WASHINGTON — The five-year Los Alamos espionage investigation, which ended in a shame-faced plea bargain, has continuing consequences for American nuclear research. Some scientists and officials at Los Alamos, said to include Houston Hawkins, head of international security studies, have come to believe that the Chinese regime may have deliberately helped to cast a cloud of suspicion over Wen Ho Lee in an effort to stem the "brain drain" of Chinese scientists.
The tension over the loss of promising nuclear physicists goes back to 1995, when Siegfried Hecker, then director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, visited China. His Chinese host told him, "We lose the best third of our scientists to America, the next third to Japan, and we get to keep the bottom third." Since 1995, when the espionage investigation started, David Pines, senior physicist at Los Alamos, told me the number of Chinese researchers applying to come to the laboratory has dropped more than 60 percent. Pine said that he himself felt obliged to discourage the application of a brilliant young scientist, a potential Nobel Prize winner.
In retrospect, several incidents in the past five years suggest possible Chinese manipulation to implicate Lee. China's Institute of Applied Physics sent him letters through the mail asking for computer codes - hardly the way one would communicate with a spy. The FBI found three such letters in April of last year in a search of Lee's garage, and this bolstered the bureau's belief that Lee was engaged in suspicious activities. The FBI said that Lee and his wife, Sylvia, were especially well treated on several visits to China.
The FBI also found it suspicious that Chinese scientists visiting Los Alamos displayed their friendship for Lee. In one interrogation, an agent said, "They come to the laboratory and they embrace you like an old friend, and people witness that and things are observed, and you're telling us you didn't say anything, you didn't talk to them and everything points to different than that." What spymaster worthy of his cloak would embrace a spy in public?
But the most perplexing incident came in 1995 when a Chinese official, believed to be a double agent, provided to Taiwanese intelligence and the CIA a classified Chinese report containing information about several American nuclear weapons, including the supersecret W-88 miniaturized warhead.
The Energy Department determined that the Chinese had acquired the information from Los Alamos, where the weapon was designed. That made Lee a major suspect. Actually, a federal panel of experts discovered that a detailed description of the warhead had been distributed to 548 government addresses.
One irony was the Taiwanese-born Lee was openly doing consulting work for Taiwan. But the FBI, in part because of Beijing's actions, preferred the Chinese spy theory. So China is losing fewer of its young scientists, and Los Alamos is losing, for some time to come, the talents of young Chinese researchers. The Communist regime in Beijing must derive satisfaction from the way a benighted investigation has damaged America's premier nuclear research facility.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society