Spy of the Century?
Shackled and chained, a frail scientist sits in solitary
confinement, awaiting trial after years of scrutiny and public disgrace for
allegedly passing the blueprints of the American nuclear arsenal to the Chinese.
Was Taiwanese-born Wen Ho Lee really a spook in the Los Alamos nuclear kitchen,
or was he set up in a racist witch hunt?
By Ron Gluckman /in Los Alamos, Santa Fe, San Francisco, Los
Angeles and Beijing
IN A TINY JAIL CELL IN SANTA FE sits
the Spy of the Century: Wen-ho Lee, super-spook who stole the crown jewels of
the Pentagon's nuclear arsenal and endangered world peace by passing them to
China. Or, at least, so he is portrayed by the U.S. government and much of the
American media. In fact Lee, an American citizen and veteran mechanical
engineer, has not been charged with espionage at all, but rather of mishandling
classified material. For months investigators have been trying to make
Taiwan-born Lee confess to spying for Beijing -- in the process denying him
access to newspapers, radio and phone calls to anyone other than his lawyers and
To many, the heavy-handed tactics recall the communist witch-hunts of the 1950s,
only today's red menace is China, not the Soviet Union. This, perhaps, should
come as no surprise. The allegations against Lee emerged in the wake of the 1999
Cox Report, a controversial document that purports to show evidence of Chinese
espionage going back decades. Moreover, it is election time in the U.S., and
vilifying Beijing is all part of the campaign fireworks.
Whether or not Lee is a spy, the handling of the case already has had
far-reaching consequences -- worsening fractious U.S.-China relations, angering
Asian-Americans within and without the research establishment and rocking the
U.S. justice system. At issue is what some see as a tainted investigation that
targeted Lee from the outset because of his ethnicity, and seems to have focused
only on evidence that would secure a conviction.
Before his sudden notoriety, Lee had led a quiet existence as a scientist in Los
Alamos, New Mexico, a mountain town born of brilliance. The desolate stretch of
red-rock plateau was secretly settled in 1943 after the Allies learned that Nazi
Germany was working on a new weapon of mass destruction. America's best brains
rushed to produce their own version -- and did so, exploding the first atomic
bomb on Aug. 6, 1945.
Today, the men and women who work at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) help
map the planet, harness lasers for medical use and plan a host of other
innovations. Only part of LANL's present work relates directly to weapons
research. And, despite machine guns and barbed wire around a building with
enough plutonium to end life on Earth hundreds of times over, almost all weapons
work is now done by computer.
The big challenge at Los Alamos is certifying the readiness of America's nuclear
arsenal. Researchers are assisted by Blue Mountain, the world's most powerful
computer. Even so, equations are so complex they can run for a full year. And it
falls to human minds to devise increasingly innovative simulation tests.
That's where Wen-ho Lee comes into the picture. A specialist in the field of
fluid dynamics, he devised elaborate computer codes to predict how materials
would change in the face of an enormous force. Like an atomic bomb.
Lee's is the classic story of the over-achieving immigrant. Born in 1939,
he was one of 10 children of poor farmers from Nantou, a rural area of Taiwan,
near Taichung. Lee's parents died soon after World War II, and he was raised by
relatives. Early on, Lee proved himself a gifted scholar. After earning a B.Sc.
in mechanical engineering from Tainan's National Cheng Kung University in 1963,
he competed hard for a student visa to the U.S. Two years later, the shy,
diminutive 26-year-old arrived in College Station, Texas, to attend Texas
A&M, where he took a masters in 1966 and a doctorate in mechanical
engineering in 1969.
By all accounts, Lee worked just as hard to fit in. He bought a blue Mustang,
the cool car of the time, and practiced American sports lingo, especially
references to football. A trip to California's Rose Bowl with a group of Taiwan
immigrants resulted in a romantic touchdown: Identifying the prettiest girl in
the group, Lee made sure he drove her home last. Five weeks later, Wen-ho and
Sylvia were engaged. After marrying, they moved often, following Lee's work. A
son, Chung, was born in New Jersey in 1972, and a daughter, Alberta, in San
Diego in 1973. Lee became a U.S. citizen in 1974.
