An Earlier China Spy Case Points Up Post-Cold War Ambiguities

March 13, 1999 - JAMES BROOKE - The New York Times

OS ALAMOS, N.M. -- Within two weeks, Peter H. Lee, a Taiwan-born physicist who once worked at the nuclear weapons laboratory here, will complete a one-year sentence to a halfway house in California, winding up a murky case that speaks of the ambiguities surrounding resurfaced suspicions of Chinese espionage.

As Peter Lee returns to normal life, Wen Ho Lee, another Taiwan-born physicist, is starting life in limbo. On Monday, he was dismissed from the Los Alamos National Laboratory for security violations. He has not been charged with any crime.

No relation to each other, the two are linked only by official investigations seeking to determine how China may have gained access to American nuclear secrets. With lab approval, both made trips to China and addressed groups of scientists.

Peter Lee's involvement with China dates back to 1981, Federal prosecutors say, when he began a correspondence with Chinese scientists that mounted to more than 600 letters and e-mail messages by 1997, the year of his arrest.

After his arrest, he pleaded guilty to passing classified national defense information to Chinese scientists on a visit to Beijing in 1985. He also pleaded guilty to lying to a government agency after he described on a security form a May 1997 visit to China as a pleasure trip. In reality, Dr. Lee, then a researcher for an American military contractor, met extensively with Chinese scientists.

"U.S. intelligence analysis indicates that the data provided by Dr. Lee was of significant material assistance to China in their nuclear weapons development program," the Department of Energy said in a presentencing statement submitted last year to Federal District Judge Terry J. Hatter in Los Angeles.

Facing a possibility of 10 years in prison, Dr. Lee pleaded guilty under an arrangement with the court and was sentenced to one year in the halfway house, ordered to pay a $20,000 fine, and to perform 3,000 hours of community service. He lost his security clearance. At the sentencing, Judge Hatter said, 'You cannot leave to a scientist the discretion of what should be classified."

Lee's lawyer, James Henderson Sr., said in an interview: "My guy was at a conference of scientists and he ended up talking too much. His offense was tied to information that was subsequently declassified."

Indeed, as part of a sweeping opening of weapons laboratories after the end of the cold war, most of the information that Dr. Lee was accused of giving the Chinese in the 1980's had been declassified by the time of his arrest years later.

"Lee was a little ahead of his time," said Christopher Paine, an arms control specialist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a public policy group. "Today if he discussed those things, there would be no penalty at all. After the cold war the Department of Energy and the laboratories made a unilateral decision to declassify a large amount of information. Time had overtaken his crime."

In the 1980's, Dr. Lee was one of dozens of American scientists who traveled to China on trips authorized by officials of the laboratory here. Dr. Lee is an expert in using lasers to create fusion, a field that can be used for simulating nuclear explosions, but also for generating electricity through nuclear energy.

A naturalized American citizen, he received his doctorate from California Institute of Technology, and worked at the Los Alamos lab from 1981 to 1987. Now 59, he is expected to return to living full time at his family home in Rancho Palos Verdes, near Los Angeles. Today, he did not return a telephone call left at his family home, and his lawyer said he would not talk to a reporter.

Dr. Lee told the judge that he had been carried away by "scientific enthusiasm."

On his 1997 trip to China, Dr. Lee had discussed his work using satellite radar imaging to track submarines, an area of interest to the Chinese. Dr. Lee was conducting this work for TRW Space & Electronics Group, a Redondo Beach, Calif., company, where he was employed from 1991 until his plea, in December 1997.

By 1997, Dr. Lee was the target of an F.B.I. investigation and agents tailed him in China, wiretapped his telephones in California and surreptitiously searched his computers for incriminating information.

"Here is a highly respected physicist, working on secret projects that had weapons applications, giving up the secrets," recalled Jonathan S. Shapiro, who prosecuted the case. Noting that the science was classified when Dr. Lee discussed it in Beijing in 1985, he added, "It is not up to individual scientists, on their own, to waive their oath on behalf of a foreign country."

In California, the reaction was "no harm, no foul, because the stuff had been declassified" recalled Shapiro, who added that he was disappointed last year by the lack of press interest in the case and the light sentence handed down.

"I received phone calls and letters from physicists and scientists who were offended that I prosecuted the case," said the former prosecutor. "The case represented the inherent tensions between the scientists' desire for free and open exchange of information, and the need to keep information classified and secret for the nation's security."

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