|WEN HO LEE|
September 13, 2000
After a discussion with U.S. prosecutor Norman Bay, a panel looks at the Wen Ho Lee case and the plea agreement that freed Lee from nine months in solitary confinement.
GWEN IFILL: Let's turn to Bob Drogin from the Los Angeles Times. You have covered this case since it began. And I wonder if could you walk us through the key turning points were that brought us from the crown jewels of the first and original statements about Wen Ho Lee's arrest to today in which he basically walked out unscathed.
BOB DROGIN, Los Angeles Times: Gwen, this has been the incredible shrinking prosecution from the start. As you said, he was originally cited, although never charged as a spy, he was branded the spy of the century. By the time they finally got an indictment nine months later, they had something very different. They accused him of downloading, copying a great deal of classified information. It turned out very soon after that that information was classified at the time, or even now is classified at such a level that it essentially could be sent through the US mails. So that was a big problem. Secondly, of course, the defense was able to find a number of experts who were able to challenge and in some cases ridicule the government claims that this data was as crucial and indeed the crown jewels. And then the government had a tremendous problem when their chief witness, the chief FBI investigator in this case, recanted crucial testimony. So they had a tremendous credibility problem with the witness. And then you had a judge who was openly skeptical of government claims. There were a couple of other issues, but essentially the case began crumbling all around them.
GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about the judge. Judge Parker, as we alluded to earlier, had some pretty tough things to say today in court. What was the scene like in the courtroom?
BOB DROGIN: It was stunning. It was a very emotional kind of hearing. And afterwards, it was marked by a great deal of laughter and tears. It was quite a statement that he made. It went on for about 30 minutes and he just repeatedly apologized to Dr. Lee. He repeatedly said how sorry he was that he had been put in jail under what he called demeaning and inhumane conditions. He said he had been misled by the government. He said he had been led astray by the government, and particularly singled out what he called the top leadership at the Justice Department, Attorney General Reno and the Energy Department. And then he also singled out a former U.S. Attorney here who brought the original prosecution. So it was a very powerful denunciation of government prosecutorial tactics.
GWEN IFILL: After all this time, nine months later after the indictment, do we have any better idea today than we had then of what was actually on these tapes what danger these tapes represented?
|Labs in disarray|
BOB DROGIN: That's a matter of some dispute. I think perhaps the better way to ask this is where we are now. And the answer is that nine months after this case began, the labs themselves are in utter disarray. Morale has plummeted, recruitment is way down, people are leaving in droves. You've had careers ruined and lives destroyed, careers destroyed, lives ruined, and frankly, the government is no closer today than when it began to determining how China obtained nuclear weapons secrets. The only thing we do know is that Wen Ho Lee wasn't the source of that.
GWEN IFILL: Robert Vrooman, you worked for the government until you retired. Give us some sort of sense about what the government did right in your opinion and what the government did wrong, which I assume you believe is quite a bit?
ROBERT VROOMAN, Former Chief, Counterintelligence, Los Alamos Laboratory: Well, the original case against Dr. Lee was flawed from the beginning. And yet there was an insistence that the case should be pushed forward even though every FBI agent that I worked with said it was flawed, including Mr. Messemer, who used the term to me that it was intellectually flawed.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Messemer, being the FBI agent who later recanted his earlier statements.
ROBERT VROOMAN: Yes. So I think the insistence that pushing this, even though they knew that it was a very weak case, befuddles me. And I don't agree, respectfully don't agree with Mr. Bay when he said that this improves national security. The collateral damage from the Lee case, which Mr. Drogin has pointed out, that national labs are severely impacted, some lives are hurt, and one thing that many people forget is that the nuclear emergency search team has to cooperate to do their job with the FBI, and right now, the relationship is almost irreparable. So this is not in the national interest in spite of what Mr. Bay says.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Vrooman, Dr. Lee has been -- a lot of people gathered around him and supported him, including the Asian-American community which has raised questions along the way that he was pursued in part because he was Chinese-born even though he's a naturalized citizen. What do you make of that?
|The state of security at Los Alamos|
ROBERT VROOMAN: Well, I understand there is sensitivity to that issue. Not being a minority, I don't think I really understand the depth that they feel about that. My feeling always was that the root cause of this problem in the case was not, what do you want to call it, ethnic profiling or racism. It was really just the lack of intellectual rigor in the original investigation. And part of that is, I think, that once they found Lee, and he was ethnic Chinese, they didn't go on and look at the entire population. Now, former Senator Warren Rudman agrees with me. Senator Thompson and Lieberman agree with that assessment. And so I think I'm in pretty good company in that.
GWEN IFILL: Robert Clark, you worked at Los Alamos until a few years ago. Do you have any sense about the big unanswered question, I guess here, which is how lax is security at the lab?
ROBERT CLARK, Former Los Alamos Scientist: How lax is security?
GWEN IFILL: Yes.
ROBERT CLARK: It certainly tightened up recently, but I would have to say that the simple fact that Wen Ho Lee could do what he did as easily as he did, it makes you wonder.
GWEN IFILL: How easy is it to do what he did?
ROBERT CLARK: At the time he did it, it only took a set of instructions, which were available almost anywhere. It could have been done by anyone up until a couple of years ago, probably a year ago.
GWEN IFILL: And what did he...
ROBERT CLARK: It was quite simple.
GWEN IFILL: And I'm curious if you have a sense about what he did, how damaging is the information that he actually downloaded and copied on to unclassified computers?
