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II: The Times Gets Its Man

About the Author

Robert Scheer
Robert Scheer, a contributing editor to The Nation, is editor of Truthdig.com and author of The Great American Stickup...

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The media nightmare for Lee began with a 4,000-word front-page Times story on March 6, 1999, under the shocking headline: "Breach at Los Alamos: A special report; China Stole Nuclear Secrets for Bombs, US Aides Say." It was written by two of the newspaper's more aggressive investigative reporters: Jeff Gerth, who won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting the alleged transfer of satellite technology to China (a controversial report that triggered the Cox investigation), and James Risen. The opening paragraph--never mind that it was false--stated, "Working with nuclear secrets stolen from an American Government laboratory, China has made a leap in the development of nuclear weapons: the miniaturization of its bombs, according to Administration officials." This "breakthrough," the story claimed--also incorrectly--"was accelerated by the theft of American nuclear secrets from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico." The story noted dramatically, "At the dawn of the atomic age, a Soviet spy ring that included Julius Rosenberg had stolen the first nuclear secrets out of Los Alamos. Now, at the end of the cold war, the Chinese seemed to have succeeded in penetrating the same weapons lab."

The reporters relied heavily on unnamed sources and one named source, Notra Trulock, the former Energy Department Director of Intelligence, who had been involved in the Wen Ho Lee investigation. They credited Trulock with being the "star witness" at the Cox Congressional hearings. The Times described him as a "whistleblower" ignored by a Clinton Administration devoted to maintaining good ties with Beijing at any cost. Trulock's secret testimony, leaked to the Times reporters, was taken as unquestioned gospel and formed the basis of the newspaper's claim that China had stolen the secrets for the advanced W-88 warhead, an incident that the Times charged had led to what "senior intelligence officials regarded...as one of the most damaging spy cases in recent history." A simple background check on Trulock might have raised red flags about his motives in the case and his credibility as a source, but that would be revealed only later, by other reporters.

Gerth and Risen went on to chastise the Administration for not properly addressing what they alleged was a most egregious security leak: "A reconstruction by The New York Times reveals that throughout the Government, the response to the nuclear theft was plagued by delays, inaction and skepticism." The Times bemoaned the fact that after three years of investigation "no arrests have been made" and that the key suspect had been allowed to keep his high security clearance for more than a year after he'd been tagged a spy. They went on to identify the likely culprit, although withholding his name: "Only in the last several weeks, after prodding from Congress and the Secretary of Energy, have Government officials administered lie-detector tests to the main suspect, a Los Alamos computer scientist who is Chinese-American."

Two days later, that suspect was revealed to be Wen Ho Lee. Lee was abruptly fired from his job at Los Alamos after three days of grueling questioning.

Because several errors were so widely reported in the media and will haunt Lee even though the government's case crumbled, it is important to dissect each of them. To begin with, there is no conclusive evidence that China stole the secrets to the W-88 warhead, and the consensus of experts in the field is that spying, if it occurred, was not decisive to China's still minuscule and primitive nuclear program. That was the conclusion of a June 1999 report by the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, headed by former Republican Senator Warren Rudman. The board report concluded: "This information had been widely available within the U.S. nuclear weapons community, including the weapons labs, other parts of D.O.E., the Department of Defense, and private contractors, for more than a decade. For example, key technical information concerning the W-88 warhead had been available to numerous U.S. government and military entities since at least 1983 and could well have come from many organizations other than the weapons labs."

This was also the consensus in another Times cover story, reported five months after the original Gerth/Risen article, by William Broad, the paper's leading expert on nuclear weapons, which shredded the assumptions of the earlier Gerth/Risen stories. Broad interviewed Robert Vrooman, who was head of counterintelligence at Los Alamos during the investigation of Lee, who said a description of the W-88 had been widely disseminated. "A rather detailed description of the W-88 had a distribution of 548 copies," he said, adding, "Please note that I am referring to 548 mailing addresses, not people."

Even the original Gerth/Risen report stated that the CIA did not accept Trulock's dire assessment: "Trulock's briefing was based on a worst-case scenario, which C.I.A. believes was not supported by available intelligence. C.I.A. thinks the Chinese have benefited from a variety of sources, including from the Russians and their own indigenous efforts." But that assessment was treated in the story as a minor caveat.

Trulock's sensational charges were based on what the Times story termed "an intelligence windfall from Beijing." In June of 1995, a Chinese official gave CIA analysts a document that, according to the Times, "specifically mentioned the W-88 and described some of the warhead's key design features. The Los Alamos laboratory, where the W-88 had been designed, quickly emerged as the most likely source of the leak." And, of course, that is where Lee worked.

What the Times reporters either did not know or care to mention was that the CIA had quickly concluded that the Chinese official was a double agent still working for Beijing, and that the document had been planted for some devious purpose such as to impress Taiwan that Beijing might modernize its nuclear force. It also turned out that while the document was an authentic duplication of some design calculations, it contained several signature errors that had been made in the weapons design process after the W-88 had left Los Alamos and was being worked on at Lockheed Martin and at the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. Lee had no connection with that document, and as a result of that discovery and the fact that there was not a scintilla of any other evidence linking Lee with the theft of W-88 warhead secrets, at the time of his indictment in December of 1999 Lee was no longer a target of an investigation concerning the W-88. So much for the main evidence.

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