Villain or Victim?
George Szamuely
New York Press


Deviousness and bullying are the hallmarks of the Clinton administration. They are abundantly evident in its persecution of Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos nuclear weapons scientist, currently under indictment and being denied bail. Last March we were told that Lee, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Taiwan, was suspected of being a Chinese spy. He had allegedly passed on to Beijing the secrets of the W-88 advanced miniaturized nuclear warhead, supposedly America’s most sophisticated piece of weaponry. Months went by and no charges were proffered. Finally, in December, Lee was arrested and charged – not with espionage, however, but with mishandling secret nuclear weapons data.

This was odd, to say the least. The government admits that the 59 counts it has charged Lee with have nothing to do with the earlier investigation. The "mishandling" referred to in the indictment took place in 1993 and 1994. The W-88 design, however, was supposed to have come into China’s possession in 1980s. The weapon was allegedly first exploded in 1992. The government also admits that it has found no evidence – despite three years of intensive investigation – that Lee had spied for China or for anyone else. "It seems abundantly clear that we can’t, from anything we have, conclude Wen Ho Lee disclosed the W-88 information," a U.S. official is quoted as saying.

The government claims that Lee moved vast amounts of secret data – "sufficient to build a functional thermonuclear weapon" – to an unclassified computer system. He then transferred the files on to 15 computer tapes. Lee argues that he did this to make his work easier. Six of the tapes were found in his office. Two were determined to contain unclassified data. And seven are missing. Lee says he destroyed them. The government says there is no evidence that he has done so. But there is no evidence that he has not done so either. Yet the government succeeded in denying Lee bail. The FBI claims that releasing Lee on bail would force the agency to commit vast numbers of Chinese-speaking agents and translators fluent in both Mandarin and Cantonese to monitor his communications so as to ensure that he did not turn over the tapes to foreign governments. At a recent hearing the judge agreed. Lee did indeed pose an "unprecedented" threat to national security.

The claim is bizarre. According to the government, Lee transferred the "classified" material in 1993 and 1994. So how come he still has not gotten around to passing it on to a foreign power?

Wen Ho Lee, a 60-year-old man, now sits in a prison in New Mexico. The trial is probably at least a year away. He has surrendered his passport and has offered to take a polygraph test. He is permitted to see his family for only one hour per week. An FBI agent is present throughout. And the conversation has to be in English.

Lee’s treatment is very different from that of John Deutch, former director of Central Intelligence. Thirty-nine of the counts Lee has been charged with carry maximum sentences of life imprisonment. What happened to Deutch? Last August it was revealed that Deutch had worked on classified material on his unsecured desktop computer at home. His punishment? His security clearance was suspended. No jail time. But then Deutch, unlike Lee, is pals with Strobe Talbott and other Friends of Bill.

Read George Szamuely's Exclusive Column

Archived Columns by George Szamuely from the New York Press

Villain or Victim?

Intervention, Immigration, and Internment

Home-Grown Terrorism

Who Benefits?

Laws of Return

Embassy Row

Selling Snake Oil

Chinese Puzzle

That Was No Lady, That Was the Times

The Red Tide Turning?

Pat & The Pod

United Fundamentalist States

Let Them All Have Nukes!

Liar, Liar

Gangster Nations

Puerto Rico Libre – and Good Riddance

Leave China Alone

A World Safe for Kleptocracy

Proud To Be

All articles reprinted with permission from the New York Press

The Chinese nuclear spy scare was a crock from the beginning. Typically, the most ridiculous articles appeared in The New York Times. Reporters regularly spluttered about "one of the most damaging spy cases in recent history." They fulminated at alleged government inaction. And they repeatedly called for "arrests." But who was to be arrested? What exactly had the Chinese done?

Hard as it may be for our superannuated Cold Warriors to grasp this, China has been a nuclear power since 1964. It really makes not the slightest bit of difference if China acquires a few more missiles or smaller warheads or more accurate guidance systems. No one is thereby less secure than before. Since China stubbornly refuses to engage in aggressive behavior against anyone, it is reasonable to assume that its nuclear missiles are weapons of last resort. As nuclear powers go, China, after all, is very much of the second-division sort. At present it has 20 intercontinental ballistic missiles. The United States has about 5000. China also stopped nuclear testing in 1995.

It is very flattering for Americans to assume that no one in the world could possibly develop nuclear weapons other than through stealing their secrets. But where are China’s spies? Back in the Cold War, the FBI used to pick up a Soviet spy a day. So who is spying for Beijing? Last May a House select committee chaired by Rep. Christopher Cox published a report with this startling conclusion: "The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has stolen classified design information on the United States’ most advanced thermonuclear weapons... The successful penetration by the PRC of our nuclear weapons laboratories has taken place over the last several decades, and almost certainly continues to the present."

Wonderful stuff. But what is the evidence for this? Who penetrated our nuclear laboratories? What exactly was stolen? The Cox committee could come up with nothing better than again Wen Ho Lee (even though it did not name him) and again the W-88

Both claims are extremely dubious. Back in 1995 a Chinese official approached the CIA and handed over a Chinese document dated 1988. It described the country’s nuclear weapons program and allegedly mentioned the W-88, describing some of the warhead’s key design features. The CIA later decided that the official was working for Chinese intelligence all along. This was a reasonable assumption. Spies regularly approach the intelligence services of foreign powers with "information" about supposed "penetration." The aim is to sow confusion and to divert attention from real spies to nonexistent ones.

The Chinese succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Since 1995 Americans have been obsessing about the "penetration" of Los Alamos even though there was not a scrap of evidence that it had taken place.

For all the overheated bluster about the alleged ultramodern W-88 design, it is actually 30 years old. Last June President Clinton’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board reported that technical information about the W-88 "had been widely available within the U.S. nuclear weapons community" as early as 1983. Much of the information about U.S. nuclear weapons systems is available on websites. Indeed, recently the FBI took to publicly complaining that Chinese espionage is difficult to investigate because the Chinese often take advantage of scientific exchanges and many other forms of informal contacts. Apparently, they gather sensitive information from such a wide range of sources that it is often difficult to pinpoint exactly how American secrets leaked out. The scoundrels – going to conferences and seminars to find out what U.S. scientists are up to!

So why is Lee being persecuted? For Clinton, scapegoating Lee is very convenient. First, it distracts attention from the 1996 election fundraising scandal. Cracking down on alleged Chinese "spies" ensures that Al Gore will not be troubled by questions about his having accepted money from the Chinese government. Second, if Lee had spied for the Chinese then he must have been doing it back in the 1980s. Consequently, the "loss" of America’s secrets can be blamed on Reagan and Bush.

Third, the ludicrous story of Chinese "penetration" of our laboratories has served to swamp the real story. It was the Clinton administration itself that revealed to the world most of America’s nuclear "secrets." As William Broad explained it in the Times: "Back in 1993...the Administration decided that the best way to keep the nuclear arms race from heating up again was to get the world’s nations to sign a test-ban treaty. The idea was that even if a country knew how to make a bomb, it couldn’t perfect new ones...without physically testing new designs. So development of new weapons would be frozen... Releasing many of America’s nuclear secrets was seen as an essential part of this strategy, since it would signal a new global order in which nuclear know-how was suddenly and irreparably devalued."

A 60-year-old man sits in a prison cell in New Mexico and faces the prospect of never coming out again. He is paying a heavy price for Clinton’s slimy political maneuverings. Sadly, he is not the first nor will he be the last person to do so.

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