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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 51, October 2000

Bitter Aftermath of Wen Ho Lee Plea Bargain

Controversy continues to rage in the United States concerning the handling of the investigation and prosecution of Wen Ho Lee. The Taiwanese-born US nuclear physicist, dismissed from Los Alamos National Laboratory in March 1999, was released after 10 months imprisonment without bail on September 13 after pleading guilty to one of 59 charges of espionage and mishandling classified information.

The plea bargain is itself controversial. On September 27, prosecution Attorney Norman Bay told a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee of Dr. Lee' fierce reluctance - even faced with a possible life sentence if convicted on the most serious charges - to concede any of the charges brought against him: "The defence lawyers told me that he would never take a plea to any count in the indictment...and that if the government wasn' willing to accept that, the defence was going to push the United States on a long, slow death march under CIPA [Classified Information Procedures Act]..."

Dr. Lee, who is seeking a full pardon even while facing sustained further questioning as part of the conditions of the plea bargain, continues to maintain that none of the material he is alleged to have mishandled and destroyed contained vital information - a claim rebutted with equal conviction by the Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). As Bay told the Senate hearing: "Our sense was that the judge was going to rule against us" with regard to keeping key evidence against Dr. Lee secret during any trial, and "had that happened, our indictment would have been gutted. We either would have to declassify a huge amount of highly sensitive information - nuclear source codes - or we would have to dismiss counts in the indictment. It was a very dark choice." In the words of Assistant Attorney General James Robinson, addressing the same hearing: "This information isn' used to build widgets some place - this information is used to build bombs." However, in a written statement submitted to the Committee, released on September 27, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), George Tenet, played down, without dismissing, such fears:

"This information would help primarily from a design perspective, providing significant insight and guidance almost equating to a graduate course in nuclear weapons design... But for a country to design, develop, test and deploy a nuclear weapon, more is required than design codes... The actual value of the information depends in large part on the capabilities of the country or group that received it..."

A specific concern about the information in question relates to details of the miniaturized W-88 Trident strategic nuclear warhead. Addressing a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on October 3, John Richter, a retired nuclear weapons designer still employed as a consultant to Los Alamos, stated his conclusion that the data involved in the case "shows the dimensions but none of the specifications" of the W-88, none of "the things it takes to build a mechanical object." Without such details, Richter concludes, the recipients wouldn' have the "ingredients" or "even...the kitchen" for bomb making. Also addressing the hearing, Stephen Younger, Associate Laboratory Director for Nuclear Weapons at Los Alamos, stated his belief that "in the wrong hands, the information downloaded by Dr. Lee could enable a proliferant nation to design relatively crude but nevertheless effective nuclear weapons without nuclear testing... If the design of the most sophisticated nuclear weapons on the planet are not the crown jewels of nuclear security, I don' know what is..."

The case has raised the spectre of racism in the US nuclear weapons complex, and anti-Asian bigotry in US society more generally. On October 9, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced that an internal investigation would be launched into the question of ' profiling' in his Department. According to Richardson, there were "enough instances throughout the complex" to warrant such an investigation: "I will not tolerate even hints of racial profiling... We have made progress addressing concerns of racial profiling, but more needs to be done." In bitter exchanges, former head of Counterintelligence at Los Alamos, Robert Vrooman, has accused the Energy Department' former senior intelligence official, Notra Trulock, of overt racism in the Lee prosecution. Both men addressed the October 3 Senate hearing. According to Vrooman: "Every time Lee' motive was discussed it came down to his ethnicity... There was never any other motive discussed." Vrooman added: "I met with FBI agents weekly, and we always discussed our reservations about this case... By December 1998...we absolutely thought that Lee was not the right man." Trulock, who is suing Lee, Vrooman, Secretary Richardson and others for defamation, stated that he had a record of combatting prejudice: "I stopped efforts by [Energy Department] managers...to compile a database on the ethnicity of American citizens with access to classified information..."

