If anyone needs more evidence of the
vulnerability of U.S. intelligence after the Cold War, "A
Convenient Spy" (Simon & Schuster, 384 pages, $26)
offers it in abundance. The title, in its irony, is somewhat
misleading, since the book is not about a spy, convenient
or otherwise, but about an investigation that failed to
find one. The failure itself is instructive.
Dan Stober, a reporter for the San Jose
Mercury-News, and Ian Hoffman, a reporter for the Albuquerque
Journal, brilliantly unravel the curious case of Wen Ho
Lee, a weapon-code designer at the Los Alamos (N.M.) National
Laboratory. After being investigated by the FBI in the 1990s,
and even threatened with a death sentence, he was imprisoned
for eight months to await a trial that never took place.
The occasion for such zealousness, however
ineffective, was real enough: China's breakthrough in nuclear
weaponry. The effort to find out how the breakthrough came
about -- in Messrs. Stober and Hoffman's account -- amounts
to three vivid stories: the good, the bad and the ugly.
The good story shows the CIA finding
critical pieces of the puzzle in the 1980s. Before then,
the U.S. had few means of learning about Chinese nuclear
bombs, except for "technical intelligence," which
consisted of measuring the seismic waves from bomb tests
and analyzing the chemistry of debris.
Suspicion, solitary confinement . . . and no solid evidence.
While such data gave important clues, it left American intelligence
officials in the dark about the intent of China's weapons
designers and their technological prowess. Much of the weapon
work in China was then done in Mianyang, a science city
few outsiders had visited. Not even the names of key scientists
The solution was to use U.S. nuclear
scientists. The CIA encouraged them to accept invitations
to Chinese conferences and to establish personal relationships
with their Chinese counterparts. American scientists who
were ethnically Chinese proved to be, naturally, more useful
in this regard, since they knew the language.
Thus American scientists visited Chinese
labs, testing grounds and sites. And, if they were lucky,
they learned about "targeted" information. It
was understood, by American intelligence officials, that
this gambit might involve some reverse leakage, since U.S.
scientists would themselves have to answer some questions.
But the CIA deemed the trade-off worth the risk. What they
got was a vital look at the minds and techniques of Chinese
One of the dozens of Los Alamos scientists
gleaning information for the CIA in China in the 1980s was
Wen Ho Lee.
The bad story involves the ensuing counterespionage
fiasco. In 1995, the U.S. learned that, three years before,
China had tested a miniaturized warhead that had design
characteristics similar to America's own W-88 warhead. Then
Taiwan got hold of documents revealing that the Chinese
had a crude sketch of the W-88 and the W-87.
Had the Chinese stolen such designs?
A blue-ribbon panel of weapons designers, scientists and
intelligence experts studied the question and arrived at,
well, an inconclusive conclusion: It was possible that the
Chinese got help from a spy, but it was also possible that
they made the breakthrough themselves, with supercomputers.
Undaunted by such ambivalence, the Energy
Department's intelligence chief, Notra Trulock, decided
to find the (presumed) spy. His first mistake was narrowing
the hunt to Los Alamos. As the authors show, the W-88 design
could have been stolen from a half-dozen other facilities,
and the W-87 could not have been stolen from Los Alamos.
His second was to narrow the hunt to an ethnic Chinese scientist
who had made trips to China: After all, espionage of this
sort could have been done by someone of any race and ethnicity.
Espionage is an equal-opportunity employer. In any case,
Wen Ho Lee became the prime suspect -- for a crime that
may not have been committed in the first place.
When the FBI could find no solid evidence
against Mr. Lee and grew disenchanted with the investigation,
a frustrated Mr. Trulock managed to convince a Senate committee
in 1998 that China had tested a copy of the W-88. (It had
only tested a device that had common design features.) He
also announced that the FBI was about to arrest a spy at
Los Alamos (which it had no plan to do).
The ugly story was the aftermath. Once
the FBI failed to turn up espionage by its usual means --
false flag stings, surveillance, interrogations -- a search
of Mr. Lee's office showed him to be guilty of something
else: the unauthorized copying of data onto an unclassified
As it happens, this copying was done
well after China miniaturized its warhead. Still, it was
said to be a terrible breach of security. (The data included
computer simulations of nuclear explosions.) The Justice
Department indicted Mr. Lee on 59 counts of copying and
retaining information with intent to injure the U.S. and
aid a foreign country.
The government argued that such data
amounted to the "crown jewels" of our nuclear
establishment. Thus Mr. Lee was denied bail and kept in
solitary confinement. It then turned out that the government
had exaggerated the value of what Mr. Lee had copied. It
had not even been classified secret! Its security designation
-- PARD, for "protect as restricted data" -- was
a twilight rating that Los Alamos employees treated to mean,
in essence, unclassified. In short order, the government's
case fell apart. Mr. Lee pleaded guilty to one count of
unauthorized copying and was released. The judge apologized
to him for "the unfair manner" in which he had
been treated, and rightly so.
But then: Why did Mr. Lee do his copying?
The authors of "A Convenient Spy" do not attempt
an answer, though they find implausible Mr. Lee's claim
that he wanted to protect the data from computer failure.
So a mystery remains. Perhaps we shouldn't count on the
FBI or Energy Department to solve it any time soon.