Lott Raises Stakes in China Probe
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) threatened Tuesday to hold up all of President Clinton’s nominations to key agencies and to issue subpoenas to the White House unless the administration cooperates more fully with congressional investigations of U.S. satellite exports to China.
The threat came as Lott, citing classified information that he could not divulge, said that “new information has come to light” about alleged efforts by the Chinese government to influence U.S. elections. Congressional aides said that the information surfaced largely from a closed-door intelligence briefing provided last week by FBI Director Louis J. Freeh and CIA Director George J. Tenet.
In stinging remarks on the Senate floor, Lott also announced that he had come to a preliminary conclusion that China received military benefits and sensitive technology from U.S. satellite exports during Clinton’s tenure--a charge that Democrats said was exaggerated and politically motivated.
Lott called his assertions “major interim judgments” based on 13 hearings by four Senate committees in recent months. “The Clinton administration’s export controls for satellites are wholly inadequate,” Lott charged. “They have not protected sensitive U.S. technology. National security concerns are regularly downplayed and even ignored.”
But Democrats responded that Lott was playing politics with ongoing inquiries and reaching conclusions before all the facts are in.
“Sen. Lott today tried to connect a lot of dots that frankly don’t connect,” said White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry. “Our judgment here is that that was not a serious statement by a serious person. It was a political argument made by a politician for political benefit.”
Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, ranking Democrat on the Select Committee on Intelligence, accused Lott of endangering national security by bringing politics to the Senate’s intelligence process.
“The committee hasn’t drawn conclusions yet,” Kerry fumed. “That’s not to suggest there are not serious questions about the transfer of technology.”
In an interview, Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) stopped short of embracing Lott’s rhetoric, saying that he had come to no conclusions on the satellite issue. But he acknowledged that he received new information on activities by the Chinese government that has “probative value to this investigation.”
Lott lashed out amid increasing partisan strain in the Senate, where Democrats have stalled consideration of bills funding major government agencies in a bid to force consideration of health care reform proposals.
Republicans have struggled for more than a year to nail down allegations that China illegally funneled money into this country’s 1996 elections--a charge that was left hanging after the Senate’s high-profile fund-raising investigation ended last year.
Lott said that the new data is compelling enough that it “should remove all resistance to naming an independent counsel to investigate the evidence and allegations.”
Atty. Gen. Janet Reno has resisted repeated GOP calls that she name an independent counsel to look into a variety of allegations involving Democratic fund-raising practices that emerged after the 1996 vote.
Setting the current controversy in motion were disclosures in May that Torrance entrepreneur Johnny Chien Chuen Chung had told federal prosecutors that China’s People’s Liberation Army had provided some of the money that he donated to the Democrats. Further details, however, have remained under wraps.
In his broadside, Lott accused the Commerce, Justice, State and Defense departments of not promptly providing documents to the Senate investigative committees.
“I do not plan to move nominees for any noncooperative agencies until our legitimate oversight requests are honored,” he said.
He also said that the administration had ignored “overwhelming” information regarding Chinese arms proliferation and had embarked on a “de facto policy designed to protect China and U.S. satellite companies from [trade] sanctions” against countries found to be helping spread large-scale weaponry.
Lott’s comments contained no clue to whether Republican congressional leaders plan only to seek a moderate tightening of export control rules--as many expect--or if they will try to cut off the sale of satellites to China.
It is widely agreed, analysts have said, that the Chinese have obtained some information with military value through U.S. satellite exports. The question is how much value the material has had.
“The question is, on a scale of 1 to 10, is the loss of this information the greatest treason since the Rosenbergs gave up the secrets of the [atomic] bomb, or is it just enough to get Loral fined $50,000?” said John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington think tank. “The violent disagreement is over how significant it’s been.”
Pike, who has been skeptical of the controversy, said that in his view the seriousness was “0.5 on a scale of 1 to 10.”
But Henry D. Sokolski, a former Bush administration official who favors tighter export controls, said that he believes the Chinese have gained valuable information through satellite exports.
Sokolski, now with the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, asserted that the experience the Chinese have gained in launching large, fragile U.S. satellites will better equip them to launch satellites--perhaps containing multiple warhead systems--of their own.
“There’s no way we haven’t helped them master a number of things,” he said.
Times staff writer Ronald J. Ostrow contributed to this story.