Suspect Scientist Led Key Los Alamos Program
March 24, 1999 - JAMES RISEN - The New York Times
In spring 1997, Los Alamos National
Laboratory chose a scientist who
was already under investigation as a
suspected spy for China to run a
sensitive new nuclear weapons program, several senior Government officials say.
The scientist, Wen Ho Lee asked
that he be allowed to hire a research
assistant, the officials said. Once in
the new position, in charge of updating computer software for nuclear
weapons, Lee hired a post-doctoral researcher who was a citizen of
China, intelligence and law-enforcement officials said.
Although the Federal Bureau of
Investigation had said that a wiretap
on Lee, a computer expert born
in Taiwan who is an American citizen, would allow the bureau to keep
close tabs on him in the new position,
the bureau never won approval for
the monitoring, the officials said.
Now, two years later, Lee has
been fired for security breaches at
Los Alamos and senior Government
officials say he remains a suspect in
the F.B.I.'s continuing investigation
of allegations that China stole nuclear secrets from America's weapons
laboratories. He is under suspicion of
having stolen the data for one of
America's most advanced nuclear
China has denied that it engaged in
And the research assistant has disappeared. Even as the bureau tries
to find him to question him, Government officials say they are wondering whether he played a role in a
Chinese intelligence operation at the
heart of America's nuclear weapons
In the midst of the furor over the
Administration's handling of evidence of Chinese atomic espionage,
the decisions to appoint Lee to
the new post in 1997 and to allow him
to hire a Chinese assistant have underscored doubts about the procedures followed by laboratory officials and the F.B.I. in the Los Alamos
The bureau, which opened a criminal investigation into the spy case in
June 1996, gave its approval when
Los Alamos officials decided to give
Lee the new position, intelligence
and law-enforcement officials say.
Administration officials said
Lee's new posting was approved in
part because they believed his access to information would be "controlled." "He only had access to
material he already had in his head,"
said one official. "He couldn't see the
The bureau also assured laboratory officials and the Department of
Energy, which owns the weapons
labs, that it would keep close watch
on Lee, and would seek approval
for a wiretap to monitor his telephone conversations.
But officials now say the bureau's
requests for a wiretap were repeatedly turned down by Justice Department officials who did not believe
they had sufficient grounds to take to
a Federal court to obtain such an
The hiring of the research assistant was not cleared with the bureau,
officials said. "We didn't know about
the hiring of the research assistant
until after the fact," a senior law-enforcement official said.
Once the F.B.I. found out, agents
investigated the post-doctoral assistant, officials said. The bureau did not
conclude that the student, whom officials declined to name, had any intelligence connection. Los Alamos officials assured the bureau that the
assistant, who had studied at the
University of Pittsburgh, would be
restricted to unclassified work, law-enforcement officials said, though it
is unclear how closely Los Alamos
officials monitored his activities.
The assistant worked with Lee
from approximately May through
September 1997, when he returned to
the University of Pittsburgh, officials said. They said they were not
sure whether the assistant, who was
in the United States on a student visa,
was still in the United States. The
F.B.I. is still not sure whether the
assistant is significant to its investigation, officials said.
The Los Alamos lab director, John
C. Browne, told The Washington Post
this month that in April 1997,
Lee's classified computer code --
access to a network of classified information -- was taken away under
the guise of the job change so he
would not be tipped off that he was
But other law-enforcement and intelligence officials say the new job
did give Lee continued access to
classified as well as unclassified information. Some officials add that he
retained access to nuclear test data
and to other classified information.
The job given Lee in the spring
of 1997 was to update nuclear weapons computer programming used to
evaluate weapon performance. He
was to update the programming
codes for the weapons labs' "stockpile stewardship" initiative. That effort was part of a broad push by the
national labs and the Energy Department to insure that the American
nuclear weapons inventory could be
safely maintained without further
Los Alamos officials decided to
give Lee the job because he had
the most expertise in that speciality
of any scientist at the lab. Officials
also say they believed that passing
him over for a job for which he was
the most experienced candidate
would have aroused his suspicions
that he was under investigation.
But in September 1997, a few
months after Lee was moved to
the new post, the F.B.I. Director,
Louis J. Freeh, told Energy Department officials that the bureau did not
have enough evidence to arrest him,
law-enforcement officials said.
Freeh said there was no longer
any investigative reason for the Energy Department to keep Lee in
a sensitive position. The department
did not move Lee out of his post,
or remove his security clearance, for
another year, officials said.
By then, in late 1998, a select House
committee investigating unauthorized transfers of American military
technology to China, headed by Representative Christopher Cox, a California Republican, had been informed about the spy case. The senior Democrat on the panel, Representative Norm Dix of Washington,
complained to Richardson about
the lack of action on the matter.
Lee was given a polygraph, or
lie-detector test, in December 1998,
and he appeared to pass. Dissatisfied
with the results, the F.B.I. gave him
a second test in February, and officials said he was found to be deceptive.
Lee was fired by Richardson on March 8.
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