By Josh White and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 27, 2008
After Taiwanese officials reported in early 2007 that four packages they had received from the U.S. military did not contain the helicopter batteries they had expected, U.S. officials suggested that Taiwan simply dispose of the incorrect items -- which turned out to be parts for U.S. nuclear missiles.
In e-mail correspondence over several months between U.S. defense officials and Taiwan, the U.S. officials assumed that the erroneous shipment simply contained the wrong type of batteries, not that Taiwan had received four classified nuclear-related items that never should have left U.S. soil.
U.S. government officials familiar with the communications said yesterday that at some point between August 2006 and last week, Taiwan opened the drum-shaped packages and noticed that the items inside were labeled "secret" and that they included Mark 12 nose cones, which are used with U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Since early 2007, Taiwan had been asking U.S. officials to either reimburse it for the missing batteries or replace them, as part of billions of dollars in U.S. military sales to Taiwan over the past decade. But after the situation was resolved and U.S. authorities told the Taiwanese to get rid of the items they had received -- missing warning signs of a serious breach -- the Taiwanese double-checked the packages because of worries that discarding them could be dangerous.
Taiwan last week alerted U.S. authorities that it believed the military had shipped items related to U.S. "warheads," sparking alarm at the highest levels of the Pentagon. It is unclear when the Taiwanese opened the packages and how long they knew they had classified U.S. materials in their possession, but the drums were in a warehouse for more than 18 months while the United States did not know the sensitive materials were missing.
"Last week they said they didn't think they could destroy these items and said it was warhead-related material," said one U.S. government official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because the incident is under investigation. "That was the first time there was any indication we weren't dealing with a battery. All the alarm bells went off at that point."
The parts that the United States shipped to Taiwan are Mark 12 nose-cone assemblies, which have 1960s technology and are being phased out by the Air Force in favor of nose cones compatible with newer Mark 12A warheads for its Minuteman III missiles. There are about 700 Mark 12 assemblies in the U.S. inventory, and the Air Force has been shipping excess to the Pentagon's Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) for storage at an air base in Utah. The assemblies do not contain nuclear material but help trigger a detonation as a ballistic missile nears its target.
U.S. officials said yesterday it appears that workers at the DLA initially did not determine that the materials Taiwan received were classified because the outside of the packages had unclassified inventory codes that indicated they contained batteries. Quarterly inventory checks -- about 10 of them -- also missed the error, and the discrepancy was not discovered until Thursday. Air Force and DLA spokesmen declined to comment and referred questions to the Pentagon.
"Once the error was verified, the department took immediate action to acquire positive control of the equipment and commence the recovery process," said Brian Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman. "Positive control was gained in hours, not days."
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates learned of the error late last week, informed President Bush and immediately ordered an investigation, which will focus on whether the Air Force properly labeled the packages for shipment to the DLA and then how the DLA stored, tracked and shipped them overseas. Authorities said the packages were inappropriately stored in an unclassified warehouse and that the outer packages might have been mislabeled.
The incident has been embarrassing to Defense Department officials charged with securing and maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal and has added tension to the relationship between the United States and China.
China responded sternly yesterday to the news of the erroneous shipment, issuing a vehement protest, warning of "disastrous consequences" and demanding a thorough investigation.
The response reflected the depth of Chinese opposition to U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan, a self-ruled island that Beijing maintains is a part of China. In particular, China has responded with irritation to a recent effort by the Taiwanese Defense Ministry to buy advanced F-16 warplanes to enhance its fleet of older F-16s bought from Washington a decade ago.
Bush administration officials said the nose-cone assemblies had been returned and that U.S. diplomats contacted China and Taiwan to explain the error after it was discovered last week. But the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it expects more information about what occurred and that the shipment could affect relations between Washington and Beijing.
"We demand that the U.S. side thoroughly investigate this matter and report to China in a timely manner the details of the situation and eliminate the negative effects and disastrous consequences created by this incident," said a declaration attributed to Qin Gang, a ministry spokesman. "We urge the U.S. side to keep the promises they have made . . . and stop weapons sales and military contacts with Taiwan to avoid endangering peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and the improvement in Sino-U.S. relations."
In a phone conversation yesterday between Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao, the subject of the errant delivery came up briefly, according to national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley. "It came up very briefly, and basically the president indicated that a mistake had been made," Hadley told reporters. "There [was] very little discussion about it."
Such classified materials are supposed to be closely monitored, and defense officials said the shipment to Taiwan almost certainly occurred because of human error.
"The investigation will determine the integrity of the shipping containers and their contents during the foreign military sales process," said Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne, in announcing the erroneous shipment on Tuesday.
Staff writer Michael Abramowitz in Washington and correspondent Edward Cody in Beijing contributed to this report.