Photographs AP/Wide World Photos
most criminal charges against Los Alamos physicist Wen Ho Lee were
dropped last fall, the case has created an environment of suspicion
and distrust at the nation's top research labs.
all began when something went boom in the desert, says former top
Energy Department intelligence officer Notra Trulock. The explosion
that got Trulock's attention was a nuclear blast that registered
in 1992 when China detonated a bomb at a western desert test site.
And it was a new kind of bomb: intelligence experts suspected that
China had managed to achieve a remarkable design breakthrough, enabling
them to pack the power of the hydrogen bomb into a tiny parcel,
one small enough to fit on elusive and hard-to-detect submarines.
For Trulock, the news that China had designed a weapon not unlike
the most sophisticated American model meant something sinister.
He believed that a spy had handed Beijing the precious design secret.
hunt was on. For years federal agents chased after a physicist from
Los Alamos National Laboratory named Wen Ho Lee, never sure whether
Lee was in fact a spy or, for that matter, whether espionage had
even been committed. Though most criminal charges against Lee were
dropped last fall, the public accusation that the Chinese government
engaged in widespread espionageand perhaps obtained key design
details of the state-of-the-art W-88 warheadled to a security
clampdown at the national weapon's labs that continues to affect
the daily course of business among the scientists who study and
safeguard the nation's nuclear stockpile.
new rules, including the extensive use of polygraphs and limits
on the access of foreign nationals to the labs, have ignited a major
debate about how to balance the need for security against the need
for scientists to exchange ideas. It is an age-old problem, as the
President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (or the Rudman
report, named for Senator Warren Rudman) noted in its 1999 report
on security in the wake of the espionage scandal: Inherent
in the work of the weapons laboratories, of course, is the basic
tension between scientific inquiry, which thrives on freewheeling
searches for and wide dissemination of information, and government
secrecy, which requires just the opposite.
is no doubting which direction the pendulum has swung: Congress
and the Department of Energy have made it clear that the national
labs must pay greater attention to security than they had throughout
the 1990s. But few players in the debate seem to be able to agree
on just how to strike the right balance. Certainly no one, not even
the most avid advocate of scientific openness, disputes the fact
that certain secrets, particularly those having to do with the design
of nuclear weapons, must be protectedand that strict measures
that do protect those secrets are warranted. On the other hand,
the notion that strict security measures can protect all secrets
is naive. The bottom line is there's no system that can
prevent a determined individual from either bending security rules
or compromising national security, says one lab official.
Short of a strip search, people can still walk out the door
with a floppy disk.
the reaction to the Wen Ho Lee scandal (as well as to another mishap
last year, the misplacement of two computer disks from X
Division, the bomb-making department at Los Alamos) has been overly
harsh, say lab officials and outside experts. Moreover, the new
security measures, including polygraphs and bans on contacts with
foreign scientists, have been applied so haphazardly that they have
undermined morale among scientists. It boils down to trust,
says one Los Alamos official, and one consequence of this
frenzy is that some of the most patriotic and dedicated people who
have chosen to work here have been maligned and accused of not being
loyal to their country.
work of some of the best scientists in the world is being hampered.
Among the many security measures imposed by the Department of Energy
since 1999, perhaps the most damaging have been restrictions on
contacts between American scientists and colleagues from other nations.
The people who have thought seriously about security realize
that by trying to do everything, you end up doing nothing,
says Matthew Bunn, a nuclear expert at Harvard's Kennedy School
of Government. Rather than build higher fences around smaller
areas, they're building tiny fences around everything.
he means everything: Not long ago, Bunn and colleagues from a group
called the Russian-American Nuclear Security Advisory Council were
scheduled to receive an unclassified briefing at the Department
of Energy. The group, an umbrella organization of sorts, was preparing
a report on the progress of efforts to prevent the proliferation
of nuclear materials from Russia's weapons complex. They ran
into an obstacle, though. One of its members was a Russian national.
