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.

But who is Wen Ho Lee? And how did Lee, who once hoped to open a Chinese restaurant after he retired from the business of making weapons of mass destruction, become such a threat to the entire nation -- indeed, the entire planet, as some of his former colleagues allege? Some of the answers can be found in the documents and hearing transcripts that were submitted earlier this year to the Denver-based appeals court. But the biggest question of all, the question that gives this case its highly charged drama and draws reporters from around the world, is whether Lee was really a spy: Did he pass, or did he intend to pass, America's nuclear secrets to a foreign government? Judging from the evidence submitted thus far, that question may never be answered.


Wen Ho Lee was born in Nantou, Taiwan, in 1939, just months after two scientists in Nazi Germany inadvertently split the uranium atom, a discovery that set off a frenzy of scientific research and culminated in the creation of the world's first atomic bombs. He was born into a large extended family and has two brothers and a sister living in Los Angeles and three sisters living in Taiwan. "He is a really simple man. His family were farmers," says Cecilia Chang, whose family has known the Lees for twenty years and is spearheading his legal defense fund from Fremont, California.

Look out below: An aerial view of Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Look out below: An aerial view of Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Federico Peña in his days as Denver mayor, before he joined Clinton's cabinet.
Federico Peña in his days as Denver mayor, before he joined Clinton's cabinet.

Lee attended Keelung High School and later went on to Cheng Kung University in Taiwan, where he obtained a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 1963. According to a brief biography attached to his doctoral dissertation, at some point he also served in the Taiwanese air force.

After graduating college, Lee entered the United States and enrolled in the mechanical engineering program at Texas A&M University. He got his master's degree in 1966 and his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering in 1969. "He seemed to be a nice, quiet individual," recalls Fred Kettleborough, who chaired Wen Ho Lee's thesis committee. Kettleborough remembers little more about Lee; his dissertation, he says, seemed "average." Titled "Laminar Convection Between Two Vertical Plates," the paper is the study of how heat travels between two parallel surfaces. It was a precursor of what would become Lee's focus as a hydrodynamicist: the study of shock waves produced by nuclear detonations.

Lee became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1974, and by the end of the decade, he was working at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Situated atop an arid mesa in northern New Mexico, Los Alamos has been the center of this country's nuclear-weapons research for more than fifty years. The lab has designed about 85 percent of all the weapons in the current stockpile, including the two atomic bombs that were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945.

Spy scandals have periodically disrupted the tranquil calm of the small, conservative community. Klaus Fuchs, a quiet bachelor who babysat for many prominent scientists on the Manhattan Project, the wartime effort to build an atomic bomb, passed many of the bomb's secrets along to the Soviet Union, a clandestine effort that helped the Soviets detonate their first atomic weapon by 1949. And in 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed at Sing Sing for giving the Soviets top-secret nuclear-weapons data that they had obtained from Ethel's brother, David Greenglass, a Los Alamos employee.

In 1981, Dr. Lee went to work in the lab's top-secret X Division, where the actual design and research on nuclear weapons is done. With supercomputers capable of crunching billions of bits of data per second, the scientists in X Division use complex mathematical formulas to model what happens when atomic and hydrogen bombs are exploded. Wen Ho Lee, like the 350 other scientists working in the division, had a "Q clearance," which gave him access to all levels of classified and unclassified data, including information that was labeled top secret.

For decades, X Division's activities had been shielded from all but a select group of people. But during the two bail hearings last December, the esoteric art of designing nuclear weapons was laid out for the world to see. Since 1992, when President George Bush signed an executive order that put an end to actual testing, weapons scientists have been forced to rely on computer simulations and laboratory experiments. As a result, the major tools for designing nuclear weapons are source codes, sets of instructions given to a computer to simulate the seconds leading up to the fiery birth of a nuclear explosion and the enormous heat, radiation and shock waves released afterward. Written in computer language that can also be read by humans, the source codes are hundreds of thousands of lines long, or the equivalent of a very thick book. They contain everything that has been learned about atomic and hydrogen bombs from the actual explosions. The source codes, says Stephen Younger, a Los Alamos physicist who oversees some 3,500 people, are "among the most complex computer simulation tools ever developed on the planet."

When a nuclear detonation is simulated, these source codes, as well as vast amounts of related data, are fed into the computer. Input decks, which are essentially electronic blueprints, tell the computer about the geometry and materials of the weapon to be simulated. Data files contain supplementary information about the physical and radioactive properties of materials and how they will behave under pressures and temperatures that mimic those found inside our sun.

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