The Clinton administration’s deft handling of the Chinese nuclear espionage scandal has claimed another victim. The administration’s cleanup crew has ensnared one of the premier nuclear weapons experts in the country, John L. Richter. The sad thing is that Mr. Richter probably doesn’t even realize his reputation has been sacrificed to deflect attention away from the administration’s handling of the case.
Of course, no sacrifice has been too great to make for the sake of protecting the administration on this (or any other) issue. Reputations have been destroyed as a matter of routine policy; just ask Gordon Oehler, the CIA’s top nonproliferation expert. His mistake? He refused to lie to Congress about China’s spread of weapons of mass destruction to Pakistan and elsewhere. He was forced into retirement after he wouldn’t trim his assessment of China’s proliferation behavior to suit the administration’s policy.
The overriding objective was to have at least one agreement to tout at the U.S.-China presidential summit later that fall. U.S. companies wanted to sell nuclear energy technologies in China’s expanding power market, but couldn’t until Mr. Clinton certified China’s good behavior. For months, the intelligence community fought-off administration efforts to “certify” China’s good behavior. The intelligence facts clearly went the other way, but this administration has never let the facts get in the way of (their) truth. So Mr. Oehler had to go. His CIA masters, including Winston Wiley, the current CIA deputy director for intelligence, promised their political masters that Mr. Oehler would not appear on Capitol Hill again to testify on this or any other China-related topic.
Or ask Bill Richardson, the hapless secretary of energy. Mr. Richardson watched his hopes of a place on the Gore ticket go up in the smoke of the Los Alamos fires and the furor of the missing computer hard drives. Even his own president left him swinging in the wind when the Wen Ho Lee prosecution disintegrated. Mr. Richardson had urged Attorney General Janet Reno to hold Lee in solitary confinement, but the decision was made in a Saturday morning meeting in the White House with National Security Adviser Sandy Berger in charge. Maybe Mr. Berger forgot to tell Mr. Clinton; he doesn’t appear to have told him much else about this case.
And speaking of Wen Ho Lee, Mr. Richter now becomes known to history as the man “who blew a prosecution to pieces” in the words of a recent Washington Post puff piece lauding Mr. Richter. Mr. Richter is credited with issuing Lee a get-out-of-jail card when he testified that 99 percent of the Lee tapes were unclassified and out in the public domain. That seems to have been the last straw for the federal judge hearing the pleadings on Wen Ho Lee’s detention. But Mr. Richter wasn’t satisfied at that; no country would use these codes to build nuclear weapons and the damage was “marginally harmful, at worst,” he went on to testify.
Mr. Richter’s role in all this is supremely ironic. Mr. Richter is a nuclear weapons expert almost without peer. He has 40 live nuclear shots at our Nevada Test Range to his credit. If he were a country, he would come in fourth in terms of testing experience after the United States, Russia, and China. It was Mr. Richter who lent his credibility to the initial suspicions of Chinese espionage first raised in 1995. It was Mr. Richter who was a key participant in the 1995 Energy Summer Study that validated the initial suspicions and determined that China’s acquisition of nuclear weapons data helped China’s efforts to field mobile ballistic missiles.
Mr. Richter stayed on in Washington to assist intelligence analysts understand foreign nuclear developments over the next two years. At the conclusion of his Washington tour, the CIA awarded him a medal for his services to the U.S. intelligence community. Mr. Richter did some groundbreaking work on Russian, Chinese, and South Asian nuclear developments, most of which he appears to have now “forgotten.” Most ironic is an exchange on the subject of Mr. Richter during a China espionage briefing to Donald M. Kerr, former Los Alamos director and now the director of the FBI’s science lab.
Mr. Kerr, cited in The Washington Post, asked if John Richter had seen the briefing. “Many times and he helped write it” was the response. “Good enough for me,” replied Mr. Kerr. Still good enough, one wonders? Mr. Richter recanted his testimony that 99 percent of the Lee tapes were unclassified. Only the software and physics principles, he now says, but not the nuclear warhead dimensions or physical properties of materials under the stress of a nuclear explosion.
By the way, the latter knowledge was acquired only after hundreds of nuclear tests at the cost of billions to the taxpayer. Does Mr. Richter seriously want us to believe that no country could really do much with this information?
Mr. Richter also claims that no country would build weapons without resort to nuclear testing. Really? What about North Korea? Who disputes that they have a couple of nuclear weapons, at least? One of the two weapon types the U.S. dropped on Japan had never been “tested” before its use. The CIA doesn’t appear to believe it either. According to its “damage assessment,” China would benefit the most from the information contained on these tapes.
Whatever Mr. Richter’s reasons, was it really worth his reputation and integrity to give the Clinton administration yet another free pass on the Chinese nuclear espionage scandal?
Notra Trulock III is director of media relations at the Free Congress Foundation.