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  • Key Post stories on alleged Chinese espionage

    Price Waterhouse Coopers

    National Security

        Vernon Loeb
    Vernon Loeb
    Wednesday, September 1, 1999

    The Los Alamos espionage controversy continues. Notra Trulock, the Energy Department official who triggered the investigation into suspected Chinese spying at Los Alamos National Laboratory has resigned. Critics charge that prime espionage suspect Wen Ho Lee has been unfairly targeted because he is of Chinese descent.

    Vernon Loeb, The Washington Post's national security reporter answered questions about the Los Alamos controversy and other issues facing the intelligence community.

    Read the transcript below: Welcome to today's live discussion with the Post's national security reporter, Vernon Loeb. Vernon please get us started by giving us an update on the status of Los Alamos labs controversy.

    Vernon Loeb: Hello everybody. The Los Alamos espionage case has had a number of interesting recent developments. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson recommended disciplinary action against three lab officials. One of the three, former counterintelligence chief Robert S. Vrooman, fired back by saying he wasn't to blame for botching the case_Notra Trulock was. Vrooman, breaking a long public silence, said the case was "built on thin" air, and accused Trulock and FBI agents of targeting Wen Ho Lee as a suspect largely because he is Chinese American. Trulock, for his part, denied Vrooman's charges, but announced suddenly that he was resigning as deputy director of intelligence at the Department of Energy. All of that leaves everyone waiting to see whether U.S. Attorney John Kelly in Albuquerque is going to charge Lee for security violations_the government having given up on espionage long ago.

    Greenbelt, MD: The FBI announced there was not enough information to prosecute Mr. Lee in the LANL espionage. However, the FBI has not stated exactly what it's involvement was. What was the extent, time frame and recommendations provided by FBI investigators, and was FBI agent Edward Curran involved in the investigation? Curran is on detail to DOE, but the DOE has not said what part he played.

    Vernon Loeb: The FBI was responsible for running the investigation, with input and assistance from the Department of Energy, since June 1996. FBI agents developed the case and, if one believes Trulock, decided that Wen Ho Lee was their chief suspect and had spied for China. Attorneys in the Justice Department disagreed, saying the FBI was unable to establish probable cause for an espionage case. I do not believe Curran was ever involved in the investigation, per se, at least not in its early stages in 1996 and 1997.

    Crofton, Maryland: Based on your experience with the U.S. intelligence community, please confirm, refute or qualify the following: There exists a great deal of duplication, triplication, even quadruplication of collection and analytical efforts in the U.S. intelligence community. This is because of bureaucratic battles over "ricebowls", the resultant need for agencies to "scoop" each other in the competition for recognition, and the general feeling that if an agency does not "control" its own intelligence resources, the job just won't get done by someone else. Does this accurately describe the state of affairs in the U.S. intelligence community today?

    Vernon Loeb: I think there is quite a bit of truth in your description. There may not be duplication, or more, of a lot of collection, but certainly there's lots of duplication and more in analysis. Clearly, the different agencies don't communicate all that well with each other, as Admiral Jeremiah pointed out in his review of the IC's failure to India's preparation for nuclear tests. Clearly, the different agencies, to one degree or another, compete with each other and try to scoop each other. However, these tendencies can also be overstated. There is also a lot of sharing and a lot of collaboration. But one of DCI George Tenet's greatest challenges is figuring out how to make 13 agencies share and work together.

    Monticello, GA: Should the security community be under the control of the intelligence community? Is this not putting the fox in the chicken coop.

    Vernon Loeb: The Intelligence Community isn't in charge of security now, and I certainly don't think it should be in the future. Security is primarily in the hands of law enforcement and the military.

    College Park, Md.: Hello Mr Loeb,

    It seems that Chinese intelligence deliberately targeted ethnic Chinese researchers as potential sources of secret information about the US nuclear weapons program.

    Isn't it reasonable, therefore, that US counterintelligence efforts should also target ethnic Chinese?

    Vernon Loeb: You make a good point. Since Chinese intelligence targets overseas ethnic Chinese, U.S. counterintelligence and counterespionage efforts need to take that into consideration and review the activities of Chinese Americans, if there are counterespionage indicators_like unexplained wealth, unreported foreign trips, security violations and the like. But I think it would be wrong to target Chinese Americans as counterespionage suspects solely, or even largely, on the basis of ethnicity, absent some other compelling reason to look at them. Otherwise, you would be making targets out of thousands of innocent people on the basis of ethnicity. In the case of Wen Ho Lee, given all the circumstantial evidence, taking his ethnicity into account was probably valid. But dwelling on him, and not investigating numerous other non-Chinese Americans with equal access to nuclear secrets_who could have just as easily been spying for China_was a huge mistake.

