A Taiwanese-born physicist who had access to classified nuclear secrets while working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico will be sentenced on Feb. 23 after pleading guilty to passing national defense data to Chinese scientists during a 1985 visit to mainland China.
More recently, Peter H. Lee, a scientist at TRW Space and Electronics Group in Manhattan Beach, Calif., had been involved in research on the use of satellite radar imaging for locating submarines undersea and tracking their movements, a federal law enforcement source confirmed.
In addition to passing data on simulated nuclear detonations to the Chinese in 1985, Lee admitted he had contact with Chinese agents during a trip to mainland China last April and May during which he addressed scientific groups. Lee admitted he lied about the contacts in a post-trip security form he filed with his employer in which he denied having been approached for technical information, according to the criminal complaint. In fact, Lee was repeatedly approached by Chinese agents seeking technical information, prosecutors said.
It was not clear whether the information Lee had on ocean imaging was classified or not, but technical data on the use of space stations to pinpoint submarines presumably would have anti-submarine warfare intelligence value to the Chinese, who maintain a submarine fleet.
A law enforcement source confirmed that Lee had been invited to attend a classified scientific conference in England last month and speak on radar ocean imaging.
Officials at TRW, including Lee's former boss, Bruce Lake, would not discuss what kind of research the scientist was doing for the firm. A company spokesman said Lee worked for the defense contracting firm in the 1970s, left and returned in 1991. He was dismissed after he entered his guilty plea, the spokesman said.
Lee, 58, who is an expert on laser energy, admitted in federal court here Dec. 8 that while working on laser projects relating to the simulation of nuclear detonations he met with Chinese scientists and provided them with detailed information that he knew was classified.
Lee, who remains free after posting a $250,000 property bond, faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in federal prison at his scheduled sentencing before U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter. A plea agreement was filed under seal and prosecutors declined to reveal the recommended sentence.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan S. Shapiro said the information passed by Lee in 1985, although later declassified, had "important military applications related to nuclear weapons." He declined to elaborate on the nature of Lee's research. Lee, contacted by telephone, refused to comment.
The charge of attempting to communicate national defense information specifies that Lee had "reason to believe that said information could be used to the advantage of the People's Republic of China."
Shapiro said Lee appeared to be motivated more by empathy with China than by money. Although Lee received compensation for travel and accommodation expenses, Shapiro said, "We don't think money was the primary motive. Clearly he had non-financial reasons for doing what he did."
"That doesn't make it any less serious or less criminal," Shapiro added. "This is a case of a scientist passing real information and violating the espionage statutes. It should be a reminder to scientists throughout the country that the oath they take to protect national secrets are serious, and if they violate that oath and we find out, we'll prosecute."
Before arresting Lee, the FBI invoked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and obtained Attorney General Janet Reno's approval of electronic surveillance and a covert search of the suspect's house, law enforcement sources said.