Reports Show Scientist Gave U.S. Radar Secrets to China

May 10, 1999 - JEFF GERTH and JAMES RISEN - The New York Times

WASHINGTON -- A scientist working on a classified Pentagon project in 1997 provided China with secrets about advanced radar technology being developed to track submarines, according to court records and government documents.

Submarine detection technology is jealously guarded by the Pentagon because the Navy's ability to conceal its submarines is a crucial military advantage.

The information about the radar technology, which is considered promising and has been in development for two decades, was divulged to Chinese nuclear-weapons experts during a two-hour lecture in Beijing in May 1997 by Peter Lee, an American scientist, court records show. Lee was then working for TRW Inc., which had been hired by the Pentagon.

Federal prosecutors in Los Angeles wanted to charge Lee with espionage but were unable to, in part because Navy officials in Washington would not permit testimony about the technology in open court, law-enforcement officials said.

The Justice Department in Washington, having some questions of its own, would not approve the prosecution either, the officials said.

Instead, Lee ended up pleading guilty to filing a false statement about his 1997 trip to China and to divulging classified laser data to Chinese scientists during an earlier trip to China in 1985.

Despite the failure to prosecute Lee over the radar technology, the case shows that the scope of Chinese espionage is broader than the assertions of nuclear thefts at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which officials say involved another American scientist, Wen Ho Lee.

The two men are not known to be related. The submarine technology in the Peter Lee case was developed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a weapons lab in California.

The Peter Lee case is also significant because it clearly demonstrates that the American government believed that China was successfully engaged in espionage -- obtaining American defense secrets -- during President Clinton's second term.

While the Los Alamos disclosures earlier this year prompted an array of investigations, Clinton, two months ago, said no one had brought suspicions of Chinese espionage to him and administration officials initially portrayed the problem as one confined to earlier administrations.

Today on the NBC News program "Meet the Press," Energy Secretary Bill Richardson acknowledged that there had been espionage by China during the Clinton administration, but he did not go into detail.

The breach involved in the Peter Lee case -- code-named Royal Tourist by the FBI -- occurred in 1997, a point made in a classified November 1998 counterintelligence report ordered by and then sent to the White House.

"It was my desire and the desire of my office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to pursue espionage counts," the prosecutor in the Peter Lee case, Jonathan S. Shapiro, said in an interview.

Indeed, at Lee's sentencing on March 26, 1998, Shapiro told the judge that Lee's activities struck at the heart of national security, according to witnesses at the hearing.

But Lee and his lawyer argued that the Taiwanese-American scientist had simply made egregious mistakes and never intended to help a foreign country or harm the United States.

The judge declined to put Lee in prison and sentenced him to 12 months in a halfway house with three years' probation and a fine of $20,000.

Rear Adm. Tom Jurkowsky, a Navy spokesman, said, "The Navy cooperated fully with the FBI from the start to the finish in their investigation." Jurkowsky declined to comment on whether the Navy prevented prosecutors in the Peter Lee case to use information about the anti-submarine warfare technology in open court.

The Justice Department spokesman, Myron Marlin, said: "The matter was handled in a way in which many parties had a chance to make their views known. In a case of this nature, we obviously cannot go into details, but there are often a number of reasons as to why a certain course of action is taken."

The November 1998 counterintelligence report citing the Peter Lee case was part of a comprehensive review ordered by President Clinton as part of his effort to improve security at U.S. weapons laboratories, which are run by the Department of Energy.

That report states that as late as 1997, Lee had "provided China with classified information."

Sandy Berger, Clinton's national security adviser, was briefed about the Peter Lee case by Energy Department intelligence officials in July 1997. Berger's spokesman, David Leavy, declined to say when Clinton first learned about Lee's activities.

Counterintelligence agents from the FBI watched Peter Lee from the early 1980s, officials said. But the bureau did not prevent Lee from traveling to Beijing in 1997 to discuss his work on anti-submarine warfare.

Lee failed to report his trip to superiors at his company, TRW, who did not know about it until informed by the FBI, court records show.

The Justice Department's 1997 decision not to approve the espionage prosecution of Lee contrasts with some spy cases involving the former Soviet Union or Israel in which ways were found to protect secrets and bring charges.

The 1997 decision not to prosecute came a few months after the Justice Department turned down a request from the FBI to put a covert wiretap on Wen Ho Lee, then a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Now Congress and the Justice Department are examining how the Wen Ho Lee case was handled as a result of recent assertions that he transferred more than 1,000 classified files containing a virtual history of American nuclear-weapons development to an unsecure computer system at Los Alamos.

On Thursday, Wen Ho Lee's lawyer, Mark Holscher of Los Angeles, denied any wrongdoing by his client.

The Peter Lee case and the investigation of Wen Ho Lee figure in a secret congressional report soon to be released in part by a committee led by Rep. Christopher Cox of California.

The technology at issue in the Peter Lee case involves a radar ocean imaging program developed in cooperation with Britain.

The former manager of the program, Richard Twogood, said in an interview that because the project was still in the developmental stage, there was a debate in the government over its significance.

Some see it as vital to American national security, since submarines and anti-submarine warfare are crucial to the defense of the United States. But others are uncertain about how useful the technology will prove to be, according to Twogood.

