Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist who was fired for security violations in March, said yesterday he never passed nuclear secrets to the Chinese and was made a scapegoat for alleged Chinese espionage because "I am the only one Oriental" who worked on top-secret nuclear weapons at the lab for the last 18 years.

A U.S. citizen since 1974, the Taiwan-born Lee said on CBS's "60 Minutes" that he routinely downloaded secret nuclear data from a classified computer to an unclassified one as "part of my job," but "I had never given those, you know, information to any unauthorized person."

Lee told CBS correspondent Mike Wallace that the downloading was "a very common practice" and that "many people do the same thing."

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, appearing on the same program, said Lee was not a scapegoat and that he was dismissed for "not following proper security procedures at the lab."

Richardson described Lee's downloading of classified files as "perhaps the most massive of the security violations." He added: "If anybody else has done that, and we have the information, we are going to treat them the same way."

Lee has been under FBI investigation since 1996, after a secret Chinese document obtained by the CIA contained data on U.S. nuclear warheads that is considered classified. Energy Department intelligence analysts identified Lee as one scientist who had both knowledge of the data and had traveled to China prior to publication of the document.

To date, however, no information has turned up showing Lee transfered any information to the Chinese, according to administration and congressional sources.

Lee and his lawyer, Mark Holscher, were in Washington last Wednesday for a conference with Justice Department officials. Although government sources have said it is doubtful that he can be charged with espionage, the Justice Department is considering indicting Lee, as early as next week, for the lesser crime of mishandling classified computer files, according to government sources.