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.

Within X Division, there were many subspecialties among scientists. Some worked on "primary codes," others on "secondary codes." A modern thermonuclear weapon, which is capable of killing several million people at one time, consists of a primary and a secondary stage. In simplest terms, the primary is a core of plutonium surrounded by a wrapping of high explosives; when imploded, the plutonium begins to fission, releasing X rays that compress the nearby secondary and ignite the enormously more powerful (and militarily significant) fusion processes. There were code physicists, such as Wen Ho Lee, who actually wrote the complex formulas that went into the source codes, and design physicists, who used the codes to design the weapons. Because the source codes were so lengthy, scientists generally specialized on one piece of the code. (It might take one of Los Alamos's Cray supercomputers twelve hours just to run a simulation of a secondary stage.)

During his tenure at Los Alamos, Dr. Lee worked on several codes. "He was the person who would put in new models, debug existing models for hydrodynamic flow," Richard Krajcik, a respected physicist and deputy division director of X Division, testified at one of the bail hearings. "His job was to assure that the hydrodynamics and the materials and physics functions of the codes that he worked on were working properly."

Like other scientists in X Division, Wen Ho Lee was intensely engrossed in his work and spent most of his time working alone in his office, which was cluttered with the usual assortment of notes, scientific journals and article reprints. Sometimes the code teams got together to talk about problems, but more often than not, the scientists simply met one-on-one with their team leaders.

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.

Outside X Division, Lee led an unremarkable life. He seemed to be an ideal neighbor: quiet, unobtrusive, helpful. He trimmed his trees, cut his grass, kept his hedge clipped and never failed to return tools that he borrowed. The Lees' yard had two apple trees and a cherry tree. "He would often invite us to pick his fruit," says Gordon Spencer, one of his neighbors. "He would say something like, 'Won't you pick our fruit?' or 'Won't you share in our good fortune?'"

He was a devoted father, a soccer dad who ferried his children, a boy and a girl, to games after school and on the weekend. He helped them with their homework, took them to piano lessons and had them take Chinese lessons to make sure they didn't forget their heritage. He loved classical music and fine literature, and often went fishing in the silvery, fast-flowing streams that surround Los Alamos.

Wen Ho Lee was known for his hospitality and his down-to-earth demeanor. When friends dropped by, he plied them with fruit and freshly caught fish and homemade Chinese delicacies occasionally spiced up with New Mexico's famous green or red chiles. One afternoon he brought out a plate of sliced watermelon for some of his children's friends. When one of the youngsters refused to eat the watermelon because of the seeds, he returned to the kitchen, removed the seeds and brought the plate back to the table. The small domestic gesture, imbued with a quiet humility, left a lasting impression upon the youth.

To family members and neighbors, the case against Wen Ho Lee seems like a black comedy, a terrible mistake that has led them to question everything they know about America and its justice system. They can't reconcile the benevolent and caring individual they have known for years with the sinister figure portrayed in government documents and newspaper reports. Jean Marshall, who has lived next door to the Lee family for twenty years and also works at the lab, says Wen Ho Lee never failed to brighten her day with some sort of witticism. "I have loved living next door to Wen Ho," she testified at one of the hearings. "I remember the first time I met Wen Ho. Our houses were just being framed and his fireplace had just gone up, and I remember that he had tacked a picture of his family up on the fireplace. And we went over to meet him, and it was about Christmastime...He introduced himself, he said, 'I'm Wen Ho, like Santa, ho, ho, ho.'"


In December 1982, just a few years after Lee arrived at Los Alamos, the FBI "intercepted" a conversation between him and a scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California who was under investigation for possibly passing classified information to the People's Republic of China. The inquiry was code-named "Tiger Trap." In a closed-door hearing in front of Judge Parker, Robert Messemer, an FBI agent who specializes in counterintelligence investigations, said that Dr. Lee, speaking in Mandarin Chinese, had offered to help the suspect find out who had "squealed" or made "little reports." At the same time that Lee was talking with the Livermore scientist, investigators discovered, he was also calling the Taiwanese embassy in Washington, D.C.

Eleven months later, when the FBI confronted Lee with the information they'd obtained, he denied that he had ever made such a telephone call or had a relationship with the Livermore scientist. "His denials were unequivocal," Messemer related. When the FBI interrogated him again, however, Lee admitted that he had lied and agreed to help the FBI in its investigation.

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