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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Chinese Nuclear Intelligence Collection

Many American intelligence officers believed that the Chinese had an almost total dependence of those of a like ethnicity to accomplish their goals. In the two most prominent cases where there was little doubt there was a PRC intelligence service presence, the Larry Wu Tai Chin and Katrina Leung matters, neither of those cases involved the acquisition of technology. Conversely, with a number of other high profile investigations such as Wen Ho Lee, Peter Lee, Min Guo Bao, which involved highly classified technologies, there was no apparent PRC intelligence service presence. They simply assume that all ethnic Chinese will be of service to mother China.

But their considerable successes have largely centered around first generation Chinese Americans who were born in China, made their way to the United States, but retained a strong cultural identity and family ties to their homeland. The Chinese had been largely unsuccessful in gaining the support of second generation and beyond Chinese Americans.

The PRC's nuclear weapons intelligence collection efforts began after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, when the PRC assessed its weaknesses in physics and the deteriorating status of its nuclear weapons programs. The PRC's warhead designs of the late 1970s were large, multi-megaton thermonuclear weapons that could only be carried on large ballistic missiles and aircraft. The PRC's warheads were roughly equivalent to US warheads designed in the 1950s. The PRC may have decided as early as that time to pursue more advanced thermonuclear warheads for its new generation of ballistic missiles.

In addition to the development of a sea-based nuclear force, China began considering the development of tactical nuclear weapons. PLA exercises featured the simulated use of tactical nuclear weapons in offensive and defensive situations beginning in 1982. Reports of Chinese possession of tactical nuclear weapons remained unconfirmed in 1987. In 1988 Chinese specialists tested a 1-5 KT nuclear device with an enhanced radiation yield, advancing the country's development of a very low yield neutron weapon and laying the foundation for the creation of nuclear artillery.

The PRC had already begun working on smaller thermonuclear warheads. During the 1990s, the PRC was working to complete testing of its modern thermonuclear weapons before it signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996. The PRC conducted a series of nuclear tests from 1992 to 1996. Based on what is known about PRC nuclear testing practices, combined with data on PRC warhead yield and on PRC missile development, it is clear that the purpose of the 1992 to 1996 test series was to develop small, light warheads for the PRC's new nuclear forces.

One of the objectives of the final series of Chinese nuclear tests was to miniaturize China's nuclear warheads, dropping their weight from 2200 kgs to 700 kgs in order to accommodate the next generation of solid-fueled missile systems. This series of PRC nuclear weapons test explosions from 1992 to 1996 began a debate in the US Government about whether the PRC's designs for its new generation of nuclear warheads were in fact based on stolen U.S. classified information. The apparent purpose of these PRC tests was to develop smaller, lighter thermonuclear warheads, with an increased yield-to-weight ratio.

The United States did not become fully aware of the magnitude of the counterintelligence problem at Department of Energy national weapons laboratories until 1995. In 1995, a "walk-in" approached the Central Intelligence Agency outside the PRC and provided an official PRC document classified "Secret" that contained specific design information on the W-88 Trident D-5, and technical information on other thermonuclear warheads. The CIA later determined that the "walk-in" was directed by the PRC intelligence services. Nonetheless, CIA and other Intelligence Community analysts that reviewed the document concluded that it contained US warhead design information.

Completing the development of its next-generation warhead poses challenges for the PRC. The PRC may not currently be able to match precisely the exact explosive power and other features of U.S. weapons. Nonetheless, the PRC may be working toward this goal, and the difficulties it faces are surmountable. Work-arounds exist, using processes similar to those developed or available in a modern aerospace or precision-guided munitions industry. The PRC possesses these capabilities already.

Assessing the extent to which design information losses accelerated the PRC's nuclear weapons development is complicated because so much is unknown. The full extent of U.S. information that the PRC acquired and the sophistication of the PRC's indigenous design capabilities are unclear. Moreover, there was the possibility of third country assistance to the PRC's nuclear weapons program, which could also assist the PRC's exploitation of the stolen U.S. nuclear weapons information.

Dr. Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese-American, pled guilty to one felony count of the 59 counts brought against him-the unlawful retention of national defense information. This is a serious charge, and it represents the conclusion of many years of concern within the government about the conduct of Dr. Lee. In fact, there have been legitimate and serious national security concerns about Lee's behavior, dating back for nearly 20 years.

His questionable conduct began not long after he began working at Los Alamos in 1978. In 1982 the FBI conducted a counterintelligence investigation of Dr. Lee that revealed, among other things, questionable contact between Dr. Lee and an espionage agent. When questioned by the FBI about this conduct and contact, Dr. Lee lied about contacting the individual. Indeed, he even denied knowing the individual. He admitted to the truth only after it became clear to him that the FBI had proof of the contact. And yet it took the FBI almost a year before confronting Dr. Lee with evidence of his contact with the espionage suspect. This was just the first in what became a disturbing and troubling pattern of actions by Dr. Lee, and an equally disturbing and troubling inaction on the part of the FBI and the Department of Energy.

