Energy Secretary Bill Richardson disclosed the identity of Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee by revealing he was the key spy suspect to a newspaper reporter, a former Energy Department intelligence official told lawmakers yesterday.
“One of the reporters involved in the publication of the stories in question told me directly that Secretary Richardson had provided to him the name of Wen Ho Lee,” Notra Trulock, the former official, told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee.
The New York Times’ disclosure blew the cover on a secret three-year FBI investigation into how China had obtained secrets on every deployed nuclear warhead in the U.S. arsenal, according to an FBI official close to the case.
The probe also was undermined earlier by the Justice Department’s refusal to allow the FBI to initiate a wiretap on Lee’s telephones and computers, despite suspicions that he was a spy, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Some FBI officials believe Lee’s identity was disclosed deliberately to undermine the probe and head off political fallout. A similar case occurred in 1989 involving State Department official Felix Bloch, who was suspected of spying but never was charged.
Under questioning by subcommittee Chairman Sen. Arlen Specter, Mr. Trulock identified the reporter to whom Mr. Richardson revealed Lee’s name as New York Times investigative reporter James Risen.
Mr. Trulock was the first to investigate Chinese nuclear spying at weapons laboratories. The FBI recently raided his town house and confiscated a computer, charging that Mr. Trulock improperly disclosed intelligence information.
Stu Nagurka, an Energy Department spokesman, denied the contention by Mr. Trulock.
“Secretary Richardson categorically denies this outrageous accusation,” he said.
Mr. Nagurka said he did not know whether Mr. Richardson discussed the spy case with Mr. Risen, but said, “We do not discuss what other reporters are working on.”
The New York Times reported March 6, 1999, in a front-page story that a “Los Alamos computer scientist who is Chinese-American” was the prime suspect in a case of Chinese nuclear espionage. The story was written by Mr. Risen and Jeff Gerth, who later won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Chinese spying.
The newspaper subsequently has backed away from its reporting on the Lee spy case, saying some aspects of its coverage were “flawed.”
“We never comment on speculation about the identities of confidential sources,” said Times’ spokeswoman Kathy Park.
Two days after the Times story, Mr. Richardson ordered Los Alamos to fire Lee for security violations.
National security officials said the case was the first U.S. spy case that did not involve espionage charges, only the lesser charges of mishandling classified data.
FBI agents had focused on Lee because of his telephone conversation with another Chinese nuclear-spying suspect in 1982 and because of Lee’s contacts with Chinese nuclear weapons officials.
Lee, 60, pleaded guilty last month to one of 59 counts charged in a December 1998 indictment in a plea agreement with the Justice Department. He admitted to illegally transferring data on the design, manufacture and use of nuclear weapons from classified computers at Los Alamos to an unsecured computer. At least seven and as many as 14 tapes copied by Lee are still missing.
Mr. Trulock was asked by Mr. Specter what knowledge he had of Mr. Richardson’s firing of Lee after he testified that the disclosure “came out of the office of the secretary of the Department of Energy.” After consulting with his lawyer, the former Energy Department intelligence and counterintelligence chief said he was told by Mr. Risen about Mr. Richardson’s action.
He said it was not a coincidence the Energy Department only “became energized” about fixing its security problems after the FBI “provided information to the Cox committee on Dr. Lee and other espionage cases.”
“We’re going to pursue that,” said Mr. Specter, who is investigating the Lee case. “Respecting confidentiality of sources, that’s something which is of the utmost importance.”
Earlier, an Energy Department scientist told the subcommittee that nuclear weapons data illegally downloaded by Lee contained secret design information on a number of nuclear explosives, including some weapons currently in the U.S. arsenal.
Stephen Younger testified that if the tapes found their way to unauthorized persons, they could provide design codes for U.S. nuclear weapons, enable enemies of the United States to advance their own weapons systems and provide the ability to identify and exploit weaknesses in the U.S. nuclear defense system.
“Nuclear weapons are the most destructive weapons ever created by humankind,” he said. “They are the only devices that can threaten the conventional military superiority of the United States. In the wrong hands, the information downloaded by Dr. Lee could enable a proliferant nation to design relatively crude but nevertheless effective nuclear weapons without nuclear testing.
“Those weapons would certainly not be as sophisticated as the weapons contained in the U.S. arsenal, but they would be credible enough to influence other nations, including our own,” he said. “A nation that already had nuclear weapons could use the codes to help maintain their weapons or to improve them.”
Last week, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh told the Senate Judiciary and select intelligence committees that the still-missing tapes were the impetus behind the plea agreement.
“The government made this agreement for one overarching reason: to find out what happened to the missing tapes,” said Mr. Freeh, adding that Lee created “his own secret, portable, personal trove of this nation’s nuclear weapons secrets.”
He said each of the 59 counts outlined in the December 1999 indictment “could be proven today,” but the government opted for the agreement to avoid “revealing nuclear secrets” in open court.
The plea bargain was reached after Lee agreed to cooperate in the case, including submitting to a polygraph examination. He was released Sept. 13 after 279 days of confinement at a New Mexico jail. He was scheduled to undergo debriefings by the FBI last week, which were postponed because of the Senate hearings.
Mr. Younger testified that based on his knowledge of foreign nuclear weapons programs, no other country has the technology base necessary to perform measurements made in U.S. nuclear tests, measurements he said were used in the calibration and validation of the computer codes downloaded by Lee.
Asked by Mr. Specter whether there was clear and convincing evidence that the data downloaded by Lee amounted to the theft of the “crown jewels,” Mr. Younger responded:
“If the design of the most sophisticated nuclear weapons on the planet are not the crown jewels of nuclear security, I don’t know what is.”