Fumbled spy case looks bad for everyone

Wen Ho Lee: Plea bargain makes FBI look like Keystone Kops while fanning fears of security leaks.

September 14, 2000

IF IT IS TRUE that China stole the design of the W-88 miniature nuclear warhead from the Los Alamos laboratory in the 1980s, that crime remains unsolved, that spy undetected and that security leak unplugged.

That is just one negative conclusion to draw from the collapse of the government's case against the scientist Wen Ho Lee with his plea bargain in federal District Court in Albuquerque, N.M., yesterday.

Another is to fan suspicions that Dr. Lee was singled out by ethnic profiling that led to 59 counts, accusations that he had shopped the "crown jewels" of nuclear secrets, and nine months in solitary confinement. An FBI agent admitted giving false evidence against him in the bail hearing.

The public remains ignorant of why Dr. Lee downloaded secret material onto his unsecured computer (he promises to tell) and whether it was common practice. Scientists have pointed to widespread dissemination of the W-88 warhead design in the first place.

Few doubt that the need to do something was prompted by the panic-mongering report on "U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People's Republic of China," published last year by a House select committee chaired by Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif.

Feeding on allegations that the Clinton campaign of 1996 took contributions indirectly from Chinese military intelligence, the report suggested the theft of the designs from Los Alamos (during the Reagan administration). This led to the Keystone Kops routine involving the Energy Department's security force and the FBI.

Wen Ho Lee was born in Taiwan. He traveled to China with his laboratory's blessing. He had once been suspected of something, but nothing came of it. That made him the target. In the end, what he has pleaded guilty to was also done by John Deutch, former director of the CIA, who lost security access but to date has not been charged. Why the disparity?

The suspicions fanned and the ineptitude shown can only damage the work of Los Alamos and other facilities that the United States needs as long as it maintains nuclear warheads.

Nobody looks good on this one. It's just a lose-lose outcome.

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