This was a nuclear family in every way. After a 1978 research posting at Los
Alamos, Lee was hired at LANL full time in 1980. His wife worked there for years
as a programmer and even the kids spent summers at the facility -- Alberta
mapping data from a nuclear test site, Chung running computer codes. In quiet,
crime- and pollution-free Los Alamos, the Lees established a tidy household with
few concessions to their origins. Chinese was spoken at home, but the kids
joined the scouts, played soccer and studied music. Alberta describes a
sheltered, disciplined, but extremely happy upbringing. She and her brother grew
tall. "I attribute it to father's cooking," jokes Alberta. Dr. Lee
loved to whip up Chinese dishes, using home-grown bok choy, asparagus and snow
Lee's colleagues and neighbors describe the accused as a loner who seldom
socialized outside his family. Even Don Marshall, who lives next door and worked
with Lee at the lab's top-secret X Division, admits he didn't know his colleague
well. But one thing people knew for sure: Lee was fanatical about fishing.
Everyone on tree-shaded Barcelona Lane in White Rock, a picturesque suburb of
Los Alamos, recalls the same familiar sight -- Lee returning home with his
Perhaps it is fitting, then, that the world's first view of Lee was that of a
slight, old man in a rumpled fishing hat. That photograph ran in papers and on
television screens around the world in March of 1999. Wen-ho Lee's ordeal had
It all started with a shadowy tip. U.S. authorities claim that in 1995 a
Chinese agent passed on documents detailing Beijing's weapons program. Some
designs so closely mirrored America's own bombs, particularly the W-88
mini-warhead, that a determination was made that the technology must have been
passed to the Chinese. From there, everything moved backward. Rather than cast a
wide net to ferret out clues, investigators chose to match culprits to the
likely time-frame. The data were believed to have been leaked in the mid-1980s.
Suspicion quickly settled on Lee, who made two trips to Beijing in 1986 and
1988. Lee has acknowledged meeting counterparts in Chinese weapons research on
the trips. That is no secret. He did so with the approval of his employer. LANL
paid for both trips.
The Lee investigation lumbered along for more than three years without producing
any hard evidence of espionage. A turning point came in late 1998. Word began
circulating in the media that Chinese agents had infiltrated the American
security apparatus. About that time, Lee was hauled in for questioning. The
family home was searched in April 1999, whereupon intelligence agents announced
an astonishing find: Lee had allegedly copied 400,000 to 800,000 pages of
classified documents -- "the blueprints for the entire American nuclear
arsenal." Agents claimed he had spent hours copying information from
classified to unclassified computer systems, then downloaded the data to
portable tapes, some of which remain unaccounted for.
The Lees quickly learned what it meant to become the property of the police and
press. The family home was staked out. The car was bugged. Lee could barely go
to the toilet unobserved. Agents tailed him on fishing trips. "The FBI was
everywhere and the reporters camped out on the street," says Eve Spencer,
who lived two doors down from the Lees. "It was a total circus."
As the surveillance became increasingly intrusive, Lee began avoiding old
friends, say colleagues, fearing that he would implicate them by association.
When friends dropped by the Lee home, the scientist wouldn't even open the door.
At least once, he used a co-worker's home phone so he could call relatives
without federal agents listening in. The circus ended when Lee was finally
arrested on Dec. 10, 1999, and put in solitary confinement.
Well before that, Lee's daughter Alberta had begged her father to get a lawyer.
"He kept saying: 'I didn't do anything. Why would I need an attorney?' Dad
is such a simple person. Right until the end, he actually thought he was helping
the investigation." Perhaps that's because he and his wife had done just
that in the past.
