Perspective on spying

The secrets the Chinese stole give them no new power advantage

Although the cold war is over, spying continues, as we see so clearly from the revelations about China's theft of US nuclear secrets. The intensity of American reaction is surprising, though. During the cold war the US caught Chinese and Russian spies red-handed. But there was little public outcry or official condemnation.

Now, though, because the US is on friendly terms with China and Russia, it appears to expect better of them. Yet just a few years ago, the French caught Americans red-handed spying against them.

So, it's clear that while spying is likely to continue, getting caught is taken more seriously in a world of friends than one of enemies. This risk is especially high with the use of human agents who are almost always quickly identified with the country employing them. Electronic and photographic intelligence collection techniques often go unnoticed or, at the least, ignored because they are less egregious.

This Chinese incident, then, tells us that the US, and others, will use human spying only when there are gaps in what we know from open sources and from electronic and photographic spying; and when filling those gaps is deemed very important to the country.

Still, because human spying will go on, the US must improve its ability to counter it. Human agents planted inside the government by a foreign power work through some American who gives them access to US secrets. Finding that American usually involves spying on him/her - that is, tapping telephones or using other means of surveillance. Such intrusions into the liberties of citizens risk damaging the society we are protecting.

There are laws that govern these intrusions. One, currently receiving scrutiny, is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978 governing the tapping of telephones. The attorney general must certify to a special court that there is probable cause to believe the person whose phone is to be tapped is acting as an agent of a foreign power. That is a high standard, but it was made high back in 1978 because there had been excessive intrusions into the lives of citizens. Before lowering that standard, we should be careful not to overreact to these Chinese actions. Tightening the procedures for safeguarding secret materials right at the nuclear weapons laboratories is a more urgent need.

Although the US lost an enormous amount of secret data, the information will not give the Chinese some new advantage. The US nuclear arsenal outdistances every other by a large factor. In addition, we need to understand that the numbers and the characteristics of nuclear weapons are much less important than with conventional weapons. Nuclear weapons are so destructive that no country requires, or could utilize, more than a very modest number. What is needed is enough to deter any would-be nuclear aggressor from attacking. With 6,000 nuclear warheads of intercontinental range in US hands, compared with about 20 in China's, the Chinese are deterred. Similarly, the US is deterred from initiating nuclear war with China by its 20. There is no conceivable objective of the US use of nuclear weapons if it would result in retaliation by even one nuclear warhead.

So, if the Chinese use American secrets to place more warheads on their missiles or to build more and better missiles, they will not acquire any new advantage. The fact that they have limited themselves to 20 intercontinental warheads for many years indicates they understand this. Nor will improvements in Chinese nuclear weapons meaningfully increase the Chinese nuclear threat to our allies in their region: South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines. The existing Chinese arsenal is all the threat they need against these nonnuclear powers. Nuclear stability for these allies depends on the US.

There could be a serious impact from the loss of US secrets if US data get out to nations aspiring to nuclear capability. The proliferation of nuclear weapons is one of the greatest dangers we face. Thus, while we need not be too alarmed at the Chinese actions, we must close the door to further spying.

*Stansfield Turner, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has just published 'Caging the Genies: A Workable Solution for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Weapons' (Westview Press).

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.