U.S. Fires Nuclear Scientist Suspected of Spying for China
March 9, 1999 - JAMES RISEN - The New York Times
WASHINGTON -- A Taiwan-born scientist at Los Alamos
National Laboratory was fired Monday for security
breaches after the FBI questioned him about China's
theft of American nuclear secrets, Energy Secretary Bill
The scientist, Wen Ho Lee, was questioned for three days
by the FBI, starting last Friday, but "stonewalled"
during the questioning, Richardson said.
Lee, a computer scientist who had been working in the
nuclear weapons design area at Los Alamos, has not been
charged with any crime, but he has been identified by
federal officials as the prime suspect in the spying.
China has denied any such theft took place. But
administration officials said China, working with stolen
data, has made a leap in developing nuclear weapons with
much smaller warheads.
The handling of the espionage matter brought sharp
criticism from Capitol Hill. Sen. Fred Thompson, an
influential Republican, representing Tennessee, attacked
the Clinton administration Monday for failing to notify
Congress in late 1997 that China had stolen nuclear
secrets when the administration certified that Beijing
was no longer helping other nations build nuclear bombs.
That certification lifted a 12-year ban on the sale of
American nuclear technology to China, an action long
sought by American companies eager to bid on the
estimated $60 billion Chinese market for civilian
The FBI began to question Lee on Friday in an attempt to
determine whether he had passed American secrets to the
Chinese. The questioning continued through late Sunday,
but Lee failed to fully cooperate, said Richardson, who
dismissed Lee on Monday, after receiving permission from
FBI officials acknowledged last week that they did not
have enough to arrest Lee then, but hoped their
questioning would lead to a break. While he agreed to
talk with investigators and nuclear experts, his failure
to fully cooperate has apparently still left the
investigators without enough evidence to prosecute.
But Richardson believed he had sufficient evidence to
dismiss Lee. He was dismissed for "failure to properly
notify Energy Department and laboratory officials about
contacts with people from a sensitive country, specific
instances of failing to properly safeguard classified
material, and apparently attempting to deceive lab
officials about security matters," Richardson said.
Reached at their home in Los Alamos, N.M., on Monday
afternoon, Lee's wife, Sylvia, a former secretary at the
lab, refused to give his whereabouts or comment on the
matter. Lee, who officials said is in his late 50s and
has been working at Los Alamos for more than a decade,
did not hire an attorney to represent him during his
interviews with the FBI, U.S. officials said.
Lee has been the prime suspect in a nearly three-year
FBI investigation, code-named "Kindred Spirit," into
Beijing's theft of U.S. nuclear technology from Los
Alamos, senior officials from the bureau and the Energy
Until recently, China's nuclear weapons designs were a
generation behind those of the United States, largely
because Beijing had been unable to produce small
warheads that could be launched from a single missile at
But by the mid-1990s, China had built and tested such
small bombs, a breakthrough officials say was
accelerated by the Los Alamos theft.
The espionage is believed to have occurred in the 1980s,
officials said, but was not detected until 1995, when
American experts from Los Alamos analyzing Chinese
nuclear test results found similarities to America's
most advanced miniature warhead, the W-88.
By February 1996, investigators from the Energy
Department and the FBI, searching travel records and
other data at Los Alamos and other U.S. weapons labs,
had identified five possible suspects, officials said.
Lee quickly emerged as the prime suspect, officials
Investigators now believe that Lee gave the Chinese
sensitive nuclear detonation information during a 1988
seminar, senior administration officials said Monday.
But after opening a formal criminal investigation in
June 1996, the FBI did not at first aggressively pursue
the espionage case, according to several senior U.S.
officials familiar with the matter.
Only in the last several weeks, after prodding from
Congress and the Energy secretary, did government
officials administer lie detector tests to Lee. After a
first test was administered in December, the FBI,
unsatisfied with those results, gave Lee a second test
in February, and on that test he was found to be
deceptive, officials said.
The FBI decided to interview Lee last Friday after he
failed the polygraph, or lie detector test, in February,
In response to criticism over their handling of the
case, FBI officials say that Chinese spy activities are
far more difficult to investigate than the more
traditional espionage operations of the former Soviet
Union. The Chinese often take advantage of scientific
exchanges and many other forms of informal contacts,
gathering sensitive information from such a wide range
of sources that it is often difficult to pinpoint
exactly how American secrets leaked out.
U.S. officials say they have concluded that Beijing is
continuing to steal secrets from the Government's major
nuclear weapons laboratories, which had been
increasingly opened to foreign visitors after the Cold
In this case, since the theft of the W-88 design
information apparently occurred so far in the past, the
Justice Department at first lacked the grounds to obtain
a secret wiretap on the suspect, making it difficult
initially to build a strong criminal case, according to
Still, the Energy Department failed to move Lee out of
his sensitive position, or remove his security
clearances, for more than a year after FBI Director
Louis J. Freeh told Energy officials in September, 1997
that there was no longer any investigative reason to
keep him in place. In espionage cases, the FBI often
wants suspects left alone by their employers for fear of
tipping them off to their investigations. He was finally
moved out of a sensitive area several weeks ago,
Lee's wife, Sylvia, quit her secretarial job at the lab
sometime in the last year or two, Energy Department
officials said. FBI and Energy Department officials said
that Lee's wife's activities had raised questions while
she worked at Los Alamos.
During the 1980s, she was invited to China to give an
academic paper on parallel processing -- even though she
was only a secretary at Los Alamos. Her husband, who was
the true expert, accompanied her, according to a U.S.
official. In addition, Energy Department officials said
co-workers at Los Alamos questioned the fact that she
frequently "inserted herself" into gatherings at the lab
with visiting Chinese delegations.
But FBI officials said that she was not a target of
their investigation. FBI officials have said it is
possible that others were involved in the theft of
nuclear secrets from Los Alamos, but they have not yet
identified other suspects.
Meanwhile, in response to criticism of the lax security
at Los Alamos and other national weapons labs owned by
the Department of Energy, Richardson said Monday he is
ordering that about 700 Energy Department and laboratory
employees be required to take periodic polygraph
examinations. The order does not cover all Energy and
lab employees with so-called "Q" security clearances
giving them access to nuclear secrets, Richardson said,
but does cover those who work in the most sensitive
areas. Currently, only employees of the CIA are required
to submit to polygraph exams on a regular basis.
Return to Wen Ho Lee Page