The group was forced to postpone its meeting substantially
just to get security officials in the government to allow a Russian
into an unclassified room at DOE for an unclassified briefing.
did it come to this? The national labs have always relied on scientists
who weren't born in this country; certainly some of the most
famous scientists who participated in the Manhattan Project were
immigrants, including Hans Bethe of Germany, Enrico Fermi of Italy,
Edward Teller of Hungary, and George Kistiakovsky of Russia. It
is possible that the atomic bomb would never have been completed
but for immigrant talent, the Rudman report concludes. It
is still true today that the national labs rely on foreign nationals.
When the head of recruiting at Los Alamos phones his alma mater,
the University of California at Berkeley, to seek top prospects,
he invariably is steered to scientists born abroad, according to
a lab spokesman. The national numbers confirm his experience: Over
the past 40 years, more and more students who were not U.S. citizens
have earned doctorate degrees in scientific and engineering fields;
by 1995, the number reached 40 percent. And as the Rudman report
notes, the number of Chinese students receiving doctorates outnumbered
all other regions combined.
scientists and security officials have also been uneasy from the
beginning: the tension between Robert Oppenheimer, the lead scientist
on the Manhattan Project, and his boss, Gen. Leslie Groves, who
believed the scientists should all wear military uniforms, is legendary.
And it is also the case that relying on foreign nationals poses
risks, and has since the inception of the national labs. It was,
after all, a German-born British citizen named Klaus Fuchs who stole
secrets from Los Alamos for Moscow in the 1940s.
did history repeat itself in 1999? No one knows, but the furious
debate over whether Wen Ho Lee pilfered nuclear secrets and handed
them to China is the source of today's troublesome debate over
how much security is enough. The case intensified in the spring
of 1999, when it was revealed that federal officials were investigating
the physicist, who was born in Taiwan but who had spent decades
in this country, beginning as a student at Texas A&M University.
Persuaded that China could not have developed a small warhead design
so quickly on its own, investigators focused their inquiry on whether
Lee had provided information about the W-88 to Beijing.
against Lee certainly seemed suspicious but it was largely circumstantial.
Agents discovered that Lee had downloaded files from the lab's
classified computer system and copied them to computer tapes, some
of which remain missing. According to The New York Times, which
first reported the investigation, the information on those tapes
apparently included computer codes that took data from old nuclear
explosions and used it to help simulate tests. (Since signing the
Comprehensive Test Ban, the United States no longer tests its weapons;
simulation helps ensure that the stockpile is secure.) Lee had been
detected entering X Division at Los Alamos, the center for bomb-design,
after he was no longer cleared to do so. And Lee had met China's
top bomb architect in a hotel room in Chinabut never told
officials about the meeting. By 1994, when that Chinese scientist,
Side, led a group of officials to Los Alamos, American officials
knew that he had designed China's suspicious knock-off of the
W-88. Lee, who was not invited to the meeting, attended anyway and
the Chinese scientist greeted him warmly. All this baffled those
on the American side.
In the end,
of course, the government had no case against Lee. Last September,
Lee plead guilty to one charge of mishandling classified information.
And the presiding judge lectured federal officials, arguing that
putting Lee behind bars for nine months embarrassed our nation.
What is more remarkable, less than a year after the government dropped
all but one of 59 charges against Lee, is that no one quite knows
what happened in the case: many nuclear weapons experts now believe
that China did not obtain design information on the W-88 warhead
and that its new, smaller weapons are not nearly up to American
standards. As for Lee, investigators cannot adequately explain his
behavior, particularly the fact that he downloaded so much secret
informationand that the computer tapes have never been found,
despite extensive searches, including a thorough sifting of the
landfill at Los Alamos.
But while Lee is a free manhe even has a book dealthe
consequences of the so-called Chinese espionage scandal linger.