It is also unclear how immediately valuable the submarine-detection technology would have been to the Chinese. China does not have a strong navy and has only a modest submarine fleet, but it has been looking for ways to improve its military power at sea.

Twogood told the FBI that the information Peter Lee provided the Chinese in 1997 was "classified and sensitive," court records show.

The radar program seeks to detect the physical traces, briefly left as signatures on water surfaces, of the undersea motions of submarines. Remote sensing devices located, for example, on an airplane pick up the traces.

"The Navy has invested a lot in this area for 20 years and so by definition that implies it's important," said Twogood, currently the deputy associate director for electronic engineering at Lawrence Livermore.

The Soviet Union worked hard to develop this technology during the Cold War. Recent American advances suggested that Soviet assertions of success in anti-submarine measures should be taken more seriously, Twogood told Congress in 1994.

The United States has made considerable efforts over the years to make sure its submarines are difficult to detect. Ballistic-missile submarines form a critical part of the American nuclear arsenal, and are especially valuable because they are extremely difficult to track when submerged.

Submarines also are used to attack an enemy's surface ships and submarines and increasingly to launch other long range weapons, like cruise missiles with conventional warheads.

Peter Lee was born in China in 1939. His father was an ardent anti-Communist and moved his family to Taiwan in 1951. They later immigrated to the United States. Lee became a naturalized citizen in 1975 after graduating from California Institute of Technology with a Ph.D in aeronautics.

From 1976 to 1984, he worked as a physicist in a program at Lawrence Livermore that specialized in the use of laser power to initiate nuclear reactions. In 1985, he moved to Los Alamos, where he worked on the laser program as a contract employee.

In January 1985, Lee met with top Chinese nuclear scientists, where he twice divulged secrets about his laser work and "discussed problems the United States was having in its nuclear weapons testing simulation program," according to court records.

Lee had traveled to China with a group of scientists at the invitation of a Chinese visitor to his laboratory. Lee was supposed to act as a translator for the American delegation, according to the 1998 report on threats to the Department of Energy.

Lee later told the bureau that on or about Jan. 9, 1985, in a Beijing hotel room, a Chinese nuclear-weapons scientist asked for Lee's help, saying that China was a "poor country." Lee told the FBI, according to court records, that he decided to help because he wanted to bring China's scientific capabilities "closer to the United States."

The Chinese scientist drew a diagram and asked Lee questions about his laser research, according to court records filed in connection with his sentencing. Lee said he responded with detailed answers.

The next day, Lee was picked up at his hotel and driven to another hotel to meet a group of Chinese scientists. He answered their questions for two hours, drawing diagrams and providing specific mathematical and experimental results related to laser fusion research.

The laser fusion research that he gave to the Chinese was declassified by Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary in 1993, prompting several of Lee's former colleagues to recommend a lenient sentence to the sentencing judge.

Lee stayed at Los Alamos until 1991, when he went to the space and electronics group of TRW Inc., in Redondo Beach, Calif. At TRW he worked on the classified radar imaging research program, which was financed by the Pentagon, but managed by Lawrence Livermore.

In 1994 or 1995, Lee applied for another job at Los Alamos, but the FBI, having intensified its investigation of Lee, warned the Energy Department of its counterintelligence concerns, and, according to one official, Lee's application was rejected.

In the spring of 1997, Lee made a three-week trip to China as a paid guest of China's Institute of Applied Physics and Computational Mathematics, which handles the design of China's nuclear weapons, according to an FBI affidavit filed in Lee's case.

The affidavit was based in part on what it called Lee's "confession" in interviews with FBI officials from October 1997 to early 1998.

Lee filed a report with his company, TRW, saying that he planned to travel to China only for sightseeing and pleasure. But before he left, he contacted a Chinese scientist to tell him that he would be giving lectures on laser and nuclear energy at several Chinese institutes, the affidavit states.

Lee also sent a message that there was another subject that he planned to lecture on and discuss with Chinese scientists, but would only discuss it after he arrived in China. Lee's lawyer, James Henderson, said in an interview that Lee never intended to spy and has been hurt by insinuations he did.

While in Beijing on May 11, 1997, he gave a lecture about his work on the radar ocean imaging project at the Institute of Applied Physics and Computational Mathematics to a group that included Chinese nuclear-weapons scientists.

He was questioned about its applications for anti-submarine warfare, and showed the audience a surface ship wake image that he had brought with him from his lab. After a two-hour, detailed discussion of the physics of his work and its submarine applications, he tore the ship wake image "to shreds" after leaving the meeting, Lee told the FBI, court records show.

After Lee initially admitted his encounters in China and his false statement about his travel, the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles believed it could move forward with an espionage case, law-enforcement officials said. But any indictment required approval from Washington.

A series of meetings and phone calls ensued in the fall of 1997 involving lawyers in Los Angeles and top Justice and Pentagon officials in Washington.

Officials from the Navy took varying positions, but officials said that in the end the Navy refused to let prosecutors disclose information about the submarine detection technology in open court. "The Navy was adamant in protecting the information," said an official.

So Shapiro, the prosecutor, lacked a crucial component of an espionage case, a witness to testify about the classified nature of the information. He then negotiated a plea bargain. And on Dec. 5, 1997, the U.S. attorney's office filed a two-paragraph criminal information against Lee in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, ending a 15-year FBI investigation.

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