Senators reacted sharply to a report yesterday that the Clinton White House knew of Chinese nuclear espionage earlier than it has acknowledged.

"That really shouldn't go on," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who plans to run for president. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), another presidential aspirant, accused the administration of covering up and "misconduct."

Even a Clinton supporter, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) -- who appeared with McCain and Hatch on "Fox News Sunday" -- accused officials of ineptitude because they apparently knew of security problems in nuclear weapons laboratories two years before President Clinton was told.

The White House said yesterday that it was alerted to suspicions of Chinese espionage in 1995 but did not learn about details until 1996, as the administration has said.

Chinese spying in U.S. weapons laboratories began in the mid-1980s during the Reagan administration, but it was not until 1995 that U.S. intelligence agencies began to suspect that China had gained access to the most advanced U.S. nuclear warhead.

In July 1995, Hazel R. O'Leary, then energy secretary, told then-White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta and other officials about evidence that China may have stolen nuclear secrets, the New York Times reported yesterday, and word filtered out to other officials in ensuing months.

National security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, the deputy in 1995, has said he did not tell Clinton until Berger was briefed thoroughly in July 1997.

The White House said yesterday that there was no formal interagency contact over the issue before April 1996, when the Energy Department first briefed Berger.

Counsel Jim Kennedy said prior discussions of the matter -- such as the July 1995 contact -- were preliminary and informal. O'Leary's talk with Panetta, Kennedy said, was "simply an informal heads-up to the White House."