Wen Ho Lee: Epionage or Disinformation?

August 21, 1999

by Edward Jay Epstein

The gift came in mid-1995. A few months earlier, the CIA's sophisticated analysis of seismographic and other data gleaned from a series of nuclear weapons test explosions in China between 1992 and 1994, had indicated that the People's republic of China (PRC) had made a technological break-through in developing smaller thermonuclear warheads with an increased yield-to-weight ratio. Although both the US and the USSR had developed such war-fighting warheads in the nineteen-seventies, it showed China had unexpectedly advanced in its bomb- building technology. The burning intelligence issue for the CIA was how? Had it been the product of China's own scientific work? Had China obtained it from elements in the former Soviet Union (which would raise further questions about Sino-Russian secret collaboration)? Or had it obtained it from a spy the United States?

At this juncture came the gift. At an overseas diplomatic post, a Chinese official with access to secrets documents came to a CIA officer bearing secrets. He claimed he wanted to defect and to show his bona fides he would make the CIA a present of secret documents. The documents later arrived via UPS. Among other things, it contained a document marked secret in Chinese which offered a tantalizing clue to how China made its technological break-through. This document described U.S. design information including the exterior dimensions of the W-88 warhead used on the Trident submarine. Since this warhead had been designed at the Los Alamos Lab, it suggested that China had obtained the technology in question through a spy who worked in this laboratory prior to the time China had developed the high-yield warheads it tested in 1992, which, given the lead time involved, meant the spy had to be operating in the 1984-1988 during the Bush Presidency. This highly-specific lead focused the FBI's attention on those scientists and technicians at Los Alamos who had access to the design plans of the W-88 warhead during that time period.

Meanwhile, the CIA looking their gift horse in the mouth, determined that he had been disinformation. The gift-bearer was, it further determined, acting "secretly under the direction of the [Chinese] intelligence services" when he sent them the documents. This suggested the gifted document painting tracks towards Los Alamos were part of a provocation designed to misdirect the attention of American intelligence away from something it might discover. Such disinformation need not be false so long as it is diverting. Just as in the famous Gestalt experiment in which the same picture can be organized in the mind as either human profiles or a vaseó but not both at the same timeó the gifted information could be seen either as an espionage case or a disinformation case.

As an espionage case, the issue was who provided Chinese intelligence with the U.S. thermonuclear warhead design information and other technical information on U.S. nuclear weapons in the document it provided the CIA. The investigation into the technical staff at Los Alamos turned up evidence of egregiously lax security procedures (which added fuel to the ongoing bureaucratic struggle over whether the Department of Energy or FBI should have primary responsible for counter-espionage there), but it failed to produce direct evidence of spying, such as unexplained deposit in bank accounts of scientists, incriminating scraps in garbage cans or secret rendezvouses spotted by surveillance. The suspicion focused on Wen Ho Lee, n American scientist born in Taiwan, who had worked for 20 years at Los Alamos. Even though Robert S. Vrooman, then former chief of counterintelligence at Los Alamos National Laboratory, held that there was no evidence whatsoever against Lee, and that the design information of the miniature W-88 nuclear warhead had been distributed to 548 different addresses at the Defense Department, Energy Department, various defense firms, the armed services and even the National Guard, Lee was eventually indicted for mishandling classified data. No espionage case was ever brought.

Meanwhile, the disinformation case remained. The issue through this lense was not where the data on the W-88 design originated but why it was gifted in 1995 to the CIA. Disinformation can be used either tactically or strategically. At a tactical level, it can be used to divert away from a valued spy. In this situation, Chinese, intelligence, learning that the technical analysis of its 1992 testing, could compromise an active agent it had in the U.S. national security establishment, might have provided a red herring leading to Los Alamos to protect the real agent. At a strategic level, the Chinese may have been concerned that U.S. decipherment of their tests might uncover some technological transfers from other nuclear powers. So, to divert from that trail, China might want to focus U.S. attention on conventional espionage. Such are the problems of intellectual Trojan Horses.

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