a month and "the CIA was [also] investigating this." In fact, however, by the end of 1996 so little progress had been made by the FBI that Energy Department officials were convinced the FBI had assigned too few resources to the case. And, according to Redmond, the FBI had not been updating the CIA's counter-intelligence office.
Berger also asserted that, upon learning of China's nuclear espionage, the administration "imposed and forced the strictest controls on China of any country except those for which we have embargoes, such as Libya." In fact, the administration did the opposite. In February 1998, the same month President Clinton belatedly ordered greater security measures at the nation's weapons labs, he ignored strenuous objections from the Justice Department, which was investigating Loral Space & Communications Ltd. for an unauthorized technology transfer to China. …