Has the Chinese Spy Story Fizzled?

For months there have been news stories suggesting that Wen Ho Lee, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, was a spy for China. Los Alamos, the lab in which the first atomic bomb was developed in 1945, is still the main U.S. center for nuclear weapon research and development. There have been further suggestions that the Lee case exposes the Clinton administration as cavalier about national security–or, worse, that it traded national security for Chinese campaign contributions. Recently, though, there have been stories suggesting that Lee may not have been a spy after all. What, in brief, is the state of play?

The investigation of Chinese espionage has actually been going on for four years. It is clearly established that China somehow obtained design specifications for many of America’s nuclear warheads during the 1980s and early ‘90s. But these secrets could have leaked from many places, including other government research labs and private defense contractors.

What is the evidence implicating Wen Ho Lee? Mainly, it seems, his apparent friendship with Chinese scientists. He often attended scientific conferences in China, and hosted Chinese counterparts on visits to Los Alamos. He was even once seen hugging one of them. But these exchange visits and conferences were all part of his job as a U.S. government employee–and indeed friendship among Chinese and U.S. scientists was part of their purpose. Lee also downloaded secret files to an insecure computer–a clear violation of the rules. But there is no evidence the information ever went any further. Lee says he was just making backup copies. Other Los Alamos scientists have done the same, though on a smaller scale.

The thinness of the evidence against him has led some to suggest that Lee, who was born in Taiwan, is being persecuted because of his ethnic heritage. There is scant evidence for that, too. The FBI now concedes that it is unlikely Lee will ever face charges of spying. At most, he may be charged with mishandling classified information–the offense for which he lost his job in March. However, even this charge may never end up in court. Last week, former CIA Director John Deutch was stripped of his security clearance for a similar offense, but will not be prosecuted for his actions. The FBI would likely find it difficult to justify a different standard being applied to Lee.

The Clinton administration is accused of compromising national security by mishandling the investigation of Lee. How? Separate investigations launched by the Energy Department and the FBI in 1996 were poorly coordinated, and Los Alamos officials did not act quickly on recommendations to improve security and to revoke Lee’s access to sensitive information. The president and Cabinet officials were not fully informed of the security issues until late in the investigation. But there is no evidence of actual damage to national security due to these lapses. And there is no evidence tying any of this to Clinton campaign contributions. Experts agree that the most significant intelligence losses occurred in the 1980s–well before Lee was suspected of any wrongdoing, and before Clinton was president.

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