Code Name KINDRED SPIRIT: Inside the Chinese
Nuclear Espionage Scandal
I had spent the day with my lawyers trying to figure out why the FBI was launching a full-scale investigation of me. When I got home, my golden retriever, Casey, had a big gash on his head; dried blood matted his coat. Looking around, I had the chilling realization that someone had definitely been in our townhouse. This was not a simple break-in by kids looking for stereo gear or television sets. Books and papers, all of my working files, were scattered about the floor. At first glance, nothing seemed to be missing, but somebody had surely been searching through them. Had the same people hit Casey and left him cut and bloody?
My head was spinning. Just a few days earlier, around dinnertime on a stormy Friday evening in July 2000, two armed FBI agents had come into my home, interrogated me for about an hour and then confiscated my computer-unannounced, no explanation given, and no search warrant. They didn't read me my rights; they just keep firing questions at me. The FBI, assisted by Department of Energy security officials, had "visited" my roommate at her office downtown that afternoon and coerced her "consent" to enter the home and take the computer. They held her a virtual hostage in her office, monitored all her phone calls, including those from her children, and threatened her with "busting down the door" of our townhouse and bringing TV camera crews along to film all this for the News at Eleven. She was terrified.
After the agents had left with the computer hard drive, which contained all my banking, tax, business and personal records, my friend told me that the FBI was accusing me of stealing classified documents and distributing classified information via e?mail to . . . god knows who. "Who did he talk to? Who did he send e-mails to? Who were his friends? Did he send e?mails overseas?" The FBI agents pounded away on her for hours that day. "They think you took classified documents and are using them at home, just like John Deutch and Wen Ho Lee," she told me. Deutch, a former director of central intelligence, and Lee, the Los Alamos scientist then under indictment for spying, were both accused of "mishandling" classified information. Now the FBI acted as though I were up to the same thing. It didn't make sense. I had recently published a magazine article that was very critical of FBI and Justice Department officials for their inept handling of a Chinese nuclear espionage investigation, but I was scrupulous about keeping classified information out of the article. But the FBI was serious. Its agents took the unprecedented step of searching the computers of U.S. senators and their staffs for any e?mails from me.
I wish I could say that this break-in was the only clip in the highlight film of my life in the Bill Clinton era. But there had been a preview about two years before, when two uniformed federal police officers wearing side arms and body armor appeared at the door of my office in the basement of the Department of Energy in downtown Washington. I was then director of intelligence at the DOE and my office was deep inside a soundproof, highly secure vault complete with double sets of steel doors. Visitors without the appropriate security clearances had to be escorted wherever they went inside this vault. The purpose of the police officers' visit was to arrest me. A disgruntled employee had filed a complaint alleging that I had assaulted him, and the police were there to "take me out" on those charges. They backed off when witnesses who had been present at the meeting where it supposedly happened scoffed at these charges. At that time, the police apologized for the "inconvenience" and then left. Several weeks later I managed to get my hands on their final report, which said "the assault did not occur." So you would think that the Energy Department officials would take action against the employee, right? They did: he was transferred, given a cash bonus, and later granted a huge settlement by Secretary Bill Richardson-even though repeated "investigations" failed to turn up even a shred of evidence against me.
But now the FBI was accusing me of something far more serious than assault: compromising classified information. One doesn't expect the FBI to appreciate irony. But during my thirty years in the intelligence and national security field, I had worked on some of the most sensitive programs inside the U.S. government and had been in charge of special security to safeguard intelligence information at huge Department of Energy facilities employing thousands. Now the FBI was accusing me of violating the security oaths that I had enforced all those years. It least I think they were. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, but I never heard from the FBI again after the agents came barging into the apartment. So, I really don't know what, if anything, I was accused of. Many people thought a new Bush administration would clear this up quickly, but Attorney General John Ashcroft's Department of Justice has ignored personal appeals from his former colleagues on Capitol Hill and other close political associates to dismiss this case and help restore my reputation. With each passing day, it looks more and more as if the objective of the raid was to retaliate for my daring to criticize the Bureau's performance in the Wen Ho Lee case and to make sure that I never worked in Washington again. They still have the computer-and all my personal records.
But that was hardly the end of it. As part of the fallout from the government's prosecution of Wen Ho Lee, his lawyers and supporters branded me a racist and a bigot in a very public fashion. Mainstream media like the Washington Post, the New York Times and CBS News have repeated the most outrageous allegations against me, including my "bias" against minorities generally and ethnic Chinese in particular, and my alleged abuse of security to harm careers and destroy the reputations of minorities who worked for me. Lee's lawyers constructed a defense strategy intended to depict me as the "Mark Fuhrman" of the Wen Ho Lee prosecution. His defenders claimed that I "singled out" Lee as the only suspect in the loss of national security information solely on the basis of his ethnicity. After you are smeared like this, try getting a job anywhere, especially in "diversity-sensitive" Washington, D.C. These false allegations have left me with no job, bankrupt and deeply worried about my children's future.
