The Spy Who Wasn't
Anatomy of a Scandal
The Wen Ho Lee saga really began back in 1988, when, according to Congressional sources familiar with later briefings by intelligence officials, CIA agents were approached by a Chinese scientist who offered to spy for the United States. The scientist handed over a one-page document suggesting that China had data on a highly advanced warhead design called the W-88, a miniaturized warhead originally developed at Los Alamos. Although the document did contain some classified data, it was primarily drawn up from declassified information and contained nothing proving that the Chinese actually acquired the W-88. The agents concluded the scientist was in fact a spy for the Chinese and rejected his offer. The Chinese had and still have good reason to want the CIA to believe it had the W-88: The tiny warhead would make Chinese ICBMs almost immune to interception by ballistic missile defenses being developed by the United States--defenses China has adamantly opposed.
The incident was largely dismissed until resurrected in 1995 by Notra Trulock, then the Energy Department's director of intelligence. On the basis of the 1988 document and more recent Chinese advances in warhead miniaturization, Trulock concluded that the Chinese had in fact acquired critical information on the W-88 from the United States. His conclusion clashed with speculation by the CIA that China had obtained information on warhead miniaturization from the Russians or even developed improvements through their own weapons program. Nonetheless, Trulock's hunch would lead to an FBI investigation of Wen Ho Lee, the only scientist from Los Alamos, where the W-88 was developed, who had traveled to China in the mid-eighties. Lee had appeared on the FBI's radar screen once before, in 1982, when he phoned another Taiwanese-born scientist suspected of passing neutron bomb secrets to the Chinese. (As would later happen to Lee himself, that scientist was fired but never charged with any crime.)
Dismissed by the CIA and other intelligence analysts, Trulock's assessment of Chinese spying would find a more welcome reception three years later before a highly politicized committee in the House of Representatives chaired by California Republican Christopher Cox. The Cox committee was investigating whether contributions to the 1996 Clinton re-election campaign played a role in helping sensitive satellite technology find its way to China. Last fall Trulock took his allegations before the committee, and soon he had named Lee as the Energy Department's "chief suspect" in the case.
On March 6, New York Times reporters James Risen and Jeff Gerth broke a story headlined "China Stole Nuclear Secrets for Bombs, U.S. Aides Say." Quoting Trulock extensively, Risen and Gerth reported that China had made "a leap in the development of nuclear weapons: the miniaturization of its bombs...accelerated by the theft of American nuclear secrets from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico," a charge that cannot be proven to this day. Based on illegal leaks made about a pending investigation (leaks reminiscent of the Monica Lewinsky affair), the story claimed that "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" even though "government investigators had identified a suspect, an American scientist at Los Alamos laboratory." (The "reconstruction" would soon lead to calls for the resignation of everyone from Attorney General Janet Reno to White House National Security Adviser Sandy Berger.) The story went on to quote an unnamed government official as saying the suspect "stuck out like a sore thumb" because of trips made to mainland China in 1986 and 1988.
In fact, the Energy Department approved Lee's trips to attend two technical conferences. He had attended similar conferences throughout the world, particularly in Western Europe. During the 1986 trip to China, Lee's wife was actually working as an informant for the FBI to spy on mainland Chinese scientists. Nonetheless, on the same Saturday morning that the Times story broke, the FBI called in "the suspect" for questioning. Time reported that this time they "turned up the heat." By Sunday night, Lee, who had never before asked for counsel, finally stopped talking to investigators. A friend of Lee's later told Time that Lee's two-day ordeal had left him bewildered.
The next day, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson ordered that Lee be fired from Los Alamos for failing to report contacts with officials from "sensitive" countries (that is, for not having disclosed meeting a Chinese scientist on one of his early trips to China) and for giving deceptive answers (he had earlier failed a polygraph test regarding his possible mishandling of computer files). As if proof of espionage had been predetermined, Richardson told the Washington Post, "We are still trying to pin down exactly when the information was passed." Meanwhile, with Washington abuzz over Wen Ho Lee and Democrats bracing for yet another potentially embarrassing scandal, Republicans quickly resurrected two bills promoting ballistic missile defense that were voted down last year. Thanks to a reversal of opposition from the Administration and key Democrats, the bills passed overwhelmingly in both the Senate and House.
As cooler heads began to prevail and the evidence against Lee began to appear as thin as it was, a new reason to suspect the scientist emerged, again through an article written by James Risen and Jeff Gerth and again based on illegal leaks about the ongoing investigation. The April 28 article, titled "U.S. Says Suspect Put Code on Bombs in Unsecure Files," said officials charged that Lee, "who held one of the Government's highest security clearances, had been transferring enormous files involving millions of lines of secret computer code," code "used to design nuclear weapons." The Times reported that "the huge scale of the security breach has shocked some officials." Republican Senator Richard Shelby was quoted as saying the evidence "confirmed my worst fears." Bill Richardson, now using Lee's name as an adjective, justified a decision to temporarily shut down computer systems at Los Alamos in the wake of the disclosures by saying "these Wen Ho Lee transgressions cannot occur anymore." On May 10 Time echoed this story, reporting that investigators had found that between 1994 and 1995 Lee was "surreptitiously downloading millions of lines of classified code from the lab's top-secret computer database and storing the codes on the hard drive of his personal office computer," and that the codes "could have found their way into scores of foreign hands."