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Spy Fired from Los Alamos For Leaking Nuclear Secrets

By Walter Pincus

Moving to contain a national security controversy, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson fired a Los Alamos National Laboratory weapons designer Monday who was under suspicion of handing nuclear secrets to China in the late 1980s.

Richardson dismissed the Chinese American scientist, Wen Ho Lee, after he failed an FBI polygraph test last month and refused to cooperate with a bureau investigation into how the Chinese may have gained information 10 years ago about the W-88 warhead, then the Navy’s newest strategic warhead and now carried by the submarine-launched Trident II missile.

Richardson, who received his latest briefing on the FBI investigation Monday, acted as complaints arose from key Republicans in Congress that the Clinton administration has been slow to investigate and act on allegations that nuclear secrets have leaked to China from Energy Department weapons laboratories.

The complaints -- from Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, among others -- added fuel to a controversy over whether the Clinton administration, in seeking to engage China as a trading partner and strategic player in Asia, was lax in implementing new security regulations to prevent Beijing from obtaining military secrets and advanced U.S. technology with possible military uses.

Lee has been under FBI investigation since late 1997, according to administration sources, but the inquiry has been unable to develop specific evidence against him because the alleged espionage took place almost 10 years ago. In addition, investigators found no indications of activity by Lee on behalf of the Chinese in the decade since.

While under FBI investigation, Lee was allowed to remain at his classified job, but under surveillance. The FBI, which has total control over this investigation, frequently has proceeded like this in espionage cases, since it is difficult to get either an arrest or a conviction without “catching someone in the act,” one former senior agent said Monday. CIA spy Aldrich H. Ames, for instance, was arrested after being investigated for more than a year and wiretapped at home and the office, during which time he had continued access to classified information, the source said.

“We had to take the risk,” the source said, noting that Lee was allowed to travel abroad while under investigation.

Four weeks ago, investigators concluded Lee was not going to cooperate and he was removed from access to classified information. Last weekend, he was questioned directly by FBI agents and “continued to insist he had done nothing wrong,” one source said.

Because Lee was a contract employee of the University of California, which runs Los Alamos for the government, Richardson had to recommend his removal to the university, which immediately carried it out, sources said.

Richardson said Monday that the Lee case, along with two others from the Reagan years, represents “serious leaks of information,” but the energy secretary added, “We still don’t know the extent.”

Lee took one trip to China in 1988, but an official familiar with the investigation said, “We are still trying to pin down exactly when information was passed.”