WASHINGTON – Any personal contacts and correspondence Wen Ho Lee’s wife had with Chinese scientists were “her own business,” the former counterintelligence chief of Los Alamos National Laboratory wrote in a confidential 1989 lab memo tucked into Sylvia Lee’s personnel file – even though she and her husband had been investigated as potential Chinese spies.
Then-security chief Robert S. Vrooman’s seeming indifference fits a pattern of leniency that led to missteps in dealing with Chinese espionage at the New Mexico lab, intelligence sources say.
Vrooman, a key defender of the Lees, helped swing the U.S. government’s espionage case against Wen Ho Lee in the former Los Alamos nuclear scientist’s favor. Lee ended up confessing last year to a lesser charge of mishandling classified information.
The internal lab memo surfaced in the discovery phase of a defamation lawsuit filed against Vrooman, his predecessor, Charles E. Washington, and Wen Ho Lee by former Energy Department counterintelligence chief Notra Trulock, who originally put Lee on a list of Chinese spy suspects. The defendants have charged that Trulock improperly targeted Lee due to his race.
The case against Lee – dormant for four years under the Clinton administration, which was building a “strategic partnership” with China and battling charges it illegally took Chinese campaign money – finally sprung to life in early 1999 when the Wall Street Journal and New York Times broke the story of Chinese espionage at Los Alamos. The Times’ first story triggered Lee’s firing in March of that year.
But then the case turned sour again in August 1999, after Vrooman told the Washington Post that it was “built on thin air.”
He argued that the prized W-88 nuclear warhead information Beijing got could have come from many places, not just Los Alamos, where the weapon was designed – and where he was employed to safeguard such secrets.
(Vrooman has been quoted or cited in no less than 20 Post articles since Aug. 17, 1999, nearly all of them written by either Vernon Loeb or Walter Pincus, or both. National security writer Pincus’ wife, Ann Terry Pincus, worked in State Department intelligence and research as a Clinton appointee. A staunch Democrat from a prominent Little Rock family, she has ties to the Rose Law Firm.)
The 64-year-old Vrooman, who was in charge of catching spies at Los Alamos, says he never thought Lee, who had worked on the W-88 computer code, engaged in espionage – even when he learned that Lee lied to him about his Chinese contacts.
For instance, Lee failed to report to him, as required, that he met with China’s top bomb designer, Hu Side, during a 1988 trip to Beijing.
And according to internal memos, Vrooman let Lee continue working in the lab’s top-secret X Division, even after the FBI’s Albuquerque, N.M., field office advised Vrooman to remove Lee in October 1997. That year, Lee downloaded additional restricted data onto computer tapes. Several of the classified tapes he stole from the lab last decade are still missing.
Vrooman could have spotted the unauthorized transfers if he had searched Lee’s computer.
Yet he failed to do so, even though he had the authority. Lee signed a computer-privacy waiver in April 1995 stating, “Activities on these systems are monitored and recorded, and subject to audit.”
Vrooman couldn’t even find the document when FBI agents asked for it. But it was there, in the lab files, all along. Energy headquarters in Washington later reprimanded him for a “serious dereliction of duty.”
Four years after Lee signed the waiver, FBI agents finally searched his computer and discovered the downloads, which included reams of bomb-testing codes considered extremely valuable to China’s nuclear program. In fact, they found he’d downloaded every secret in the nuclear arsenal and copied them onto portable tapes.
Nor was Vrooman suspicious of Sylvia Lee, a lab data-entry clerk with access to classified information, even though she played hostess to visiting Chinese scientists and researched information for them on a regular basis.
One Chinese scientist requested papers on “computational hydrodynamics” – her husband’s specialty. She also had papers sent to the deputy director of a Chinese physics lab.
Lee was so eager to act as a go-between with the Chinese that it interfered with her job and led to a Dec. 11, 1989, meeting with lab officials to discuss her growing role in entertaining the Chinese.
In his Dec. 13 memo to Lee and lab officials, Vrooman said he was “concerned about the motives of the PRC [People’s Republic of China] in cultivating her as their point-of-contact.”
Yet he wasn’t concerned about Lee’s motives, going on to say: “Her personal relationship and correspondence with the PRC are her own business.”
The statement stunned Trulock’s lawyers when they read it.
“It’s just extraordinary for someone charged with protecting our national security to take the position that Sylvia Lee’s contacts with communist Chinese were ‘her own business,'” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “I mean, this is a woman who had classified clearance at the premiere U.S. nuclear-weapons lab.”
Sources familiar with the Lee case say that Vrooman made the mistake of thinking he didn’t have to worry about Lee’s loyalties because a lab-based FBI counterespionage agent, and possibly a CIA agent (who recently died), were debriefing her about her contacts with the Chinese.
“The FBI told Vrooman that they were using Sylvia as an informational asset, and on the basis of that, he assumed that the FBI was taking care of all security aspects,” said a former intelligence official.
“But you never do that,” he added. “The FBI has completely different objectives. It’s not protecting the labs, but collecting information on the Chinese.”
Even the FBI was alarmed by Lee’s behavior, saying in court records that it was unusual and “aggressive.”
Contrary to press reports, Lee did not “retire” from the lab. Rather, she was “involuntarily terminated” in 1995, according to a Senate Governmental Affairs Committee report released in 1999.
“Her personnel file indicated incidents of security violations and threats she allegedly made against co-workers,” said the report, quoting from an FBI warrant application for a wire-tap of the Lees’ phone line, which was kicked back by Attorney General Janet Reno’s lawyers, an unprecedented veto for such a serious national security case.
“Sylvia wanted to be involved with mainland China, because she is from there,” the intelligence source said. “Wen Ho Lee wanted to help anybody, because he’s a scientist,” and not necessarily a trained communist spy.
“But Wen Ho Lee, without question, helped the Chinese with computer codes and probably with the W-88,” he said, “and he knew better.”
Lee has not helped FBI agents find several of the classified computer tapes he stole from the lab, defying the terms of his plea agreement. The FBI has turned to his wife for help, as WorldNetDaily reported Tuesday.
Former FBI Director Louis Freeh said the administration cut a deal with Lee for “one overarching reason: to find out what happened to the missing tapes.”
He’s now suing the government and trying to publish his book, “My Country Versus Me.”
Also, sources point out that Vrooman failed to properly vet foreign lab visitors and workers, many of them Chinese, signaling again that he was overly sanguine about the Chinese espionage threat.
A September 1997 congressional report found that Los Alamos conducted background checks on only 139 of 2,714 visitors from “sensitive” countries, including China, over a two-year period.
On Vrooman’s watch, the number of Chinese nationals working at the lab soared to 97 in 1999 from 19 in 1992, according to an internal Los Alamos report.
To be sure, former Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary relaxed security across-the-board and kicked open lab doors to China as part of her “openness” policy, as well as President Clinton’s broader “denuclearization” policy.
But the responsibility of onsite screening of Chinese visitors still fell to Vrooman.
Fitton contends that Vrooman – who left his counterintelligence post at the lab in late 1998 but stayed on as a consultant – attacked Trulock to deflect criticism of his loose handling of security at Los Alamos, particularly when it came to guarding against Chinese spying.
“He did devastating damage to our client’s reputation with his false charge” of racism in the Lee case, Fitton said. “His motive was to cover up his own incompetence at the lab.”
Attempts to reach Vrooman for comment were unsuccessful.