Congress and the Department of Energy imposed a series of new rules
that govern the handling of secure information and the meetings
between lab officials and foreign nationals.
just after another mishap at Los Alamos, in which two hard-drives
from X Division were discovered to be missing, then-Secretary of
Energy Bill Richardson told Congress that the department had instituted
21 new security measures. Among them was a requirement that the
FBI conduct background checks on foreign nationals from sensitive
countries. He also detailed some 36 counterintelligence initiatives,
chief among them an aggressive polygraph program. The Department
also established a security czar, responsible for physical
and cyber security at the entire nuclear-weapons complex. One directive
even barred lab employees from sending classified information by
express mail through the U.S. Postal Service. In some cases, Congress
did Richardson one better. Legislators, for example, wanted many
more lab officials to be subject to polygraphs. The verdict on that
one is still out.
The rules are
proving burdensome. One of the programs damaged by all this
was the effort to improve physical security of the Russian nuclear
complex, says an official with Los Alamos. With the end of
the Cold War, the work of the national labs has changed dramatically.
Gone are the days when scientists were simply designing the latest
in powerful weapons. The labs have a host of new missions. Among
them, according to a report by the National Academy of Sciences,
is an effort to work with Russian nuclear experts to upgrade
the protection, control, and accounting of weapons-grade nuclear
material in Russia. It is, say some experts, one of the most
important national security initiatives the U.S. has undertaken.
has been hindered. In 1998, the three weapons labsLos Alamos,
Lawrence Livermore, and Sandiareceived nearly 6,400 foreign
visitors or other people assigned to the labs for a month or more.
Almost one third came from sensitive countries. All
of those visits were halted. From October 1999 through the end of
2000, foreign nationals were not allowed to visit labs such as Los
Alamos. The Russian program depends on trust and their ability
to invite us to their facilities and for us to reciprocate,
says one official. What annoys many scientists is that the visits
typically have nothing to do with super-secret issues such as bomb
design. It's unclassified areas, just science going on,
says a lab official.
American side restricted visits of Russians to U.S. sites, Moscow
has limited American access to its complex. We've had
tough and high-level negotiations to expand the envelope of where
we can get access and how fast we can get access, say Harvard's
Matthew Bunn. Then we turn around and say the Russians can't
have access at our facilities. What does the FSB, the successor
to the KGB, do? They yank back access at their end. That sort
of tit-for-tat exchange is expected, after all, in the wake of the
spy scandal involving veteran FBI agent Robert Hanssen. The U.S.
expelled dozens of Russian diplomats. Moscow's response? It
kicked the same number of Americans out of Russia.
the new rules seem a comedy of errors. Another major arms control
initiative, announced by President Clinton at the United Nations,
calls for the negotiation of further production of plutonium and
highly-enriched uranium, the fissile materials that are the heart
of a nuclear bomb. At issue is how to determine whether or not production
has been halted. One answer is to have the International Atomic
Energy Administration verify that no secret production is taking
place; that sort of monitoring already goes on at nuclear facilities
in countries such as Japan.
To that end,
the U.S. was going to host an international meeting at its Savannah
River site to discuss how to safeguard plants that already exist.
(It's much easier to monitor plants during construction.) Experts
from China, Russia, France, and Britain were to attend. Unfortunately,
the meeting was scheduled just after the U.S. inadvertently bombed
China's embassy in Yugoslavia. So Beijing withdrew from the
meeting. The Russian scientists, because of the new Energy Department
restrictions, could not get the necessary clearances to attend.
France and Britain sent delegations that included people who had
visited Savannah River many times before. Still, they could not
get permission to visit the area of the reprocessing plantwhich
was the entire point of the meeting.
The new rules
have also battered morale at the national labs. Though the new polygraph
rules, so far, only affect about 100 people, the scientists resent
them. It does not help that many of those involved, having reviewed
the literature about the reliability of polygraphs, find them scientifically
Harder to Fill
Security measuresespecially the restrictions on meetings with
foreignershave also hurt recruitment. Contact with scientists
from around the world is a fundamental attraction of the business.
According to the National Academy of Sciences, scientists who want
to work at the cutting edge need to have access to open research
on materials, nuclear physics, hydrodynamics, and other fields.
