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.

During the two bail hearings, Lee's attorneys continued to suggest that the scientist could have downloaded the data in order to protect his work from a computer crash. They also pointed out that most of the downloading occurred in 1993 and 1994, when Lee had been told his job might be eliminated, intimating that perhaps Lee was going to use the tapes in connection with his job search. (The tenth tape, however, was made in 1997.)

Other parts of the case didn't add up, either, the defense team argued. The TAR files had sat on Los Alamos's open network for five or six years, and if Lee had truly been up to something nefarious, why didn't he delete the files, or at the very least, change the names so that nobody would discover what was in them? After all, it was no secret among the Los Alamos scientists that supervisors used computer logs and various electronic monitoring systems to pick up unusual behavior. In fact, one such system, the Network Anomaly Detection and Intrusion Reporting system, or NADIR, had flagged Lee's activity, but the Los Alamos employee who reviewed the report attributed the file movement to the changing computing environment.

The defense team also raised the possibility that Lee began deleting the classified files because without his clearance, he was no longer authorized to have them in his possession. Lee had even contacted the Los Alamos computing center for help with the deletions, which was hardly in keeping with the clandestine behavior of an espionage suspect.

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.

But Richard Krajcik thought Lee was being rather clever when he moved the files from the red partition to the green partition. As Lee transferred the files, he put a password on them, which meant that only the administrator of the unclassified partition would have had access to them. And that person, Krajcik explained, would not have understood the significance of the names even if he or she had seen them. Likewise, the computing people to whom Wen Ho Lee turned for help when he was deleting files also would not have understood what the names meant, Krajcik said.


Once the FBI learned the magnitude of what was on the tapes, Lee was put under around-the-clock surveillance. Since initially their primary concern was recovering the tapes, Messemer said, authorities chose not to swoop down and arrest the scientist. "There was very great debate about this particular topic," he testified. "It was determined that national security interests outweighed the successful criminal prosecution of this matter insofar as it was determined that we needed to get these tapes, get them back to the proper authorities."

The agents parked outside Lee's modest home for months, monitoring his every move and keeping track of all of his visitors. Lee went about his business, enduring the intrusion as best he could. "He told me it was sometimes hard to sleep with them right outside the door, but he came, I think, to take it in stride as graciously as I can imagine any person doing," remembers neighbor Jean Marshall. When Lee left on a fishing trip, four or five cars tailed him. "Finally, into the summer, he was telling me stories like how much the young people that were trailing him enjoyed when he went fishing because they could finally get out of those hot cars they had been sitting in for hours and sit on the bank, and they enjoyed visiting with each other. He said, 'You know, it's good for me to take them fishing.'"

The media also camped out in front of Lee's home, hoping to photograph the alleged spy. For the neighbors, it was hard to figure out who they loathed more: the FBI or the reporters. FBI agents revved their engines at night during their shift changes and shined their lights into bedroom windows, Gordon Spencer recalls. The reporters, on the other hand, blocked driveways and created "sanitation nuisances."

After months of uncertainty and numerous media stories intimating that the espionage investigation had fallen apart, on December 10 a federal grand jury returned a 59-count indictment against Wen Ho Lee, charging him with violations of the Atomic Energy Act and the Espionage Act. The indictment claimed that Lee "acted with the intent to injure the United States and with the intent to secure an advantage to a foreign nation." With cameras rolling and the neighbors looking on in disgust, the diminutive scientist was led from his home in handcuffs and booked into the Santa Fe jail.

During one of the bail hearings, agent Messemer said that Lee had become an even greater threat to the United States after his arrest because he might be motivated to give the tapes to an enemy out of revenge. In addition, there was no way to make sure that he didn't communicate the whereabouts of the tapes to a third party. "We would have to have literally a team of Chinese-speaking agents and translators working around the clock," he said.

Even with intensive monitoring, Messemer said, the FBI couldn't prevent Lee from communicating the whereabouts of the tapes. "In counterintelligence investigations," he explained, "we often find instances of what we call paroles -- that is, a statement that is made by one party to another to establish the bona fides of the third party. And essentially it could be something like, 'How is the weather today?'...It could be as simple as, 'Say Uncle Wen says hello,' that is the message that is given to the right party who understands now they are to do something with those tapes...Even the most simple innocuous messages, even messages of appearing to be nothing but goodwill and gestures of goodwill have to be taken with a grain of salt, if you will, and have to be examined and reevaluated to see whether or not there is something that is insidious."

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