Scientist faces nuclear charges

December 11, 1999 - BBC News

A scientist at the centre of an espionage scandal in the US has been charged with 59 offences. The charges relate to mishandling top secret nuclear weapons data, though he was not charged with spying.

The charges are:

  • 29 counts of illegal tampering, altering concealing or removing restricted data
  • 10 counts of unlawful receipt or acquisition of restricted data
  • 10 counts of unlawful gathering of national defence information
  • 10 counts of unlawful retention of national defence information

Wen Ho Lee was charged under the Atomic Energy Act and the Federal Espionage Act. If convicted, the physicist can be sentenced to life imprisonment for the most serious offences. FBI agents arrested Mr Lee, 59, on suspicion of removing nuclear secrets from a secured computer at the US weapons lab where he used to work.

Mr Lee, a Taiwan-born computer scientist, has been the prime target of an FBI investigation involving alleged theft of nuclear secrets by China. But the charges he faces do not allege that Mr Lee worked for the Chinese authorities. He was arrested at his home at Los Alamos, New Mexico, shortly after an indictment was issued by a federal grand jury in Albuquerque, at the request of US Attorney John Kelly.

Mr Kelly said: "Although Mr Lee has not been charged with communicating classified information to a foreign power, the mishandling of classified information alleged in the indictment has, in the government's view, resulted in serious damage to important national interests."

A grand jury has been hearing evidence for months concerning alleged security violations by Mr Lee at the Los Alamos lab where he worked for nearly 20 years before being sacked last March. The decision to prosecute Mr Lee was made by Attorney General Janet Reno after a White House meeting of top administration officials. These included Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, FBI Director Louis Freeh, CIA director George Tenet and Samuel Berger, the president's national security adviser. It was the energy secretary who ordered Mr Lee to be fired last March for security violations.

Computer codes

Mr Richardson has said he would have no problem in declassifying certain nuclear weapons secrets needed in a trial once a decision was made to prosecute. Mr Lee was fired for failing to safeguard classified material and not informing Energy Department officials about details of several trips to China.

It was not until after his sacking that the authorities discovered that Mr Lee had, in the mid-90s, improperly transferred thousands of computer codes - the "legacy codes" that provide a history of nuclear weapons development - from Los Alamos' highly secured computer system to his less-secure personal office computer.

Mr Lee, who has rarely spoken publicly in the last nine months, acknowledged the computer file transfers. But he maintained he had put the codes into his office computer as a backup to safeguard against a computer crash at the Los Alamos laboratory.

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