And for what? What was the Wen Ho Lee case all about, and what had I done to justify all this abuse? Under my direction, in 1995, a team of Energy Department scientists had uncovered a campaign of Chinese nuclear espionage against our national laboratory complex stretching back nearly two decades. We found hard evidence that the Chinese had acquired highly classified information on our W88 thermonuclear warhead, the most modern in the world; the neutron bomb; and other U.S. nuclear warheads-seven in all. As the director of intelligence, I also led the fight to reform security and counterintelligence at the DOE, which had one of the worst security records in the government. The existence of serious problems at the national labs was hardly a secret in Washington, but I was the first one willing to force the government to take action to plug the gaping holes in security at the labs. This action, however, was like closing the barn door after the horse has already left. We will never really know how many secrets about our nuclear weapons were stolen over the past three decades.
I refused to look the other way when confronted with evidence of Chinese nuclear espionage, even though I was ordered by my superiors in the Energy Department to bury it. The evidence proved to be the tip of the iceberg of assaults by the People's Republic of China on the U.S. defense science and technology community-assaults that continue to this day. I tried to put a stop to decades of neglect, mismanagement and blatant disregard for the protection of our most precious secrets concerning the design and development of nuclear weapons. Our security for these secrets was so bad, in fact, that government reports would later conclude that espionage and security breaches had occurred repeatedly and for years had gone undetected by those supposedly responsible for guarding this information.
I don't mean to say that I made the government take notice of these issues single-handedly. I had help from some officials within the FBI, at CIA, and even inside the Energy Department. Some of our elected representatives, like Congressmen Duncan Hunter from California and Curt Weldon from Pennsylvania and Senator Arlen Specter, also from Pennsylvania, pushed through critical legislation that helped plug the gaps. But because I was the boss, the director of intelligence at DOE and responsible for counterintelligence at Energy's national labs, I became the point man in the struggle to stop the theft of our nuclear secrets.
As part of the collateral damage of this assignment, I became one of the most visible casualties of the fierce debate inside the U.S. government over the nature of future challenges to our national security from the People's Republic of China. Should we view China as a "strategic partner" or a "strategic competitor?" The Clinton administration embraced the former view with a vengeance, ignoring any and all intelligence information to the contrary.
One of the great ironies of the Clinton era is that while the administration was deeply hostile to U.S. nuclear weapons, it mostly looked the other way while a host of "rogue states" sought and acquired many of the ingredients for at least a fledgling nuclear capability. The PRC was the most blatant in doing this, but South Asia also "went nuclear" on the Clinton watch and Iran made important strides in developing both a nuclear and a ballistic missile capability to threaten its neighbors. And that is where I came in. The Chinese, Iraqis and others found a ready-and in some cases willing-source of information, knowledge and expertise within the U.S. nuclear weapons complex to assist their efforts to create or modernize nuclear weapons. The careless and haphazard approach to security and counterintelligence within the Energy Department complex offered a feast for hostile foreign intelligence services. Tasked by their scientific communities with acquiring the means to close the technological gap with the United States, these services looked to the DOE nuclear weapons labs as a sort of one-stop shopping source.
Why did the Clinton administration and many of its friends on Capitol Hill, in the media and in academia constantly equate the "end of the Cold War" with the end of efforts by foreign intelligence services to acquire our scientific and technical secrets? A combination of naïveté and wishful thinking, I guess. The appetite of foreign scientific communities and their respective intelligence services did not diminish with the end of the Cold War; if anything, it grew. Certainly their job became easier as Clinton appointees opened up our nuclear weapons laboratories to scientists from our former Cold War opponents and emphasized "international scientific collaboration," whose major achievement was to expose our scientists to foreign intelligence collectors. As a result, our national nuclear labs were suddenly flooded with visitors from China, Russia, India, even Iran and Iraq-many of them staying on for two years or more. Our ability to track them and enforce security measures and safeguards was overwhelmed by their sheer numbers. But the issue was not so much the presence of these scientists as the labs' utter disregard of even the basic rules for protecting secrets.
Of course, this story takes place within the context of other, equally disturbing trends in U.S. national security. The performance of agencies responsible for counterespionage within the United States on the Clinton administration's watch was so poor, especially against "nontraditional threats," that it raised questions about whether we can protect our most precious secrets in this new era. More than one after-action report found blunders, mistakes, miscommunication, mismanagement, negligence and outright incompetence in the government's handling of the PRC nuclear espionage scandal. As one such report concluded, the Chinese espionage investigation "was never a high priority" for the FBI or the Clinton administration as a whole, although "what was at issue was one of the gravest and most consequential purported acts of espionage ever investigated by the FBI."
