We recently saw another bizarre twist in the Chinese nuclear espionage story. Just two weeks after President Clinton left his attorney general and FBI director twisting in the wind by publicly questioning their handling of the Wen Ho Lee case, Janet Reno and Louis Freeh were on Capitol Hill vigorously defending their actions. Both refused to apologize for their handling of Lee, and continued to accuse him of removing nuclear secrets from Los Alamos National Laboratory. Mr. Lee’s take, according to their joint statement, included the “complete nuclear weapons design capability of Los Alamos at the time approximately 50 years worth of nuclear weapons development, at the expense of hundreds of billions of dollars.”
Just a few weeks ago, doubt had been cast on the sensitivity of this material by one of the most experienced nuclear experts in the country during a bail hearing for Lee. John Richter, a Los Alamos scientist testified that 99 percent of the material Lee loaded onto unclassified computer tapes was already publicly available. Mr. Richter’s testimony, along with admissions of the FBI’s misleading testimony to federal Judge Parker, is credited with unraveling the government’s case against Lee.
Incredibly, Mr. Richter reversed himself and proclaimed that he was only referring to the computer software and basic principles of physics. Lee’s tapes also included, according to Mr. Richter, data representing “the design knowledge and physics information developed by our nuclear labs over a period of 50 years and over 1,000 nuclear tests.” He forgot to add at a cost of billions of taxpayer dollars.
We also learned that Lee made additional copies of the tapes and that the total of tapes now unaccounted for is 17, not seven, as previously reported.
So, Mr. Clinton and much of the media to the contrary, the “tapes” seem to be extraordinarily sensitive and could be of immense value to a foreign nuclear power at the level of, say, China. At least this is what the U.S. intelligence community determined in its unclassified “damage assessment” produced last winter.
So what gives? First, it is evident, once again, that the administration is just not interested in getting to the bottom of what Paul Redmond, the renowned CIA spy-catcher, has labeled a bigger espionage case than either the Rosenbergs or Aldrich Ames. Five years on, the administration has yet to dig deeply into just how or where the Chinese acquired the classified nuclear weapons information described in the Cox Report. The FBI’s “investigation” has been restarted once, and is now rumored to be restarting yet again.
Maybe this administration just doesn’t want to know what happened. The administration walked away from the Wen Ho Lee prosecution with breathtaking speed. Or maybe, as New York Times columnist William Safire wondered, this is part of a campaign to discredit all of Mr. Clinton’s (and Al Gore’s) Asian scandals. Just in time for the November presidential election.
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson thundered, “heads will roll” in 1999, when the scandal finally became public knowledge. But a year later, not a single Clinton political appointee or federal bureaucrat has been disciplined, fired or reprimanded. The only head to roll, arguably, has been Mr. Richardson’s as he failed to gain the Democratic vice presidential nomination that he so intensely coveted. So where are we now? The missing computer hard drives fiasco at Los Alamos and the FBI’s bungling of that case shows that our hard-earned and expensive nuclear secrets are still at risk, and the administration has yet to make an adequate public accounting of its handling of the whole affair. The Congress seems befuddled about the whole case and just wants it to go away.
By the way, you will search the Republican platform and Bush-Cheney campaign speeches in vain for any reference to one of the biggest espionage cases in American history. But maybe we just don’t want to discuss it in polite company. Don’t look for it to come up in the presidential debates.
Paul M. Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.