WASHINGTON — The politics behind the Wen Ho Lee case is like a
pretzel that no one seems to be able to untwist, not even China hawks
well-versed in the propaganda put out by our panda-hugging president.
Listen to this national-security adviser on the Hill struggle to make
sense of the case:
“We have Hillary telling her Chinese audience at a Chinese shopping
center in New York that Wen Ho Lee is a victim of racial discrimination
and stereotyping,” the adviser said privately. “But simultaneously,
(Attorney General) Janet Reno and (FBI Director) Louis Freeh are saying
that Wen Ho Lee is a dangerous criminal. Bill Clinton is saying he is
‘troubled’ by the case, while (Energy Secretary) Bill Richardson one day
says the Lee case isn’t over, yet the next day says he is concerned over
Even hard-to-fool conservatives aren’t sure who to blame anymore, or
what they should be blamed for.
“I think Louis Freeh and Janet Reno are both culpable in this mess,”
said Bob Novak on CNN’s Crossfire. “But to tell you the truth, I don’t
know what to make of Wen Ho Lee.”
“There’s a lot we don’t know,” Novak added, “and maybe the senators
don’t know either.”
Indeed, some members of Congress are starting to doubt what they
first learned in 1998 — that Chinese army intelligence had burrowed
deep into our nuclear-arms labs.
There’s a growing sense now that President Clinton and his
national-security adviser may have been somewhat justified in ignoring
warnings of Chinese espionage. And Reno may have actually exercised
sound judgment in 1997 when she effectively pulled the plug on the FBI’s
investigation of Lee as a Chinese spy.
Poof! That whole bad patch with China? It never happened.
But before you trash your copy of the Cox Report, consider the
The KGB used disinformation to try to fool the U.S. intelligence
community about the Soviet nuclear and military threat. They’d sew a lie
into a statement of truth and hope we’d swallow the whole thing.
What if our own government is employing the same tactic — with the
help of a pliant Washington press — to fool us about the nuclear and
military threat posed by China’s People’s Liberation Army?
I know, it sounds crazy. But stay with me.
First rewind to early 1999, when two radioactive stories finally
They’d been suppressed for years, it’s plain to see now, because they
threatened to spoil the Clinton
administration’s “engagement policy” with Beijing, an alarmingly
comprehensive plan involving not just closer economic ties, but
political and military exchanges too. The stories also threatened to
make Clinton look traitorously soft on an aggressive communist power —
and they did, for awhile.
One story revealed that the administration let a suspected Chinese
spy — Lee — stay in his job at Los
Alamos, where he continued to have access to secret nuclear codes. The
other disclosed how the Chinese stole secrets to every nuclear warhead
deployed in the U.S. arsenal, yet the administration did nothing to beef
up security at the labs.
Exposed, the administration fired Lee and tried to minimize the
political damage from the three-volume Cox Report detailing Chinese
espionage by claiming the lab security problem reached back 20 years and
included Republican administrations.
Then, conveniently, the Clinton administration’s shelling of
Belgrade relegated the espionage stories
to the back pages, allowing White House propagandists the opportunity to
They turned to a trusted ally, the Washington Post, offering it a
kernel of truth — that Lee was targeted because of his race — to sell
it on the lie that the whole case against him was “built on thin air.”
Enter Robert Vrooman, the Post’s go-to man.
On Aug. 17, 1999, the disinformation campaign officially kicked off
with Vrooman dropping his
bombshell on the Post’s front page that Lee was suspected largely for
ethnic reasons, and that the
case against him was “built on thin air.”
What’s more, Vrooman charged that the secrets Lee was suspected of
compromising — the design of the prized W-88 miniaturized nuclear
warhead — had been disseminated to private contractors and “hundreds of
locations throughout the U.S. government.” In other words, the leaks
didn’t necessarily come from Los Alamos.
Who is Robert Vrooman?
None other than the chief of counterintelligence at Los Alamos when
all the espionage allegedly took place; the chief of counterspying when
all the Chinese spies were allegedly running amok.
The Energy Department recommended disciplinary actions against
Vrooman for allowing Lee to have continuing access to secrets even after
doubts about him had been raised. He’s no longer heading
counterintelligence at Los Alamos.
