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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

A CASE OF NUCLEAR ESPIONAGE

China may have stolen top-secret U.S. data

By Susan Berfield


Security Japan gets closer to the U.S.

Southeast Asia Yankee, come home

Plus:

Resume of a Spy? Lee Wen-ho's career

LOS ALAMOS WAS BUILT by the U.S. government as a forbidden city to develop the atom bomb during World War II. Sentries guarded the only entrance, a two-lane road that climbed to an isolated plateau. The New Mexico town was closed to the public until 1957, and even then five years passed before the government allowed people to buy land there. Lee Wen-ho, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Taiwan, and his wife Sylvia moved to Los Alamos in the late 1970s. Lee was a nuclear scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory; his wife worked there as a secretary. They raised two children, bought two houses in a nearby suburb as investments, were active in the Los Alamos Chinese Cultural Association, brought their neighbor Peking duck at Christmas.

That was then. Now Lee has lost his job, disconnected his phone, hired a lawyer and awaits prosecution. Lee, 59, is suspected of spying for China, specifically of passing Beijing top-secret data that investigators say helped scientists leapfrog a generation of nuclear-weapons research and develop lighter, more powerful bombs. The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, Richard Shelby, says the damage to American security is "a lot worse than people ever imagined." Not only that, but Los Alamos and other U.S. nuclear labs were a lot more vulnerable than anyone ever imagined too.

According to The New York Times, a secret report to senior U.S. officials in November stated that the Energy Department (which runs the country's nuclear labs) recorded 324 attacks on its unclassified computer systems from outside the United States between October 1997 and June 1998, including instances when the hackers gained complete access to all the information on the system. The report doesn't say where the attacks originated. It also includes detailed descriptions of a number of times when China could have obtained sensitive weapons information. In one case, a scientist at a New York nuclear lab sent dozens of long, technical faxes directly to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, enabling researchers there to duplicate American experiments as they were being conducted.

Since the end of the Cold War, the need for both secrecy and openness in scientific research has sometimes been hard to reconcile. Lee, for example, was allowed to present two unclassified papers at symposiums in Beijing. Chinese and Russian experts regularly visited Los Alamos. In fact, Lee's wife even offered to report to the Federal Bureau of Investigation any suspect conversations among Chinese guests. Those days may be over. Sen. Shelby already has proposed a moratorium on overseas visitors to government labs. Washington is likely to curtail scientific exchanges and restrict opportunities for foreigners to work on sensitive research projects.

Lee had been suspected of espionage since 1995, when intelligence agents discovered that Beijing had obtained the design for a sophisticated nuclear warhead, the W-88. But Lee was dismissed from Los Alamos only on March 8, in part because he admitted that he had been approached by Chinese agents in 1988 and had not disclosed the contacts. Since then, officials have accused Lee of transferring highly sensitive files from the lab's classified network to his own, unsecured personal computer over a 12-year period. The codes and data were the distillation of more than 50 years of research on how to perfect nuclear weapons. They included the so-called legacy codes that enable scientists to generate computer simulations of nuclear explosions.

Lee has denied any wrongdoing, and he has not been charged with any crime. Investigators have not determined if Beijing obtained the computer data. But there is evidence that someone got into the files after Lee moved them. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Sun Yuxi, said: "The problem of China stealing nuclear technology from the United States does not exist. If there has been a leak of secrets on the part of the United States, that is their own affair."

But this is China's problem too. Support for the nation's membership in the World Trade Organization could ebb "with the feeling that it has not proven itself a trustworthy partner," says a congressional aide. Last year's China scandal, concerning illegal technology transfers, isn't over either. An investigation led by Rep. Christopher Cox was completed in December, but the report remains unpublished. Probably not for much longer.

- With reporting by Samuel Gilston/Washington


THE SUSPECT'S FILE

1978 Lee joins Los Alamos National Laboratory.

1982 Lee comes to the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation when agents intercept a telephone call made by him to another Taiwan-born nuclear scientist suspected of passing classified data to China.

1983-1995 Lee downloads millions of lines of classified code from the lab's top-secret computer database and stores the data in his unsecured personal computer.

1986 AND 1988 Lab officials give permission for Lee to present two unclassified papers at symposiums in Beijing.

1995 U.S. intelligence agents obtain a Chinese government document establishing that Beijing has stolen the design for a sophisticated nuclear warhead, the W-88.

1996 The F.B.I. focuses its investigation of the theft on Lee.

1997 Lee is transferred to a new job at Los Alamos.

FEBRUARY 1999 After failing a polygraph test administered by the F.B.I., Lee deletes from his computer some of the classified data he had earlier transferred to it.

MARCH 1999 Lee allows authorities to search files on his computer. On March 8, Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson fires Lee from his job for security violations. Richardson later learns that secret data was found on Lee's personal computer at Los Alamos.

APRIL 1999 Richardson orders the computer systems at three nuclear labs shut down for two weeks. On April 10, F.B.I. investigators search Lee's home.

MAY 1999 Senate Intelligence Committee chair Richard Shelby says Lee's espionage caused damage that is "worse than people ever imagined."


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