China Spy Flap Gives GOP a Small Victory

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Well, chalk one up for the GOP. By packaging a party favorite in a veto-proof $288.9 billion defense bill that includes a military pay raise and a 4.4 percent across-the-board increase in Pentagon spending, Senate Republicans have pushed through a broad reorganization of the Department of Energy that will largely separate the nation’s nuclear labs from the rest of the department. The Republicans say the measures will streamline administration, increase accountability and prevent the kind of embarrassing security snafus that made Wen Ho Lee a household name.

To TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson, it’s just a lot of political hay. "This whole espionage angle was overblown by the Republicans for political purposes," he says. "There have always been, and will always be, attempts by possible foreign adversaries to plunder our secrets — and occasionally they’ll succeed. But if the Chinese got anything, they didn’t get very much." Will the reorganization help? Thompson doubts it. The labs do have some inherent porousness — mostly the results of a college campus-like atmosphere — yet it is that atmosphere which is critical to attracting the field’s best and brightest in peacetime. President Clinton opposes the shake-up but probably won’t risk a fight over it, not when the larger defense bill passed the Senate 93-5 and the House 375-45. And if the plan won’t slow down Chinese spying much, it is at least a minor blemish on Clinton's record card — and that’s good enough for the GOP.