The Spy Who Wasn't
In an interview with The Nation, Edward Curran, a director at the DOE's office of counterintelligence, admitted that Los Alamos scientists have a record of mishandling classified information. "A lot of this is incidental," said Curran. "These things often happen when an employee is under pressure because of timeliness or things of that nature. These are issues that can be dealt with through training." Lee might have an even better excuse than other violators. In 1994 Los Alamos split what had been a single computer system into a secure and an unsecure system. Lee had just received a second, unsecure computer at his workstation, which could easily have led to confusion. As for his downloading of nuclear codes, Lee had been assigned to the lab's archiving project, and it was his job to download vast amounts of such information. "Of course he moved a lot of files," says Chris Mechels, a former computer systems manager at Los Alamos who worked with Lee for many years. "Anyone who had a lot of files at that time had to move them around because of the computer changes. This wasn't anything sinister. What they have done to Wen Ho Lee is an outrage." None of the articles the New York Times ran on Lee's downloading of computer files mentioned that it was part of Lee's job as an archivist.
In truth, mishandling of classified data was happening at other labs across the country as well. An April 20 report by the General Accounting Office on security at US nuclear labs found numerous "problems with information security." In the case of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the report noted, officials have been "unable to locate or determine the disposition of over 12,000 secret documents," including ones involving "nuclear weapons design." The report also noted that "both DOE and laboratory officials showed little concern for the seriousness of the situation and told us that they believed the missing documents were the result of administrative error...and not theft." Los Alamos was singled out for special criticism by the GAO report, which noted that "issues related to the inadequate separation of classified and unclassified computer networks were identified at Los Alamos in 1988, 1992 and 1994. This problem was only partially corrected in 1997, as classified information was discovered on Los Alamos' unclassified computer network in 1998." In other words, mishandling of information of the sort Lee is accused of was occurring as late as 1998, well after the time period when Lee's alleged transgressions are said to have occurred.
Yet another grave distortion by reporters involves the nature of the codes downloaded by Lee. According to Mechels and Lee's lawyer, Mark Holscher, the legacy codes Lee downloaded were actually useless without more highly guarded input devices to make them meaningful to a weapons designer. But as late as June 15, the New York Times continued to suggestively report that Lee "had downloaded thousands of secret codes used in the design of the most sophisticated American nuclear weapons."
The Disappearing Missile
The biggest hole in the case against Lee became apparent with the release of the much-ballyhooed Cox report on May 24: the absence of the crime itself. The Cox committee, a likely source of some of the leaks about the Wen Ho Lee case, was big on sweeping Yellow Peril allegations but short on facts. Among the more fantastical of its claims was that "almost every [Chinese] citizen allowed to go to the United States" as part of an officially sanctioned delegation "likely receives some type of [intelligence] collection requirement" and that the Chinese have 3,000 US-based "front" corporations.
Most telling, after the shadowy figure of Wen Ho Lee provided much of the buildup for the release of the committee's report, the actual document did not even mention his name--a glaring omission that can only be explained by the committee's failure to marshal any concrete evidence against him. And while the report claimed that the Chinese stole data on the W-88--the original allegation, made in early March by the New York Times, that led to Lee's dismissal--its only hard evidence was the highly suspect 1988 document handed over by a Chinese agent and dismissed by most in the intelligence establishment since that time. "The Cox report and all this hoopla have not really disclosed anything we didn't know before," says Union of Concerned Scientists senior staff scientist Lizbeth Gronlund. "It would be dangerous to infer that [China] poses some kind of danger it didn't pose before."
While there is little evidence to suggest the Chinese have acquired the know-how necessary to construct the W-88, there are solid reasons to believe they haven't. The most important is that they haven't built one. China's aging arsenal of some two dozen single-warhead, liquid-fueled ICBMs (compared with an 8,000-warhead US arsenal) more closely resembles US warhead technology from the fifties than anything designed in recent decades. And China shows no inclination toward allocating the tremendous resources necessary for a Great Leap Forward in missile technology. As Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists publisher Stephen Schwartz has written, China's entire military budget of $35 billion barely equals what the United States spends annually on nuclear weapons alone. "This is not a question about know-how," says Gronlund. "People think that if China wanted this technology they would have to steal it. That just isn't true. They have made a conscious decision not to emulate the United States and Russia and not get into this very expensive nuclear-arms-race position."
Despite the lack of evidence, Senator Jesse Helms and other staunch hawks continue to use the Wen Ho Lee case and the vague specter of Chinese espionage to impede Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. "Right-wing ideologues have used Wen Ho Lee's case to create a seeming current of disclosures that paints the Clinton Administration as irresponsible on defense issues," says Christopher Paine, senior research associate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Now this China issue has fired them up, and we are seeing all this new pressure to disengage in arms control."