Details of four investigations into suspected Chinese espionage over the past 20 years -- only one of which was prosecuted successfully -- revealing the complexities of such cases.
Larry Wu-Tai Chin
Born in Beijing, Larry Wu-Tai Chin began working for the United States during World War II, when, because of his English language skills, he was recruited by the U.S. Army as a translator and interpreter for the U.S. Army Liaison Office. In 1948, he undertook the same duties at the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai, and at this time he developed contacts within Chinese intelligence.
In 1951, Chin helped the State Department interview Chinese prisoners of war in Korea; the following year, he reportedly revealed their identities to the Chinese.
In 1952, Chin joined the Foreign Broadcast Information Service [FBIS], a division of the CIA, in Okinawa, Japan. He continued to be in communication with his Chinese contacts and would meet regularly with them in Hong Kong to exchange information. In 1961, the FBIS transferred Chin to a position in California, and Chinese intelligence set him up in Canada with a courier, to whom he could provide information. Four years later, Chin became a U.S. citizen.
After passing a polygraph in 1970, Chin was promoted to an FBIS position in Arlington, Va., where he handled highly sensitive information, including reports from U.S. agents abroad and documents relating to President Nixon's plan for normalizing relations with China. When he retired in 1981, Chin received a medal from the CIA for his distinguished service and later was f═ted in a similar ceremony by the Chinese.
In 1982, after receiving a tip from a source in China, the FBI began to suspect Chin was a spy. "We didn't have much information about him, except that he might have attended a party on a certain night in China, and had been given some sort of award, and that he might have come over on a Pan Am flight on a certain date," recalls Van Magers, an FBI agent who worked on the case. When Yu Qiangsheng, the Chinese intelligence officer who had provided the tip, defected to the United States in 1985, he brought his file on Chin with him, and the FBI interrogated Chin that November. When presented with the name of his Ministry of State Security (MSS) handler and evidence of their relationship, Chin confessed to spying for China. Chin became one of 14 people charged with espionage in 1985, "The Year of the Spy."
At his February 1986 espionage trial, Chin maintained that he had been passing the information to China in order to help improve relations between the two countries. It took less than a week for the jury to find him guilty of espionage, conspiracy, and tax evasion. Later that month, Chin killed himself in his prison cell before he could be sentenced.
Gwo-Bao Min "Tiger Trap"
An aeronautical engineer from Taiwan, Gwo-Bao Min began working in 1975 at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he studied nuclear weapons and missile defense.
It is believed that a tip from inside China prompted the FBI to open its "Tiger Trap" investigation into Min. The FBI obtained a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant and learned that Min had been checking out documents from the library at Lawrence Livermore on topics that ranged beyond his responsibilities. According to the FBI, Min's library records also revealed that his activity would spike right before he took a trip to China.
In 1981, Min was stopped at the airport prior to one of his trips to China, and FBI investigators found he was carrying an index card with detailed answers to five questions, including one pertaining to the miniaturization of nuclear weapons.
FBI investigators, led by Special Agent Bill Cleveland, confronted Min in 1981. Cleveland later told his colleague I.C. Smith "that he almost had Min to the point of making a confession." Prosecutors declined to press charges against Min because they felt there was not strong evidence in the case. Given the choice of resigning from his position at Lawrence Livermore or being fired, Gwo-Bao Min resigned, but the Tiger Trap investigation continued, and the FBI continued to monitor Min's communications.
In 1982, the FBI recorded a phone call Min received from Wen Ho Lee, a scientist from Taiwan who was working at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Lee had heard about Min's dealings with the FBI and offered to help find out how the bureau had been tipped off about Min's activities. [It was later disclovered that Lee thought Min was working for Taiwan, not China.] Min declined Lee's offer, but the phone call led to an initial FBI investigation of Wen Ho Lee.
After the Tiger Trap investigation, Gwo-Bao Min continued to visit China on business. In 1990, while traveling with a U.S. State Department delegation in a remote area of China near the North Korean border, Bill Cleveland was shocked to encounter Min at his hotel. However, months later, Cleveland heard a classified phone intercept in which Katrina Leung, who had been one of his sources in the Tiger Trap case, gave her Chinese MSS contact information that compromised Cleveland's trip to China.
