Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos nuclear scientist who has been indicted for mishandling massive amounts of secret nuclear weapons codes, went to unusual lengths to mislead his colleagues about why he downloaded classified material, according to an FBI investigator.
At a court hearing last week in New Mexico, the investigator testified that Lee talked a colleague into letting him use his unsecure workstation for the downloading of classified material to unsecured tapes by telling him he was creating a resume.
Lee persuaded the employee to teach him how to download information from his office computer system in a secured area to a computer workstation outside that area, where he then put the material on portable magnetic tapes. Lee never told the the colleague he was transferring highly classified nuclear secrets, FBI agent Robert Messemer told the hearing.
Lee was indicted this month for gross negligence in the handling of classified defense information. While the indictment does not charge him with deliberately passing secret information to the Chinese government, the testimony at the hearing appears to buttress the U.S. government's belief that there was no innocent reason for Lee's suspicious activity in handling secret information about the design, construction and testing of nuclear weapons.
"There is no specific work reason to assemble these top-secret and secret files and place them into the open system or download them onto a portable mechanism," Messemer testified.
A transcript of the all-day hearing was obtained by The Washington Post. The hearing was held to determine whether Lee, 59, a Taiwan-born U.S. citizen who worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory for almost 20 years, should be kept in prison until trial. Lee was denied bail last week, but another hearing has been scheduled for Monday in Albuquerque to determine whether that status should be changed. Lee has pleaded not guilty.
Lee's supporters have vigorously denied he mishandled the tapes in question and, at one time, said he downloaded the classified material merely to work on it at his unclassified workstation.
But at the hearing last week, the FBI investigator for the first time described in detail how Lee, during nighttime and weekend sessions, used deception to download classified files from secure to unsecured computer systems--at one time downloading the latest nuclear weapons secrets directly to an unsecured tape--and later misled two other colleagues who helped him delete classified material from two other tapes.
The FBI corroborated Lee's downloading of tapes through a notebook discovered during a April 10 search of his house. The notebook contained a meticulous record in Chinese of his tapes, both classified and unclassified. "We found a 1 to 1 correspondence between the information contained in the [Los Alamos] computer system with respect to the move of certain files against what is contained in this document," Messemer said.
Lee initially used deception in 1993 when he began downloading classified information from the secure Los Alamos computer to the unsecured one in his office, the FBI said. At that time, Lee, who had the ultimate "Q-clearance" access to top-secret nuclear weapons codes, had to certify to a machine that the information he was transferring from one system to the other "was unclassified work," according to Messemer.
Although some of the data were unclassified, most was not, the FBI agent testified.
When Lee wanted to take the classified material in his unclassified office computer and put it on portable tape, he approached an employee outside the lab's X Division, its top-secret design section, and told him he wanted to download a resume from his unclassified office computer and retain it on tape for future use. The employee had a computer workstation that made the type of portable magnetic tape Lee wanted.
The employee accepted Lee's story, gave him a lesson and even provided his unique log-on name and password in case the system crashed while he was working.
Instead of downloading just a resume, Lee in 1993 and 1994 made more than nine tapes with information on all the U.S. nuclear weapons systems.
"Lee took a very methodical, meticulous approach to the assembly of all these files," Messemer said. "And, moreover, he did so in the evening hours, not during regular business hours, and he did so on weekends, which we also viewed as being somewhat secretive."
Federal prosecutors brought out that at the time of the downloading, Lee had been notified that he might lose his job because the Energy Department was considering a reduction in its work force.
During that time he wrote letters expressing interest in finding a job with seven separate overseas institutes, including two in Singapore, two in Taiwan, and one each in Switzerland, Germany and Hong Kong. But under questioning from Lee's attorney, Messemer acknowledged that the nuclear weapons tapes would not have been useful to those institutions.
Four years later, in 1997, at a time when Los Alamos was changing its computer systems, Lee made what could have been one of his boldest, yet unexplained, moves. He downloaded tape N, which contained the most up-to-date nuclear weapons data, "directly" from the classified computer at the X Division to a portable tape through an unclassified computer that was inside the lab's protected area. That tape is among several downloaded by Lee that are missing.
"From a counterintelligence perspective," Messemer said at one point, "Doctor Lee's actions are secretive, appear to be clandestine."
CAPTION: Wen Ho Lee has denied mishandling nuclear secrets or spying for China.