In Washington on October 14, Attorney General Janet Reno addressed the National Asian-pacific American Bar association, promising, following an internal Justice department inquiry, to "declassify what information may be declassified so that as much information as possible [concerning the case] can be made public." Reno noted: "I know that there may be decisions in this case that may have caused...fierce criticism... I take your concerns very, very seriously." The FBI is also conducting an inquiry into its officials' role in the investigation and prosecution.

Following the plea bargain, The New York Times published two self-critical editorials (September 26 & 28) apologising for shortcomings in its coverage of the case. In the second editorial, the paper acknowledges: "many of the arguments have held up well, although with the benefit of hindsight we find that we too quickly accepted the government' theory that espionage was the main reason for Chinese nuclear advances and its view that Dr. Lee had been properly singled out as the prime suspect."

Broader issues of security in the nuclear weapons complex have also been brought to the fore by the Lee case. On October 17, the Secretary announced he had accepted a range of recommendations for improving security at nuclear weapons laboratories proposed following a study by John Gordon, Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The recommendations relate in particular to the contractual responsibility of the University of California for lab security. According to a Department press release:

"Based on these recommendations, Energy Secretary Richardson has authorized the NNSA Administrator to immediately restructure the Department' current contracts with the University of California to address security and management issues. The Department will also commence negotiations with UC that, if successful, would lead to additional performance requirements and a three-year extension of the contract [due to expire on September 30, 2002]."

On September 25, a report was released on the impact of the Lee case and subsequently tightened security at Los Alamos. Commissioned by Secretary Richardson and conducted by former Democrat Representative Lee Hamilton and former Republican Senator Howard Baker, the study painted a picture of morale in steep decline: "Once...laboratory employees fear that committing a security error may expose them not just to management discipline, but to prosecution and imprisonment, any hope that individuals will volunteer information that could reflect security lapses is annihilated... The employees we met expressed fear and deep concern over the influx of FBI agents and yellow crime-scene tape in their work space, the interrogation of their colleagues by the FBI and federal prosecutors before a grand jury, and the resort of some of their colleagues to taking a second mortgage on their home to pay for attorney fees..."

The ' secrets' issue has featured in the US presidential campaign. In answers to a questionnaire from Science, published in the October 5 edition of the journal, Governor Bush remarked: "Inadequate leadership, oversight and management by the Department of Energy have left a dark cloud over our national labs... America' security should not be a matter of lost-and-found. In my Administration, our national labs will be secure again, our vital information will be sealed and our nuclear secrets will be secret..."

Note: as reported in recent issues, the Defense Department is concerned at the fate of classified information on the personal computer of former CIA Director and Deputy Defense Secretary John Deutch. According to Pentagon spokesperson Rear Admiral Craig Quigley on October 10: "There' no way to tell what...[the] ultimate disposition [of the material] might have been without talking to Dr. Deutch, and he has declined requests for our investigators to talk with him on this or other topics..."

Reports: Wen Ho Lee supporters seek pardon, Associated Press, September 22; Clinton, Reno talk about Lee case, Associated Press, September 22; White House says Reno orders Wen Ho Lee case review, Reuters, September 22; Two internal reviews launched in Lee case, Washington Post, September 23; Report - Alamos crackdown backfiring, Associated Press, September 25; US Justice, FBI stand by case against Wen Ho Lee, Reuters, September 26; US prosecutors doubt earlier Lee plea possible, Reuters, September 27; Lee' nuke secrets couldn' build bomb - Tenet, Reuters, September 27; NY Times critiques Lee coverage, Associated Press, September 28; Former official denies racial basis, Associated Press, October 3; Scientists differ on risk Lee download posed, Reuters, October 3; Bush, Gore answer questions for Journal Science, Reuters, October 5; Richardson - profiling probe in Dept., Associated Press, October 9; Energy Secretary seeks probe, Associated Press, October 9; Pentagon can' find Deutch disks, Associated Press, October 10; Reno moves to declassify Lee papers, Associated Press, October 14; Secretary Richardson accepts recommendations for improving security at nuclear weapons laboratories, US Department of Energy Press Release R-00-268, October 17; Richardson accepts recommendations, Associated Press, October 17; Debriefing begins for Wen Ho Lee, Associated Press, October 17.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.