A Convenient Spy

Title:                     A Convenient Spy

Author:                Dan Stober

Stober, Dan (2001) and Ian Hoffman. A Convenient Spy: Wen Ho Lee And The Politics of Nuclear Espionage. New York: Simon & Schuster

LCCN:    2001054945

UB271.C62 L47 2001

Date Updated:  December 31, 2016


  • Machine generated contents note: Prologue: “They Electrocuted Them, Wen Ho”11 — 1. Nantou to Los Alamos17 — 2. The Hill27 — 3. A Neat and Delicate Package36 — 4. The China Connection45 — 5. Tiger Trap 62 — 6. The Narrow Neck of the Hourglass67 — 7. Alarm Bells79 — 8. ASKINT Meets Guanxi86 — 9. The Collector96 — 10. Kindred Spirits103 — 11. A Shallow Pool120 — 12. Mass-Market Espionage128 — 13. The Out-of-Towner140 — 14. The FISA150 — 15. Flying the False Flag157 — 16. Trulock and the True Believers — 17. Exile from X Division– 18. Panic– 19. “As Bad as the Rosenbergs”– 20. Becoming the Enemy– 21. Shock Waves — 22. Intent to Injure– 23. The Crown Jewels– 24. “It’s Conceivable That This Is Possible”– 25. Swords of Armageddon– 26. The Momentum Shifts– 27. Freedom– Epilogue– Notes — Index.


Date Updated:  December 31, 2016

Reviewed by Joseph E. Persico[1]

A Convenient Spy, by Dan Stober” and Ian Hoffman, presents an almanac of contemporary anxieties—a stunning intelligence fiasco, racial profiling, civil liberties competing against national security, media influence, even a hint of resurgent McCarthyism in the scientific community—all centering on an inconspicuous figure who would not stand out in a crowd of five people.

In mid-1995, Notra Trulock, then the director of intelligence and counterintelligence for the Department of Energy’s nuclear facilities, became convinced that China had stolen the design for the W-88, the nuclear warhead deployed aboard Trident submarines, which the authors describe as “the most ‘optimized’ weapon in the world.” According to an assistant (though Trulock denies this), he once remarked: “We need one good espionage case to make this program grow. There’s one spy out there and we’re going to find him.” Trulock’s suspicions eventually fell upon Wen Ho Lee, a naturalized American, born in Taiwan, who had been working as an engineer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory for nearly 17 years. Lee was fingered because, 13 years before, the F.B.I. had tapped a conversation in which he offered help to another Taiwanese-American nuclear scientist suspected of spying for the Chinese and because Lee had had numerous contacts with Chinese nuclear scientists both in China and at Los Alamos.

Lee’s meetings with these Chinese were hardly exceptional. Hundreds of such scientific exchanges occurred over the years—though the layman might be forgiven a bit of shock upon learning that potential adversaries often exchange information useful in making nuclear weapons. (A Justice Department lawyer subsequently involved in the Lee case professed his astonishment at discovering that “this guy is making official trips” to China “to meet with his counterparts in nuclear-weapons design. I couldn’t believe that.”) The rationale for the exchanges is that progress in science thrives on cross-pollination across borders, and in the case of nuclear weapons, nations are not averse to advertising their strength to potential enemies. The American government also saw sharing information with China as a way to leverage Beijing into joining international arms control agreements.

Trulock’s conviction that an American spy had given the design of the W-88 to China was strengthened when a Chinese defector delivered to the Taiwanese bundles of classified documents he claimed to have obtained from China. The crown jewel that this walk-in source delivered was a memo, complete with diagrams and graphs, comparing Chinese and American nuclear weapons; this document was dated 1988, or around the time Lee was known to have met with Chinese nuclear weapons scientists.

Literally hundreds of people could have leaked secrets to China, given the numerous exchanges and the many sites where nuclear research is conducted. But the Department of Energy’s investigation centered almost exclusively on Wen Ho Lee. Caucasian American scientists, with every bit as much contact with China, were never investigated. Lee didn’t help his case, however, when it was discovered that he had created a private archive of some 1,600 electronic files, including descriptions of nuclear weapons components—the largest such unauthorized cache ever assembled. More disturbing, he had placed all this information, including classified documents, “on an open computer network with hundreds of Internet connections to the outside world.” Lee dug himself in even deeper by repeated attempts to recover or destroy files from this private archive once he fell under suspicion.

