Is It Time To Panic?
Explosive allegations of Chinese espionage raise new fears about U.S. nuclear security
By ROMESH RATNESAR
Espionage, movies have taught us, is supposed to be sexy stuff. The rakish secret agent. A blond chanteuse. Cameras masquerading as bow ties. By those standards, the alleged perfidy pulled off by Wen Ho Lee was decidedly G-rated. FBI agents suspect that for more than a decade, while working as a research scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Lee was surreptitiously downloading millions of lines of classified code from the lab's top-secret computer database and storing the codes on the hard drive of his personal office computer. The actual transfer between systems was pretty easy, requiring little more than the kind of drag-and-click computer moves that millions of deskbound Americans perform every day. It wasn't exactly grist for a white-knuckle thriller.
But Lee was playing with blockbuster material. Known as "legacy codes," the 100 or so calculations that he put on his hard drive contained a gold mine of nuclear secrets--reams of physics equations and weapon-test results and warhead designs--painstakingly amassed by the U.S. since the government began building atom bombs at Los Alamos a half-century ago. When Energy Department officials discovered in March that a mid-level scientist had copied programs from the prized database, they were chagrined. That the scientist was the Taiwanese-born Lee, the same one fired on March 8 amid fears that he might already have passed weapons secrets to the Chinese government, was doubly embarrassing. But the realization that the codes stored on Lee's computer could have found their way into scores of foreign hands, including those of the Chinese government, left U.S. officials dumbstruck. "Holy s___," was what Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said when his counterintelligence chief told him of the data transfers in late March.
Republicans were using language even less polite last week when news of the possible heist landed in Washington. Congressional leaders were already fuming about disclosures, first made in the March 6 edition of the New York Times, that since 1996 the FBI had been trying to determine whether Lee had given Beijing classified information about the design of America's most advanced nuclear warhead, the
W-88, and that in spite of this possibility, Lee had remained at Los Alamos until he was fired on March 8. The Administration tried to sidestep criticism by insisting that any spying that had taken place had happened during Republican administrations. But that defense may not cut it this time around. Investigators suspect that Lee, 59, downloaded the bulk of the secret codes in 1994 and 1995. He was allowed to retain his high-level security clearance at the lab until late 1998, even while he was under FBI surveillance for the W-88 theft. Agents say they asked the lab to let Lee keep his job so he wouldn't get wise to their probe. Still, it was not until after Lee's dismissal from Los Alamos that anyone managed to check what was on his computer. As more details have emerged, it has sometimes seemed that the only thing more breathtaking than Lee's alleged deceit was how long the government took to ferret it out.
The Clinton Administration last week scrambled to contain the damage. Richardson admitted a colossal security breach but said there was no evidence that the Chinese or anyone else had actually obtained the nuclear data from Lee. (Through his lawyer, Lee has denied any wrongdoing.) On Thursday FBI chief Louis Freeh gave similar assurances in a private briefing for the Senate Intelligence Committee. But the Senators came out of the three-hour meeting irate. The most overheated Republicans compared Lee to Klaus Fuchs, the Los Alamos scientist who passed atomic secrets to the Soviets in the 1940s. Even Democrats raged. "It's not even a close call," said Nebraska Democrat Bob Kerrey. "This is an extremely serious national-security issue that was not given a sufficient amount of attention."
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