Two Chinese diplomats, away from their Los Angeles consulate improperly, recently sped their vehicle past a Los Alamos National Laboratory guard post near classified facilities in what U.S. officials think was an intelligence mission, The Washington Times has learned.
The diplomats, identified as Hua Yu and Bo Lai, were on an intelligence-gathering mission that is raising new worries of Chinese nuclear spying against the United States, according to U.S. officials familiar with the incident.
According to an incident report, the diplomats sped a white Ford Escort past a guard post at the New Mexico facility at about 2:30 p.m. on Feb. 26.
Security guard Joseph Chavez was at the post at the time and reported that the car “ran his post at a high rate of speed,” the report said.
The white Escort, rented in Colorado, was stopped a short distance from the post by three Los Alamos security police on Pajarito Road. The diplomats were questioned, and their car was searched.
Mr. Hua and Mr. Bo identified themselves as Chinese diplomats posted to the consulate in Los Angeles.
“At this point, we briefed the gentleman on the fact that Pajarito Road was closed to the general public, and [they] were escorted out of the area,” the report states.
Kevin Roark, a spokesman for Los Alamos, confirmed that the incident took place and said no apparent compromise of security occurred.
Pajarito Road also is the site of two sensitive facilities, Mr. Roark said. One is the Critical Assembly Facility known as Technical Area-18, and the other is the Plutonium Research Facility, known as Technical Area-55.
Both facilities are used for classified nuclear-weapons activities at Los Alamos, part of the Energy Department’s nuclear-weapons program.
“They were asked for identification. They were briefly questioned as to what they were up to. Their vehicle was searched, and after that, they were promptly escorted off the road,” Mr. Roark said.
He declined to comment on whether the FBI was notified. An FBI spokesman could not be reached for comment.
A State Department official said the Chinese diplomats did not notify the department’s Office of Foreign Missions before the visit to Los Alamos, a violation of U.S. rules.
Chinese diplomats are barred from traveling outside a 25-mile radius of their embassy or consulate and must obtain permission from the State Department before any other travel.
Xiao Mei, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles, said the two diplomats were visiting New Mexico in preparation for the visit to Santa Fe by a Chinese official.
Miss Xiao said she did not know whether the two men had gone to the Los Alamos laboratory, but they might have been trying to visit a museum at the facility.
“We all know this is a sensitive area,” she said. “But the museum is public.”
Los Alamos was the scene of a major U.S. nuclear-spying scandal in the late 1990s when Chinese-American nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, who worked at Los Alamos, was accused of supplying nuclear secrets to China.
Mr. Lee denied being a spy but was convicted of mishandling classified information, including top-secret computer tapes that were never found.
A CIA damage assessment later concluded that the Chinese had obtained secrets on every U.S. nuclear warhead, including the W-88, a small warhead that U.S. intelligence thinks has been copied for use on China’s new short-range and long-range missiles.
U.S. officials said the incident involving the two diplomats was an intelligence-gathering mission, with the men probably testing Los Alamos security to see how guards react. Such information is useful for other intelligence-gathering activities, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The diplomats also might have been trying to recover material left by an agent or planning to meet with an agent, the officials said.
Mr. Roark said the guard post was one of several recently added to the Los Alamos complex as part of post-September 11 security upgrades.
It was the second time in the past six months that Chinese diplomats based in Los Angeles ended up in legal trouble.
Late last year, a Chinese official posted to the Los Angeles consulate was charged with speeding as he drove more than 100 mph in San Bernardino County. The incident resulted in a diplomatic protest note being sent to the Chinese Embassy in Washington.
One U.S. official said Washington expelled neither that Chinese official nor the two diplomats in the Los Alamos incident because of concerns that doing so would trigger expulsions of U.S. intelligence personnel in China.
A classified U.S. intelligence report produced in 1998 stated that China was one of the most aggressive intelligence threats against U.S. nuclear facilities.
“China represents an acute intelligence threat” to the Department of Energy, the report said. “It conducts a ‘full-court press’ consisting of massive numbers of collectors of all kinds, in the United States, in China and elsewhere abroad.”
The report noted that Chinese intelligence gathering at the nuclear-weapons laboratories usually involves exploiting “natural scientist-to-scientist relationships.”
“Chinese scientists nurture relationships with national laboratory counterparts, issuing invitations for them to travel to laboratories and conferences in China,” it said.
U.S. officials said there has been no change in the report on Chinese activities targeting nuclear facilities.