    Washington DC: Does the FBI's recent blunder regarding the Waco situation damage its credibility to be able to handle the energy dept situation. In other words does lying-misleading in the past hinder the FBI's ability to be considered capable of leading an objective investigation?

    Vernon Loeb: I don't think so. Waco has clearly been a blow to the bureau's credibility. The FBI did not do a great job investigating Chinese espionage at the nation's weapons labs, either. But I think the bureau remains a highly professional organization that handles most of the investigations its conducts competently and professionally.

    Greenbelt, MD: Has anyone given thought to the fact that in any major investigation, the chief of police, FBI Dir, etc., makes the announcement with the officers working the case standing behind him. Why did Mr. Trulock make his announcement alone? Who were the CIA officers who participated? Who actually conducted the investigation? When was it turned over to the FBI, and did the FBI initially accept or decline it? Who was the initial FBI investigator and was he CIA trained, or trained in another area?

    Vernon Loeb: Trulock made his announcement alone because he chose to go public and become a public whistleblower. No one forced him to go on Meet the Press. FBI agents who worked on the case haven't commented publicly because FBI agents don't comment publicly on pending criminal investigations, and shouldn't. At this point, the public has been given a full understanding_by congressional and other government reviewers_how the case was conducted. I certainly do not believe Wen Ho Lee ever should have been identified by government officials as their "prime espionage suspect," given the severity of the crime and the paucity of evidence that he was actually a spy. Counterintelligence is extremely important. So is the American presumption of innocence.

    Christiansburg, VA: As an "old boy" from CIA's salad days, I still shudder when I see CIA briefings, CIA Web sites, CIA officials directly interviewed on current events. The Agency was designed to serve the Executive Branch. Period. In early days, even self-serving leaks by members of Congressional Oversight Committees were responded to by "No Comment". Allan Dulles told us "Never confirm or deny anything--even the day of the week." The lack of plausible deniability has led to lack of credibility and wildly proclaimed errors to the exclusion of monumental routine success. Your comment?

    Vernon Loeb: I agree with you that operational secrecy is extremely important for the CIA to maintain. In my opinion, the agency still maintains that secrecy. The CIA briefings you see, and the public comments from CIA officials you hear, all involve unclassified information and are designed to give the tax paying public, which foots the intelligence community's $29 billion annual bill, some sense of what its getting for the money, and I think that's appropriate.

    Washington, DC: Despite past arms reduction treaties, the U.S. military is still armed with nuclear weapons enough to destroy the whole world dozens of times over. Is it not true that if we stopped continuing to waste money on nuclear weapons research, we would not have to worry about espionage?

    Vernon Loeb: Since we're way, way, way ahead of China in terms of our nuclear weapons technology and capabilities_we have thousands of ICBMs, they have a couple of dozen_they've got a lot of catching up to do. So even if we stopped nuclear weapons research, we'd still probably have to worry about espionage. In fact, we'll always have to worry about other nations spying on us, and they'll have to worry about us spying on them. Most of the nuclear weapons research that's going on now involves, not new weapons, but ways to certify that the old weapons still work, in this age when we can no longer test them.

    Washington, DC: To what extent is it conceivable that Trulock's actions were prompted or at least abetted by the National Republican leadership?

    Vernon Loeb: I don't think Trulock was abetted in any way by the Republican leadership. Clearly, some Republicans used the case he had established, and the evidence he'd help gather, for political ends to attack the Clinton administration. But I'm willing to see Trulock as an independent actor. He seems to have become a little carried away with his own celebrity, but again, that's something he did on his own.

    Pearl Harbor, HI: Mr Loeb,
    I just missed the deadline last time you were on with this question....
    In the initial A.Ames revelations the POST reported the CIA developed an early "short" list of 200+ people that had access to the same info Ames passed on to the bad-guys. That number seemed incredibly high, considering the potential for screw-up. I bet future agents must think twice when told they are only 200 people that know your identity. Think the CIA has cleaned up its act yet?
    Thanks, RH

    Vernon Loeb: I think the CIA has cleaned up its counterintelligence-counterespionage act, and is in a much better position to catch a mole today than it was back in 1994. When doing counterintelligence work, you really do have to look at all the possible suspects, even if it's 200 or more, when you're trying to find a spy and you're not sure who it is. Catching a spy is different than catching a mugger. There usually are no witnesses, there usually is no evidence. It's a very, very difficult process. And the danger of unfairly branding people as spies can be very high, if investigators aren't careful in winnowing down suspect lists. The CIA ultimately narrowed its list of suspects in the Ames case down to about five. None of the other names has ever been made public. The agency deserves credit for that. We're about half-way through our live discussion with the Post's Vernon Loeb. Please continue to submit questions. A follow-up on the question from Christiansburg, VA, you mention the CIA's 1992 initiative to declassify historic documents in your latest Back Channels column. Can you think of an occasion when such historic documents would need to remain classified?

