Atomic Scientist Lee Denies He Spied
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 7, 1999; Page A1
Wen Ho Lee, the prime espionage suspect at Los Alamos National Laboratory, spoke out for the first time yesterday, insisting in a lengthy statement by his attorney that he has never spied for China and never "given any classified information to any unauthorized persons."
"Dr. Lee will not be a scapegoat for alleged security problems at our country's nuclear laboratories," the statement declared.
Seeking to refute a long list of government allegations and press reports implicating him in espionage, Lee in the statement stacked up an equally long list of claims that he has taken "substantial steps" to safeguard secret computer programs and, with his wife, has repeatedly cooperated with FBI agents on the prowl for Chinese spies.
Lee's quiet existence as an obscure nuclear physicist at the Energy Department weapons lab on a thinly populated mountain plateau near Albuquerque ended two months ago when he was fired for unspecified security violations and identified by U.S. officials as a possible Chinese spy – even though a three-year FBI probe had produced no hard evidence of espionage.
He immediately found himself in the middle of a political firestorm in Washington, his name bandied about the Sunday morning talks shows as a Chinese spy. Leading Republicans in Congress, having investigated the Clinton administration's China dealings for the past year, seized on his case and used it to argue that Clinton's policy of engaging China led to security lapses that compromised national security.
Lee remained silent as the rhetoric escalated, even after U.S. officials confirmed last week that he transferred secret nuclear weapons computer programs from Los Alamos's classified computer system to his desktop computer, which is vulnerable to outside penetration – by far the most serious disclosure to date.
But the silence ended yesterday when Lee's attorney in Los Angeles, Mark C. Holscher, released a six-page defense of the Taiwan-born scientist. It depicted him as a loyal U.S. citizen and "dedicated" weapons scientist who has never provided "any classified information whatsoever to any representative of Mainland China."
The statement asserted that Lee took "substantial steps" to safeguard the downloaded computer programs.
"Upon receipt of proper security clearances, Dr. Lee's lawyers will present specific evidence of his innocence confidentially to the United States Attorney's Office," the statement said. "We are confident that federal investigators will also conclude that no third party could have or did access his protected computer files."
The statement also portrayed Lee as anything but a Chinese spy, describing numerous instances in which both he and his wife, Sylvia, cooperated with FBI agents to help expose Chinese espionage.
Lee assisted the FBI in the early 1980s when it was investigating another Taiwan-born weapons scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory suspected of espionage, and he worked as an FBI informant in an attempt to catch the suspect, the statement said. "Dr. Lee received instructions from the FBI before the meeting, met with the scientist, and then briefed the FBI after this meeting."
Lee's wife, who held a clerical position at Los Alamos, for years helped the FBI keep tabs on Chinese scientists visiting the labs, agreed to allow the FBI to monitor her conversations with these officials and forwarded translated copies of all her correspondence with Chinese scientists to FBI agents, according to the statement.
FBI agents and intelligence officials at the Energy Department began assembling a list of suspects in 1996 after the CIA obtained a Chinese document containing classified information about the shape and size of the W-88 warhead, the most advanced U.S. nuclear weapon designed at Los Alamos.
The Chinese document was dated 1988, the same year Lee had traveled to China to deliver a scientific paper. The coincidence was one of the reasons Lee's name was added to the suspects' list. A call he made in 1982 to the espionage suspect at Lawrence Livermore was another.
Lee's statement addressed both the call to Livermore and the trip he made to China, raising questions about the reasons his name was placed on the suspect list in the first place.
Investigators assembling the suspect list in 1996 construed it as evidence that Lee may have been aiding the Livermore suspect in espionage activities, according to one senior administration official. But Lee's statement described the call as an innocent conversation that was intercepted by the FBI, ultimately triggering Lee's long cooperation with the bureau in its espionage investigation at Livermore.
Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) disclosed at a Senate hearing Wednesday that Lee was given a polygraph examination by the FBI about his initial call to the Livermore scientist and showed deception on seven key questions. He was then retested, Domenici reported, and cleared, showing no deception.
In the statement released yesterday, Holscher said: "Dr. Lee was told he passed the polygraph test."
The statement said Lee traveled to China to deliver papers in 1986, when he was accompanied by his wife, and in 1988. Both trips were "pre-approved and encouraged" by officials at Los Alamos and the Department of Energy, who "cleared the texts of the papers given at these conferences." The FBI also approved both trips, the statement said.
Sylvia Lee accompanied her husband on the 1986 trip at the request of the FBI, the statement said, and helped the FBI compile data on Chinese scientists they met.
"Dr. and Mrs. Lee supported and agreed with the FBI's request that Mrs. Lee assist it in obtaining background information on Chinese scientists," the statement said. "It simply defies logic for critics to now allege that Dr. Lee was engaged in improper activities in Mainland China while he and his wife were there."
As for the computer programs found on Lee's desktop terminal, the statement refers only to "dozens of nonclassified codes, which include several hundred thousand lines of code."
U.S. officials have said highly sensitive classified codes were found there as well.
Holscher, in an interview, said he could not comment on whether classified information also was found on Lee's computer. That question, he said, will be addressed when Lee makes a defense with the U.S. attorney in Albuquerque.
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