The completion of a secret House committee report on American technology transfers to China has set the stage for a major battle over how many of the report's details will be made public.
The committee, headed by Rep. Chris Cox, R-Calif., said Wednesday it found that U.S. national security was harmed by Chinese acquisitions of American military technology over the past two decades.
In itself, the report could lead to tightening of controls on American technology exports to China and to further restrictions on Chinese access to U.S. facilities like the nuclear weapons labs at Los Alamos, N.M., and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near San Francisco.
Cox said Thursday that he wanted the entire report declassified. Until the details are released, it will be impossible to know whether the committee has come up with groundbreaking revelations or whether it is pulling together information that already has been on the public record.
"So far, it's all classified. I can't tell if they're coming up with something new or just recycling stuff and putting alarming rhetoric on it," said Gary Milhollin of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control. Milhollin, a specialist on technology transfers, testified before Cox's committee.
For example, one section of the House report is said to focus on Chinese thefts of American technology secrets. That could well involve new material. Or it might summarize disclosures that date back a decade or more. In 1989, the FBI counterintelligence chief in Los Angeles said China had surpassed the Soviet Union in operations to steal technology in California.
Similarly, the House report is said to describe how China stole nuclear weapons design technology from the U.S. national laboratories run by the Energy Department.
That could be an updated account of a story first reported by the San Jose Mercury-News in 1990: that Chinese scientists had built and tested a neutron bomb using secrets stolen from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Or, the committee's conclusion may be based on new information the congressional investigation uncovered.
"I don't think this is just a tempest in a teapot," said James Mulvenon, a China specialist at the Rand Corp.'s Washington office and another committee witness. "I think they have got something and they're figuring out how to use it."
The release of the report "is just the beginning," Mulvenon said. "The report could serve as the launching point for a series of embarrassing public hearings with the executive branch."
In a telephone interview Thursday, Cox said the committee's report includes important new information. "If you weighed it, I suppose 50 percent of it by weight has been in the press before, just because you can't have every word be new," he said. "But our significant findings are new."
For their part, Chinese officials Thursday sharply denied that they had mounted a serious effort to obtain militarily useful U.S. technology.
"The allegation is groundless and irresponsible," said Zhu Bangzao, a Foreign Ministry spokesman. "We express our strong resentment over this."
In Wednesday's report, the congressional panel made 38 recommendations to prevent sharing of sensitive technology _ including tighter export controls, which could hurt Sino-U.S. trade.
Zhu said that the normal exchange of trade and technology "is in the interest of both sides" and urged the United States to continue such cooperative efforts.
The House committee's 700-page document was based on a six-month investigation, during which the panel held 22 hearings and took testimony from 75 witnesses. For now, its findings are classified top secret.
The committee plans to publish an unclassified version, but it has not been determined how many of the details in the classified report will be included in that document.
Over the next few weeks, there could well be considerable skirmishing between Congress and the Clinton administration over how much information should be declassified and released.
"I want to declassify essentially the whole thing," Cox said. "We've talked to a number of experts like (former CIA Director) James Woolsey who agree that we can move to declassification. We've got some leverage on this, because the House has the power to declassify."
If the Clinton administration is "dragging its feet" on declassification, Cox said, the House intelligence committee could have a closed session to decide how much of the report can be released, and the full House could meet in executive session to make a final decision.
Cox would not discuss the specifics of the report. But according to sources familiar with the panel's investigation, the report includes sections on China's acquisition of American technology for supercomputers, machine tools and missile-guidance technology.
Although Republican congressional leaders have criticized the Clinton administration for being too lax in approving U.S. high-technology exports to China, the U.S. business community has so far headed off legislative efforts to impose drastic restrictions on these sales.
For example, after the disclosure last year that U.S. companies had helped China to improve the reliability of its rocket launches, the House passed a bill that would have banned further exports of U.S. satellites for launch on Chinese rockets.
A few months later, this sweeping restriction died quietly in the Senate. Instead, the Republican Congress passed narrower legislation that permits the exports, but transfers the licensing authority over commercial satellites from the Commerce Department back to the State Department.
During his 1992 campaign, Clinton attracted unusually strong business support from executives in technology industries. After taking office, his administration took a series of steps aimed at liberalizing the controls on technology exports for products like advanced computers.
At the time, proponents argued that the existing restrictions were cumbersome, unnecessary and curtailed imports of goods that could easily be obtained elsewhere. But critics argued that the liberalized export controls could help countries like China to improve missile and nuclear capabilities.
The new House report is likely to revive this longstanding battle over export controls.