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 Richardson said.

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 nuclear plants.

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 the FBI.

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 Department said.

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 multiple targets.

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 said.

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, officials said.

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 War.

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 U.S. officials.

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, officials said.

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.

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