Officials delayed probing spy suspect's computer

Transferred nuclear data was deleted after FBI investigation began

April 30, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- For nearly three years, Energy Department officials could have accessed the unsecured personal computer of a suspected nuclear spy and discovered a mountain of classified nuclear weapons data stored in it.

They declined to do so, even though such spot checks of federally owned computers have been routine in the past. Energy Department and federal agents believed that once FBI agents began investigating a former scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, N.M., he came under the protection of a federal computer privacy law designed to shield citizens from intrusive law enforcement agents.

Energy Department officials acknowledged this week that the scientist, Wen Ho Lee, transferred huge amounts of classified nuclear weapons design data to an unsecured computer that could have been accessed by the outside world.

Days after he failed an FBI polygraph examination in February, he tried to hide evidence by deleting more than 1,000 files containing millions of lines of codes, the New York Times reported today.

The FBI discovered the deleted files in March, after Lee gave the bureau permission to search his office computer. The administrator of the computer systems at Los Alamos then helped the bureau to re-create the deleted files. Officials say that after the polygraph test, Lee, apparently aware that investigators were suspicious of his computer use, deleted between 1,000 and 2,000 files.

The Times reported that experts from the FBI and Los Alamos said they were horrified when they began to sift through the files that they say Lee transferred and then deleted. He had downloaded what amount to the keys to the American nuclear arsenal, officials said.

The computer codes and data were, in effect, the distillation of more than a half-century of research on how to perfect nuclear weapons, they said.

The security violations are unprecedented, potentially exposing some of the nation's most dangerous secrets. Energy Department officials caution, however, that they still have no evidence that anyone accessed the data through Lee's unclassified office computer.

"This kind of egregious security breach is absolutely unacceptable," Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said in a statement.

Of particular concern is why the Justice Department denied a request by the FBI in 1997 to surreptitiously access Lee's computer. The FBI did not discover the classified data on Lee's computer until March 30 this year, after its suspicions of Lee had been made public and it was finally granted access. That discovery came nearly three years after the FBI began reviewing suspicions that Lee was passing nuclear secrets to the Chinese.

Employees at Los Alamos say that computers at the laboratory are considered government property and therefore can be inspected at any time by the Energy Department, which owns the computers.

"Everyone who works at the laboratory knows that their computers and their offices are the property of the government, period," a Los Alamos official said.

Yet FBI officers needed a court order to access Lee's computer. Energy Department managers have the right to access their employees' computers on their own accord. Had they been running the investigation, they might well have done so. But after consulting with the FBI, they decided they were no longer in control of the investigation and thus had lost their right to examine the computer without a court order.

And Justice Department officials said the FBI did not have enough credible evidence to merit such a search warrant.

In the convoluted saga of the Lee investigation, this legal loophole may have been just one that Lee slipped through during his years of security infractions. President Clinton's own initiative to thwart the spread of nuclear weapons may have inadvertently led to one of the greatest nuclear proliferation threats in decades, an administration official and arms-control analysts say.

At the height of Lee's alleged activity, the Taiwanese-born scientist had been working on the Clinton administration's stockpile stewardship program. This program was designed to move the nation's nuclear weapons scientists away from explosive underground testing and toward computer-based research. That work apparently gave Lee access to computer codes spanning virtually the entire history of the U.S. nuclear weapons program.

"There were substantial amounts of material transferred, just a huge compromise of nuclear security," acknowledged an administration official. "There's no question what he was doing was part of the stockpile stewardship program."

Few nuclear weapons experts doubt the potential damage of Lee's actions. The computer programs -- or legacy codes -- calculate, step by step, how a nuclear weapon explodes. And they can be used to test the feasibility of new nuclear weapons designs, as well as to improve existing nuclear weapons.

The connection between the potential breach and the president's nuclear nonproliferation policies is particularly sensitive.

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