April 29, 1999

The Deadliest Download

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  • WASHINGTON -- During President Clinton's watch, America's most vital nuclear secrets -- guarded intensely for five decades -- have been allowed to spill out all over the world. 

    Five weeks ago I surmised that what now worried our scientists most was the possible theft of the "Lagrangian codes" from our national laboratories. 

    These are the supercomputer programs that -- when fed secret data "benchmarks" from all our nuclear tests -- enable foreign scientists to simulate our explosions and erase our lead. 

    We are now informed by The New York Times's Pulitzer-Prize-winning investigative team that the codes -- "legacy codes," as they are known at Los Alamos -- were allegedly downloaded by Wen Ho Lee in 1994. Our nuclear genie is out of the bottle. 

    "The People's Republic of China is the number one proliferator," said Representative Chris Cox, chairman of the select committee on Chinagate. "Now the secrets are out there in the stream of commerce, and probably on to Iran and North Korea and Libya." 

    The hemorrhage is horrendous. How did it happen? The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is grilling F.B.I. Director Louis Freeh today in secret, but here are some facts: 

    Suspecting Lee at Los Alamos to be a spy for China, F.B.I. agents in 1997 alerted the White House and went to the Department of Justice's Office of Intelligence Policy Review to request application to a special court for a wiretap under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. But Acting Director Gerald Schroeder and his aide Alan Kornblum decided the evidence was insufficient and refused to apply. 

    The F.B.I. then went over Schroeder's head to the office of Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, and was turned down again. The F.B.I. never returned with new evidence to Schroeder. 

    Did Director Freeh appeal to Janet Reno about "over-lawyering" in a national security case, or was he too browbeaten to try? The bureau learned that when it comes to China, Reno Justice assigns only its most incompetent operatives and penalizes prosecutors who target Asian financing of the 1996 election. 

    Consider: Justice makes some 700 court applications a year for taps under that surveillance law. 

    Maybe once or twice a year, says a Justice intelligence official, it finally refuses the F.B.I.'s request that it apply. This case, involving an embarrassment to China when Clinton was proclaiming "strategic partnership," was the one. 

    Moreover, Congress should examine the ultra-gentle prosecution of a Los Alamos nuclear simulation scientist, Peter Lee, who was let off with a year in a halfway house. The sentencing judge was never told all Justice knew of his spying. 

    With his Chinese chickens coming home to roost, Clinton has been desperately trying to keep a lid on Chinagate. His first reaction -- that it happened back in the 80's and had nothing to do with him -- has been overtaken by eventful truth. 

    For 10 weeks he ducked a meeting with Cox and Norman Dicks of the House committee seeking security clearance of their 1,000-page report on China's penetration of our scientific and political worlds. Last week they met in a "sober" session; Cox expects his slightly sanitized report to be made public by May 15. 

    Two weeks after that, we'll see what the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board comes up with. Its chairman, former Senator Warren Rudman, was incensed by a prediction in this space of a whitewash: "It will be a hard-hitting report about security at the labs," he insists. 

    Rudman has hired nine new investigators and may come up with recommendations about locking the barn door now that the secrets of almost every nuclear test we have undertaken are on their way to Baghdad or Pyongyang via Beijing. 

    As the dangerous duping of this Administration unfolds, keep in mind Beijing's grand design: Use Asian fund-raisers to influence White House policy to sell China advanced computer and missile technology. Simultaneously, use spies to steal both the secret codes to program those supercomputers and to steal the data benchmarks enabling them to simulate our nuclear tests. 

    Thanks to the downloading of our secrets, American cities will be less safe in two years than they were at the height of the cold war. We owe it to ourselves to find out who let it happen and why.

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