“Vrooman was a failure as head of CI at Los Alamos,” Notra Trulock,
former head of Energy counterintelligence, told me recently. “He was and
still is on the Los Alamos payroll, and so has a vested interest in
dismissing any allegations about espionage at Los Alamos on his watch.”
Not exactly an unbiased source. Yet Vrooman has been quoted or cited
in no less than 15 Washington Post articles since August 1999. All
written by Vernon Loeb, Walter Pincus, or both.
Loeb and Pincus, the Post’s national security reporters, are
considered by many inside the Beltway — and even by a few inside the
Post’s newsroom and front office — to be stenographers for White House
National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, a former (at least technically)
But as the Post goes, so go the pilot fish of the old media. A search
of the Lexis-Nexis media database shows that Vrooman has appeared in 240
articles since the Post introduced him as a credible source.
Even the New York Times, which broke the Chinese espionage story on
March 6, 1999, followed up with a front-page story on Sept. 7, 1999 —
just weeks after the Post story — that cast doubt on its own
conclusions. The leading skeptic cited in the story is — surprise —
Mea kinda culpa
Vrooman apparently wasn’t satisfied with the Times’ self-analysis.
Last month, he turned up as the primary source for a lengthy Salon.com
story slamming the Times. “How the New York Times helped railroad Wen Ho
Lee,” blasted the online journal, which is a known mouthpiece for the
Clinton White House.
Such backlash convinced Times editors to pen a mea kinda culpa
two weeks ago.
Most in the press joined White House flacks in claiming the Times has
backed off its original stories and is now critical of its coverage.
They must not have read the same letter I read. Here are some
excerpts in case you missed it:
- “On the whole, we remain proud of work that brought into the
open a major national security problem of which (White House) officials
had been aware for years.”
- “Our review found careful reporting … despite government
(Clinton administration) efforts to identify The Times’ sources.”
- “The stories touched off a fierce public debate. At a time when
the Clinton administration was defending a policy of increased
engagement with China, any suggestion that the White House had not moved
swiftly against a major Chinese espionage operation was politically
- “The assertion in our March 6 article that the Chinese made a
surprising leap in the miniaturization of nuclear weapons remains
- “Los Alamos has not been ruled out as the source of the leak.”
Shhh! Don’t mention China
The administration has a done a wickedly brilliant job of muddying
the waters of the scandal surrounding Chinese espionage at the labs.
Just last year officials, including the president, were defending
themselves against charges they were too soft on spying. Now, in a
stunning turn of events, they look like they’ve been tough — even too
tough — all along.
Reno had to go before the Senate last month to defend charges she was
too hard on Lee, who was released from jail after pleading guilty to
just one of 59 counts of mishandling nuclear secrets (but not
She was unflinching: “Dr. Lee is no hero. He is not an absent-minded
professor. He is a felon. He committed a very serious crime, and he pled
guilty to it.”
She even sounded patriotic: “I share an awesome responsibility to
protect the national security of this nation.”
Her FBI director, Freeh, seemed not to pull any punches, either: “Dr.
Lee has been convicted of a very serious crime. Dr. Lee’s conduct was
not inadvertent, it was not careless, it was not innocent.”
But if you listened closely to their testimony, you could still hear
the undercurrent of appeasement, if not cover-up.
In the 8,296 words of their prepared opening statements, Reno and
Freeh mentioned China a grand total of three times. Reno didn’t mention
China at all (in fact, she couldn’t even bring herself to say Lee is
ethnic Chinese, instead saying “he is of Asian descent”).
Curiously, Freeh spoke almost entirely in generalities when citing
Lee’s ties to China and his contacts with Beijing officials.
- Lee’s “name surfaced when he contacted a suspected agent of a
foreign power, who was the subject of an ongoing FBI
counterintelligence investigation,” Freeh said.
- “In 1994, Dr. Lee met with a senior foreign government
nuclear weapons designer.”
- “He had already demonstrated his willingness to lie to the
government about his contacts with a suspected espionage subject in
1982, and to not report the relationship he had with a high-ranking
- “He also had twice traveled abroad to meet nuclear
- “Based on admissions by Dr. Lee about unreported contacts that he
had had during foreign travel. … ”
- “He provided new and additional details about contacts he had
with foreign scientists.”
Yet Freeh had no problem naming the foreign country to where Lee
traveled in March 1998 — “Taiwan.”
