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.

"Have you ever committed espionage against the United States?"

"No," responded Lee.

"Have you ever provided any classified-weapons data to any unauthorized person?"

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.

"No."

"Have you had any contact with anyone to commit espionage against the United States?"

"No."

And finally, the interviewer asked, "Have you ever had personal contact with anyone you know who has committed espionage against the United States?"

"No," Lee replied.

The examiner concluded that there was "sufficient physiological criteria to opine that Mr. Lee was not deceptive when answering the questions." In other words, Lee was telling the truth. But because he did not fully disclose his foreign contacts, DOE headquarters in Washington nevertheless advised Los Alamos to transfer Lee from X Division to T Division, where theoretical studies were done.

The FBI's investigation of Lee intensified in early 1999. The FBI interviewed him on January 17 and again on February 8 and 9. On February 10 he took two polygraph examinations. This time an FBI polygrapher from Washington, D.C., was flown in. The tests were conducted in an Albuquerque hotel room. It was hot in the room, above 72 degrees. The FBI examiner stood behind Lee, operating the machine. "On the first set of examination questions, he indicated inconclusive responses. On the second polygraph, he indicated deception," FBI agent Messemer testified before Judge Parker. The deception, he added, occurred when Lee was asked whether he had gathered information related to the W-88 and whether he had unlawfully transmitted any classified information to a third party. Messemer later testified that during the FBI polygraph, Lee revealed "yet another instance where he had provided assistance to another PRC scientist who he knew to be involved in PRC weapons development."

A number of factors could have affected the outcome of these polygraph tests. The FBI apparently had told Lee they wanted to test him in order to assist the bureau in solving a "puzzle related to the W-88." But when he sat down for the tests, the polygrapher informed him that the true purpose was to determine whether Lee should be criminally prosecuted.

Lee reportedly became extremely upset. The emotional agitation, Messemer conceded under cross-examination, could have led to unreliable results. The data also could have been skewed by the fact that a person whom Lee didn't know was asking about highly classified information in a hotel room that was not safe from eavesdroppers, Messemer admitted.

"Do you know that the polygrapher put wires around Dr. Lee's thumb and arm in such a way that he actually was in physical pain and his thumb went numb during the polygraph?" Mark Holscher, Lee's defense attorney asked. "I wasn't aware of that," Messemer responded.

The FBI again interviewed Lee on March 5. That same day, Lee's offices in X Division and T Division were searched, and authorities discovered he had made some alterations on three classified documents. Using his computer, Lee had deleted the classification marks on a chapter of a reference manual to make it appear unclassified. He had covered up the classification marks on another document and then Xeroxed it so that it, too, appeared unclassified. And on a third, he had used scissors to physically remove the classification marks at the top and bottom of the page.

Before Judge Parker, Messemer testified that the removal of classification markings was suspicious because it "facilitates" the movement of classified information without detection. But Holscher pointed out that Lee apparently used the three documents on a daily basis. Numerous scientists at Los Alamos found the security precautions a hassle. Wasn't it possible, he asked Messemer, that Lee changed the classification marks in order to avoid having to lock the documents in a safe each night? "I suppose that inference could be drawn," the agent responded.

The day after Lee's office was searched, the New York Times published a front-page story detailing how China purportedly stole the W-88. The article did not identify Lee by name, saying only that a Los Alamos computer scientist of Chinese descent had been identified as a suspect. But in a small town like Los Alamos, it was not hard to figure out who that suspect was.

The following day, a Sunday, FBI special agents Carol Covert and John Hudenko questioned Lee again. This time the interrogation got ugly; the two agents appeared to be angling for a confession. They urged Lee to come clean about his contacts with the Chinese nuclear-weapons scientists. If he didn't, they warned, his life would be ruined. His children's lives would be ruined. He could even wind up in the electric chair like those traitors Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Although Lee had passed the DOE-administered polygraph, the two FBI agents told him that he had failed. "You failed, Wen Ho!" one shouted. "You failed everything!" The interview went on and on, but Lee stood his ground.

Agent: "Look at it from our standpoint, Wen Ho. Look at it from Washington's standpoint... you have an individual that's involved in the Chinese nuclear weapons program. And they come to your hotel room, and they feel free and comfortable enough to ask you a major decision about [deleted]."

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