With intent to injure the U.S.’
It has been nearly four years since computer scientist Wen Ho Lee a Taiwan-born, naturalized American citizen who has conducted research at the Los Alamos nuclear-weapons laboratory for two decades emerged as a major suspect in an espionage investigation involving China’s alleged theft of some of the United States’ most sensitive nuclear secrets. Late last week the federal government indicted Mr. Lee on 59 counts of illegally removing U.S. nuclear secrets from a classified computer system.
Mr. Lee was not charged with espionage or with transferring the classified information to an unauthorized person or a foreign government. However, the indictment does charge that Mr. Lee removed those classified nuclear secrets “with the intent to injure the United States and with the intent to secure an advantage for a foreign power.” A senior law-enforcement official has characterized Mr. Lee’s unauthorized actions as so sweeping and so extensive that the global nuclear balance of power could be significantly affected if a foreign government obtained those nuclear secrets.
Mr. Lee has previously stated that he transferred computer files only as a backup to guard against a computer crash. His lawyer has asserted that Mr. Lee has done nothing different from what many other scientists have done. Mr. Lee’s attorney has also argued that the federal government has unfairly singled out Mr. Lee because of his ethnicity, an assertion strongly denied by prosecutors and investigators.
Specifically, the government charged that Mr. Lee unilaterally erased classified markings on documents, which were then shifted to unsecured computers, where the information was subsequently copied onto the computer tapes. According to the indictment, in 1993 and 1994 Mr. Lee copied nearly 400 computer files, including the mathematical approximation of the designs of nuclear weapons, their exact dimensions, information about testing problems, actual and simulated testing results and computer programs required to design and test the weapons. Many of these files contained information far in excess of what Mr. Lee needed to perform his job, one official has claimed. According to the indictment, law-enforcement officials have failed to locate seven of the 10 portable computer tapes made by Mr. Lee.
Ultimately, Mr. Lee’s guilt or innocence will be determined in a court of law. As that process unfolds, however, it’s worth noting that Attorney General Janet Reno’s Justice Department stymied the FBI’s investigation by repeatedly refusing to seek a court-approved wiretap that would have allowed the FBI to examine Mr. Lee’s office computer in 1997. Had Miss Reno’s Justice Department obtained the court-approved wiretap in early 1997, the FBI would have discovered Mr. Lee’s unauthorized downloading two years earlier. As it happened, the FBI finally learned of Mr. Lee’s activities in March 1999 when agents examined his office computer after he was fired.
Meanwhile, between October 1997 and June 1998, according to a secret government report, there were more than 300 foreign attacks on the Energy Department’s unclassified computer systems, where Mr. Lee had downloaded the secrets of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. It is anybody’s guess what nuclear-weapons information lurking in the department’s unclassified computers the foreign hackers may have stolen. What is certain, however, is the fact that the Justice Department’s repeated refusals in 1997 to seek a wiretap for Mr. Lee’s computer unnecessarily prolonged the exposure of the classified information in unsecured computers to foreign hackers whatever Mr. Lee’s intentions ultimately might have been.