Associated PressThe Justice Department released on Wednesday a massive review of the FBI's bungled espionage investigation of former nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee.
December 12, 2001
Justice Department releases report on Lee investigationBy ROBERT GEHRKE, Associated Press Writer
The report, most of which was leaked earlier, criticizes the FBI for never considering the Lee investigation a priority; failing to allot it proper resources or properly supervise agents on the case; and moving too slowly.
It condemns the communication breakdown between the FBI and the Energy Department and chastises investigators for not immediately searching Lee's computer files when suspicions first arose. That left critical weapons secrets unprotected, the report said. "The Wen Ho Lee investigation involved allegations of espionage as significant as any the United States government is likely to face," wrote Randy Bellows, a federal prosecutor who led the team that reviewed the investigation of the former scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
"It required an appropriate, aggressive and effective response. It did not get such a response from any of the departments and agencies whose conduct we have examined, and the gravity of this failure may yet not be fully known," he said.
The FBI said it had made changes as a result of the inquiry. "This inquiry has led to a fundamentally different approach to counterintelligence," bureau spokesman Jay Spadafore said Wednesday.
He said the report "contained over 40 recommendations, and the FBI has worked through all of them. In some cases, we have gone further than what was recommended."
Lee was held in solitary confinement for nine months and indicted on 59 felony counts alleging he transferred nuclear weapons information to portable computer tapes. He was never charged with spying and denied giving information to China.
As the government's case crumbled, Lee pleaded guilty to a felony count of downloading sensitive material.
In May 1999, then-Attorney General Janet Reno assigned Bellows and a team of investigators to report on the investigation. The report was completed a year later but had not been released until Wednesday because of secrets it held.
The report is littered with black smears where attorneys for the Energy Department, FBI and CIA have deleted portions for secrecy or privacy. One full chapter was blacked out.
"The report stands as a harsh critique of the government's investigation of espionage at Los Alamos, but this is a mystery that remains unsolved," said Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert for the Federation of American Scientists. He said, for instance, there remains no explanation how China got specifications for U.S. weapons.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have influenced the FBI's mission and structure, including surveillance rules for suspected spies.
"It's too early to say the chapter is closed, but this is a substantial contribution to our understanding of this puzzling event," Aftergood said.
Lee has sued the government for defamation. Additionally, the Energy Department's former intelligence chief has sued Lee for defamation, after supporters of Lee claimed the investigation focused on the scientist because he was born on Taiwan.
Brian Sun, the California lawyer handling Lee's lawsuit, said Wednesday that Bellows was apparently unaware when he completed his report in May 2000 that the contention that Lee had mishandled the "crown jewels" of American science was debunked by prominent nuclear scientists Walter Goad, Harold Agnew and John Richter and that the case against Lee was about to "disintegrate."
Sun, reached Wednesday in Montreal, said the issue of how the Chinese obtained weapons information was unrelated in any way to Lee. He said the government itself said so in opposing efforts by the Lee defense team to obtain discovery of evidence relating to American weapons.
Lee was treated far more harshly than other scientists and officials who had committed similar or worse offenses, former CIA director John Deutch being the most significant example, Sun said. Deutch was let off with a reprimand after taking classified information home and having it on an unsecure home computer.
"Dr. Lee was never accused of espionage, the government never had any evidence that he engaged in espionage and Dr. Lee has firmly and emphatically denied throughout the case that he ever engaged in any inappropriate conduct involving a foreign country," Sun said. "The case was blown way out of proportion due to the unfortunate combination of partisan politics, media frenzy created by this unfounded espionage scare and the pressure on the government to find a scapegoat."
Sun acknowledged: "Wen Ho Lee mishandled sensitive information. Should it have resulted in the type of investigation and prosecution he was subjected to? Absolutely not."
Copyright 2001 Associated Press