Scientist gave secrets on U.S. radar to China

Classified data leaked during '97 Beijing visit, court records show

May 10, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- A scientist working on a classified Pentagon project in 1997 provided China with secrets about advanced radar technology being developed to track submarines, according to court records and government documents.

Submarine detection technology is jealously guarded by the Pentagon because the Navy's ability to conceal its submarines is a crucial military advantage.

The information about the radar technology, which is considered promising and has been in development for two decades, was divulged to Chinese nuclear weapons experts during a two-hour lecture in Beijing in May 1997 by Peter Lee, an American scientist, court records show. Lee was then working for TRW Inc., which had been hired by the Pentagon.

Federal prosecutors in Los Angeles wanted to charge Lee with espionage but were unable to, in part because Navy officials in Washington would not permit testimony about the technology in open court, law enforcement officials said.

The Justice Department in Washington, having some questions of its own, would not approve the prosecution either, the officials said.

Instead, Lee ended up pleading guilty to filing a false statement about his 1997 trip to China and to divulging classified laser data to Chinese scientists during a trip to China in 1985.

Despite the failure to prosecute Lee over the radar technology, the case shows that the scope of Chinese espionage is broader than the assertions of nuclear thefts at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which officials say involved another American scientist, Wen Ho Lee.

The two men are not known to be related. The submarine technology in the Peter Lee case was developed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a weapons lab in California.

The Peter Lee case is also significant because it clearly demonstrates that the U.S. government believed that China was successfully engaged in espionage -- obtaining U.S. defense secrets -- during President Clinton's second term.

While the Los Alamos disclosures earlier this year prompted an array of investigations, two months ago Clinton said that no one had brought suspicions of Chinese espionage to him and administration officials initially portrayed the problem as one confined to earlier administrations.

On the NBC News program "Meet the Press" yesterday, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson acknowledged that there had been espionage by China during the Clinton administration, but he did not go into detail.

The breach involved in the Peter Lee case -- code-named Royal Tourist by the FBI -- occurred in 1997, a point made in a classified November 1998 counterintelligence report ordered by and then sent to the White House.

"It was my desire and the desire of my office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to pursue espionage counts," the prosecutor in the Peter Lee case, Jonathan S. Shapiro, said in an interview.

Indeed, at Lee's sentencing on March 26, 1998, Shapiro told the judge that Lee's activities struck at the heart of national security, according to witnesses at the hearing.

But Lee and his lawyer argued that the Taiwanese-American scientist had simply made egregious mistakes and never intended to help a foreign country or harm the United States.

The judge declined to put Lee in prison and sentenced him to 12 months in a halfway house with three years' probation and a fine of $20,000.

Rear Adm. Tom Jurkowsky, a Navy spokesman, said, "The Navy cooperated fully with the FBI from the start to the finish in their investigation." Jurkowsky declined to comment on whether the Navy prevented prosecutors in the Peter Lee case from using information about the anti-submarine warfare technology in open court.

Justice Department spokesman Myron Marlin said: "The matter was handled in a way in which many parties had a chance to make their views known. In a case of this nature, we obviously cannot go into details, but there are often a number of reasons as to why a certain course of action is taken."

The November 1998 counterintelligence report citing the Peter Lee case was part of a comprehensive review ordered by Clinton as part of his effort to improve security at U.S. weapons laboratories, which are run by the Department of Energy.

That report states that as late as 1997, Lee had "provided China with classified information."

Samuel R. Berger, Clinton's national security adviser, was briefed about the Peter Lee case by Energy Department intelligence officials in July 1997. Berger's spokesman, David Leavy, declined to say when Clinton first learned about Lee's activities.

Counterintelligence agents from the FBI watched Peter Lee from the early 1980s, officials said. But the bureau did not prevent Lee from traveling to Beijing in 1997 to discuss his work on anti-submarine warfare.

Lee failed to report his trip to superiors at his company, TRW, who did not know about it until informed by the FBI, court records show.

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