Much Ado About Ancient Legacy Codes

July 3, 2002

Book Review
By James Case

My Country Versus Me: The First Hand Account by the Los Alamos Scientist Who Was Falsely Accused of Being a Spy. By Wen Ho Lee with Helen Zia, Hyperion, New York, 2001, 332 + xi pages, $23.95.

A Convenient Spy: Wen Ho Lee and the Politics of Nuclear Espionage. By Dan Stober and Ian Hoffman, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2001, 384 pages, $26.00.

Wen Ho Lee's nightmare began, innocently enough, on December 23, 1998. Upon his return from a personal business trip to his native Taiwan, he was called into the security office at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, his employer of roughly twenty years. He thought little of it because he had been questioned before about his travels. Waiting for him this time were the lab's new director of counterintelligence, an assistant, and a man unknown to Lee. They questioned him for about two hours, then suggested a polygraph. The equipment had already been set up, in a nearby office, and a technician was standing by to administer the test. Elsewhere in the building, an FBI agent waited to arrest him when (not if, according to Stober and Hoffman) he failed. To his inquisitors' surprise, Lee passed. They did not tell him that they had long suspected him of spying for the People's Republic of China, and that his tribulations would continue for another twenty-one months.

Lee had first come under suspicion in 1982, when he placed a telephone call to Gwo-Bao Min, a scientist of Taiwanese birth who had recently been dismissed from his job at Lawrence Livermore National Lab. Lee read about the case in a Chinese-language magazine, jumped to the conclusion that Min was in trouble with Taiwan's ruling KMT (Kuomin-tang) party, and called to offer assistance. Min declined, and Lee more or less forgot about him until the FBI came to his door. Because Min was suspected of espionage, his phone had been tapped at the time of Lee's call. What, the bureau wanted to know, was the nature of Lee's business with Min?

Lee got off on the wrong foot with the FBI, by denying that he had ever called Min. Only when confronted with wiretap evidence to the contrary did he change his story. He also denied calling Taiwan's unofficial embassy in Washington---the so-called Coordination Council for North American Affairs---until agents produced phone records. Offered an opportunity to "win back" the bureau's confidence, Lee submitted to a polygraph, passed, and later cooperated with investigators by visiting Min at his home while wearing a microphone and recording device. When the attempt to entrap Min failed, Lee was thanked for his assistance and assured that the bureau's confidence in him was as good as new. Yet his name remained on file, along with the fact that his handlers found him "devious." One of them was later to complain---in a remark that speaks volumes about both Lee and the FBI---that "It seemed like the more times you hit him upside the head, the more truth came out."

Lee next called attention to himself in February 1994, when the highest-level delegation of Chinese nuclear weapons managers ever to visit the United States arrived in Los Alamos to discuss arms control. They were led by Hu Side, the new chief of China's Academy of Engineering Physics. Lee showed up uninvited at the opening reception. Danny Stillman, the lab's intelligence chief, stood by in amazement as the obscure code writer was embraced by Hu, the alleged designer of China's first miniaturized nuclear weapon. An attendee fluent in Mandarin later told Stillman that the Chinese had thanked Lee for his help with codes, and that he had invited them all-as the lab had encouraged him to do with previous PRC visitors-to dinner at his house that evening. As far as is known, the visitors declined.

Stillman, who could think of no legitimate way that Hu and Lee might have become acquainted, was alarmed. Among the few at LANL who were aware of Lee's role in the Min affair, he submitted a written report about "the hug" to the FBI's Santa Fe office. Lee may have forgotten that his trip report of July 1988---filed upon his return from the second (and last) of his trips to the Chinese mainland---neglected to mention that Hu and another PRC weapons scientist had visited him in his Beijing hotel room. The only existing account of that visit is Lee's own, recorded in the aftermath of "the hug." According to that account, the three had barely mentioned technical matters, and he had declined to answer the one substantive question asked, which concerned the number of "detonation points" used by U.S. designers to ignite explosions of a certain kind. In 1992, the Chinese demonstrated their command of the subject by testing a miniaturized thermonuclear device. Much was later made of the fact that Lee's trip report listed a number of lower-level contacts, but omitted mention of the (clandestine?) higher-level visit to his hotel room.

