Wen Ho Lee and the Politics of Nuclear Espionage
By Dan Stober and Ian Hoffman
Simon & Schuster 384pp -- $26MY COUNTRY VERSUS ME
By Wen Ho Lee with Helen Zia
Hyperion 332pp -- $23.95
It started with a tip. A walk-in defector from China offered papers suggesting that Chinese nuclear scientists had copied America's premier warhead, the W88. U.S. investigators at the Los Alamos National Laboratory were divided about whether China had stolen the design, whether the defector was a plant, and what to make of the 13,000 mostly unremarkable documents he eventually brought out from China. But they reluctantly agreed there might be a mole at the lab.
Next came a suspect. After reviewing a similar 1980s spy case and scientists' travel records and contacts, investigators settled on Taiwanese-born Wen Ho Lee as their target. "It's Wen Ho Lee and we're gonna get him," Craig Schmidt, the FBI agent in charge, is quoted as saying in A Convenient Spy: Wen Ho Lee and the Politics of Nuclear Espionage by San Jose Mercury-News reporter Dan Stober and Albuquerque Journal reporter Ian Hoffman. The well-reported volume is one of two new books on the case. The other, My Country Versus Me by Lee and Helen Zia, is Lee's personal, score-settling account.
Once under way, there was no turning back. FBI agent Carol Covert spent two years telling Lee that she needed his help to catch a Los Alamos spy working with China--hoping Lee would slip up. When that didn't work, the government played hardball. The Energy Dept.'s top investigator, Notra Trulock, leaked details of the case to New York Times reporters Jeff Gerth and James Risen, whose Mar. 6, 1999, story, "China Stole Nuclear Secrets from Los Alamos, U.S. Officials Say," called the breach as damaging as that of the Rosenbergs. With the gloves now off, Covert spent the next day, a Sunday, trying to browbeat a confession out of Lee. "Look at this newspaper article! It all but says your name in here," she told him. "Do you know who the Rosenbergs are?" she added. "They electrocuted them, Wen Ho."
When Lee didn't crack, the government indicted him for espionage and kept him in solitary confinement for 278 days. Several times each week, he was driven, manacled, from Santa Fe to Albuquerque to meet with his lawyers. Finally facing failure, the Justice Dept. settled for a plea on only one of 58 counts. Lee had removed a dozen classified nuclear code tapes from the lab, sometimes making multiple copies. The government had once called the tapes the "crown jewels" of America's nuclear program. Lee said he was just protecting his work from a possible computer crash, something that had once happened. Fear of being caught led him to throw the tapes in a dumpster, he claimed, but they were never found. He pleaded guilty to a felony. His sentence was restricted to the time he'd already served.
At the hearing, James A. Parker, the conservative Texas judge who presided, said Lee's treatment "embarrassed our entire nation." He personally apologized to the scientist for his detention. The government, however, did not apologize, and neither did the Times, the publication that had pursued the case most aggressively.
So what really happened? According to both books, politics drove the prosecution. Janet Reno's Justice Dept. wanted to protect Bill Clinton from Republican charges that his Administration was lax on security. A congressional committee headed by Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) was about to uncork a report, heavily based on testimony by Trulock, alleging critical losses of nuclear secrets to China. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, responsible for Los Alamos, was angling to become Al Gore's running mate. The FBI needed a big score. This constellation of factors created a spying Perfect Storm.
Once the facts were known, Wen Ho Lee became a celebrity among prominent Chinese Americans, who, like Lee, say he was victimized because of his ethnicity. Lee sees himself as the target of a government "sting" and expresses "particular disgust" toward the Times.
But, as Stober and Hoffman show, there were grounds for suspecting Lee. He'd had ample opportunity to meet with Chinese counterparts who were trying to get U.S. secrets, since the U.S. had approved personnel exchanges with Chinese scientists. When discussing some of these contacts, Lee was evasive. He failed one polygraph test. And, at 60, he was worried about job cutbacks. He had put out job feelers in Taiwan. Lee's breach of security--copying files and taking them home--was a firing offense, although Lee's lawyers argued that Clinton's CIA director, John Deutsch, was pardoned after doing the same thing.
But the tapes were hardly crown jewels. While prosecutors maintained that they were "top secret," they were really classed as "restricted data," two levels below secret or confidential. Lee says that at leaky Los Alamos, colleagues were using stacked printouts of such data as doorstops.
The bigger problem identified in both books was the melding of political opportunism with exaggerated government secrecy. Some scientists who testified for Lee argued that 90% of what the labs restrict is in the public domain, and that hundreds of copied sketches of the W88 were floating around at other labs and subcontractors' offices. They maintained that China could have easily gotten the information elsewhere.
Today, after September 11, you can't read A Convenient Spy without wondering what happened to the FBI. While chasing Lee and missing Russian agent Robert Philip Hanssen, it ignored evidence offered to it of the planned hijackings. If at some point a 9-11 inquiry gets launched, as seems warranted, Stober and Hoffman's account of this sorry case should be on the reading list. Dowling is International Managing Editor.