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China's acquisition plan

Congress infuriated the American aerospace industry this fall when it passed legislation that reversed White House policy and imposed sharp restrictions on satellite technology exports to China. Lobbyists blasted the changes, which President Clinton reluctantly signed into law, claiming they would put American companies at a competitive disadvantage. If the criticism caused lawmakers to second-guess their politically risky effort to protect national security, they should now consider themselves fully vindicated.

A six-month investigation by a House select committee examining U.S. security and relations with China has uncovered compelling evidence that suggests the Beijing government's interest in U.S. satellite technology was part of a broad, 20-year campaign to acquire, often through outright theft, American military and nuclear secrets. In a disturbing 700-page report, parts of which were recently declassified, the panel concluded the "serious, sustained" effort by the Communist government to obtain American weapons technology during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations damaged U.S. national security and compromised American weapons programs.

The panel uncovered, for example, evidence that the Chinese stole weapons design technology on several occasions from American nuclear laboratories, though it was unclear when or over what period of time the thefts took place. Investigators also believe information given to Chinese scientists by two American companies, the Hughes Electronics Corp. and Loral Space and Communications, may have improved that government's ability to launch satellites and ballistic missiles.

The troubling conclusions come on the heels of similar findings by a separate panel of federal investigators who recently reported the Chinese government's desire to obtain American satellite and other high technology was at the core of the so-called China connection _ the millions of dollars in illegal foreign contributions that were funneled to the Democratic Party and Clinton's legal defense fund during the 1996 election.

While still incomplete, that investigation suggests the Chinese were not attempting to influence the outcome of state and national elections, as was alleged by Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., and other members of Congress investigating campaign finance abuses. Instead, authorities now believe the Chinese hoped to use the money to enhance the political influence of their lobbyists in the United States as they argued for favorable policies on trade and technology, a theory that dovetails the conclusions of the congressional panel.

China's efforts coincided with the president's order to relax controls over technology exports and military exchanges with China, though the administration denies vehemently that illegal contributions influenced that decision. At the heart of Clinton's policy change was a decision to shift oversight of satellite export licensing from the State Department to the more business-friendly Commerce Department, an agency less inclined to subject licensing decisions to strict scrutiny on national security grounds.

What do these stunning _ and unnerving _ developments in the still-unfolding story of the China connection suggest? For starters, the revelations should clear up any confusion about whether Congress made the right decision when it reversed the Clinton administration's satellite export policy and required the president to certify personally that any missile or related technology transfers to China will not measurably improve that government's weapons capabilities.

The change should be the first of many made to address the policy failures that appear to have given the Chinese broad access to U.S. military secrets. At a minimum, the Clinton administration should take immediate steps to improve security at weapons labs and to better safeguard military intelligence.

The findings also should be interpreted as a signal to administration investigators and members of Congress to continue their inquiries until the web of shady business deals, illegal donations and covert attempts to acquire American technology is fully untangled. The case should remain open until it is clear whether the Chinese benefited from making illegal campaign contributions, how much damage may have been done to U.S. security as a result and _ most importantly _ who should be held accountable.