Because of the international nature of science, this necessitates
substantial international engagement by weapons scientists,
the NAS's 1999 report on openness and security concluded. The
restrictions on dealings with foreign scientists made it less attractive
for scientists to cloister themselves at an American national lab.
in the lab travel budget and cuts in lab research funding, both
dictated by the new security rules, have also hurt recruitment.
When seeking a new applicant, it is important that the lab be able
to convince the recruit that it will be possible to build a reputation
in the wider scientific community. If they can't go to
the scientific meetings, it has a devastating effect, says
a lab official. The cuts in lab-directed research and development,
a discretionary fund for pure science work, were also a problem.
Why is the research important? Because scientists at Los Alamos
can't flaunt their stuff by setting off seismic meters with
a blast in Nevada. But if people in other countries see that
we're publishing in important areas, explains one lab
expert, they know we're current.
impact of the security measures, including the travel and research
cuts, can be measured. Fewer candidates accepted top post-doctoral
appointments at Los Alamos last year. Among Asian-Americans, the
decline was dramatic: a 30-40 percent dropoff. Where the lab normally
would have brought in 350 new people, it got just 310.
the rough ride of the past few years, the mood at the labs is decidedly
more optimistic. Some of the restrictions, including the travel
and research budget cuts, have been lifted. The outright ban on
foreign visitors has also expired. But the consequences of the spy
chase, launched after that mysterious blast in a Chinese desert,
Bruce Auster is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.
the Door on Openness
is out. Just inspect the nameplate on an office door at the
Department of Energy. It now reads: Office of Nuclear and
National Security Information. But before Wen Ho Lee made
headlines, it had a punchier title: the Office of Declassification.
several years, the Department reasoned that it was safe to
reveal old secrets. The Chinese espionage scandal, however,
put an end to former secretary Hazel O'Leary's 1993
openness initiative. Now it seems the security clampdown at
the nation's weapons labs may be missing its mark. Many
experts on nuclear physics believe that it doesn't take
a spy to learn the secret of building the bomb. A wealth of
useful informationboth about rudimentary nuclear bomb
design and even about more sophisticated approacheshave
already found their way into the unclassified literature.
As Ray Kidder, a veteran of the Lawrence Livermore National
Laboratory, explained at a recent conference, The cat
is out of the bag.
has been on the prowl for decades. Most famously, Progressive
magazine sought to publish so-called secret information concerning
the concept, attributed to Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam,
of the radiation-driven implosion, a key element of a bomb
trigger. After the Supreme Court permitted the publication
in 1979, that basic principle was officially declassified.
physicists worry about other information that is finding its
way into unclassified libraries. For example, recent advisory
committees to the Department of Energy recommended that hydrodynamic
codes for elements such as uranium and plutonium should remain
secret. Only it turns out those codes had already been declassified
by Los Alamos.
more significant is the release of information from the U.S.
Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF) program. The cutting-edge
effort, which aims to learn more about nuclear fusion as an
energy source, has been deemed unworkable if kept classified.
So information has been released. But proliferation experts,
who believe that most data about how to build a classic fission
bomb already exists in the public record, fear that information
from the ICF program will be too tempting for rogue states
seeking the bomb. The use of fusion fuel in conjunction
with fissile material is therefore the edge of the proliferation
envelope, says Matthew McKinzie of the Natural Resources
Defense Council, a Washington-based environmental group.
blame doesn't lie with O'Leary's controversial
five-year declassification effort, though it did have its
share of blunders. For example, the initiative aimed to speed
the public release of documents at least 25 years old, but
critical nuclear weapon design information was discovered
among some of those records in 1998. For all that, however,
many analysts believe DOE needed to uncork the bottle. It
turned out, for example, that about one-fifth of all U.S.
nuclear tests had never before been revealed; many, according
to NRDC, had released radiation into the environment.
initiative has stalled, and the Energy Department has clamped
down on contacts with foreign nationals. It has demanded that
scientists in sensitive positions take polygraphs, and still
the system leaks. Important data is finding its way to the
public from the civilian nuclear energy programs in Japan
and Germany, for example. It turns out that in the global
economy, no one nation can dictate the secrecy rules of the