In 1988, Dr. Lee failed to report, as required, his activities during a visit to China where he gave a talk to the Chinese Institute of Applied Physics and Computational Mathematics. And in 1994, Dr. Lee supposedly failed to report a meeting with a senior foreign government nuclear weapons engineer, as required by the conditions of his employment.

The FBI lied to Wen Ho Lee telling him he had failed the polygraph test when in fact he had passed. A polygraph test was administered on December 23, 1998, by the Department of Energy in New Mexico. DOE said he unequivocally passed, FBI said failed. The FBI then did its own testing of Dr. Lee, and again claimed he failed. The polygraph results were so convincing and unequivocal, that sources say the deputy director of the Los Alamos lab issued an apology to Lee, and work began to get him reinstated in the X-Division. During this time period, Washington officials began leaking to the media that Lee had failed his polygraphs, and that he was "the one" who had given to China information on America's most advanced thermo-nuclear warhead, the W-88. A stunning charge that, in the end, investigators were unable to back up.

Dr. Lee's most recent activities that became the subject of the 1999 indictment relate to the downloading from a secure to an unsecure computer the equivalent of approximately 400,000 pages of extremely sensitive nuclear weapons data. The suggestion by some that was that the information that Dr. Lee handled, alleged to be the crown jewels, was viewed as unimportant and is easily available to the scientific community in open channels.

The classified materials Lee downloaded included: nuclear weapons design source codes that model and simulate the complex physics of a thermonuclear explosion; input decks and input files describing the exact dimensions, geometry, and materials of our most modern nuclear devices; and data files containing the results of more than 50 years and hundreds of billions of dollars worth of hard-earned nuclear knowledge, including the results of more than 1,000 nuclear tests. This downloading process was not the innocent collection of materials of interest to a scientist in his work. The process took many hours to accomplish over an extended period of time. The downloading activity required him to obtain entry to areas of the Los Alamos lab for which his access had been revoked. These materials were the classified property of the United States Government, and Dr. Lee must have known that they were not his for the taking. Dr. Paul Robinson, the Director of the Sandia National Laboratory, testified that the information Lee downloaded onto tapes "represents a portfolio of information that would allow one to develop a simple, easily-manufactured weapon such as a terrorist weapon all the way up to the very best that the United States is capable of designing."

Furthermore, while the government did not charge Dr. Lee with espionage, the fact remains that, as the U.S. intelligence community concluded: "China obtained by espionage classified U.S. nuclear weapons information. This collection program allowed China to focus successfully down critical paths and avoid less promising approaches to nuclear weapons designs." The information compromised included weapons design information, including data on the W88 warhead, and information on "weapons design concepts and weaponization features," including data on the neutron bomb.

The FBI's counterintelligence investigation was a gravely flawed exercise characterized by inadequate resources, lack of management attention, and missed opportunities. the investigation was a textbook example of how not to conduct an espionage case, a "Keystone Cops" investigation. The Lee investigation was plagued by missteps from the very beginning. For example, it took the FBI almost a year before it confronted Dr. Lee in 1983 with the evidence that he had contacted an espionage suspect and lied about it. That alone may have been reason to consider revoking Dr. Lee's security clearance. One of the most serious missteps concerns the government's attempt to search Dr. Lee's computer. It turns out that Dr. Lee, in April of 1995, signed two separate consent agreements granting permission for search of his computers. Accordingly, government investigators did not need a court order and could have entered his computer and discovered his computer downloads years earlier.

On 06 March 1999, the New York Times reported that government investigators believed that China had accelerated its nuclear weapons program with the aid of stolen American secrets. This report, along with other reports that came subsequently, led to a frenzy of activity. In fact, 2 days after the March 6, 1999 New York Times report, Wen Ho Lee, who was identified, was then fired from the laboratory; and soon after that, he was charged with the various offenses. On December 10, 1999, Dr. Wen Ho Lee came home from a fishing trip and was arrested by the FBI on charges of having passed U.S. nuclear secrets to a foreign government. At the time Mr. Lee worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratories, where U.S. nuclear weapons are designed. He was placed in solitary confinement for nine months. He spent 23 hours a day in his cell.

Dr. Lee's treatment and confinement far exceeded legitimate measures designed to prevent the possible compromise of information, including his shackling and a light in his cell 24 hours a day, even shackling when he was performing his authorized exercise each day. Aldrich Ames, Edwin Pitts, Robert Kim, Jim Nicholson, all of whom pled guilty to espionage and were serving long sentences in federal prison, were not subject to these types of extreme pre-trial prison conditions not specifically designed to limit or monitor outside contact.

