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.

According to Lee's defense attorneys, he had given his login and password to his two children, who were using them to log on to the Internet. While their activities may have been innocent, it made the data sitting on Los Alamos's open network more vulnerable to hackers. Scott Larson, an FBI agent who supervises the bureau's "Infrastructure Protection and Computer Intrusion Squad," testified that hackers gravitate to university computers because scientists who are teaching classes often use these machines to connect with their employers. "It's part of the methodology," he said. "If I want to attack a particular Air Force base or lab, I'm going to first hack into a university close by, where people are taking classes and quite often log in back and forth from the university account to their military account or lab account."

Lee's login and password had also traveled across the open Internet when he was in Taiwan and had the two unclassified files sent back to him. Larson said he had "a suspicion" that Lee's login and password had been captured. "Whether it's been used or not, I don't know," he testified. "And the methodology would be to use an account that has root access, grab the files and then delete any sort of track."

According to government witnesses, one of Lee's passwords was "W. H. Lee," which FBI agents said provided no extra protection whatsoever. "The use of his name as a password was functionally as if he never used a password because it would be so easy to guess by an outsider or unauthorized person to gain access to those secret, restricted data files," Messemer testified.

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.

What would all of this information mean in the hands of another country? Physicist Stephen Younger testified that it would mean different things to different nations. If a country that had not yet developed a workable atomic bomb obtained the tapes, it could develop a credible weapon in a short period of time without having to do any actual testing. Countries that were a little further along could greatly advance their nuclear-weapons capability. And those countries with a fully developed weapons program could use the data to pinpoint "vulnerabilities in the American arsenal, which would help them to defeat our weapons through antiballistic missile systems or other means," he said.

Paul Robinson, the hawkish director of Sandia National Laboratories and advisor to the commander in chief of STRATCOM, concurred with Younger's assessment, testifying that the loss of the tapes was one of the most serious breaches of national security that he had ever seen. "These tapes could truly change the world's strategic balance. The previous worst case I am aware of classified information being stolen also happened at Los Alamos, [with] Klaus Fuchs taking a design that if detonated, could demonstrably kill 100,000 people in a city. These would allow the design of weapons that would kill several million people if a single weapon were detonated in a city. In that sense, it raises the level of danger and concern."

If the government does not ascertain who might have seen the actual data, Robinson testified, U.S. military planners will have a much harder time trying to assess threats. Hinting at how the government might attempt at trial to show Lee intended to harm the U.S., prosecutor Robert Gorence then asked, "Is a mere uncertainty of a risk of harm an injury to the United States?"

"I believe the United States is already harmed," Robinson replied.

"Would you contemplate the United States government spending -- and I don't want to mischaracterize it, but enormous amounts of money in response to what Dr. Lee did?"

"The United States would do everything in its power to preserve freedom. I am not sure at this point exactly what the next step is that we would take. This is a grave undercut to our strategic posture."


The missing tapes were a catch-22 for Lee's defense team. After losing his security clearance, Lee had certified on a boilerplate Security Termination Statement that "in accordance with DOE security regulations, I have destroyed or transferred to persons designated by the DOE all classified documents and material for which I was charged or which I had in my possession." Investigators found this statement inadequate, and demanded specific details on how Lee had destroyed the tapes. But any additional information Lee provided would have incriminated him on the very charges for which he was to be eventually indicted.

Government prosecutors had no evidence that the tapes had been passed to a third party. But the massive computer forensics investigation also had not revealed any evidence regarding the whereabouts or purported destruction of the missing tapes.

And during the bail hearings, neither side offered a motive for why Lee had made the tapes in the first place. Lee himself was rather vague when asked this question during a 60 Minutes interview that aired on August 1, 1999: "The reason I download the computer code from classified machine to -- into unclassified machine is part of my job, to protect my code, to protect my file. I do that routinely. I had never give those, you know, information to any unauthorized person."

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