When the Department of Energy believed it had enough preliminary evidence, it turned the case over to the F.B.I. for investigation and ultimately asked the Justice Department to charge Wen Ho Lee with espionage. These investigations dragged on for three years, yet no smoking gun ever linked Lee to China’s success at building a weapon similar to the W-88. In truth, it was debatable whether the Chinese even needed American secrets to construct their weapon. Still, the Department of Energy persisted in what began to look like a hunt for a perpetrator of a crime that might never have been committed.

Knowledge of the Lee case was largely confined to the nuclear community until March 6, 1999, when The New York Times published a story under the headline: “China Stole Nuclear Secrets for Bombs, U.S. Aides Say.” Though Lee was not identified by name, the article quoted a source saying there was a suspect who “stuck out like a sore thumb.” The story also quoted a C.I.A. official who claimed the case was “going to be just as bad as the Rosenbergs” and “far more damaging to national security than Aldrich Ames.” Stober and Hoffman, two newspaper reporters, fault the Times story for being “prosecutorial” in tone, for omitting attribution for certain sources cited, and say that readers could be forgiven for “confusing allegation with fact.” (A year and a half later, The Times, stung by criticism over its initial handling of the story, published a statement from the editors that Stober and Hoffman say “strived to apologize without admitting guilt.”)

By that time, the Department of Energy had a new secretary, Bill Richardson, formerly a congressman from New Mexico, more recently the United States ambassador to the United Nations, who was rumored to be on Al Gore’s short list of vice-presidential running mates. To have a scientist in his employ suspected of passing nuclear secrets to China could hardly advance a political comer’s rising star. Richardson had Lee fired.

Next, ugly hints of scientific McCarthyism at Los Alamos began to surface. For scientists working there, it became professionally expedient to side with the Department of Energy and to denounce Lee, a former colleague and neighbor. To protest the superficially investigated and circumstantial case against him, on the other hand, was to risk being passed over for promotion, even losing one’s “Q” clearance, which is essential for a career in nuclear weapons.

In November 1999, the Justice Department brought a 59-count indictment against Lee “for copying bomb secrets with intent to injure the United States and to aid a foreign country.” A prosecution witness charged that Lee’s acts “could truly change the world’s strategic balance.” Untold millions of Americans, his accusers charged, faced the threat of nuclear extinction because of this traitor. Lee was denied bail and while awaiting trial was jailed under extremely harsh conditions; he was shackled and chained when taken outside his cell, and was denied radio, television, books or newspapers. The seeming hopelessness of his situation, however, and its overtones of racial profiling attracted a first-rate defense team, which soon began to demolish the shaky case against Lee. The document provided by the walk-in source—the most damaging evidence of espionage—turned out to have been delivered into American hands before Lee’s meeting with the Chinese nuclear scientists. Nor did it seem to make any difference to the prosecutors that Lee had once helped the F.B.I. with another case and that his wife, Sylvia, another Los Alamos employee, had served as an informant for the bureau long before his suspected espionage. In the end, the government settled for a guilty plea to a single count from the original indictment, and Lee was sentenced to time already served. Wen Ho Lee, one day a threat to the nation’s survival, the next day went fishing.

The authors, in ably untangling a tale with endless twists and a dizzying cast of characters, illuminate issues far larger than the fate of the man at the center of this case. If anyone wonders about the shocking failure of intelligence that preceded Sept. 11, the Lee case gives fair warning. The way that intelligence officials at the Department of Energy, the F.B.I., the C.I.A. and the Justice Department failed—either through incompetence or bureaucratic possessiveness—to coordinate their efforts echoes our failure to put together what we should have known about the terrorists. In the world of espionage and counterespionage, intelligence is knowledge, knowledge is power and power shared is evidently seen as power diluted.

Another echo of Sept. 11 lies in the suspicion instantly focused on people who happen to look like what we expect our adversaries to look like. One outraged Chinese-American leader wryly cited an old cliché: once suspected, he said, Lee “didn’t stand a Chinaman’s chance.” Finally, the authors present a discomforting picture of how easily career opportunism, political demagogy and fear of having one’s loyalty suspected can resurrect a McCarthyite climate of persecution.