Very serious questions remain about the government's actions against the only "suspect" in the Chinese nuclear espionage ever investigated by the FBI: Wen Ho Lee. Frankly, I don't know if Lee "did it," that is, gave the PRC our nuclear secrets. I do know that he was a walking security nightmare who violated nearly every security rule in existence at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He certainly had opportunity, access and perhaps even motivation-the Holy Trinity of espionage. I do know that he lied repeatedly when questioned by government officials about his contacts with PRC nuclear scientists, the classified information they were seeking from him, and the assistance he provided to them. He admitted helping the Chinese with computer codes and software that even he acknowledged could be used in nuclear weapons applications. He failed an FBI polygraph on questions involving the W88 nuclear warhead.
The circumstantial evidence on Wen Ho Lee merited an aggressive counter-intelligence investigation, but the FBI's handling of this case was an unmitigated disaster from beginning to end. It was an investigation in name only. The Bureau never applied the tools or procedures common to a full-scale espionage case; it never conducted a financial analysis; never established surveillance, even episodically, on its main suspect; never conducted "trash covers"; and never interviewed the suspect's co-workers or supervisors. Faced with evidence of illicit computer activity, the Bureau never searched Lee's computer, nor did it even monitor his usage. Despite its potential significance, two years passed before FBI director Louis Freeh even became aware of the existence of this problem. Months would pass with little or no action by the FBI case agents. The Justice Department rejected FBI attempts to establish technical surveillance of the suspect's telephone and computer usage, a very rare occurrence in the history of such efforts, and the FBI never was able to obtain such coverage, even when it feared that Lee might tip off foreign agents. But a well-known federal prosecutor, with a long track record of successful espionage convictions, later determined that there was sufficient "probable cause to believe that Wen Ho Lee was an agent of a foreign power . . . currently engaged in clandestine intelligence gathering activities for or on behalf of the PRC."
As it was about to close its investigation, the FBI discovered that Wen Ho Lee had compromised nearly all of our nuclear warhead design secrets in one of the greatest breaches in the history of U.S. national security. He placed all these secrets on an unprotected computer network, which was repeatedly attacked by computer hackers, several of them known to be working for foreign governments. Despite such disturbing facts, the government still doesn't know if Lee's files were accessed from outside the lab. But the government does know that these files contained exactly the information that the Chinese needed to modernize their nuclear arsenal. And the government knows that China's intelligence services targeted Los Alamos National Lab for the acquisition of these secrets.
Many of the FBI actions during its four-year investigation of Lee are simply inexplicable. Let me give one example: It is customary to maintain surveillance on a suspect after the FBI has polygraphed that suspect, in case he attempts to flee or takes some other action that further implicates him. Yet in Wen Ho Lee's case, after the FBI told him he was an espionage suspect in early 1999, local agents made no effort to keep him under surveillance. If they had done so, the FBI would have detected Lee erasing millions of bytes of classified information he had placed on the unclassified Los Alamos computer network or on computer tapes, and sneaking back into his now off-limits office to destroy incriminating evidence of his massive security violations.
One explanation for the Bureau's performance was its long history with Wen Ho Lee and his wife, Sylvia. The Lees would claim that they had collected information on Chinese nuclear scientists during the 1980s and provided this information to the FBI and other U.S. intelligence agencies. Wen Ho Lee admitted helping Chinese scientists fix their nuclear weapons codes during his trips to China, but failed to report these interactions to the lab or the Bureau upon his return. This has led many to suspect that Lee "doubled" the FBI. The Bureau and the Justice Department have gone to extraordinary lengths to suppress any information about this chapter of the Kindred Spirit story.
Equally distressing was the response of government officials when finally ordered by the President of the United States to close security vulnerabilities and reform counterintelligence at the nation's nuclear weapons labs. "Cynicism," "arrogant disregard for authority" and a "staggering pattern of denial" characterized the Energy Department's response to those presidential mandates. Months after President Bill Clinton had finally ordered major security and counterintelligence reforms, Energy Department and lab officials remained "unconvinced of Presidential authority." Months before, the number two official in the Energy Department had ignored the FBI director's recommendation to remove Wen Ho Lee from access to nuclear secrets. She later claimed that she thought Director Louis Freeh, who twice urged the Energy Department to take action against Lee, was not speaking on behalf of the FBI. Nearly every single Energy Department official referred to in this book still works at the department in a significant capacity today. Should we now accept government assurances that our nuclear secrets are safe? read more