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 testimony that Attorney General Reno provided to the Senate Judiciary Committee last June, during that second interview, Lee told the FBI that he had been in contact with Taiwanese nuclear researchers since 1977 or 1978. He said he had done consulting work for them and had given them unclassified research papers. "Lee indicated that starting about 1980, he would receive requests for papers and reports from the Taiwanese Embassy, which he would then copy and mail to the embassy," Reno testified. "Lee explained that he contacted the [name deleted] scientist because Lee thought that this other scientist was in trouble for doing the same thing that Lee had been doing for Taiwan, and thus Lee had become concerned."

Reno's testimony, which was released last year after certain information was redacted, highlights one of the still-unexplained aspects of the case: If Wen Ho Lee were purportedly working for another country, was it the People's Republic of China or Taiwan? Relations between the People's Republic and the island province have often been strained, with mainland China insisting upon reunification and many Taiwanese calling for complete independence. Reno alluded to the contradiction in the closed-door Senate hearing, saying that if Lee's contact with the Livermore scientist was being used "to suggest that you are an agent of a foreign power, to wit, the PRC, the immediate question is raised, how are you (a Chinese agent) if you are clearly working with the Taiwanese government on matters that apparently involve non-classified information?"

On January 24, 1984, Lee took a polygraph test, during which he was asked whether he had passed any classified information to a foreign government, as well as about the nature of his contacts with the Livermore scientist. Lee once again explained why he had contacted the scientist and denied passing any classified information to a foreign agent. The polygraph confirmed his truthfulness. On March 12, 1984, the FBI closed its investigation of Lee.

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.

Life returned to normal at X Division. When scientific delegations from China visited the laboratory, Wen Ho Lee's wife, Sylvia, frequently acted as translator. Born in Hunan, China, in 1943, Sylvia had became a naturalized American citizen in 1977. As a secretary and, later, data analyst, she, like her husband, held a Q clearance. Over time, she developed more extensive contacts and closer relationships with the Chinese delegations than almost anyone else in the laboratory. Sometimes the Lees hosted social events for the Chinese visitors at their home. They grew somewhat protective of their foreign guests, and according to a congressional report, Wen Ho Lee "aggressively" injected himself into a gathering on one occasion by insisting upon acting as interpreter for the group.

In 1986 and again in 1988, Wen Ho and Sylvia Lee traveled to Beijing. Both times, Dr. Lee visited the Institute for Applied Physics and Computational Mathematics, where Beijing was developing its own nuclear weapons. The Lees also did some sightseeing, stopping at the Great Wall of China. There was nothing improper about these trips; indeed, Los Alamos was actively encouraging its scientists to exchange unclassified information with their scientific peers in other countries, including the People's Republic of China.

At the same time, counterintelligence officials working at the national laboratories used these excursions to obtain knowledge about weapons development in China and other countries. As Robert Vrooman, a former CIA official and former head of counterintelligence at Los Alamos, explained in a speech last December: "The most difficult thing for an intelligence officer interested in collecting information from scientists is getting continued access. Intelligence officers do not normally mix well in scientific gatherings or social events...Thus intelligence officers have to resort to using friendly scientists to get information for them. This can range from simple interviews after contact with a foreign scientist to elaborate training and preparation."

The U.S. intelligence community knew little about China's nuclear-weapons program until 1979, when a U.S. scientist went to China and found that they were willing to talk about what they were doing. "This visit," Vrooman said, "led to ten years of 'controlled,' let me emphasize the word 'controlled,' contacts between Chinese and U.S. nuclear-weapons specialists. By the early 1990s, the U.S. intelligence community knew the names of the leading Chinese weapons specialists, knew information on the weapons systems and understood Chinese nuclear doctrine."

China had begun working on an atomic bomb in 1953. It exploded its first atomic bomb in 1964 and a hydrogen bomb in 1967. (The United States did not perfect a deliverable hydrogen bomb until 1954, some nine years after the first atomic bomb had been detonated.) According to the Federation of American Scientists, China now has amassed some 2,000 weapons, far fewer than what the U.S. has stockpiled.

Like other Los Alamos scientists traveling abroad, Lee was given a special briefing to alert him to potential risks that he might encounter. When he returned, he filed reports about his visit and was thoroughly debriefed by Los Alamos security officers.

In 1993 and 1994, the laboratory was trying to shrink its workforce, and Lee was notified that he might be one of the people who would lose his job. The "reductions in force," or RIFs, caused great turmoil in Los Alamos: The laboratory was the town's primary employer, and losing your job meant uprooting your family and leaving New Mexico. Lee sent employment inquiries to the National University of Singapore; Nanyang University, also in Singapore; the Swiss Defense Technology Procurement Agency in Switzerland; Messerschmitt Bolkow-Blohm in Germany; Chung Chang Institute in Taiwan; Cheng Kung University, also in Taiwan; and the Hong Kong Institute of Science and Technology.

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