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Lee's Free, But Mystery Remains

September 17, 2000|David Wise | David Wise is the author of "Cassidy's Run: The Secret Spy War Over Nerve Gas."

WASHINGTON — The virtual collapse of the U.S. government's case against Wen Ho Lee and the stunning apology by the federal judge who set the former Los Alamos nuclear scientist free have left the central mystery unanswered: How did China steal the details of the W-88, the most advanced, most secret thermonuclear warhead in the United States arsenal?

It was the espionage investigation of the compromise of the W-88 that focused attention on Lee, who worked in the guarded X-Division, the unit that designs the nation's nuclear bombs, at Los Alamos National Laboratory. But the FBI was never able to uncover evidence that Lee had anything to do with the theft of the W-88 secrets. He was fired by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson last year for security violations. Only after Lee was dismissed did investigators discover he had downloaded vast quantities of classified nuclear information to an unclassified computer and then onto 10 tapes, seven of which are missing.

Under the terms of the plea bargain reached last Wednesday, Lee pleaded guilty to one felony count of mishandling classified information and was required to explain why he downloaded the secrets and what he did with the tapes. But for the government, it's back to square one on the W-88 mystery.

U.S. intelligence learned early in 1995 that China possessed the plans of the W-88 warhead that sits atop the ballistic missiles on America's Trident submarines. A middle-aged official from mainland China appeared at the headquarters of Taiwan's internal-security service with a classified Chinese-government memo that described the warhead. Taiwanese intelligence alerted the Central Intelligence Agency. Ultimately, the Chinese source provided some 700 documents, the most important the one dealing with the W-88 and five other U.S. nuclear warheads, including the MX and the Minuteman III. But the CIA concluded that the Chinese official--a "walk-in," in intelligence parlance--was, in fact, under the control of Beijing. No one has been able to figure out why China would steal the plans for the warhead and then reveal that fact.

Energy Department investigators and the FBI immediately focused on Los Alamos as the possible source of the leak, although the secrets of the warhead had been disseminated to other parts of the government, principally to the Pentagon, and to private defense contractors.

Although for many months the focus has been on Lee, the FBI has made some progress on the larger mystery. The documents brought to Taiwan contained alarming details about the exact width of the narrowest point of the W-88's primary, or atomic trigger. They also disclosed that the warhead's primary was aspherical, an unusual shape more like a football than a soccer ball, and that it was squeezed into the tapered tip of the warhead, ahead of the thermonuclear bomb. The document also reported the overall length of the vehicle as just under five feet.

Analysis of the Chinese document, however, showed that the length of the capsule containing the warhead was off by a tiny fraction. The investigators discovered the same mistake in a Navy document detailing the W-88 system. Now, at least, the FBI has pinpointed the likely origin of the Chinese document.

The U.S. document was produced in the early 1980s by the Navy's strategic-systems engineers and had been circulated widely within the government. Several dozen copies were found at Los Alamos, and others were distributed to the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, the chief of naval operations, the chief of the naval surface-weapons program and elsewhere in the Pentagon and the Department of Energy, and probably as well to Lockheed, which was responsible for the final assembly of the W-88 at its plant in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Quite aside from the controversy over the government's incredibly harsh treatment of Lee, who was held for nine months in near-solitary confinement, he was obviously up to something, which he will presumably explain to counterintelligence officials. Even Judge James A. Parker, who lambasted federal prosecutors, said Lee was guilty of "a serious crime." But if the case had gone to trial, the government would have had a difficult time proving that Lee had any "intent to injure the United States" or to help a "foreign power," as the prosecutors charged. The so-called "legacy codes" that Lee was accused of downloading could indeed help someone design a bomb and could tell the designer if it would work, but only, according to intelligence officials, if that information were combined with actual test data, which Lee did not download. "One without the other is worthless," said one expert.

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