In a bad spy flick, there’s got to be a character like Notra Trulock, an obsessed sleuth who always gets his man–even if it’s the wrong man. Trulock, a former Energy Department intelligence officer, has relentlessly and almost single-handedly pursued Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee for years.
Not surprising, Trulock’s name surfaced once again last week in a federal judge’s decision–now vindictively on appeal by Atty. Gen. Janet Reno’s Justice Department–to grant Lee bail after nine months in solitary confinement.
U.S. District Judge James A. Parker found that he had been deceived by government witnesses and ordered the prosecution to turn over all records of statements by Trulock that relate to the investigation’s focus on ethnic Chinese. The judge moved after Lee’s defense team produced affidavits from top intelligence officials charging that Trulock’s pursuit of Lee was racially motivated. Those affidavits, declassified and released to the public just last Friday, provide a devastating account of Trulock’s behavior.
Trulock came to public notice in a New York Times story March 6, 1999, headlined: “Breach at Los Alamos: A Special Report; China Stole Nuclear Secrets For Bombs, U.S. Aides Say.” The article mentioned a “Chinese American” working at the lab. Two days later, the Taiwan-born Lee, a U.S. citizen, was fired.
The source of this hoary claim, according to the Times, was Trulock, who was the key witness before a secret congressional committee headed by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach). The charges of Chinese spying couldn’t have been more startling or, as it later turned out, more wrong.
The basis of Trulock’s testimony was an accusation that China had stolen the secrets for the advanced W-88 warhead, a claim based on a document turned over to the U.S. by a suspected double agent. But errors in the design marked the document to two other labs, exonerating Los Alamos–and Lee–of the spy charges. Lee instead was charged with improper handling of files that, as it turned out, were unclassified at the time he downloaded them. Prosecutors now admit this case has nothing whatever to do with nuclear theft charges raised by Trulock.
Lee’s lawyers argue that Lee was singled out for years of investigation in the W-88 case because of racial profiling by Trulock, and that the current charges against Lee are a face-saving attempt by the Clinton administration after having fallen for Trulock’s allegations and firing Lee. As the New York Times stated in its original report: “In personal terms, the handling of this case is very much the story of the Energy Department intelligence official who first raised questions about the Los Alamos case, Notra Trulock.”
The documents requested by Judge Parker go directly to the question of whether Trulock singled out Lee as the suspect because of his ethnic background while ignoring others with equal or greater access to weapons data.
Robert Vrooman, who was in charge of security at Los Alamos, filed an affidavit with the court stating, “It is my opinion that the failure to look at the rest of the population”–people with access to the same secret data as Lee–“is because Lee is ethnic Chinese.” He added that although there was a list of non-Chinese people with access, “Mr. Trulock made clear that Dr. Lee was his primary suspect.”
In another affidavit, Charles E. Washington, former acting director of counterintelligence at the Energy Department, stated, “Based on my experience and my personal knowledge, I believe that Mr. Trulock improperly targeted Dr. Lee due to Dr. Lee’s race and national origin.” After reading the full Energy Department record on the case, Washington concluded that “the inquiry was wholly lacking in any support to identify Dr. Lee as a suspect.”
Washington, a decorated Vietnam veteran with extensive military intelligence experience, attempted unsuccessfully to communicate his concerns to Trulock and concludes in the sworn affidavit:
“Based upon my personal experience with Mr. Trulock, I strongly believe that he acts vindictively and opportunistically, that he improperly uses security issues to punish and discredit others, and that he has racist views toward minority groups. I am a black man of African American origin, and I personally experienced his misconduct, and I know of other minorities who were victimized by Mr. Trulock.”
Washington recounted that at one point he was “forced to call outside police officers due to Mr. Trulock’s abusive behavior.” In sworn testimony, Washington said he brought a lawsuit against the Energy Department based on that and “other improper conduct,” which was settled in Washington’s favor.
It was because of these two affidavits that Judge Parker ordered an inquiry into Trulock’s role. Something the Cox committee and the New York Times should have undertaken before they swallowed Trulock’s lurid tales of spying–hook, line and sinker.