Los Alamos Scientist Admits Contacts With Chinese, U.S. Says
A Taiwan-born scientist at Los Alamos National
Laboratory, questioned in a nuclear espionage investigation,
admitted to the FBI that he had had unauthorized contacts with
Chinese scientists, senior intelligence and law-enforcement
During three days of interviews with the bureau beginning on
March 5, Wen Ho Lee, a 59-year-old nuclear weapons scientist at Los
Alamos, admitted that he had failed to report his contacts with
Chinese scientists to his supervisors at Los Alamos, as government
regulations required, several officials said.
His admissions helped cement the decision by Energy Secretary
Bill Richardson to fire him on March 8, the officials said.
Lee's statements did not provide enough evidence to lead to his
arrest, however, they said. Still, the officials say that Lee, who
has been the focus of the FBI investigation since 1996, remains a
suspect in the government's investigation into whether China stole
technology related to the design of America's most advanced nuclear
warhead, the W-88.
Officials say that the Chinese apparently stole the design
technology in the 1980s, but the United States did not detect the
theft until 1995. In June 1996, the FBI opened a criminal
investigation into the allegations of Chinese atomic espionage,
which have been denied by China.
Lee was allowed to retain his access to U.S. nuclear secrets and
remain in a highly sensitive job at Los Alamos for more than a year
after the bureau urged the Energy Department to cut off his access
to classified material and move him to a less sensitive position.
In interviews with nuclear weapons experts brought in by the
bureau to determine whether Lee had committed espionage, the
officials said that Lee made statements that proved he had violated
the security rules at Los Alamos, a lab owned by the Department of
Lee, who did not have an attorney with him during the
questioning, stopped being cooperative on the third day, after The
New York Times published an article on the case, the officials
said. The FBI then decided there was no longer any investigative
reason to keep Lee on the job, and gave the green light to
Richardson to fire him.
Since then, the investigation into the theft of nuclear secrets
from Los Alamos has stalled, the officials acknowledged. They said
they have no other suspects and are uncertain where their
investigation can go from here.
Lee, a computer scientist, has retained an attorney and is no
longer providing any information to investigators, the officials
"In this particular case, we don't have anybody saying this is
the guy," one senior intelligence official said. He said that
investigators still do not have a clear picture of Lee's actions.
"The guy violated some rules, and was fired for doing that,"
the official said. "But we really don't know what his motivations
were for doing that. We really don't know enough about what he did.
He may have used poor judgment, he may have been persuaded by
sentiment or something else to give information he shouldn't have.
There are huge unknowns at this point."
In his interviews with the FBI, Lee confirmed some evidence
about his travel and contacts with Chinese scientists that had
already been gathered by investigators, while also providing
information about contacts with Chinese scientists not previously
known by the FBI. The officials declined to provide details about
the contacts with Chinese scientists acknowledged by Lee. But a
central focus of the FBI's questioning was whether Lee had passed
classified information related to how the W-88 warhead is detonated
to Chinese scientists during scientific conferences. One such
conference occurred in China in 1988, the officials said.
"The admissions that he made were not things that were against
the law, but against DOE regulations," said a U.S. official.
"Some of it was known already, and some of it was new, and it gave
DOE a stronger cause for termination," the official added.
Senior officials say that they have decided to go back to square
one in their investigation. The FBI has added extra agents to the
case in order to review old evidence and hopefully develop new
At the same time, U.S. officials acknowledge that there is
evidence of ongoing Chinese espionage operations aimed at Los
Alamos and America's other nuclear weapons laboratories. Officials
caution that there is no evidence that those spy efforts have
succeeded in stealing more nuclear technology. But the FBI has also
not yet been able to develop enough evidence to open full criminal
investigations of those activities.
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