Spy case hangs up over plea bargain

Judge delays hearing for Lee amid weak evidence, conflicts

September 12, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The case of Wen Ho Lee burst onto the public stage 18 months ago with the chilling allegation that a Taiwanese-born scientist had downloaded the designs of the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal onto computer tapes that were nowhere to be found.

It now appears to be ending quite differently, with Asian-Americans angrily charging the government with racial bias, experts accusing agents of failing to grasp the science underlying their accusations, and a demoralized Los Alamos National Laboratory struggling to return to normal.

After nine months in solitary confinement, Lee, a nuclear weapons engineer, was supposed to walk out of a New Mexico courtroom yesterday a free man. But as federal prosecutors and Lee's attorneys haggled over a plea agreement, Judge James A. Parker announced that the plea hearing would be delayed until tomorrow.

"I must regretfully say that we cannot proceed with the hearing this afternoon," Parker said from the bench. The judge did not elaborate, though sources said the negotiations are continuing.

Still, the shape of the plea agreement emerged Sunday when Lee, once portrayed as a traitor who might have handed China the "crown jewels" of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, was offered the deal of pleading guilty to just one of the 59 felony counts brought against him. Under the agreement outlined by government sources, Lee would confess to improperly retaining classified nuclear weapons data and accept the sentence of 275 days that he has already served while awaiting trial.

In exchange for his freedom, Lee would agree to explain why he downloaded reams of classified computer data onto unsecured computers and then copied that information onto 10 computer tapes. The government also wants to know what happened to seven tapes that have disappeared.

"The issue here is - are we getting the tapes back and do we find out what happened to those tapes. I think that is the key," Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said yesterday. "The plea bargain enables us to get that information."

The Lee case drove a wedge between much of the scientific world and the federal security apparatus. It also deeply divided the nuclear weapons community.

Steven Younger, Los Alamos's assistant director for nuclear weapons, testified early this year that the computer codes downloaded by Lee could jeopardize nothing less than the "global strategic balance" of power. Paul Robinson, director of the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, testified that releasing Lee on bail was equivalent to "betting the country."

But a slew of eminent physicists took the opposite position, decrying those statements as at least exaggerated, at most, "hysterical."

Harold Agnew, a former Los Alamos director who has advised five presidents on nuclear weapons issues, submitted an affidavit declaring his "firm conclusion" that even if the Chinese obtained all of Lee's computer tapes, "it would have little or no effect whatsoever on today's nuclear balance."

Testifying before Parker's court, John Richter, a retired nuclear weapons physicist who recently left the Department of Energy's intelligence division, said that 99 percent of the data in Lee's tapes are openly available in scientific journals, nuclear watchdog publications, even the Energy Department's unclassified library in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

The disconnect between the world of science and the world of security has rarely been so clear. What appears to FBI agents and journalists as highly sensitive nuclear weapons designs appears to many scientists to be basic physics. Some of the computer codes that describe the internal workings of a nuclear weapons blast, for example, are virtually identical to descriptions of the workings of a star, descriptions that can be openly published in astrophysics journals, Richter said.

Such testimony proved devastating to the prosecution's case. Last week, Parker concluded that "it was no longer `indisputable' that the tapes contained the crown jewels of the United States' nuclear weapons program."

Further weakening the government's case, Robert Messemer, the FBI's lead agent on the case, was forced to admit that he had erred in December, when he testified that Lee borrowed a colleague's computer to copy classified nuclear weapons design codes after explaining that he needed the computer to download a resume. Prosecutors pointed to that alleged deception to portray Lee as a security risk. But, in fact, Lee never told his colleague that he was downloading a resume.

The Lee case was the second time in less than two years that the scientific community has broken sharply with Washington investigators over nuclear espionage allegations.

In May of 1999, a special House panel convened to investigate allegations of Chinese nuclear espionage concluded that Chinese agents had infiltrated the nation's nuclear weapons labs and defense contractors and had stolen valuable information on U.S. nuclear weapons designs.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.