Chinese Steal U.S. Secrets - An Overview
Ephraim Guttman - Yated Ne'eman March 12, 1999
On March 8, 1999 Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwan-born scientist working at Los
Alamos National Weapons Laboratory wad fired from his job. His alleged
crime? Stealing American nuclear secrets and passing them to China,
where they were used to create advanced nuclear technology. Though Lee
has not been formally tried, the evidence is very compelling.
Lee was dismissed for "failing to notify Energy Department and lab
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."
Chinese nuclear warheads have typically been technologically outdated,
large and cumbersome weapons, a generation behind the U.S. This was
because Beijing was unable to produce small warheads that could be
launched from one missile and sent to hit multiple targets. What a shame
thought the Chinese. If only we could get a foothold into American
laboratories to steal their secrets. They didn't dream how easy it
In the mid to late 1980's things began to happen. Suddenly Chinese
experts were working at a fast and furious pace. In 1995 America finally
caught on. When U.S. experts analyzed Chinese nuclear test results, they
found similarities between their weapons and America's miniature
warhead, the W-88. Something was very fishy... the FBI investigated, and
a year later, they were on to some very suspicious evidence. It seemed
that a Chinese American scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in
New Mexico had been selling several lethal secrets to the Chinese since
In the summer of 1997, as the first Chinese-American summit meeting in
eight years was about to take place, President Clinton was informed
about the developments. He ordered the labs, which had been open to
foreign visitors, to immediately beef up their security. At that point,
the CIA and the Energy Department's interpretation of the spying
differed significantly, yet it was clear to both departments that
security at the lab was very lax.
However, wonder of wonders! A more subtle message was covertly passed
along to the scientists. It is not so important to make an issue of
this, the message went, because we want to be buddies with the Chinese
"This conflicted with their China policy," said a U.S. official. "It
undercut the administration's efforts to have a strategic partnership
with the Chinese."
The response to the damaging nuclear theft was very inept and skimpy;
security was not improved, and things continued as they had before. The
chief of intelligence at the Energy Department was reportedly ordered
not to make an issue of the betrayal, nor to alarm Congress, because
critics might decide to attack the Clinton Administration's judgment.
Intense lobbying from American companies eager to end the 12 year ban on
the sale of nuclear weapons to China and tap the $60 billion Chinese
market apparently helped matters along. In 1997 the ban was lifted, in
spite of the ominous reports coming from the weapons lab.
White House officials continued to claim that the shady dealings had not
bearing on the Chinese/American thriving export/import business, which
included satellites and supercomputers. The security council official,
Samore did not want to admit that China's nuclear strides were fueled in
In addition, scientists claimed, it was more difficult to investigate
allegations of Chinese spying than the more traditional espionage of the
Soviet Union. Chinese scientists have a more open relationship with the
U.S. and take advantage of scientific exchanges and other informal
contacts, making it difficult to pinpoint the source of the leak.
How was the leak discovered?
Notra Trulock, a member of the Energy Department had been the first to
raise the questions about the Chinese that could not be explained away.
In 1996, Trulock met with the CIA and informed them about the very real
possibility of a Chinese infiltration. The report was top secret, and
contained incontrovertible evidence. The CIA was shocked, but more was
In June of 1995, a Chinese scientist had given the CIA a 1988 Chinese
document, detailing a new weapon called the W-88. The description of the
warhead and its capabilities could mean only one thing: someone at Los
Alamos was selling the Chinese the information.
The Los Alamos lab, one of three national weapons labs was established
in 1943, and enjoyed loose security policies. Scientists were reluctant
to check the backgrounds of foreign visitors, in keeping with their
'welcome, welcome' policy. In addition, the Pentagon sponsored a trip
for China's defense minister, General Chi to the nearby Sandia National
Labs; energy officials were not told in advance and no background checks
The investigations were done haphazardly and without any real intensity.
The FBI began working on the case reluctantly, keeping the details of
their information secret from the CIA. In reality, nothing much was
done. In 1997 when Fredrico Pena became Energy Secretary,
counterintelligence programs were abandoned and officials began to look
the other way. In April of that year, the FBI finally recommended
background checks at the weapons labs, but the Energy Department ignored
the sage advice.
Meanwhile Trulock had more information that the Chinese were continuing
to spy at the labs. He asked to speak to the Energy Secretary but was
forced to wait four months.
