By Bruce Auster
Photographs AP/Wide World Photos

Photo: Former Los Alamos National Laboratory nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee expresses his gratitude to supporters during a press conference after all but one of the 59 charges against him were dropped. Though 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.

It 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.

The 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 espionage—and perhaps obtained key design details of the state-of-the-art W-88 warhead—led 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.

The 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.”

Photo, left: Aerial view of Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M.., where the first atomic bombs were designed and built.There 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 protected—and 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.”

Unfortunately, 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.”

Photo: Then-Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson talks with reporters about the 700-page congressional report that says China stole secret information about every nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenalThe 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.”

And 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.


Foreign Nationals

Brig. Gen. Thomas Gioconda, center, acting deputy administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administrations, talks with John Browne, right, director of the Los Alamos  National Laboratory, and then-Deputy Energy Secretary T.J. Glauthier, left.How 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.

Relations between 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.

Then-Attorney General Janet Reno, and FBI Director Louis Freeh, center, on Capitol Hill defending the Justice Department's handling of the Wen Ho Lee case.So 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.

The evidence 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 China—but never told officials about the meeting. By 1994, when that Chinese scientist, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji in a press conference in which he denied allegations that China stole nuclear technology from the United States.Hu 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 information—and that the computer tapes have never been found, despite extensive searches, including a thorough sifting of the landfill at Los Alamos.


Alberta Lee, daughter of Wen Ho Lee, protests her father's imprisonment on the six- month anniversary of his arrest for mishandling classified information. New Security Measures

But while Lee is a free man—he even has a book deal—the 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.

Last year, 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.

Former Department of Energy Intelligence Director Notra Trulock testifies before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee, which was conducting hearings on the Wen Ho Lee case.Cooperation has been hindered. In 1998, the three weapons labs—Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia—received 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.

Because the 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.

Robert Oppenheimer, who has been called the “father of the atomic bomb” and his boss, Gen. Leslie Groves, clashed often over security. Sometimes 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 plant—which 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 questionable.


Jobs Harder to Fill

Security measures—especially the restrictions on meetings with foreigners—have 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.

Cuts 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.”

Klaus Fuchs, the German-born physicist accused of betraying western atomic secrets to Soviet Russia. The 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.

Despite 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, linger.

Bruce Auster is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.

Closing the Door on Openness

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.

For 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 information—both about rudimentary nuclear bomb design and even about more sophisticated approaches—have 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.”

It 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.

Today, 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.

Even 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.

The 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.

O'Leary's 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 world.