The report released last week by the House Select Committee on U.S. National Security is startling, but not because China tried to steal our nuclear weapons designs. Public and private espionage is an unfortunate fact that comes with having the most advanced weapons systems in the world. What is startling is that our intelligence operation for 20 years and through multiple administrations woefully underestimated China's efforts and failed to prevent their successes.

In responding to these revelations, the United States must focus on the systemic failure of our counterintelligence operation. It has lacked centralization and did not adequately address emerging threats in the post-Cold War paradigm. Our intelligence agencies also have failed to embrace new technologies. Just as our national labs lead the world in state-of-the-art technology, so too must our counterintelligence agencies lead the world in surveillance and verification measures.

I represent a district in California that is home to two of our nation's labs, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia California National Laboratories. The overwhelming majority of the men and women who work there are honest, hard-working and patriotic. They embrace their role of maintaining the most advanced defense arsenal in the world that keeps American families safe. Fortunately, they are good at their jobs.

In the event of suspected espionage, it is the FBI's duty to gather criminal evidence admissible in court. So while one part of our government is responsible for developing the secrets, another is charged with prosecuting spies. In the pursuit of their individual aims, the primary goal of protecting our secrets has been ignored. That is inexcusable. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson's decision to appoint a counterintelligence czar and form a new Office of Counterintelligence is a critical first step to ensuring that our ultimate responsibility will be to make our nuclear laboratories theft proof.

In Congress, I have been working with a bipartisan coalition led by Rep. Norm Dicks (Wash.), the Democrats' ranking member on the Select Committee, to solve these structural deficiencies in our counterintelligence operation. Specifically, our proposal creates a chain of command with ultimate authority resting with the secretary of energy and establishes financial penalties for activities often associated with espionage, such as shifting classified materials into unclassified computer networks.

We also need to move our counterintelligence operation beyond the Cold War by addressing new threats and new technologies. It is clear from the report that our agents are still looking for someone to walk out of the lobby with a three-ring binder marked "National Security Secrets." But yesterday's notebooks are today's high-speed modems. The tools in our counterintelligence arsenal must always be one step ahead of the ever-evolving high-technology tools of espionage.

I fear, though, that in reacting to the report, some people will seek politically expedient solutions that neither achieve their stated goals nor are in our national interest. Already, some in Congress have called for shutting down all visits to our national labs by foreign scientists. This simplistic approach fails to distinguish between the smuggling of our classified national secrets by American citizens and conducting non-classified, disarmament-oriented exchanges with countries such as Russia.

In February, I spent a week in Moscow meeting with U.S. and Russian scientists who administer programs designed to stop Russian scientists and their nuclear materials from going to countries such as Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Given the state of the Russian economy and the fact that Russia's uranium stockpiles are not locked down, we have no choice but to engage our Russian counterparts on a scientist-to-scientist level. That is why misdirected reactions to Chinese espionage could end up jeopardizing our national security.

We also must reject isolationists who want to use this opportunity to reverse years of progress in our relations with China. Continuing our active engagement with China on trade and humanitarian issues is just as much a part of our national interest as it was last month or last year. Gaining China acceptance to the World Trade Organization will force China to adopt rules-based trade practices that will make China conform to world standards and give its trading partners a forum to adjudicate grievances.

In fashioning complete and accurate solutions to our counterintelligence operation, we must resist expressions of false indignation that China would diligently attempt to steal our nuclear weapons designs. As a world superpower for the past 50 years, we have the most advanced thermonuclear warheads and electromagnetic technology in the world. Part of being the idea capital of the world is protecting those ideas. It is up to us to protect what is ours.

The writer, a Democratic representative from California, is a member of the House Armed Services Committee.