In the early 1980s, Lee was an FBI informant during an investigation of a
Taiwan-born scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near San
Francisco. For her part, Sylvia helped the FBI keep tabs on visiting mainland
scientists, allowing authorities to monitor her conversations with them. She
also provided the FBI with translated copies of her correspondence with mainland
In 1982, Lee himself came under counter-intelligence scrutiny, and once again
soon after. Both times he was cleared. But matters were different this time. A
variety of political and defense considerations meshed with the same need:
produce an arrest. Lee fit the profile. After all, he was ethnic Chinese.
Coming at a low point in U.S.-China relations, the Lee case became fodder for
hardline Republicans, who accused the White House of being soft on Beijing. The
Clinton administration countered that if a spy had slipped into the nuclear
treasury, it happened in the 1980s, when George Bush and Ronald Reagan were in
the White House. The longer the W-88 investigation ran without producing a
smoking gun, the more embarrassing it got. Damage control became the overriding
concern as numerous agencies launched their own investigations and the FBI was
ordered to start over from scratch. Again, they settled on Lee as the prime
suspect -- even though they could charge him only with mishandling classified
Upon what evidence it is impossible to ascertain. Beyond testimony presented in
bail hearings, authorities refuse to discuss the case. National security, they
say, using the same rationale to deny Lee visitors, save for meetings with
lawyers, and only an hour a week with immediate family. Until recently, Lee
wasn't even allowed the hourly outdoor breaks enjoyed by most county inmates.
This is due to Special Administrative Measures, rarely applied restrictions in
security cases that override the human rights granted even to convicted rapists
and murderers. "He's being treated like an animal or worse," says a
friend and former colleague. "It makes me ashamed to be an American."
The case has shaken not only the U.S. research community, but the justice system
as well. Everything about the situation is unusual, from the special security
chambers that will have to be built so Lee and his lawyers can go over
classified material in advance of a November trial to the strange charges
against Lee. He is accused of 59 counts of mishandling classified material, but
the original indictment was under statutes of the Atomic Energy and Federal
Espionage acts, which have never been used to prosecute anyone.
To date, no evidence has been shown that any of the data Lee allegedly copied
was conveyed to a foreign power -- a key facet of a successful espionage
prosecution, according to legal experts. Nor is there any proof that the data on
the W-88, the basis for the original investigation, was ever passed to China. In
fact, the government's own reviews of the case conclude that it wasn't.
Perhaps most damaging to government credibility is the condemnation by former
intelligence agent Robert Vrooman, who worked on the case from 1995 to 1998.
"There is not one shred of evidence that the information that the
intelligence community identified as having been stolen by the Chinese came from
Wen-ho Lee, Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Department of Energy complex or
from a DOE office," says Vrooman, now a security consultant in Los Alamos.
Vrooman told The Washington Post: "This case was screwed up because there
was nothing there. It was built on thin air."
Evidence of lax security is indisputable, however. Case reviews found that
workers in Lee's X Division often stacked piles of classified papers, containing
the same codes he is charged with downloading, in hallways when their offices
became too cluttered. "This entire case arose from a sense that some power
was stealing secrets, but there is no evidence at all that that happened,"
says Lee's attorney, Brian Sun. "After over 1,000 interviews and one of the
most extensive investigations in U.S. history, they have still come up with
In The Name Of The
"I used to trust the government, but not anymore!" says the
woman at the microphone. "Know your rights. Don't trust the
government!" Few workers heading home from San Francisco's financial
district pay heed to the small gathering in Portsmouth Square. Pigeons roost on
park benches, as the suits slip past panhandling Vietnam vets and a card table
manned by socialists with this banner: Down With Anti-Asian "Spy"
Witch-hunt! Afterwards the speaker, Alberta Lee, meets supporters for snacks and
tea at the nearby Chinese Community Center. It is another fundraiser in late
January. "This has totally turned me around," she says. "A lot of
people take for granted that the government knows what it is doing. I'm scared
because I've found that's not true. And it terrifies me."
