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 officials said.

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 Energy.

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 added.

"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 leads.

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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