Spies, Lies & Portable Tapes

The days tick by slowly for Wen Ho Lee, the scientist who has been accused of downloading and transferring onto portable tapes virtually every nuclear-weapon secret in the United States arsenal. In late February, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver agreed with a federal judge in New Mexico that Lee is so dangerous he should not be allowed out on bail. The decision means he could remain incarcerated in a Santa Fe jail until he goes to trial this fall.

In the meantime, the harsh security measures that were implemented during his first few months in custody have eased up a bit. He has access to books and newspapers and magazines but remains isolated. He eats his meals alone in his cell and is kept away from other inmates when he is taken to the shower or escorted outside for an hour's worth of exercise each day. Initially he was prohibited from talking with his wife, Sylvia, in Mandarin Chinese, his native language, but now when she visits, an FBI agent who is also fluent in Mandarin Chinese is brought in to monitor their conversation. The FBI also monitors and records telephone calls from his two grown children.

The security precautions are necessary, federal authorities say, because Dr. Lee has access to information so valuable that a hostile nation could conceivably plan a Ninja-style commando raid and airlift him out of the country. But the image of this diminutive, grandfatherly scientist sitting in a gloomy jail cell has galvanized the international scientific community and led several organizations to write Attorney General Janet Reno protesting the harsh conditions of his incarceration.

Last spring, soon after Lee was fired from his job as a nuclear-weapons physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, authorities searched his computer and made a startling discovery: Lee had transferred from Los Alamos's classified computer network all the information needed to build a variety of modern thermonuclear weapons. The classified data, which is equivalent to 803 megabytes, or some 400,000 pages, was transferred to ten portable tapes. According to the government, seven of the classified tapes, as well as two additional tapes that contain unclassified but related information, remain unaccounted for. Speaking through his attorneys, Lee has said that he destroyed the tapes when he was fired, but the FBI believes he may still have them stashed away. So in the past year, the agency has conducted a massive worldwide search. In New Mexico alone, every storage locker and safe deposit box has been checked.

The search is unprecedented, but if the tapes were to fall into the wrong hands, several leading scientists have testified, it could upset the "global strategic balance" and lead to nothing less than the defeat of America's armed forces. What's even more astonishing is that all of the information that Lee downloaded onto the tapes was sitting on Los Alamos's open and unclassified network for five to six years, vulnerable to the most unsophisticated hacker. Authorities say they have no evidence that anyone swiped the secret information off the lab's unprotected network, but they also admit they have no proof that it hasn't been taken, either. This ambiguity, several officials in the weapons complex suggest, could have enormous consequences for the United States and its defensive strategies.

During two bail hearings held in Albuquerque last December, Lee's defense team tried vigorously to get the scientist released on bail. They pointed out that Lee had voluntarily surrendered his passport and was willing to subject himself to 24-hour electronic surveillance and sign an irrevocable waiver of extradition under which he would surrender his right to contest his return to the U.S. if he should be found in another country. But the FBI insists that Lee could communicate the whereabouts of the tapes to a foreign agent by just a few words, even a coded message hidden in such simple phrases as "Uncle Wen says hello" or "How is the weather today?" or "The fish are biting."

Lee's criminal defense attorneys, Mark Holscher in Los Angeles and John Cline and Nancy Hollander in Albuquerque, have ridiculed the cloak-and-dagger arguments. But a federal magistrate and a federal judge in New Mexico agreed with prosecutors that Lee does indeed appear to present an enormous threat to the entire nation. "The danger is presented primarily by the seven missing tapes, the lack of an explanation by Dr. Lee or his counsel regarding how, when, where and under what circumstances they were destroyed, and the potentially catastrophic harm that could result from Dr. Lee being able, while on pretrial release, to communicate with unauthorized persons about the location of the tapes or their contents if they are already possessed by others," U.S. District Judge James Parker wrote.

After Parker issued his ruling, Lee's lawyers appealed the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals. In late February, after wading through mounds of evidence and two transcripts of the bail hearings, the appeals court upheld the earlier rulings. The release of Dr. Lee, the court concurred, could jeopardize not only the immediate community but also the United States as a whole. "We can conceive of few greater threats to the safety of the community than the risks presented in this case," the three judges wrote, the gravity of the situation seeping into their normally dry language.

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Eileen Welsome