Lee's fate was probably sealed in 1995, when an alleged missile expert from the PRC defected to Taiwan, bearing technical reports. Included was a 20-page shocker, dated April 1988, in which a comparison of late-model U.S. weapons, such as the W80, W87, and W88 warheads, with their (planned or existing) Chinese counterparts revealed the possession of much classified U.S. information. To Dan Bruno, the Department of Energy's chief counterintelligence investigator, and to Notra Trulock, his boss, it seemed obvious that China had stolen the sophisticated W88 design. Yet the FBI---which has exclusive jurisdiction over cases of criminal espionage---refused to open an investigation without additional evidence. Trulock and Bruno then took their suspicions to energy secretary Hazel O'Leary, who notified the CIA and the White House that she was directing Trulock to assemble a blue-ribbon panel of weapons experts to determine whether or not the design had indeed been stolen.

The panel---composed of senior weapons designers from Los Alamos, Livermore, and elsewhere---met several times during August and September of 1995. The members' conclusions were eventually reduced to a series of nine "bulleted items." All but one supported the conclusion that, although espionage had doubtless been of "material assistance," China's new warhead was largely an indigenous design. But Trulock saw to it that the panel's report was never finalized. Perceiving that its conclusions would differ from his own, Trulock simply neglected to reconvene the members for the vote needed to approve the final version of their report. Instead, he locked the nine-item list in his office safe, and began a series of briefings in which he substituted his own private conviction that China had indeed stolen the W88 design for the panel's (admittedly less than unanimous) opinion to the contrary. It was a deft bureaucratic maneuver.

One of Trulock's briefings took place on October 31, 1995. In it, he and Bruno informed the FBI that the theft of the W88 design was the result of "growing interaction" between U.S. and Chinese weapons scientists. They also pitched Bruno's plan to conduct an "administrative inquiry" intended to identify the offenders. Rather than open its own investigation---as it surely ought to have done, had it found Trulock's evidence even marginally credible---the FBI signed off on Bruno's inquiry. His final report was dated May 28, 1996. Trulock quickly forwarded a version of it (heavily edited by persons unknown) to the FBI. That document constituted a virtual indictment of Lee and his wife, Sylvia, who was also employed at LANL.

Sylvia Lee worked at LANL from 1980 until 1994, first as a secretary and later as a data analyst/computer technician. As visits from PRC scientists became increasingly frequent, the Lees were encouraged to act as unofficial liaisons between visitors and the lab. Sylvia threw herself into the task with obvious enthusiasm, running small errands, corresponding with Chinese visitors, and entertaining them in her home. After visitors left, she stayed in touch by phone. Pre-visit and post-visit communications, addressed directly to her at LANL, frequently included requests for copies of specific (unclassified) preprints and reprints. Wen Ho had long been responding to such requests from "colleagues" in Taiwan and (according to Stober and Hoffman) bending the rules by sending documents that---though technically unclassified---were marked NOFORN, meaning "no foreign dissemination."

Sylvia Lee seems to have been less than a model employee. One of her super-visors described her as "one of the hardest people to communicate with that I ever worked with." She seemed to understand what she wanted to understand, and sometimes less. None of the other Chinese Americans in her group presented similar problems. "Somehow the projects she was assigned never quite worked out," said a different supervisor. "Whether this was her fault or [that of] the person she was working for wasn't clear."

Once she began to develop relationships with leading Chinese weapons scientists, she could no longer be fired. When one group leader tried to do so---for direct insubordination---he received visits from the FBI and CIA. He took them to mean that important people wanted Sylvia, however unproductive, to remain in her job. "By then I was beginning to think," he later said, that "the less I knew about this, the more I liked it." It was not until she fell under suspicion, and was ordered to discontinue all (lab-related) contact with her acquaintances in the PRC, that she retired voluntarily.