Finally when Trulock got his appointment and presented the fresh
evidence, the news spread quickly. This was no 'forgive and forget'; the
espionage was going on right under America's nose. CIA Director George
Tenet and FBI Director Louis Freeh met wit Pena to discuss security at
Now the evidence was piled up. The suspect at Los Alamos did not even
try to maintain a low profile. At a 1985 Chinese conference on computer
topics, Lee's wife Sylvia was invited to address the crowd, though she
was only a secretary at the institute. Her husband, the real expert,
accompanied her on the trip. Wonder why?
The suspect had also been to Hong Kong without reporting the trip. Once
there Lee obtained $700 from the American Express office and bought a
ticket to Shanghai, deep in the People's Republic of China.
While these amazing details came to the fore - other news - about the
role of Chinese money in the presidential campaign of '96 was unearthed.
The Chinese/American partnership was working well for the Clinton
Administration. While the U.S. tried to sell supercomputers and
satellites to China, Clinton wanted to arrange a nuclear cooperation
agreement at the Chinese/U.S. summit.
Though by now, no one was fooled any more, the CIA 'mysteriously'
cooperated, suddenly 'deciding' that though there was a serious
compromise of sensitive technology, there was no clear-cut evidence of
the extent of the damage.
"The disagreement is in the area of specific nuclear weapons designs,"
said one official. "Trulock's briefing was based on a worst case
scenario, which the CIA believes was not supported by available
intelligence. The CIA thinks that the Chinese benefited from a variety
of sources, including the Russians."
Trulock felt these explanations were ridiculous. The Russians were not
offering secrets, just advice on how to capitalize on U.S. secrets and
exploit weapons crafted after U.S. designs.
Even as evidence of the betrayal mounted, American officials said they
did not have enough evidence to arrest - or even wiretap - the suspect.
In addition, Lee was allowed to keep his job for another year.
Other things were ignored as well. In December of 1997, Peter Lee a 58
year old physicist admitted that in 1985 he gave the Chinese classified
information about lasers that stimulate nuclear detonations.
Finally in 1998, Ed Curran, a former counterintelligence agent, was
asked to run a counterintelligence office at the Energy Department.
Still progress was slow. When the House Intelligence Committee inquired
about the case, Elizabeth Moler, the acting Energy Secretary, advised
Trulock not to supply the information since it could be used against
Clinton's foreign policy. He was instructed to rewrite the evidence and
limit it to the discussion of allowing foreign visitors into the lab.
Though Clinton urged for tighter security measures in February 1998,
nothing much happened until nine months later, when Bill Richardson
replaced Pena as Energy Secretary. The White House had known about the
breach and done nothing - for 18 months.
Bill Richardson, the new Secretary of Energy, finally listened to what
Trulock had to say. he reinstated background checks on visitors, doubled
the counterintelligence budget, and placed more experts at the labs.
The FBI got the message and read a 700 page report complied by a
committee chaired by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), where it was
publicized that America's security lapses had saved the Chinese much
time and money in nuclear weapons research.
It is only recently, after the Secretary of Energy and other officials
demanded to know what the FBI was doing about the theft that a
lie-detector test was administered to Wen Ho Lee. He failed.
Finally Trulock's warnings were heeded - a few years too late. Guess
what Trulock got for his honesty? He was demoted form the head of the
Department of Energy's intelligence office to acting deputy, a kick in
the shins for his efforts.
Redmond, former CIA counterintelligence chief, was full of praise for
Trulock. He called the Chinese espionage "more significant to the
national security than Aldrich Ames."
Now the Clinton Administration is belatedly owning up. "The information
we were provided in 1997 made clear that there was a serious security
problem at the national labs dating back to the 1980's, which we were
going to deal with in a systematic and comprehensive way," said Sandy
Berger, the president's national security advisor.
"It is quite clear now that things were too casual," said James Lille,
the ambassador to China between 1989-91. "This has been going on for a
long time. We had Ministry of State Security defectors who mad it clear
that this was a top priority of their industrial and intelligence
However, Lille does not recommend the U.S. break with China. "You've got
to get some maturity into the relationship, even while restricting high
technology exports and breaking up espionage rings."
For once, Congress does not seem to agree. Beijing may have gone too far
this time, leading Congress to exclude China from the World Trade
Organization, where they have been trying to gain a foothold for many
In addition, the Secretary of Energy is recommending polygraph
(lie-detector) tests for all employees who work in sensitive laboratory
divisions and have access to nuclear secrets.
The moral of the story? Things are not as clear-cut as they seem.
languishes in prison while others who have committed
far more serious and dangerous crimes, with far-reaching implications,
are let off the hook.
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