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September 18, 2000
Iran-Contra & Wen Ho Lee

Page 2: Nuclear Secrets

In the years that followed, U.S. nuclear scientists held a number of meetings with their Chinese counterparts to discuss areas of mutual interest.

While the Americans were under restrictions about what information could be shared, it has never been clarified exactly why these meetings were held in the first place – why the risk was taken that some U.S. scientist might willfully or accidentally divulge nuclear secrets.

These scientific contacts in the 1980s sowed the seeds of the Wen Ho Lee case.

In 1995, after the Chinese agent delivered the so-called “walk-in” document indicating that U.S. nuclear secrets had been compromised by 1988, investigators for the U.S. Energy Department began focusing on U.S. scientists who had traveled to China during the 1980s. The investigators developed a list of a dozen names, including a lead suspect, Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese-born naturalized U.S. citizen.

As The Washington Post reported, “Lee was at the top of the list because he had traveled to China in 1986 and 1988, and because he and his wife, Sylvia, had taken an active role in greeting visiting Chinese scientists” who toured nuclear labs in the United States. [WP, Sept. 17, 2000]

By 1998, amid the impeachment drive to oust President Clinton, Republicans on Capitol Hill got wind of these investigations.

The Republicans eagerly sought to link the espionage suspicions to allegations of improper Chinese donations to the 1996 Clinton-Gore reelection campaign. Democratic fund-raiser Johnny Chung had been accused of funneling a $30,000 donation from a Chinese military intelligence front to the campaign.

By early 1999, word was spreading about a Los Alamos espionage suspect with an Asian name. In March 1999, “Chinagate” exploded as a scandal with front-page stories by Jeff Gerth and James Risen of The New York Times about possible Chinese espionage at the Los Alamos nuclear lab.

Soon, Wen Ho Lee was identified as the chief suspect and was fired for transferring sensitive classified material to his personal office computer.

On May 25, 1999, a select House committee headed by Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., released an 872-page report in three glossy, bound volumes. The report described how the Chinese government supposedly stole nuclear secrets while the Clinton administration dragged its feet on investigating.

The Cox report did what it could to implicate the Democrats and absolve the Republicans. A chronological chart about the alleged espionage covered two pages [p. 74-75] and packed all the boxes describing evidence of espionage into the years of the Carter and Clinton administrations.

Nothing sinister appeared in the 12-year swath of the Reagan-Bush years, other than a 1988 test of a neutron bomb built from secrets that the report said were believed stolen in the “late 1970s,” the Carter years.

Only a careful reading of the text inside the boxes revealed that the principal security breaches under review, particularly the stolen secrets of the W-88 miniaturized nuclear bomb, occurred “sometime between 1984 and 1992,” the Reagan-Bush years. The first test of the lighter warhead occurred in 1992, the last year of the Bush administration.

The illogic of blaming secrets apparently lost during a Republican administration in the 1980s on Democratic fund-raising in 1996 didn’t stop the stampede of media pundits who latched onto the Republican allegations. In spring 1999, “Chinagate” filled a void in Clinton scandals left by Clinton’s impeachment acquittal in the Senate.

Dan Quayle, the former vice president who then was testing the waters for a presidential run, accused the Clinton-Gore administration of “appeasement” of China in “espionage involving our most critical secrets.” [NYT, Sept. 16, 2000]

Other conservatives saw a new opening for fund-raising. Larry Klayman’s Judicial Watch sent out a solicitation letter seeking $5.2 million for a special “Chinagate Task Force” that would “hold Bill Clinton, Al Gore and the Democratic Party Leadership fully accountable for election fraud, bribery and possibly treason. … Chinagate involves actions by President Clinton and Vice President Gore which have put all Americans at risk from China’s nuclear arsenal.”

Eventually, more tempered assessments emerged. A panel of intelligence officials reviewed the evidence and came away with far less certainty about the significance of Chinese espionage than the Cox committee believed.

The Chinese advances “have been made on the basis of classified and unclassified information derived from espionage contact with U.S. and other countries’ scientists, conferences and publications, unauthorized media disclosures, declassified U.S. weapons information, and Chinese indigenous development,” the panel reported.

The intelligence experts could not decide which sources had been most important or what the Chinese had gained from the various strategies.

In June 1999, a study by the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board – chaired by former Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H. – concluded that the spying probably was less than “widely publicized.” Rudman’s panel also found that the W-88 secrets were in the hands of other federal agencies by 1983, so the leak could have come from elsewhere than Los Alamos.

The board also judged that suspicions had unfairly settled on Wen Ho Lee because of his Chinese heritage.

Finally, on Sept. 7, 1999, The New York Times, which had stoked the “Chinagate” scandal six months earlier, retreated from its overheated coverage. The new article by William J. Broad noted that the evidence was much more tenuous than the Cox report had represented.

“A review of the dispute, based on months of interviews and disclosures of weapons and intelligence secrets, suggests that the congressional report went beyond the evidence in asserting that stolen secrets were the main reason for China’s breakthrough,” Broad wrote.

Though the intense spy fever had broken, its consequences had not played out. The Justice Department obtained a 59-count indictment against Wen Ho Lee for mishandling classified material and arranged to have him held in solitary confinement with his cell light on at all times. The 60-year-old scientist was allowed out of his cell for one hour a day and allowed to shuffle with leg shackles around a prison courtyard.

After nine months of incarceration, a key FBI witness against Lee acknowledged overstating some of the evidence and infuriated U.S. District Judge James A. Parker. At a court hearing on Sept. 13, Parker accepted Lee’s plea bargain to a single count of mishandling classified material and freed the scientist.

The judge said he had been “led astray” by the U.S. government and apologized to Lee for the “demeaning, unnecessarily punitive conditions” under which Lee was held.

Parker allowed Lee to go free with no additional prison time. Still, federal prosecutors said they will compel Lee to make a full explanation of why he downloaded the classified data. After the plea bargain, some of Lee’s associates offered a fairly innocuous explanation. They said Lee felt he needed the data so he could continue to do unclassified work if he lost his job at Los Alamos, The Washington Post reported. [WP, Sept. 17, 2000]

Remaining Questions

Still, the larger suspicions of “Chinagate” remain a backdrop of the 2000 election, with President Bush’s son seeking to reclaim the White House for the Republicans. Though not alluding directly to the espionage allegations, Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s campaign has run ads showing Vice President Gore meeting with saffron-robed Buddhist monks in 1996, an allusion to the Chinese fund-raising issue that sparked the “Chinagate” firestorm.

Given the likely role of former President Bush in his son’s administration, another question that begs answering is why the Reagan-Bush administrations allowed exchanges between Chinese and U.S. nuclear scientists in the 1980s and whether those arrangements were linked to China’s secret support for the contras.

Was President Reagan’s willingness to scratch the back of governments that lent a hand to the contras a factor in the cozy, albeit secret, U.S.-China relationship? Was there a U.S.-China quid pro quo – as there apparently was for other countries – and, if so, what did the quid pro quo entail?

While those questions might never be answered, there can be no doubt that the Reagan-Bush administration did share at least one very sensitive secret with the communist Chinese: that the White House was defying U.S. law in 1984 by arranging military shipments to the contras.

That secret stayed hidden from the American people and from the U.S. Congress until the Iran-contra scandal was finally exposed two years later.  


In the 1980s, Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek.

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