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 immediate family.

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.

A Classic Over-Achiever
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 peas.

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 catch.

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 begun.

Paranoia And Politics
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 scientists.

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 documents.

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 zero."

In The Name Of The Father
"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 reunions.

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 a nightmare."

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 court.

Top photo of Los Alamos Lab by Ron Gluckman. Wen Ho Lee photo taken from TV broadcast.

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