Spies, Lies & Portable Tapes

The feds were already suspicious of scientist Wen Ho Lee. Then they discovered hed downloaded every secret in the nuclear arsenal.


In the early '90s, Los Alamos National Laboratory's computing system was in a state of transition. As public access to the Internet expanded, the weapons lab, which has some of the largest and fastest computers in the world, began putting up firewalls to protect its vast treasure trove of classified data. At one point all of the lab's information, classified and unclassified alike, was stored on a single network, with a system of software and hardware separating the secret data. By 1993 and 1994, the period in which Lee did most of his downloading, the lab's one network had already been broken into two pieces: a red partition, reserved for secret, restricted data, and a green partition, which contained open and unclassified information. A vast archival data-storage system, known as the Common File System, was accessible from both networks. Q-cleared scientists working in the red partition could go through a bank of switches to the green network and then connect with the world beyond. But for security reasons, it was not possible to go from the Internet to the green network and back up into the red partition.

Using logs maintained by Los Alamos's various computers, FBI experts were able to reconstruct in great detail how Wen Ho Lee had used the laboratory's interlocking computer system to move data around. He would first log on to the classified network, then issue a "TAR" command to the computer. This command, which acts like a bucket, would instruct the computer to scoop up dozens of files, subfiles and directories on a certain topic and group them together as one file. After saving the TAR file back to his directory on the secure network, Lee would then call up the file again, type in "CL=U," and resave the file. Now the file was marked as an unclassified file, but it was still a red-partition file and located in the red-partition area.

The spy next door? Wen Ho Lee heading into court last December.
The spy next door? Wen Ho Lee heading into court last December.
The spy next door? Wen Ho Lee heading into court last December.
The spy next door? Wen Ho Lee heading into court last December.

Next, Lee would log on to "Machine C," and down-partition the TAR files he had collected from the red to the green network. Machine C, which eventually was removed from Los Alamos, was dedicated almost solely to down-partitioning files from the red to the green network. Q-cleared scientists who accessed this computer were basically on the honor system; simply by logging in and using the machine, they were certifying that the information they were downloading was unclassified.

After down-partitioning the files to the green network, Lee would then would log on to "Machine Rho," a Cray supercomputer in the unclassified area, bring down the file he had just converted, and save it back into his green directory. He then would go back and delete the interim versions marked as unclassified that he had saved on his red directory.

But the process was not yet complete. Lee still had the portable tapes to make. Smaller and thinner than a videotape, the tapes held 115 megabytes of information and could easily be carried out of X Division -- past the guards and through the security gates -- in a scientist's suitcoat. Lee's machine didn't have a tape drive connected to it, however, so he went to an employee who worked in a trailer outside the secure area and asked if he could use his machine to download his resumé. The employee readily agreed, booting up his computer to show Lee how the machine worked and even going so far as to write down his login and password. According to testimony, Lee then returned to the trailer on multiple occasions, mostly during lunch hour or at times that he knew the employee would be away, to make the tapes. The trailer was sometimes left open 24 hours a day, and the computer, which was dubbed "ctrssl," was vulnerable to the most unsophisticated of hackers.

By the time he was through, Lee had assembled some nineteen TAR files containing millions of bytes of data. Seventeen of the TAR files were downloaded to nine portable tapes. A tenth portable tape was created in 1997, from information downloaded directly from the secure network.

Cheryl Wampler, a computer specialist at Los Alamos, said it probably took Lee some forty hours over seventy days to transfer the nineteen classified files he is accused of mishandling. "This required considerable effort," she testified. FBI agent Messemer also testified that Lee had gone to considerable effort to make sure that the material he was downloading would fit exactly onto the tapes. "It didn't appear to us as investigators that he was simply sending everything...He took very good care to find which files he specifically wanted to assemble into the TAR files."

Dr. Lee's private collection comprised a veritable library of the most up-to-date thermonuclear weapons ever designed by Los Alamos. There was no other library in the world like it, save those at the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore laboratories. Physicist Richard Krajcik said he was deeply shaken when he learned what had been transferred: "When I first realized what was downloaded by Dr. Lee, I realized that I was looking at a chilling collection of codes and files. Chilling in the sense that it contained the codes important to doing design or design assessment, files important to determine geometries, important successfully tested nuclear weapons...It contained devices across a range of weapons, from weapons that were relatively easy to manufacture, let's say, to weapons that were very sophisticated and would be very difficult to manufacture...It was all there."

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