Nuclear secrets probe said to be influenced by race

Ex-lab security official says suspicion fell first on Taiwan-born scientist

August 18, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The former head of counterintelligence at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico said yesterday that American scientist Wen Ho Lee, the top suspect in the Chinese atomic spy case, was singled out for federal investigation because of his race.

"It was a key factor," Robert Vrooman said in an interview. "There were 83 people who went to China" from the New Mexican weapons lab in the 1980s, any one of whom might have leaked secrets, he said.

"A lot of Caucasians" were not investigated, Vrooman said, even though they had access to weapons secrets. "And they made contact with the same people that Lee was in contact with."

Though intelligence experts eventually discovered that Lee had downloaded secret weapons-related computer codes onto an unsecure computer, Vrooman said yesterday that Lee's ethnic background "was a major factor" in initially making him the key suspect.

Lee, who has declared his innocence of the spy charges, is a Taiwan-born scientist who worked at Los Alamos for more than two decades before being fired in March for violating security rules.

Investigators then discovered that he had transferred vast amounts of secret nuclear data from Los Alamos' classified computer system to an open network. The data he downloaded included the legacy codes, mathematical approximations of nuclear weapons designs.

Counterintelligence experts say racial focusing is not uncommon in spy investigations because foreign intelligence services often target people who might have cultural or political sympathies with foreign states.

Vrooman is apparently the first investigator in the case to publicly raise the issue of racial bias, though some Chinese-American rights groups had done so.

Last week, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson called for Vrooman and two other Los Alamos officials to suffer disciplinary action for failing to handle the lab's spy probe properly. Vrooman was not named in the Energy Department's news release, but officials disclosed his name to reporters.

Los Alamos officials said yesterday that a decision on any disciplinary action would probably not be made for weeks. Richardson has recommended terminating Vrooman's contract as a consultant.

Richardson and other managers at Los Alamos have denied that Lee's Asian ancestry sparked suspicions that he was involved in possible espionage.

Vrooman's criticisms that the investigation prematurely focused on Lee echo the more general findings of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which earlier this month made public a report on the China espionage probe. It said federal investigators erred early on when they focused on Lee without having adequately reviewed other possible suspects.

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