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.

Agent: "Do you know how many people have been arrested for espionage in the United States?"

Lee: "I don't know. I don't pay much attention to that."

Agent: "Do you know who the Rosenbergs are?"

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.

Lee: "I heard them, yeah, I heard them mention."

Agent: "The Rosenbergs are the only people that never cooperated with the federal government in an espionage case. You know what happened to them? They electrocuted them, Wen Ho."

Lee: "Yeah, I heard."

Agent: "They didn't care whether they professed their innocence all day long. They electrocuted them. OK. Aldrich Ames. You know Aldrich Ames? He's going to rot in jail."

Lee: "OK, I told you before. I don't belong to any religion. I don't go to church. Well, I mean once in a while, but I don't believe in God, OK. However, I think there must be a something like a God, OK. Not may not be a Christian God, but something like that, you know, super power, super creature...round the universe, and I believe he will make the final judgment for my case. And I depend on him. I don't depend on you or depend on [name deleted] or depend on Washington people. I don't depend on this, I depend on this God. I think he will make a final judgment."

Agent: "You know what, the Rosenbergs said that, too."

Lee: "I don't..."

Agent: "The Rosenbergs professed their innocence. The Rosenbergs weren't concerned either."

Lee: "Yeah."

Agent: "The Rosenbergs are dead."

Lee: "I'm just telling you. I believe truth and I believe honest, and I know, I know myself, I did not tell anything...I believe this super creature will make a judgment on this whole situation and eventually something will be clear-cut, OK?"

Agent: "You know, Wen Ho. This super creature up here? He can make whatever decisions he wants to make, OK?"

Eventually, Lee summoned up his courage and told the agents he was going to walk out of the interview. But before he did, he told a long, rambling story that he hoped would explain why he'd forgotten certain details about his two visits to China. When he was sixteen, he began, he had his appendix removed. Although he had always had a wonderful memory, he couldn't memorize or retain a thing for the year following the operation. Then in 1987, he underwent a second surgery, for cancer of the colon. He suffered the same inexplicable memory loss again, only this time it was much more severe because he was older.

That's why he probably did not recall everything about his meetings with the Chinese weapons scientists until ten years later when he underwent the polygraph, he told the agents. "When human being is forced to do some more concentration, like when people do polygraph on you, you will concentrate, concentrate," Lee said. "And you can think about something, which in the ordinary time you don't remember. But for that particular moment, you may remember something. Just pop up. And that's what happen to me, OK? You won't take it? It's up to you. I have no other choice, I just have to trust this superman on the universe..."

But Lee's superman did not come through for him. On March 8, the day after the grueling FBI interview, his security clearance was terminated and he was fired from his job. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who'd replaced Peña, said the firing had nothing to do with the fact that the story on Chinese espionage had appeared two days earlier in the Times.

At this point, the case against Lee still looked shaky: a few security infractions, an understandable memory lapse, some tantalizing coincidences. Several FBI agents considered the case so flawed that they'd written memos to their superiors outlining their concerns.

But suddenly, the investigation veered into fertile new territory. While reviewing the contents of Lee's office, Los Alamos physicist John Romero happened to spot a directory printout on his desk. The directory contained the names of virtually all of the laboratory's nuclear-weapons source codes and related files. At first Romero thought the document had been printed off of the Los Alamos secure network, which would not have been unusual. Then he realized the document had been printed from a directory sitting on the lab's unclassified network -- a system that was accessible from the Internet and vulnerable to hackers. Romero did a double take. "I couldn't believe it. I just couldn't believe it," he would later testify.

The espionage investigation suddenly morphed into a related inquiry into Lee's mishandling of vast amounts of classified data. This new inquiry would turn out to be the largest forensic investigation in the FBI's history. All through the spring, summer and fall of 1999, agents sifted though millions of bytes of data stored on the logs, disks, tapes and hard drives of Los Alamos's vast computing system. By the time it was over, they had conducted 1,000 interviews and studied four terabytes of information. (Printed out and stacked, four terabytes of information would be equal to 122 Washington monuments, or roughly half of the information contained in the Library of Congress.) In the end, it was discovered that the genteel, soft-spoken Dr. Lee had downloaded "all the codes, all the data, all the input files, all the libraries, the whole thing is there, the whole ball of wax, everything," Romero said.

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