W ith a U.S. congressional committee poised to release a report on alleged Chinese spying at U.S. nuclear facilities, the political furor in Washington over the theft of U.S. military secrets is certain to escalate, and could cause serious political repercussions in the United States and in its foreign relations. Some information from the investigation, headed by U.S. Republican Rep. Christopher Cox of California, has already been divulged. Among the report’s charges are allegations that China stole classified information on seven nuclear weapons that form the bulk of the U.S. modern nuclear arsenal, such as technology related to the development of miniature nuclear warheads. Miniature warheads are key to the development of submarine-based nuclear forces and multiple-warhead missiles.

If the Cox report’s accusations are true, then U.S. national security has been compromised. No one doubts Washington must take steps to strengthen its antiespionage measures. However, there is the real danger that the political uproar fueled by the report could cause Capitol Hill to overreact and, ironically, pass measures that would further compromise U.S. security rather than enhance it.

It is only May, but the halls of Capital Hill are already heating up. Spurred on by suspicions that former Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Wen Ho Lee, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Taiwan, passed nuclear secrets to China, Congress has drawn up legislation that would prevent foreign scientists from countries deemed “sensitive” from visiting U.S. nuclear research laboratories unless they receive special authorization.

Congress’ intentions are good, but its efforts are misdirected. As opponents of the legislation — including U.S. Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson and the presidents of some of the country’s most prestigious science academies — point out, international science exchanges are a critical part of U.S. national security. Many foreign scientists conduct research at U.S. laboratories, and U.S. facilities vie for their expertise. Barring foreign visitors would isolate U.S. scientists, hinder technological development and dampen innovation. New regulations implemented by the U.S. Department of Energy in the wake of the spy scandal have already cost Los Alamos National Laboratories the services of several highly regarded researchers.

Congress should also remember that the door swings both ways. Countries likely to be affected by the legislation — notably India, China and Russia — would undoubtedly respond in kind to U.S. government scientists. Most serious would be the damage done to U.S. nonproliferation projects, which include projects aimed at helping Russia secure its uranium and plutonium stockpiles, and efforts to put a lid on North Korea’s budding nuclear program.

Political relations with effected countries would also suffer. Ties between Washington and Beijing have already been strained by NATO’s bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Washington’s decision to postpone support of China’s WTO bid, renewed criticism of China’s human-rights record, and the growing U.S.-China trade deficit. Beijing has denied all espionage allegations, and blamed the furor on “an emerging anti-China trend fueled by U.S. partisan politics.” While such rhetoric is to be expected, a senior Chinese diplomat’s warning that the stakes are too high to let China-U.S. relations deteriorate over allegations of espionage should be heeded.

Spying is a time-honored trade, and it will continue to be plied as long as national interests remain to be served. Not even close friends are immune to each other’s cloak and dagger operations. One of America’s most notorious spy incidents, the Jonathan Pollack case, involved Israel. Two years ago, France and the U.S. had a spat over allegations that U.S. embassy personnel had attempted to steal French trade and business secrets. Last week, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested an Australian citizen on espionage charges. In all of these cases, security lessons have been heeded but, sensibly, efforts were made to ensure that national interests did not fall victim to short-sighted, emotionally charged policies.

All reports indicate that security has been embarrassingly lax at U.S. national weapons laboratories. Washington must take the necessary steps to rectify these shortcomings without overreacting. Protecting secrets is one dimension of U.S. national security; isolating its scientists and creating an atmosphere of paranoia and insecurity is not.

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