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December 25, 2008
Notes from the Pentagon

Obama on lab exchanges
President-elect Barack Obama plans to resume scientist exchanges between U.S. nuclear-weapons laboratories and Chinese facilities, a program halted in the late 1990s after the loss of U.S. nuclear-warhead secrets to China.

Mr. Obama stated in an interview with Arms Control Today magazine that in addition to continuing efforts to hold a strategic nuclear dialogue with China, he wants to "resume laboratory-to-laboratory exchanges that were terminated in the 1990s."

The laboratory-exchange program during the 1990s is blamed by U.S. intelligence and security officials for leading to a strategic espionage failure. China's communist government used the program to target U.S. nuclear scientists under an elaborate program of intelligence "elicitation" - meeting lab weapons designers in conferences and hotels in China and seeking classified data through question-and-answer sessions.

The program led to the case of Los Alamos National Laboratory nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was accused but not convicted of passing nuclear secrets to China. After FBI missteps in the investigation, Lee was convicted on lesser charges of mishandling classified information, and he later sued news reporters who had reported on his case.

By May 1999, however, the CIA produced a damage assessment that concluded that the Chinese obtained data on every deployed nuclear weapon, including the W-88 small warhead for missiles and the enhanced-radiation or neutron bomb.

The FBI has failed to uncover the spy or spies who gave China the data but says it is continuing to investigate.

A U.S. counterintelligence report from 1998 stated that Department of Energy laboratories were "under attack" from foreign spies and that one method of obtaining secrets was through scientific, academic and commercial exchanges and "elicitation" of information. "China has specifically targeted DOE for collection of technical intelligence related to the design of nuclear weapons, and seeks information relating to stockpile stewardship and reliability," the report said. "This effort has been very successful, and Beijing's exploitation of U.S. national laboratories has substantially aided its nuclear weapons program."

Notra Trulock, former intelligence chief for the Energy Department, testified in 2000 to the Senate Judiciary oversight and courts subcommittee that nuclear-lab security in the 1990s was so poor that investigators identified 11 U.S. spy suspects, including Lee, who had access to warhead secrets and had traveled to China and met Chinese nuclear officials. Mr. Trulock resigned in 1999 when a government report did not back his allegations against Lee

Under the Bush administration, the Pentagon has sought to hold strategic nuclear talks with China, but the Chinese military has balked at engaging in detailed discussions, according to defense officials.

On China's nuclear buildup, Mr. Obama stated in written answers to questions posed by the magazine that China appears to be building up its nuclear forces and "as president, I will ensure that the United States continues to maintain our own military capabilities so that there can be no doubt about the strength and credibility of our security commitments in the Asia-Pacific region."

Mr. Obama said he supports continuing military exchanges with China that were halted by Beijing in response to the October announcement by the Pentagon of a long-delayed $6.5 billion arms package for Taiwan.

"I will urge China to increase transparency of its nuclear weapons policies and programs - indeed, of its military and defense policies more generally," Mr. Obama stated. "We are not enemies. I will engage the Chinese leadership in discussions that convey how greater openness in military spending and nuclear force modernization is consistent with China's and the United States' national interests and more likely to lead to greater trust and understanding."

A spokesman for the Energy Department National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the nuclear laboratories, had no immediate comment on Mr. Obama's plans to resume lab exchanges.

Resignation confusion
Some Bush administration political appointees who were dismissed this week from the Pentagon by the Obama transition team have sought guidance on how best to tender their resignations from Jim O'Beirne, special assistant to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates for White House liaison. Mr. O'Beirne sent out an e-mail to all Bush administration political appointees in the Pentagon. The exact number who were not permitted to stay on under Mr. Gates is unknown but includes numerous conservatives. "Many of you who have received notification directly from the Obama transition team that you would not be asked to remain at [the Defense Department] past the end of the Bush Administration have since contacted this office regarding the matter of submitting your resignation," Mr. O'Beirne wrote.

