Senators grill nuclear lab chiefs on security

CNN - May 5, 1999

WASHINGTON -- Senators closely questioned the heads of U.S. nuclear laboratories Wednesday in the wake of suspected espionage by a recently-fired Chinese scientist in who suspicions were first raised in 1984.

The scientist, Wen Ho Lee, was fired outright for security violations in early March after being transferred late last year from his top-secret job with the highest security classification. He has denied being involved in espionage and has not been charged with a crime.

Sen. Don Nickles (R-Oklahoma) said he was "shocked, disappointed, dismayed" and could not believe that Lee was switched to a position that still involved classified information involving nuclear weapons computer codes after he came under suspicion.

"I think heads ought to roll," Nickles said, adding the case could be the most serious case of espionage in U.S history.

John Browne, director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory where Lee worked, said Lee was transferred to that position since he had access to the data for the past 14 years.

"It wasn't as if in April of 1997 we were going to take him from something less innocuous and put him on to the most sensitive things we have," he said.

Browne also said that Lee's computer was not monitored because the FBI and the Justice Department were unsure whether potential evidence gathered independently by the Energy Department was admissible in court.

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico) said "a tragedy of errors, lost files, omissions and bad judgment" prevented authorities from curtailing Lee's work in the labs. He also said that suspicions were first raised about Lee in 1984.

"Without a doubt this has been a failure of both individuals and institutions," Domenici said, noting that red flags were raised to Energy Department and Los Alamos laboratory officials about security concerns involving Lee.

Lee began working at the Los Alamos weapons lab in New Mexico in 1978. He has been under investigation by the FBI since 1996 over alleged theft by China of information on the W-88, one of the country's most sophisticated warheads.

But Domenici said warnings about Lee were raised as early as 1984, followed by others in 1989, 1997 and 1998.

Domenici said Lee took a polygraph test in 1984 and "showed deception on seven questions." He was retested and cleared but Domenici said the initial suspicions were never passed on to the Energy Department or lab managers.

In 1989, the DOE's office in Albuquerque, New Mexico, noted the 1984 FBI polygraph results and relayed its concerns to DOE headquarters. "That file was lost," said Domenici. Three years later the regional office hired an outside contractor to reconstruct the Lee file.

Senators also questioned a decision by the DOE under former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary to change the badges worn by employees that the lab directors opposed. The badges were originally color-coded to reflect an employee's classification status but were changed to a single color and a numbering system showed the security classification.

"It made it more difficult to easily visually observe whether a person had a clearance," Browne said, adding that move is being reversed.

Browne, who took over as Los Alamos director 18 months ago, told the Senate panel that a string of communications breakdowns between the labs and law enforcement authorities kept Lee in his position longer than he should have been.

In a separate Senate hearing on Wednesday, Attorney General Janet Reno declined to discuss the situation, saying it was an ongoing investigation. She offered to hold a classified briefing for senators.

Sen. Frank Murkowski, (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee which heard testimony from the lab directors, said the government appeared to be "asleep at the switch" on the Lee case

The directors of the labs all said that computer security was one of the toughest security issues the labs are facing. Paul Robinson, director of the Sandia National Laboratory, said the changes in computing and information systems are a threat to information security in the labs.

"I think we face a revolution in espionage and this has truly been a wake-up call to our laboratory to look at what might have been done and what may be done using the new technologies," Robinson said.

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