What the authors are unable to deliver is a definitive explanation as to why Lee amassed that huge, unauthorized computer archive. They examine all the possibilities, but the most convincing one they come up with is that he was putting together a kind of résumé to make himself attractive to a new employer or as a consultant. For Lee’s own explanation we can turn to the horse’s mouth—his personal account, My Country Versus Me, written with Helen Zia. Here Lee claims that he copied the files simply to protect them from loss in the event that the Los Alamos laboratory “changed the computer operating system again or experienced a computer crash—both had occurred in the past, causing serious problems for me.” He says he tried to get into areas from which he had been excluded only so that he could complete a scientific article, and he plays down the significance of the data he downloaded, describing one file as “full of garbage and even indecipherable bugs.” He cites a story that appeared in The Los Angeles Times before he was imprisoned, in which a fellow scientist is quoted as asking: “If he’s the greatest spy of the 20th century, why is he still out there mowing his lawn? . . . In the old days, when the superspies got wind of the feds coming, they disappeared and showed up years later in Moscow.” As to why he pleaded guilty even to one count, Lee says that it was preferable to risking a slight chance of conviction and a possible life sentence. He denies that he downloaded the data to help find a new job. But he parries, rather than rebuts, a prosecution claim that he did seek employment abroad. He admits only to a security infraction in downloading information and placing it on an unclassified system, and says, “I deserved to be punished for it.”

In the end, despite his ordeal, Lee is large-minded enough to conclude that “if I had been accused of such a thing in China or Russia, I would probably be dead. I would have been shot if this happened in Taiwan under the Kuomintang. . . . I can still say that I am truly glad that I am an American.” The whole dismal affair was best summed up by a Los Alamos intelligence official who described the case as “a collusion of ineptness and political opportunism” in which “the only competent ones are Wen Ho Lee’s attorneys.”

Reviewed by Wolfgang Panofsky[2]

A Convenient Spy: Wen Ho Lee and the Politics of Nuclear Espionage. Dan Stober and Ian Hoffman. Simon & Schuster, 2001.

These two books cover the story of the suspicions that led to the arrest in 1999 of Wen Ho Lee, a computer scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Lee was indicted on charges of abusing classified material with “intent to injure the United States”—a phrase that most people interpreted as shorthand for espionage. After 277 days of incarceration, he struck a bargain with prosecutors in which he pled guilty to only one count (out of 59) of misuse of classified materials and was sentenced to time served and released on the condition that he would be available for questioning for the next year. This plea bargain was widely and correctly interpreted to be a defeat for the government, whose case against Lee had fallen apart for lack of any evidence of espionage.

In A Convenient Spy, Dan Stober and Ian Hoffman offer an excellent sequential account of this complex series of events. They also cover facets of China’s nuclear weapons program, emphasizing in particular that the Chinese have been much more forthcoming than they are given credit for. Their book describes the many visits American scientists have made to Chinese nuclear weapons sites (something Lee also mentions in his own book).

In My Country Versus Me, an “as told to” story written by Helen Zia, Wen Ho Lee describes his history and lifestyle. Proffering self-serving explanations of his conduct, he strives greatly (but with only limited success) to justify his mishandling of classified information. He intends to appeal to the reader’s emotions, and he describes actual events out of order, with flashbacks. His account emphasizes the anti-Chinese racial bias of many of the government investigators.

In both books, Lee comes across as very competent in his work designing the software used to describe the hydrodynamics inherent in nuclear explosions, although his expertise is quite narrow. These accounts characterize him as a somewhat insecure individual and suggest that his insecurity translated into eager cooperation with all parties—foreign scientists and other visitors, as well as the FBI and other inquisitors. Only after the investigation of him was relatively far advanced did he accept legal representation. The books also have in common that they portray many of the participants in this drama—the FBI, several officers of the Department of Energy (including the Secretary), high officials in the Department of Justice and members of the Congressional committees investigating Chinese espionage—as inept, and some as thoroughly bad actors. Only a few individuals behaved admirably, including Harold Agnew, former Director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory; John Richter, one of the key weapons designers at Los Alamos; and Robert S. Vrooman, former CIA liaison to the laboratory at Los Alamos. All three put Lee’s codes in perspective as being of relatively minor value to foreign parties. In contrast, the senior laboratory officers who bore witness against Lee appear to have been willing to stretch the truth in order to make a political point; in misleading testimony they described the mishandled codes as “crown jewels” and as “upsetting the strategic balance.”

