Justice Department Probes Second China Satellite Incident
House will look into missing encryption equipment
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, June 24) -- The Justice Department is investigating a second incident in connection with a probe to decide whether a U.S. company may have given China unauthorized information on why a Chinese rocket exploded and failed to carry a U.S. satellite into orbit.
The new details emerged as part of a joint House hearing on Tuesday, which also disclosed that, in 1996, the Pentagon approved the export of equipment that now appears to be in the hands of China and can be used to encode satellite communications.
Regarding the rocket explosion, the Justice Department wants to know how Hughes Electronics got the green light from the U.S. government to give Chinese authorities a study on a January 1995 incident, when a carrier rocket blew up and destroyed a U.S.-built satellite.
The information transfer took place without comment or input by either the Pentagon or the State Department -- a fact which clearly irritated Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.),the chairman of the House International Relations Committee.
"Why weren't these agencies, the experts in national security
matters, consulted?" Gilman asked officials from the Commerce Department Tuesday. Commerce had approved the information transfer.
"This was a judgment -- we made it on our own," answered William Reinsch, Undersecretary of Commerce for Export Administration.
The Justice Department inquiry into the rocket explosion episode is part of a larger criminal probe, already under way. That investigation focuses on whether Loral Space & Communications and other industry representatives, including some from Hughes, illegally gave China an accident report on the explosion of a Long March missile in 1996 -- and whether, as the Pentagon alleges, that report contained information useful in improving China's long-range missiles.
However, the Pentagon itself became a focus of interest at the hearing on Tuesday.
Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) told Reinsch he had learned from the National Security Agency that a piece of encryption equipment that orients a satellite toward Earth was missing from the wreckage of a U.S. satellite that was destroyed in a Chinese rocket launch failure in 1996.
At the time, Chinese officials kept U.S. observers away from the crash site for five hours, Weldon said. The Chinese "went in and evidently recovered the processor box. But when we got the processor box opened, the circuit board which contained the encryption was missing."
Weldon said this was a serious concern that would be addressed by a special House committee looking into the issue of possible U.S. technology transfer to China.