Even by Washington standards this matter has spawned an unusual amount of finger-pointing and even grandstanding. Senator Danforth said, "We have totally overblown our willingness to just trash people." Senator Danforth said about those who made reckless claims of government misconduct and who grandstand on matters of public importance, "The wrong information was presented to the American people and it caused a real shaking of confidence of people in their government. When people make dark charges - I mean really, really serious charges - the people who make the charges should bear some kind of burden of proof before we all buy into them."

Some of the same people who described Wen Ho Lee as one of the most nefarious spies in american history latter claimed that he was the victim of racial profiling. Most of these claims were made without all the facts. As the June, 1999 Rudman Report on the weapons labs states, "There have been many attempts to take the valuable coin of damaging new information and decrease its value by manufacturing its counterfeit-innuendo. Possible damage has been minted as probable disaster. Workaday delay and bureaucratic confusion have been cast as diabolical conspiracies. Enough is enough."

The manacles, the references to the Rosenbergs, the false testimony given by the FBI raise a possible inference that these were pressures to compel a guilty plea. Those are very serious questions which have to be answered by the witnesses today-why Dr. Lee was placed in leg irons, in wrist chains and had his wrists bound to his waist. What purpose did that serve? When the incredible power of the government comes down on a single individual, all too often that individual's rights are crushed under the full force. And in this case a hysteria ran through the government, through committees of Congress, within the Department of Energy and Justice and Defense, in a frenzy to try to prove something that they did not, in fact, have the evidence to prove.

The U.S. government brought a 59 count indictment against Mr. Lee, claiming he stole critical information on the U.S. nuclear defense system and passed them to China. The case was a media sensation: Mr. Lee's face and the words, "suspected spy", were repeated in magazines, newspapers and on television. He was accused of not having filed foreign reports; yet in the August 2000 hearing, before the judge, it came out that he had indeed filed the reports and that all of those arguments that had been made in December 1999 were simply not true. In September 2000, 58 of the 59 charges were dropped, and the U.S. prosecutor agreed to free Mr. Lee if he pleaded guilty to the charge of "improperly downloading classified material", which he did.

In what has been unanimously labeled by legal professionals as a highly unusual event, the judge presiding over the case apologized to him when the case was closed. Journalist Helen Zia reads from transcript of that apology at the book launch. "I am sad that I was induced in December to order your detention since, by the terms of the plea agreement that frees you today without conditions, it becomes clear that the executive branch now concedes, or should concede, that it was not necessary to confine you last December, or at any time before your trial," she reads. "I might say that I am also sad and troubled because I do not know the real reasons why the executive branch has done all of this."

Notra Trulock was the head of Department of Energy's intelligence office during the investigation into whether Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee had given nuclear warhead secrets to China. After the scandal broke, Trulock found himself the targeted by the Clintonites who resented him for speaking out. He was smeared as a bigot and a mentally unstable alarmist. When he attempted to tell his side of the story, the FBI tried to silence him by claiming he had revealed classified data. He was demoted and driven out of government, his career and his personal reputation ruined.

On 26 September 2000, the New York Times took the very exceptional opportunity to explain the backup of their reporting, going back to March 6, 1999. Although they really made no overt apologies for the conclusions that they drew in their March 6, 1999 article, it is interesting to note that they made various observations. They said that looking back " ... we also found some things that we wish we had done differently in the course of the coverage to give Dr. Lee the full benefit of the doubt. In those months, we could have pushed harder to uncover weaknesses in the FBI case against Dr. Lee. Our coverage would have been strengthened had we moved faster to assess the scientific, technical and investigative assumptions that led the FBI and the Department of Energy to connect Dr. Lee to what is still widely acknowledged to have been a major security breach."

Bob Vrooman had served in Vietnam, had worked for the CIA as an operations officer, and had been the counterintelligence chief at Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory. He told the Washington Post: "I've had a distinguished career. And I'm not going to go down in history as the guy who screwed up this case, because I wasn't. This case was screwed up because there was nothing there--it was built on thin air." He went on to say: "Dr. Lee was identified... as the prime suspect based on an, at best, cursory investigation. ...It can be said at this time that Mr. Lee's ethnicity was a major factor."

The ignominious collapse of the government's case and Lee's release embarrassed federal prosecutors. In August 2004 federal judge in Washington held five journalists in contempt of court for refusing to disclose the names of confidential sources who might have given them information about Wen Ho Lee. In June 2006, Wen Ho Lee settled an invasion of privacy lawsuit against the government for $1,645,000. Five news organizations paid almost half that sum to avoid contempt sanctions against their reporters.

Lee may very well have been a spy for the Chinese communist government. Nothing else comes close to explaining his suspicious behavior. In December 2001 Beijing discovered sophisticated satellite-activated bugging devices installed aboard a Boeing 767 jetliner that was delivered to China in September 2001 as President Jiang Zemin's official aircraft.

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Page last modified: 04-02-2018 17:30:56 ZULU