The Justice Department's courtroom war with Wen Ho Lee grew more complex last week when the former Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist answered the government's criminal charges with a civil suit of his own alleging unlawful leaks by the FBI and the departments of Justice and Energy.
Ferreting out the leakers will be no trifling matter, especially since the Justice Department will likely move to have the whole matter stayed until it finishes prosecuting Lee in New Mexico on 59 felony counts of mishandling classified information.
But few seasoned DOJ lawyers who have read all the way through Lee's complaint are likely to be as dismissive as Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who opined last week that the lawsuit lacked "foundation." The reason: Lee is represented by some exceedingly heavy hitters who know their way around a courtroom--and Washington.
The Lee family's lead attorney is Brian A. Sun, a former federal prosecutor from O'Neill, Lysaght & Sun in Santa Monica, Calif. Sun represented Johnny Chung, the former Democratic fund-raiser who has pleaded guilty to bank and tax fraud related to campaign contributions to the Democrats.
Sun's co-counsel include two high-profile partners, Thomas C. Green and Mark D. Hopson, at the Washington office of Sidley & Austin, the Chicago-based mega-firm with more than 800 attorneys worldwide.
Green is high up on nearly everyone's list of Washington power lawyers. His past clients include retired Gen. Richard Secord and former senators Donald Riegle (D-Mich.) and Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.).
"This is not to complicate the criminal case--this is about leveling the playing field and showing them they can't do this to anyone," Sun said. "This lawsuit gets litigated irrespective of the outcome."
Lee, 59, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Taiwan, was fired from his job at Los Alamos in March and was identified by government officials as an espionage suspect. They subsequently acknowledged they had no evidence of espionage but indicted Lee, threatening him with life in prison.
"Whether [Lee's civil suit] can be successful or not," one former high-ranking Justice Department official said, "it indicates a tenacity, a desire to fight."
ARMS CACHES: Vasili Mitrokhin, a former KGB archivist who hand-copied thousands of top secret Soviet intelligence documents and smuggled them out of KGB headquarters in his sock, startled the world in September when he revealed in his recent book, "The Sword and the Shield," that Soviet intelligence operatives had arms caches buried all over the United States.
But it was Stanislav Lunev, a colonel with Soviet military intelligence (GRU), who first disclosed in 1998--with far less public notice--the existence of buried Soviet arms caches in "Through the Eyes of the Enemy," a book he wrote with former National Security Agency officer Ira Winkler. Lunev defected to the United States in 1992, at about the same time Mitrokhin defected to Britain, and is now in the federal witness protection program.
"Though most Americans don't realize it, America is already penetrated by Russian military intelligence to the extent that arms caches lie in wait for us by Russian special forces--or Spetznatz," Lunev and Winkler write in the book.
Winkler says Lunev lacked corroborating evidence to back up his claim and couldn't promote it publicly, since he is forced to live a secret life at an undisclosed location in the Washington area.
"Now, everyone believes it--because the person saying it has papers," Winkler said.
The recent bugging of a conference room at the State Department by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR, the successor to the KGB, also lends considerable weight to Lunev's claim that Russia, and Russian intelligence, remain a far greater threat to U.S. national security than most Americans realize.
The only thing about the caper that surprised Lunev was the sloppiness exhibited by SVR agent Stanislav Borisovich Gusev, whom the FBI watched repeatedly circling the State Department in his car, searching for a parking spot.
Gusev and his SVR cronies, Lunev said last week in an interview, "were so busy carrying out Moscow's requests that they forgot about vigilance."
"And keep in mind," Lunev added, "to establish a listening device in such a sensitive area, it was necessary to have authorization from Moscow--maybe even the president himself."
Vernon Loeb's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org