ROBERT CLARK: Well, although I don't know the exact details of every file that he put on those tapes, in general, the computer codes that we're talking about, although they are used for simulating nuclear weapons, what happens to a nuclear weapon when you ignite it, the stuff that's in the codes is used for thousands of other things, and the methods that are in there are readily available in open literature, and worked on by people at universities and everywhere. The only thing that's really classified about them is that when you compile them into a single code and you tell a foreign power that this is the way we do it, they would be interested in knowing that's the way you do it and then they'd look at it and study it. But they certainly -- I certainly do not believe, let's call a spade a spade, we're talking about China, I certainly do not believe the Chinese would ever take these codes and try to design a weapon with these codes. So, I think, I heard the testimony both ways and I believe it was exaggerated both ways. The codes are useful and valuable, but the fact is the vast majority of this stuff is unclassified by vast, almost all, but several lines.
GWEN IFILL: So, Mr. Vrooman, do you agree with that, that this is not information the Chinese would ever have been able to really use against us in any case?
ROBERT VROOMAN: I'll defer to Mr. Clark on that. I'm not a scientist, and I'm an intelligence officer.
GWEN IFILL: Well, do we have any reason to know based on what we've seen in these nine months of investigation about whether Mr. Lee is, indeed, just a naive bungler, or whether he was kind of a scheming spy? I mean, do we -- are we any closer to knowing the answer to that?
|A naive bungler?|
ROBERT VROOMAN: That's a nice choice that you give me. If I have to take one of the two, I would say that he's a naive bungler. He's not a spy. I have maintained that for many years. And I'm very comfortable with that and today I feel vindicated about that.
GWEN IFILL: Well, how did it unfold then? Was this just an overeager, I guess I asked this question earlier -- was this an overeager government just trying to, jumping too hard on the very suspicion just to smell the whiff of Chinese espionage?
ROBERT VROOMAN: I think in the beginning, some people saw this as a career-enhancing opportunity. Other people who went along with it just didn't have the backbone to stand up and say this is wrong and every human frailty was involved in this Lee case.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Clark, you worked with Mr. Lee in the Los Alamos laboratories. Do you have any sense that the man you worked with, in the laboratory you worked in, would have made him a target because of his ethnic heritage?
ROBERT CLARK: I... I hate to say he was made a target, but clearly, as soon as they found a Chinese-American that had done basically exactly the same things that I had done, I went to China with Wen Ho Lee on one of those trips. I worked on the same codes that Wen Ho Lee worked on. We were good friends. I had access to everything that Wen Ho Lee had access to. But someone obviously felt that he was more likely to be a spy than I was.
GWEN IFILL: So you're saying that you went on the same trips, you had access to the same codes, but you were never a suspect?
ROBERT CLARK: To my knowledge, I was never a suspect. I think Bob Vrooman actually could answer that question.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Vrooman, do you want to take a try?
ROBERT VROOMAN: Sure. He was never a suspect.
GWEN IFILL: There you go. There's the answer. Bob Drogin, so we have this whole story which is now unfolded and the question remains not only do we know anything about what Mr. Lee did, but we do know that he at least admitted today to downloading these files, which is a crime. We don't know why. We don't know what became of them. What happens next?
BOB DROGIN: Well, he goes home to a big party tonight is what I understand. His neighbors have been taking cookies out of the freezer and putting them back and taking them out and whatnot for days now because this has been such a cliff-hanger kind of a case. We've been waiting for several weeks for him to get out. I think the case kind of now moves on. We try to figure out what this means for policy. The labs have -- desperate to get back on their feet. The director of the Los Alamos lab said on Monday that this has been the most difficult 18-month period in the history of the Los Alamos lab. You know, I think there probably should be an awful lot of soul searching by members of Congress, members of the media and frankly members of the Justice Department and the Energy Department as to how a case was brought that really seems to have been built on quick sand.
GWEN IFILL: You say members of the media because...
BOB DROGIN: Because there was some very sensational reporting in the early stages of this that I think played a role in creating the pressure to go ahead, and led members of Congress to hold a series of very heated hearings and leaked a great deal of damaging information that in retrospect didn't hold up at all.
GWEN IFILL: Have any fundamental questions been answered about security at the nation's top secret labs? Have any fundamental questions been answered about security?
BOB DROGIN: Well, you know, you asked earlier about whether it was easy for Wen Ho Lee to take that kind of material. You could ask the same question about the Pentagon or the State Department or the White House. You know, people who are cleared who have a high security clearance and work on computers, in most cases there is nothing that stops them in the US Government from downloading that material onto a floppy drive and taking it out the door -- or in the case of a lot of these scientists, just walking out the door with what they know in their heads. And that's ultimately the problem in these cases, I think -- insiders who for whatever reason, decide to pass this on. You know, and let's not forget, I mean, Wen Ho Lee is a free man and it is a great triumph for the defense today. We still don't know why he did it. We still don't know what he did with it. We still don't know why it did it in the middle of the night. There really are some very perplexing aspects to this case that have not been answered.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Vrooman, a final question to you and then also, Mr. Clark, I'd like for you to respond. Norman Bay said that justice was done in this plea agreement. Do you agree?
ROBERT VROOMAN: Well, justice was done, but it was very late, and as I mentioned earlier, there was a lot of collateral damage that should not have occurred, and I do not think the nation today is -- security-wise -- is in as good a shape as it was before the Wen Ho Lee case.
GWEN IFILL: And, Mr. Clark?
ROBERT CLARK: I have to, I have to say that in the real world, justice in the sense of he admitted to a crime, and has been punished, may be true, but the actual crime to which he admitted, I do not believe, is that rare that it deserves a felony on one's record. And if everybody in the country that had ever done something like that had a felony conviction, I would be surprised if anybody in the country who has done something similar to that has a felony conviction for it. So I'm not so sure that this was really justice.
GWEN IFILL: Gentlemen, thank you all very much.