China Spying Issue Threatens to Turn Into Partisan Battle

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Is post-Lewinsky Washington basking in bipartisan bonhomie? Not likely. Chinese espionage is quickly shaping up as the next partisan skirmish: With a CIA task force assessing the damage in the Los Alamos nuclear secrets case and two men indicted in Boston Tuesday for attempting to ship missile technology to China, the Clinton administration and congressional Republicans are reportedly at loggerheads over how much of a congressional inquiry into the issue should be declassified. Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) headed a House inquiry into the national security impact of 20 years of trade with China, and among its findings was that Beijing acquired advanced nuclear warhead technology from a Los Alamos scientist. Republicans want the bulk of the Cox report declassified, but the administration has raised concerns over revealing intelligence-gathering methods.

Republican accusations that the White House has carpeted over Chinese espionage to maintain its relationship with Beijing have given the issue partisan momentum. "While there are important national security issues involved, the issue is being politically driven," says TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson. "There's blood in the water around President Clinton -- his ability to change the subject is diminishing, and we're going to see a lot more of this issue over the next two years." And particularly over the next three weeks, with China's Premier Zhu Rong-ji due in Washington at the end of March. Rapprochement with China may be the ultimate bipartisan foreign policy, having been pursued by successive U.S. administrations from Nixon on. But it's also a traditional grievance of the party out of power.

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