Despite newspaper reports to the contrary, there was never a shred of evidence that either of the Lees had ever committed espionage against the U.S. Espionage cases are hard to win in court, because the suspect must be apprehended more or less in the act of passing information. Phone-tap recordings are usually acceptable, as are videos taken at dead drop sites. Unless the Lees confessed, the Justice Department never had a prayer of making an espionage charge stick against them. The FBI tried to make Wen Ho confess several times, first through intimidation and later through harsh treatment in prison, where he remained in solitary confinement for 278 days. He eventually confessed to a variety of minor crimes and misdemeanors, but never to espionage. Sylvia was never arrested.

In the fullness of time, Lee was indicted for 39 violations of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946---each carrying a life sentence---and 20 lower-level violations of the Espionage Act of 1918 for "illegal gathering or retention of defense information." To secure his release from prison, he pled guilty to just one of the lesser charges. Whereas there was never any evidence that he gave or sold information to any foreign power, there was overwhelming evidence that he downloaded a virtually complete set of the computer programs used at LANL to simulate thermonuclear explosions---along with requisite data files---to an insecure computer network, then copied them onto magnetic tapes that he or anyone else could have taken anywhere. At least one witness at his many pretrial hearings speculated that he did this in order to enhance his desirability to potential employers. That is hardly implausible, given that he received multiple Reduction In Force (RIF) warnings during his tenure at Los Alamos, and occasion-ally sought foreign employment.

Lee devotes a large part of his book to explaining why the codes he appropriated are anything but the "crown jewels of the U.S. nuclear weapons program," and why his own mishandling of classified information was less egregious than other such transgressions that have gone unpunished. The latter claim is particularly valid as it applies to the actions of John Deutch, CIA director during the Clinton administration, who was found to have transferred "top secret" documents concerning covert intelligence operations and naming undercover "assets" to his unsecured home computer. Deutch's request for a pardon was granted, during the last days of the Clinton administration, but Lee's was not.

Still in the original Fortran, the programs Lee downloaded constitute millions of lines of oft-amended code, annotated by the hundreds (if not thousands) of code writers who have contributed modifications since the late 1950s. Nobody knows, according to Lee, what some parts of the code are intended to do. Once, he relates, when a mistake was identified and corrected, the entire code became inoperable. No one seemed to be able to get it up and running without putting the mistake back in, which (he maintains) is exactly what was done! Lee also asserts that, but for inertia, LANL would long since have abandoned at least some of these ancient "legacy" codes in favor of commercial products. Several of his former colleagues at LANL concede that the codes in use are far from reliable, and that even experienced users can be hard put to distinguish between sound and spurious results.

In the bail hearings held in December 1999, the time of Lee's incarceration, senior LANL officials testified to the transcendent importance of the codes in his possession. Without that testimony, and the threat that Lee might contrive to spirit his tapes out of the country, he would have been released on bail, thus depriving prison officials of any opportunity to wring a confession out of him. In the hearings that led to his release, even more senior weapons scientists testified to the opposite effect, saying that 99% (if not 99.9%) of what the codes contain is unclassified, and that the Chinese didn't need LANL codes, because commercially available ones would do as well. Because the commercial codes are unclassified, Lee would have broken no laws by drawing the attention of his Chinese colleagues to them.

The Lee case is a wonderfully complex one, about which we will never know the whole truth. Stober and Hoffman find that justice miscarried at almost every stage. Lee was unfairly singled out from a list of at least five hundred people with equal or better access to W88 data. The press, acting at times on misinformation leaked from the highest levels of the Clinton administration, had all but hanged him before he was even indicted on criminal charges. Many of the "leakers" expected to profit careerwise from the discovery of a mole within the nuclear weapons establishment. On the other hand, there is convincing evidence that Lee lied to the FBI, to his lawyers, to his co-workers, to his neighbors, and even to his children. Yet his children, and many of his neighbors, stuck by him at all times. The infamous tapes have never been found. Though Lee claims to have thrown them into an LANL dumpster, every attempt to retrieve them from the portion of the Los Alamos town dump devoted to LANL refuse has yielded nothing. Might some enterprising "dumpster diver" have found them, erased the contents, and sold them back to the government?

James Case writes from Baltimore, Maryland.

Renew SIAM · Contact Us · Site Map · Join SIAM · My Account
Facebook Twitter Youtube