FBI agents misled physicist Wen Ho Lee into believing that he had failed a Department of Energy polygraph test as they pressed him during a lengthy interrogation last March to confess to passing nuclear weapons secrets to China.
Lee insisted throughout the tape-recorded session that he was telling the truth, unaware that polygraph examiners actually had given him an extremely high score for honesty.
"I don't know why I fail," Lee told the agents, according to a transcript obtained by The Washington Post. "But I do know I have not done anything. . . . I never give any classified information to Chinese people."
The interrogation on March 7, 1999, the day before Lee was fired from his job at Los Alamos National Laboratory for violating security rules, was highly adversarial and ended only after Lee repeatedly asked to leave. "I'm an honest person and I'm telling you all the truth, and you don't believe it," he said at one point.
Lee's family and supporters view the transcript as a vivid demonstration that the FBI was unfair and even devious in its investigation of the 60-year-old, Taiwan-born scientist, who is being held without bail on charges of copying a vast trove of classified nuclear data to computer tapes, seven of which are missing.
Prosecutors, however, deny that the investigation was biased or unethical in any way. They say the FBI's skepticism during the interrogation was justified by a series of lies the scientist had told colleagues, superiors and investigators over a period of many years.
Independent legal experts also said it is not uncommon for police or FBI agents to mislead suspects during preliminary questioning.
The March 7 interrogation came at a critical juncture in the FBI's attempt to determine how China might have obtained secrets about the design of the W-88 warhead, America's most sophisticated nuclear weapon.
Lee had become the government's prime suspect, having acknowledged--immediately before taking a Department of Energy polygraph in December 1998--that Chinese weapons scientists asked him about the W-88 during a trip he made to Beijing 10 years earlier. The DOE polygraph examiners concluded that Lee was telling the truth when he said he had never passed classified information to China during that or any other meeting.
But two months later, FBI polygraph examiners concluded that Lee was being deceptive when he was asked the same question.
Throughout the March 7 interrogation, FBI agents pressed Lee to admit that he had passed secrets to the Chinese scientists who visited him at his Beijing hotel in 1988 and asked specific questions about the W-88. The agents suggested that unless he confessed, he would be arrested for espionage and possibly executed.
"Do you know who the Rosenbergs are?" one of the agents asked Lee. "The Rosenbergs are the only people that never cooperated with the federal government in an espionage case. You know what happened to them? They electrocuted them, Wen Ho."
"Yeah, I heard," Lee replied.
In another exchange, an FBI agent told Lee, "Wen Ho, you're in trouble. You are in big trouble."
Lee replied: "I know. But I tell you one thing. I'm the victim. I am innocent."
Lee's attorneys introduced an 82-page, declassified transcript of the interrogation in court at a bail hearing in Albuquerque in late December to bolster their contention that the government, not Lee, had acted deceptively.
The government conceded in a written motion opposing bail that Lee passed the polygraph test given by the Energy Department but noted that he failed the FBI-administered test in February.
At the end of the three-day hearing Dec. 30, U.S. District Judge James A. Parker ruled that Lee must remain in jail pending trial. Lee was charged Dec. 10 with 59 felony counts of mishandling classified information and could, if convicted, be sentenced to life imprisonment.
The government discovered the downloaded data inside Lee's unsecure office computer only after he consented to a search following his March 8 firing from Los Alamos, where he had worked for two decades.
Federal authorities have acknowledged that they do not have any evidence that Lee passed secrets to China, and they have not accused him of espionage. But they are pressing him for information about the missing computer tapes.
Lee's attorneys say he destroyed the tapes, but they have not given any details about how, when and where the portable cartridges, similar to VHS videotapes, disappeared.
Mark Holscher, one of Lee's lawyers, said in a telephone interview yesterday that the FBI's false statements and threats of electrocution should make it clear why the scientist "is reluctant to be subjected to further questioning."
"The transcript clearly shows that the FBI on at least a dozen occasions [during the interrogation] pressured Dr. Lee to confess to a death penalty offense, which even the Department of Justice must now concede he did not commit," Holscher said.
At one point during the interrogation, as FBI agents told Lee over and over that no one in the government believed his denials, the scientist replied: "There's nothing I can tell you because I already told you everything, okay? If they want to put me in jail, fine."
Washington lawyer Plato Cacheris, who has been both a federal prosecutor and a defense attorney, said yesterday that although he "does not applaud the practice," it is well known that agents "tell false information to suspects in order to get them to confess without being sanctioned by the court."
Lawyers often go into court, Cacheris said, and argue that FBI agents "lied to my client; they do it all time." But, he added, as long as the suspect is not under arrest, it is a technique that judges generally accept.