Alberta is the main mouthpiece for her father's defense. Locked up and denied
access to the outside world, Lee can't defend himself. Even when Alberta visits,
the two are separated by a glass wall, and a federal agent sits close by. Until
recently, family members were not allowed to converse in Mandarin. Now, a
Chinese-speaking federal agent sits in to ensure that the security of the
world's sole superpower is not compromised by the short, stilted family
Alberta has largely put her life as a software worker in North Carolina on hold.
She shuttles around the U.S., making speeches, mustering support. This seems to
be a family decision, as Chung is immersed in the final phase of medical studies
in Cleveland. Sylvia still goes about her daily life in the Los Alamos home, but
she has maintained a strict silence. "We decided to try and maintain as
normal a life as possible," says Alberta. "As normal as possible when
something like this happens," she adds, her voice breaking. "It's been
Nonetheless, Alberta's efforts are paying off; throughout America she encounters
ethnic Asians who are incensed by what many deem racially motivated allegations
against a U.S. citizen. They are pouring money into the defense fund, mobilizing
politically, and urging ethnic Chinese graduates to boycott U.S. labs. Cecilia
Chang, a Hong Kong-born resident of suburban San Francisco, runs the Wen-ho Lee
Defense Fund from her family home. "After three years and spending so much
money [on the investigation]," she asks, "where are the results? All
we see is that Lee is being made to suffer. It's a complete injustice."
At U.S. national labs, the climate is one of fear and paranoia -- with ethnic
Chinese researchers looking over their shoulders. "They want us to be
Americans and work in their defense labs," says a Taiwan-born scientist.
"But they never treat us as Americans. They always treat us like
foreigners, like Chinese." He and others cite the double standard of John
Deutch, an ex-Central Intelligence Agency director who accessed classified files
from an unsecured home computer -- apparently leaving the nation's secrets
vulnerable to hackers -- and was let off with a slap on the wrist. "Deutch
hasn't been reprimanded," says one scientist bitterly. "He's not
chained up like Wen."
Still, in private, some colleagues, many of them ethnic Chinese, are unwilling
to give Lee unconditional support. They recall strange phone calls with their
friend and curious behavior. "Like all those fishing trips," says one.
"Why was he always going off on his own?" There are rumors that Lee
was unhappy at work, in danger of losing his post and looking for other
opportunities. And there are still questions about Lee's professional behavior.
Already, his 10-person defense team has explained away some of the accusations.
For instance, Lee's computer access code was used extensively to log into the
classified system by remote from Los Angeles. Not a foreign agent, according to
Alberta, who testified that she used her father's secret code to gain high-speed
lines through the lab to an online game she played while in university.
Other matters are more perplexing. For example, how to explain all the copying
of classified material? Defense lawyers have suggested Lee was only protecting
time-consuming research from computer crashes. Yet colleagues note that the lab
has back-up systems. And despite defense claims that taking work home is common,
dozens of colleagues say no way. Never.
"That's the mystifying thing,"
one concedes. "I can't think of any reason why anyone would do such a
thing. It's just such a huge breach of security. I'm fully behind Wen-ho Lee,
but I'm baffled, too." He adds: "Still, I'm sure there's a reasonable
explanation. I just want to hear it from Wen."
That's what the Lee family,
Los Alamos and all of America is waiting for, too.
Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who
is based in Hong Kong, but who roams around Asia and the rest of the world for a number of publications,
including Asiaweek, which sent him to America for this exclusive investigative
report that ran in the magazine in mid-April 2000.
Wen Ho Lee was later released in a plea bargain that allowed him to go
free for time served, and the government did not have to take its shoddy case to
Top photo of Los Alamos Lab by Ron Gluckman. Wen Ho Lee photo taken from
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