Albuquerque JournalSANTA FE -- Fired Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee could have meant to carry a taped library of U.S. nuclear-weapons secrets to any of eight foreign nations to boost his prospects for a new job, prosecutors said Wednesday night.
July 7, 2000
Job Search Offered as Lee's Motive
Experts say career enhancement would be an unusual reason for espionageby Ian Hoffman
If so, Lee would occupy a new niche in American history, the first to be accused of misappropriating defense secrets for career enhancement, say chroniclers of U.S. espionage.
"The old motivations are usually money, ideology, compromise as in, I have something on you and ego as in somebody does it because it gives them a high, a thrill," said Charles D. Ameringer, professor emeritus for history at Penn State University and author of "U.S. Foreign Intelligence: The Secret Side of American History."
"I've never heard of that one: to beef up your resume?" said Harvard historian Priscilla McMillan. "That's absolutely new."
Prosecutors named Lee's supposed beneficiaries as both the People's Republic of China and Taiwan, respectively, a declared nuclear-weapons power and a suspected one.
Yet the list also includes Australia, France, Germany, the then-British territory of Hong Kong, Singapore and Switzerland. Lee wrote letters to universities and corporations in those nations and the United States after receiving a 1993 layoff notice from Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he worked in the weapons-design division as a software developer.
Prosecution witnesses say 1993 was when Lee began downloading rough nuclear-weapons designs and "virtual nuclear-testing" software to portable data tapes. Lee faces a potential life sentence if prosecutors can prove he created the tapes with the intent of harming the United States or aiding a foreign nation.
Of the listed nations, only France fields a nuclear arsenal and actively researches weapons, using tools nearly identical to those at LANL. Germany and Switzerland possess plutonium of sufficient grade and amount to make nuclear bombs, "but there is little or no evidence that they are pursuing a nuclear-weapons program," said Paul Levanthal, president of the Nuclear Control Institute, a Washington, D.C., group that tracks the spread of nuclear weapons.
Hong Kong and Singapore? "I would think not, no," Levanthal said.
Australia is one of the world's leading activist nations against nuclear testing and proliferation.
Prosecutors added mainland China to the list, they noted in Wednesday night's court filing, because Lee had contacts with senior researchers from its nuclear-weapons design lab, the Institute of Applied Physics and Computational Mathematics in Beijing.
Lee and more than a dozen Los Alamos colleagues went to two LANL-endorsed conferences in Beijing in 1986 and 1988. During the last, two top Chinese weapons scientists visited Lee in his hotel room, and one questioned Lee on a classified topic, namely the two-point detonation scheme for the W-88 warhead. In an FBI interrogation, Lee said he replied he "wasn't interested" in the topic and did not answer. The Beijing institute scientists also wrote at least three letters to Lee seeking unclassified software or reports.
Defense attorneys cast the prosecution's list as a sign the government is at a loss to prove Lee had criminal intent when he copied the weapons data to tapes.
"They don't have a theory," said Lee attorney John Cline. "What they've come up with here, I really think they have completely lost touch with reality.
"Who's going to believe he was trying to peddle nuclear secrets to Singapore?" Cline asked.
In his job-seeking letters, Lee advertised only his expertise in the broad field of hydrodynamics, the study of the behavior of fluids, Cline said. Hydrodynamics is crucial to understanding a variety of industrial processes and conventional explosives, as well as the molten metals, gases and burning high explosives found in nuclear weapons. The corporations to which he applied were chiefly in the business of conventional munitions or oil and gas exploration, where shaped-charge explosives are used to punch wells.
"There was no mention in any letter that he had had any sort of nuclear-weapons-related job and no suggestion that he was offering nuclear-weapons-related expertise," Cline said.
Prosecutors reserved the right to add other countries or argue other motives. But for the secrets-for-a-job theory, the closest parallels are not in the annals of espionage but in corporate betrayal. A federal grand jury in May, for example, charged Jose Ignacio Lopez de Arriortua of Spain with defrauding GM and Adam Opel AG by handing trade secrets to competitor Volkswagen.
"It sounds like more of an intellectual property case than an espionage case," said Steve Aftergood, a government secrecy expert for the Washington, D.C.-based Federation of American Scientists. "It's not all that unusual in the business world, and it drives people crazy."
Cold War defectors to the United States and Britain sometimes hauled a treasure trove of secrets from beyond the Iron Curtain to be sure they were taken in, said Tom Powers, a Vermont-based journalist who writes about intelligence organizations.
"When you defected, you couldn't always count on them saying OK. So no one wanted to cross the line empty-handed," Powers said.
"But this seems like a reach to me," he said. "Usually when you're charged with spying, you're walking up to the Russian embassy with a bagload of documents. This doesn't strike me as a motivation for espionage at all, and if they were arguing that, I would take it as a sign they are totally lacking in any evidence of espionage. I'd read it as them just throwing their hands in the air."