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Clinton Defends Response In China Espionage Case

By James Gerstenzang

and Bob Drogin

President Clinton on Thursday strongly defended his administration’s response to suspected Chinese espionage at a key U.S. nuclear weapons design facility, insisting that he and his aides moved quickly to investigate and prevent further breaches of national security.

“We did not ignore evidence,” Clinton said in his first public comments on unfolding allegations of a major security leak at the Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory in the mid-1980s. “Quite the contrary; we acted on it.”

Clinton spoke to reporters as he completed a four-day trip to Central America that was largely overshadowed back home by a mounting barrage of criticism by Republicans and some Democrats of White House policies toward China.

In recent months, Washington’s relations with Beijing have begun to unravel on several fronts, including complaints about Chinese human rights abuses, a growing trade deficit with China, Beijing’s misuse of U.S. satellite and other sensitive technology, and now the alleged theft of crucial military secrets that may have given China a vast jump in nuclear warhead design.

On Thursday, Clinton defended his administration’s efforts to expand contacts with China through engagement on a broad array of issues.

“Our efforts to have an honest and open policy with China, so that they don’t think that we have made a decision in advance to try to contain and limit them in their economic growth and their development as a nation, has paid dividends,” he said.

As evidence, Clinton cited China’s signing of the international agreement restricting chemical weapons and another banning nuclear tests, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Nor, he said, would they have restrained their transfer of “dangerous materials” -- nuclear technology and missiles -- to Iran and Pakistan “if we had not been constructively engaged with them.”

“I do not believe that that evidence justifies an isolated no-contact relationship with China when we have gotten the benefits not only to ourselves, but to the rest of the world of our engagement policy,” Clinton said.

Clinton aides have bristled at even the suggestion that they were less than thorough in investigating, or that they let concerns about diplomacy or trade influence their actions, when they learned in April 1996 of the alleged spying at Los Alamos.

On Thursday, Clinton defended his national security adviser, Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger, and rejected calls by several Republicans for Berger’s resignation.

“The record is that we acted aggressively,” Clinton said. “Mr. Berger acted appropriately.”

On Monday, the University of California acceded to a request by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and fired Wen Ho Lee, a computer scientist on a UC contract at Los Alamos, after he was twice interviewed by the FBI. At least some of the questions, and two polygraph tests, apparently focused on his contacts with Chinese officials during a seminar in 1988.

Neither Lee nor anyone else has been arrested or charged in the case, and no grand jury has been impaneled to hear evidence.