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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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