GOP wants answers on China spy probe

March 10, 1999 - AP

WASHINGTON (AP) - In a growing national security flap, Republican lawmakers demanded Tuesday the Clinton administration explain why a nuclear weapons lab scientist kept his job for nearly three years while under investigation for espionage.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, in an interview Tuesday night, defended the investigation as "extremely thorough and vigorous" and said he had no choice but to wait before taking action against the scientist.

"The moment the FBI gave me the green light to terminate this individual, I did," Richardson said. He said he had been advised not to pursue the dismissal until "a thorough investigation and questioning took place."

The Senate Intelligence Committee will have a closed-door hearing next week to ask senior officials, including Richardson and FBI Director Louis Freeh, about the espionage investigation involving a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

A native of Taiwan, Wen Ho Lee, who is in his 50s, had worked at the prestigious weapons research lab in New Mexico a dozen years or more before he was dismissed Monday at Richardson's direction.

Lee has not been charged with any crime, nor has he been arrested. But he has been the prime suspect in a three-year investigation into allegations that China obtained sensitive nuclear weapons design information from Los Alamos in the 1980s.

Vice President Al Gore characterized the matter as pursuing a problem "that happened during the previous administration." The alleged espionage dates back to the mid-1980s during the Reagan administration, although suspicions about it first surfaced in 1995.

"This happened in the previous administration, and the law enforcement agencies have pressed it and pursued it aggressively with our full support," Gore said on CNN's Late Edition.

Richardson said "there's no evidence of any more (espionage) cases" at the weapons labs, but "we are going to continue pressing forward" with counterintelligence efforts. He said he plans to ask Congress for more money for security measures beyond the $32 million requested by the Clinton administration.

Funding for counterintelligence at federal weapons labs was about $6 million in 1998. Congress is likely to go along with substantially more spending in light of the developments at Los Alamos.

The case and the way the investigation was handled has fueled a longstanding controversy over Clinton administration's policies on trade and technology transfers to China, and whether those policies might compromise national security.

It also has raised new questions about an administration openness policy at national labs that in the mid-1990s allowed greater access to scientists and researchers, including those from Russia and China. Congressional investigators in 1997 said thousands of foreign visitors were given access without adequate background checks.

"We're interested in what some people believe is a lax attitude toward security at some of our national labs, including Los Alamos" and whether the administration "reacted to possible breaches in that security in a timely manner," said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., Intelligence Committee chairman.

Shelby said in a telephone interview that "it makes no sense" for the Energy Department not to have acted sooner to remove Lee from his job if he had been targeted since 1996 in an espionage investigation.

"We fired him because he had misused security," said Richardson. "He had improper contact with foreign officials and he had violated a number of security measures."

U.S. intelligence officials became concerned in 1995 about China's apparently having obtained U.S. warhead design information, probably from Los Alamos, leading to an FBI criminal investigation in early 1996 that quickly focused on Lee.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said the administration launched "a vigorous assessment using the CIA and other assets in our national security operation."

"It is absolutely not true that we downplayed evidence of this," State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said, when asked about the Los Alamos investigation. "We took the issue seriously, as our actions demonstrate."

While there have been no arrests, lawmakers, mainly Republicans, expressed concern about the apparent loss to China of U.S. secrets that, according to U.S. intelligence sources, allowed China to make a significant leap in developing new warhead technology in the early 1990s.

"We found out last year when the technology was transferred through American corporations. ... Now we find this lax security," complained Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. "What I want to know is, what actions are we going to take to stop this kind of misconduct?"

Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., chairman of a select committee investigating U.S. military and commercial dealings with China, said his panel had received testimony on the Lee case and details are included in a still-classified report.

While not commenting directly on the Lee case, he expressed concern it was part of a broader pattern in which federal weapons labs "failed to take even minimal steps necessary for counterintelligence." He said there were strong disagreements with the White House over how much of the 700-page report should be made public.

Meanwhile, Lee, about whom little is publicly known, appeared to have dropped out of public view. The telephone at his home in Los Alamos, N.M., was disconnected. Earlier, his wife, who once had been a secretary at the Los Alamos lab, declined to comment when reached by a reporter.

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