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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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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