Treason Probe--or Witch Hunt?

Times columnist Tom Plate teaches at UCLA

Will some dare call it treason? A Washington grand jury is probing worries that U.S. missile secrets were leaked, inadvertently or otherwise, to China; before long, congressional committees will hold hearings on this explosive possibility. Let's hope the probes, which are an offshoot of investigations of Chinese efforts to buy election-year influence in Washington, don't produce a wave of red-baiting hysteria. That would prevent America from sorting out the issues involved in this case and impede any hope of coming to an understanding of the key issue: whether cooperating with Beijing on any missile program is an inherent risk to national security.

The controversial Sino-American missile effort arose when China sought to find a place for itself in today's globalized world by offering its Long March military rockets as launchers for Western communication satellites, and doing it more cheaply than others.

The effort has not been an unblemished success. Since 1992, three satellite-tipped Long March rockets have crashed shortly after liftoff. At first, Beijing, for reasons of pride as well as security, refused to cooperate with outside post-mortems. But in February 1996, after the third Long March nose-dived to Earth seconds after takeoff, a badly shaken consortium of Western insurance companies bluntly told Chinese authorities that without an independent outside review they would stop insuring future Chinese launches.

It is the next stage that has attracted the grand jury's concern. After the Chinese caved in, an international review committee, with experts from Britain and Germany as well as the U.S. and China, went to work. The purpose was to help the Chinese understand why the Long March launches were going haywire so that such costly disasters wouldn't happen again. The panel produced a technical report, now in the hands of the grand jury, that few outside the review committee have seen. But those few who have describe it as focusing on the most likely culprits in the 1996 misfire, including the inertial measurement unit, a kind of super-gyroscope guiding a rocket's trajectory.

Then the first (and perhaps only) security violation occurred. Wah L. Lim, the review committee's chair, who was then working for Loral Space and Communications, transmitted the report to Beijing before the U.S. government could review it, as required by law. This was probably an innocent move by Lim, a famed physicist born in China and raised in Singapore, but it was regrettable. The larger controversy concerns what exactly was transmitted--and here the story gets murky. For if the grand jury probe is based on the content of the report itself, those who have seen it come away mystified by the thought that there's much in there to give the Chinese a big leg up on their missile program.

America does need to keep its technological edge and guard its military security. But America also has a troubling track record of going ballistic over red-scare issues like this. Consider that at the California Institute of Technology more than four decades ago, Tsien Hsue-shen, a brilliant mainland-China-born engineer, was accused of providing secrets to Beijing during the anti-China McCarthy hysteria. Nothing was ever firmly established, but in the emotion of the time Tsien was deported back to China. There, apparently filled with revenge, he went to work for the Communist leadership and became the father of the modern Chinese missile program. So the last thing we need now is a whirlwind witch hunt with unpredictable consequences.

As Congress readies itself to plunge into the whole issue, not just the 1996 incident, let's keep in mind that the purpose of the review committee's work was to decrease the propensity of Chinese civilian missiles to crash and take Western satellites down with them, not to increase the accuracy of Chinese ballistic missiles. Those who oppose any U.S. cooperation with China will no doubt fail to see the difference. But if the U.S. is going to work with China in this area, it is obviously in the best interests of all to avoid launch disasters.

We should also keep in mind that these technology cooperations are not one-way streets: The very process of working with China and reviewing what went wrong can wind up providing the West with new insights into the Chinese missile program--about its quality-control standards, its prelaunch testing procedures, its engineering and its technological capabilities. Unless something of huge significance did in fact hit the Chinese between the eyes as they read the outside report, the United States may be learning from this missile cooperation program at least as much as the Chinese. But from all the charges and countercharges flying about, you'd think America had given away the technological store. This is very improbable. Explains one knowledgable source, "It may be that the program was more likely a tremendous intelligence coup for the United States." In reality, carefully monitored missile cooperation with the Chinese is not only in Western economic interests but in U.S. security and intelligence interests as well. It would be ironic if all this probing wound up terminating a process that is enhancing our security rather than undermining it.

Times columnist Tom Plate teaches at UCLA. E-mail:

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