The Deadliest Download
April 29, 1999 - William Safire - The New York Times
WASHINGTON -- During President Clinton's watch,
America's most vital nuclear secrets
-- guarded intensely for five decades
-- have been allowed to spill out all
over the world.
Five weeks ago I surmised that
what now worried our scientists
most was the possible theft of the
"Lagrangian codes" from our national laboratories.
These are the supercomputer programs that -- when
fed secret data "benchmarks" from
all our nuclear tests -- enable foreign scientists to simulate our explosions and erase our lead.
We are now informed by The New
York Times's Pulitzer-Prize-winning
investigative team that the codes --
"legacy codes," as they are known at
Los Alamos -- were allegedly downloaded by Wen Ho Lee in 1994. Our
nuclear genie is out of the bottle.
"The People's Republic of China is
the number one proliferator," said
Representative Chris Cox, chairman
of the select committee on Chinagate. "Now the secrets are out there
in the stream of commerce, and
probably on to Iran and North Korea
The hemorrhage is horrendous.
How did it happen? The Senate Select
Committee on Intelligence is grilling
F.B.I. Director Louis Freeh today in
secret, but here are some facts:
Suspecting Lee at Los Alamos to
be a spy for China, F.B.I. agents in
1997 alerted the White House and
went to the Department of Justice's
Office of Intelligence Policy Review
to request application to a special
court for a wiretap under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
But Acting Director Gerald Schroeder and his aide Alan Kornblum decided the evidence was insufficient
and refused to apply.
The F.B.I. then went over Schroeder's head to the office of Deputy
Attorney General Eric Holder, and
was turned down again. The F.B.I.
never returned with new evidence to
Did Director Freeh appeal to Janet Reno about "over-lawyering" in a
national security case, or was he too
browbeaten to try? The bureau
learned that when it comes to China,
Reno Justice assigns only its most
incompetent operatives and penalizes prosecutors who target Asian
financing of the 1996 election.
Consider: Justice makes some 700
court applications a year for taps
under that surveillance law.
once or twice a year, says a Justice
intelligence official, it finally refuses
the F.B.I.'s request that it apply. This
case, involving an embarrassment to
China when Clinton was proclaiming
"strategic partnership," was the
Moreover, Congress should examine the ultra-gentle prosecution of a
Los Alamos nuclear simulation scientist, Peter Lee, who was let off
with a year in a halfway house. The
sentencing judge was never told all
Justice knew of his spying.
With his Chinese chickens coming
home to roost, Clinton has been desperately trying to keep a lid on
Chinagate. His first reaction -- that
it happened back in the 80's and had
nothing to do with him -- has been
overtaken by eventful truth.
For 10 weeks he ducked a meeting
with Cox and Norman Dicks of the
House committee seeking security
clearance of their 1,000-page report
on China's penetration of our scientific and political worlds. Last week
they met in a "sober" session; Cox
expects his slightly sanitized report
to be made public by May 15.
Two weeks after that, we'll see
what the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board comes up
with. Its chairman, former Senator
Warren Rudman, was incensed by a
prediction in this space of a whitewash: "It will be a hard-hitting report about security at the labs," he
Rudman has hired nine new investigators and may come up with recommendations about locking the
barn door now that the secrets of
almost every nuclear test we have
undertaken are on their way to Baghdad or Pyongyang via Beijing.
As the dangerous duping of this
Administration unfolds, keep in mind
Beijing's grand design: Use Asian
fund-raisers to influence White
House policy to sell China advanced
computer and missile technology. Simultaneously, use spies to steal both
the secret codes to program those
supercomputers and to steal the data
benchmarks enabling them to simulate our nuclear tests.
Thanks to the downloading of our
secrets, American cities will be less
safe in two years than they were at
the height of the cold war. We owe it
to ourselves to find out who let it
happen and why.
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