U.S. May Bring Lesser Charges In China Spy Probe

July 14, 1999

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department may accuse a fired scientist at a U.S. nuclear research facility with mishandling classified information instead of more serious espionage charges, officials said Wednesday.

Department officials said a decision is expected by the end of the summer in the case of Wen Ho Lee, who was fired as a scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico on suspicion he spied for China.

"We are considering that," one official said, referring to the possible lesser charges against Lee. The official acknowledged there still was insufficient evidence to warrant more serious espionage charges against Lee.

The officials said the continuing FBI investigation had turned up no direct evidence that Lee ever passed or tried to pass to China any classified national security information.

Lee was fired in March. His lawyer issued a detailed statement denying the allegations, and China steadfastly denied stealing U.S. secrets.

A search of Lee's lab computer in March and April found he had downloaded from 1983 to 1995 millions of lines of classified computer codes related to the workings of nuclear weapons onto an unclassified system.

That would be the basis for charging him with mishandling classified information in government computers, the officials said.

They said discussions on what charges to bring involved the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Mexico, which would prosecute any case, and officials in the Justice Department's Criminal Division and other top officials.

The FBI in 1997 asked the Justice Department for permission to wiretap Lee, but the request was rejected on the grounds the case was too weak and there was insufficient evidence that he spied for China, department officials have said.

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