    Vernon Loeb: Yes, an historic document would need to remain classified for longer than 25 years if the identify of a living intelligence source, or an on-going intelligence "method" or operation, would be revealed by its release. And the CIA still refuses to declassify many, many historic documents for precisely this reason. But in general, I would say that the vast majority of historic CIA documents can be declassified after 25 years without revealing sources or methods.

    Washington, DC: Dear Mr Loeb,
    Is there more to the bombing of the Chinese embassy by the U.S. Air Force then has been revealed? The current line has been it was a targeting mistake. The attack was delivered by a major asset like BE with targeting by the CIA. How could the Chinese embassy not have been under constant monitoring -for ELINT- thus giving its location. The accident excuse seems rather weak. Comments?

    Vernon Loeb: I don't think there's really anything more to say about the Chinese embassy bombing. I believe that it was mistakenly destroyed. You make an interesting point about ELINT observation. I don't know enough about ELINT tasking to know whether NSA would be set up against the Chinese in Belgrade_and if they were, whether those intercepts would have indicated the embassy's location in such a way that the CIA, or the B-2s, should have known about it. Again, it's an interesting question, but you're exceeding my knowledge, I'm afraid, by a long shot. Sorry.

    Arlington, VA: In your opinion, do you see the potential for another nuclear arms race given the instability in Russia, and the instability of U.S. - China relations?

    Vernon Loeb: I'm not sure, at the moment, I see the potential for another arms RACE. China, I think, will develop their nuclear forces slowly but probably stop well short of a Soviet-like posture. At least the Chinese have shown no desire to go in that direction up to now. What worries me most about a disintegrating Russia dominated by criminal syndicates in a lack of control over its nuclear forces, and its nuclear materials. The threat of loose nukes is, in my opinion, all too real.

    arlington, VA: Isn't it possible Mr. Trulock, having left Los Alamos for the bright lights of DC made up this entire matter to make himself look like the hero? I realize that theory didn't work with Richard Jewell but everyone who's looked into this doesn't seem to find any fire in all the smoke.

    Vernon Loeb: I suppose its possible, but all the accounts I have are that Trulock sincerely believed that the Chinese were picking our nuclear pockets_and to some extent, they probably were_and set out to do something about it. I'm also told he was reluctant at first to testify before the Cox committee, and go public. He obviously became less reluctant in that regard as time went along. To some extent, evoking the name Richard Jewel in this case is legitimate, since I am not convinced from the evidence at hand_and neither are attorneys in the Justice Department_that Wen Ho Lee is a Chinese spy. He might be. He might not be. But the evidence doesn't establish probable cause that he is_in fact, it doesn't even come close. And I would hold Trulock responsible for smearing Lee. Trulock wasn't responsible for publicly identifying Lee. Bottom line: everyone agrees with Trulock that the Chinese obtained nuclear secrets through espionage. The problem with the case is, nobody knows, to this day, where the Chinese got the information, how they got it, who they got it from or how they plan on using it, if at all. If those facts were made clear to the public back in March, this whole thing wouldn't have become the scandal that it did.

    McLean, VA: During the Cold War, deterrence was based partly on understanding the Soviet Union and what they value. Intel analysts and operatives, as well as military officers, historians, linguists and scholars understood to a large degree the decision making and cultural factors among Soviet leaders. Now that we face what former CIA director James Woolsey termed "a jungle full of smaller, venomous snakes",how has the intel community changed to take into account the cultures and backgrounds of the smaller threats now facing the United States, threats which often come from states and non-state actors about whom we understand less well than the Soviets?

    Vernon Loeb: You make a keen observation, and I think the answer is, the CIA is still trying to figure that out. It's a work in progress. The old, KGB-focused espionage and analytical model aren't much use against the likes of Osama bin Laden. So I think the agency is having to explore greater use of non-official cover, it's having to re-focus on language capabilities, and it's having to be creative in way it never had to before in the way it tries to penetrate the new hard targets like China and the rogue states. Osama bin Laden doesn't have cocktail parties, where DO case officers can go posing as embassy political attaches and try to recruit a member of Osama's intelligence agency. The hard targets are tough nuts to crack, and the CIA has just started trying to figure out how to crack them. Inevitably, the work the agency does against the likes of bin Laden is coming to more closely resemble law enforcement work, in terms of tracking and helping apprehend terrorists, than classical espionage activities.

    Vernon Loeb: Well, our time is up. Thanks so much for all those excellent questions. An hour on-line with you folks certainly helps reinforce the notion that Washington is the intelligence capital of the world. Read my new on-line column, appearing every other Monday on, called intelligenCIA. Our next talk session is Oct. 6 Cheers

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