Robert Rangel, Mr. Gates' chief of staff, he continued, "has asked that I not provide any such guidance as it would serve to only confuse the situation further. He has stated that he will be handling the issuance of that guidance himself. Therefore, I recommend that you contact him if you have specific questions in that regard. I regret that I may not assist you directly in this matter."

Mr. Gates stated in an e-mail sent Friday that most of the 250 political appointees will be allowed to continue in their posts until they are replaced in the coming months in order to avoid a leadership vacuum between administrations.

Pantano case update
It was the most celebrated criminal case brought against a U.S. service member in either the Iraq or Afghanistan war.

Second Lt. Ilario G. Pantano, who gave up a career in Wall Street to join the Marine Corps after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, stood accused of murdering two Iraqis in the so-called triangle of death south of Baghdad.

Lt. Pantano said he fired his M-16 rifle on an April night in 2004 after the two Iraqis, who it turned out were insurgents, rushed him. When an evidentiary hearing began in 2005, Marine prosecutors lacked the bodies, and thus autopsy reports.

As it turned out, they were not needed by Pantano defense attorney Charles Gittins. A hearing officer lambasted the Corps' chief prosecution witness as untruthful. All charges were dropped, and Lt. Pantano resigned in honor.

Three years later, special correspondent Rowan Scarborough reports, Mr. Gittins finally has obtained a copy of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology's autopsies. The military exhumed the bodies a year after the shooting - and a month after the court hearing ended - and shipped them to Dover Air Force Base Port Mortuary for forensic examination.

Of deceased Iraqi Taha Ahmen Hanil, 34, the report states, "All of the injuries exhibited... are consistent with ballistic occurring in [an] anterior to posterior track."

Of the second insurgent, 15-year-old Ali Kareen Hammady, the report said, "Based on the exhibited skeletal injuries, the bullets impacted the body on [an] anterior to posterior trajectory."

Why are these two findings so important? One of the reasons prosecutors decided to charge Lt. Pantano with murder was that an Iraqi doctor said the two were shot in their backs.

The autopsy reports, though too late to help Lt. Pantano at his hearing, back his version of events.

Small groups and town halls
Mr. Gates until recently shied away from one practice of his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, of holding large-sale town-hall-style meetings with U.S. troops during frequent trips around the world.

Instead, Mr. Gates always meets, somewhat privately, with small groups of enlisted members and junior officers - all from outside the chain of command - to get feedback and listen to problems ranging from pay issues to family matters. The meetings are limited to a dozen to 20 service members, either from a single service or from various armed forces branches, depending on the base visited, according to Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.

That's changing. Mr. Gates recently held his first town hall with several hundred troops on Dec. 14 at Balad Air Base, about 40 miles north of Baghdad, in what was supposed to have been a farewell meeting for the defense secretary. Mr. Gates told the assembled troops staying on at the Pentagon for the new administration has provided a "a better appreciation of what it's like to be stop-lossed," as the military practice of keeping troops from leaving is called.

"They say Washington is the city of monuments, [and] the most monumental things I've seen since I went there over 42 years ago were the egos of some of the people who work there," Mr. Gates said.

The secretary so enjoyed the big meeting that he plans to hold more, Mr. Morrell said.

Will there be town-hall meetings at the Pentagon, as Mr. Rumsfeld used to hold? Perhaps.

"The secretary is always looking for ways to stay connected to the troops," Mr. Morrell said.

"Wherever he travels around the country and the world, he insists on time to meet with them in small groups," he said. "These intimate gatherings allow him get a sense of what's on their minds and hear concerns he needs to address. Frankly, it is the part of the job he enjoys most. But, in addition to these sessions, the secretary has just started to conduct traditional town-hall-style meetings so he can reach even more service members. You can expect many more of those in the new year."

  • Bill Gertz covers national security affairs. He can be reached at 202/636-3274, or at

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