That dovetails nicely with disinformation spoon-fed Pincus, Loeb and
others — that Lee may have been making his own copy of our nuclear
codes to help him land a job with the Taiwanese government.
50 years of testing
Trouble with that spin is that the data Lee copied onto portable
tapes represent the design know-how and physics packages developed by
Los Alamos and other labs over a period of 50 years and more than 1,000
tests. So the personal library he downloaded could offer another country
graduate-level instruction on the design and trouble-shooting of
advanced nuclear weapons, but not the means to actually build a bomb.
That would be of immense value to an established foreign nuclear
power such as China, which has agreed to stop underground testing after
conducting only a fraction of the tests we’ve conducted, but not a
country like Taiwan, which has no nuclear program.
The old communist hard-liners in China — which, by the way, is the
only country with long-range nuclear missiles pointed at U.S. cities (13
at last count) — would like nothing better than to get their hands on
data about testing problems, actual and simulated testing results and
computer codes needed to design and test weapons.
At least seven and as many as 14 tapes copied by Lee are still
Freeh said the administration cut a deal with Lee for “one
overarching reason: to find out what happened to the missing tapes.”
Well, if you had searched Lee’s computer in 1996, when Trulock and
your FBI agents first put him on the suspect list, you might have seen
what he was up to and seized most of the tapes back then.
And if Reno had agreed to tapping his phone in 1997, when agents
asked for it, maybe you’d know what he planned to do with the tapes. If
you had monitored his computer that year, you could have nailed him
downloading more secret-restricted data onto another tape.
Instead, Reno gave the suspected spy continued unfettered access to
secrets in the X Division of Los Alamos, which allowed Lee the
opportunity to steal six additional files with information that could
cause “serious damage” to national security if it fell into the wrong
One of the six files contains the complete source code for the most
up-to-date primary weapon design code, called Code B. Another is an
input file used by Code B to produce output for comparison with
experimental implosion data. Another is an input file for Code B to set
up and simulate a specific modern primary device.
That tape, designated “N,” is among those missing.
Finally, if Reno and Freeh had forced Lee to cough up the whereabouts
of the tapes before they let him out of jail, maybe they’d have
them in hand right now. Good luck getting Lee back in jail if he refuses
to talk about the tapes, or sends agents on a wild goose chase.
How do you explain such fundamental missteps? Incompetence? Maybe
incompetence by design.
Remember that early on, the administration was more interested in
plugging leaks to the media about leaks to China than the leaks to
China. Why should we think anything has changed? Why should we now
believe that the administration is truly worried about safeguarding our
nuclear secrets and getting to the bottom of the espionage?
Let’s look at this with a really jaded eye.
If Lee is indeed a spy and China his patron, nine months in jail and
a few tepid insults at a Senate hearing are a small price to pay for
helping pull off the biggest espionage since the Rosenbergs.
Intelligence shows that China — which thanks to Clinton export
waivers, now has the supercomputers to tie our warhead designs and
legacy codes all together — has made quantum leaps in its nuclear
program in recent years and is fast rising to superpower status.
And if Reno and Freeh had to take the heat for bungling the case,
humiliating themselves in public yet again, it’s a small price to pay
for protecting and preserving, not our national security, but the
Clinton administration’s unholy alliance with Beijing’s communist
Despite all of Reno’s and Freeh’s tough talk, here’s what we’re still
- A nuclear scientist once suspected of being a Chinese spy is
free to possibly spy again.
- The secrets he stole are still missing and still threaten our
- An administration once accused of being soft on Chinese espionage
now looks relatively hawkish on national security.
- Major Chinese espionage — arguably the worst spy case in U.S.
history — gets so little press coverage that it isn’t even a
back-burner campaign issue. Neither candidate George W. Bush nor his
running mate Dick Cheney, a former defense secretary, have said a word
about it during the debates.
- The administration’s blind appeasement — including now permanent
trade benefits — of an increasingly militant China continues apace,
unencumbered by any real public scrutiny.
It took them 20 months, but Clinton and Vice President Al Gore
have pulled it off. They’ve rehabilitated China’s image as a benign and
defensive nation that, with the right trade and other incentives, will
align itself with U.S. interests. Powerful thing, disinformation.