Lee walks a tightrope in his book: On the one hand, he wants to puff up his contributions to the national security of the United States by emphasizing the importance of his work. On the other, he wants to downplay the military significance of the possibility that his work fell into unfriendly hands. His final explanation of why he committed the felony to which he ultimately pled guilty is not very convincing. He downloaded a very large amount of nuclear weapons code—information classified as “Protect as Restricted Data” (but not yet as “Confidential” or “Secret”)—from the secure to the unsecure computer network at Los Alamos and made tapes of some of this information; some of the tapes were lost, and he said he had destroyed them. He explains his conduct by saying that he wanted to have back-up information in case of changes in the computer operating system or in case the computer crashed, but he does not satisfactorily explain why he was not able to provide for that backup within the secure system to which he had access.

The government pursued the case initially under the assumption that Lee had acted on behalf of either China or possibly Taiwan, but this supposition turned out to be unsupported by the evidence. The case completely collapsed when the government tried to promote the hypothesis that Lee transcribed the information to support potential job applications in foreign countries, including—of all places—Switzerland. Subsequently a key FBI witness, Robert Messemer, turned out to have given misleading and even totally incorrect testimony, which he had to retract. Notra Trulock, former counterintelligence chief of the Department of Energy, told many parties in Congress and the executive branch that Lee’s behavior was consistent only with espionage by China. But the actual formal investigation had resulted only in vague conclusions, as Trulock was well aware.

The response of the political authorities can only be described as ugly. The Cox Committee was originally chartered by the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives to examine the allegation that the Clinton administration had been influenced by political contributions from China; unable to prove that, the committee shifted its focus to Chinese nuclear espionage. The report of the committee contained exaggerations and many factual errors, and was generally unsupported by evidence.

The key piece of evidence that did support the committee’s case was a document that had been delivered to the CIA in Taiwan by a “walk-in” Chinese agent, which described classified information regarding several American nuclear warheads. The committee, and also Trulock, maintained that this warhead information probably originated from Los Alamos. But in fact the technical nature of the document was such that it was more likely to have been diverted from the Defense Department or its contractors, because it gave information about the external properties of the warheads rather than their internal design.

Initially, the Cox Committee report was highly classified, and for several months the committee’s staff debated with the Clinton administration over what could be made public. During that period the New York Times printed a series of selected leaks from the committee’s findings; these and a subsequent media “spy frenzy” resulted in enormous political pressure to produce a culprit. One Times article particularly damaging to Wen Ho Lee was based on information provided by the Secretary of Energy. More than a dozen Congressional hearings were held.

The picture that emerges is that political concerns and influences seem to have superseded an unbiased professional investigation of the facts by government prosecutors and New York Times journalists. This story is chronicled admirably and in depth by Stober and Hoffman, reporters for the San Jose Mercury News and the Albuquerque Journal respectively. Their excellent, sober and factual account is well worth reading for the light it sheds on murky events.

Wen Ho Lee’s book, in contrast, does not convey a good understanding of all the circumstances but is interesting nonetheless for its illumination of Lee’s personality and character.

Both books document the wide public interest the case generated. Lee’s book cites extensively the activities, orchestrated in part by his daughter, of Chinese-American groups, quoting from their statements in repetitious detail. Both books cite the objections of professional scientific societies to denial of bail for Lee and to the harsh conditions of his incarceration, noting that the societies did not take a stand on Lee’s guilt or innocence.

At the end of the case, Judge James A. Parker, who presided over the final trial, apologized to Lee eloquently for having been “led astray by the executive branch of our government.” No apologies were ever made by the White House, Congress or the press. The books constitute a depressing record of both official and media misconduct.

The precise motive for Lee’s transgression is not elucidated in either volume. Perhaps the best explanation, consistent with both accounts, can be found in the advice John Richter gave when he testified before Judge Parker: “Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.”

[1] Joseph E. Persico, “Life Under Suspicion,” The New York Times (Feb. 17, 2002). Downloaded December 27, 2016. This review also covers Lee, Wen Ho (2001) with Helen Zia. My Country Versus Me: The First-Hand Account by The Los Alamos Scientist Who Was Falsely Accused of Being A Spy. New York: Hyperion

[2] Wolfgang Panofsky, “A Spy or Not a Spy, That Was the Question,” American Scientist (90, 4, July-August 2002). Downloaded December 27, 2016. JSTOR, the online academic archive, contains complete back issues of American Scientist from 1913 (known then as the Sigma Xi Quarterly) through 2005.

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One Response to A Convenient Spy

  1. Pingback: My Country Versus Me | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

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