April 29, 1999
By WILLIAM SAFIRE
The Deadliest Download
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on William Safire
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
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
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
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.