To this day, Chinese counterintelligence specialists debate the significance of the Min-Cleveland encounter in China. Many maintain that it was merely coincidence. Even I.C. Smith, who was on the China trip with Cleveland, allows that "Sometimes these things happen." However, Smith does harbor some suspicions about the incident. "In the counterintelligence business, sometimes we look on coincidences with a jaundiced eye," he tells FRONTLINE. "We don't always believe in coincidences." [Note: Gwo-Bao Min did not respond to FRONTLINE's requests for an interview.]
Peter Lee "Royal Tourist"
Born in China, Peter Lee moved to Taiwan when he was 12. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1975, and worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as a physicist for eight years as part of a team studying the use of lasers to trigger nuclear reactions.
In the early 1980s, Lee made the acquaintance of Chinese scientist Chen Neng Kuan. He began to establish relationships with Chen and other Chinese scientists that led to more than 600 separate correspondences over the next 16 years.
During a 1985 encounter in a hotel room in the Chinese city of Mianyang, Chen coaxed classified information about a weapons device from Lee, who by that time was employed by Los Alamos National Laboratory. The next day, Lee disclosed more information to a roomful of scientists, based in part on a 1982 classified report, "An Explanation for Viewing Angle Dependence of Temperature from Cairn," that he had authored.
Intelligence from China tipped off the FBI about Lee's involvement with the Chinese, and the bureau began monitoring him via FISA-authorized surveillance in 1982. In 1991, J.J. Smith's Los Angeles FBI office opened a case on Lee, and by 1993 it became a full-blown investigation.
Lee vacationed in China in 1997 as a guest of China's Institute of Applied Physics and Computational Mathematics (IAPCM). While there, he made two presentations on microwave submarine detection technology -- a project he was currently working on at TRW Inc. and was not authorized to discuss. In fact, Lee's position at TRW, a government contractor, had required him to sign a nondisclosure agreement with the Department of Defense. Per TRW protocol, Lee was supposed to file a report on his trip upon his return and indicate any contact with Chinese scientists. Lee did not recount his interactions with the scientists in his report or in an interview two months later with an FBI agent.
The FBI tracked Lee on his trip to China in 1997, and through its FISA intercepts the bureau began to suspect that he had been in communication with scientists while he was there. The FBI investigation was accelerated when Lee's wife discovered a surveillance microphone while dusting an air-conditioning duct.
In an ensuing series of interviews with FBI agents, Lee admitted that he lied about the purpose of his 1997 trip but maintained that he had paid for the trip himself. Following the interview, he urgently e-mailed and faxed a contact in China asking for forged travel receipts, only to have the communication intercepted by the FBI. These intercepts, coupled with a failed polygraph, were enough evidence to obtain a confession, recorded on videotape by the FBI, in which Lee admitted disclosing unauthorized information on his 1985 and 1997 trips to China and lying on his travel reports.
In December 1997, Lee signed a plea bargain in which he pleaded guilty to providing unauthorized information to the Chinese on his 1985 trip to China and lying to the bureau. However, there was no mention of the information disclosed in his 1997 lectures, because the Navy requested that this be kept out of the case due to the sensitivity of the information.
Lee was sentenced in March 1998 to a year in a halfway house, community service, and a $20,000 fine. Lee maintains his violations were merely of a technical nature as a result of strict classification guidelines that were relaxed after the Cold War, because by the time of his 1997 confession, the information he disclosed in 1982 had been declassified. [Note: Peter Lee did not respond to FRONTLINE's requests for an interview.]
Wen Ho Lee "Kindred Spirit"
In 1995, the Department of Energy (DOE) began to suspect that the Chinese had stolen the design for the W88, a highly sophisticated nuclear warhead. The DOE opened up an administrative inquiry into U.S. nuclear laboratory security, code-named "Kindred Spirit," and the FBI joined the investigation in 1996.
News of the investigation was leaked to The New York Times, which ran a story ("Breach At Los Alamos," March 6, 1999) that revealed the W88 theft. The article said that there was a lead suspect in the investigation: a Chinese-American scientist who was working at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The New York Times story caused a media and political frenzy surrounding the possible theft of U.S. nuclear secrets. Two days later, Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese scientist who worked at Los Alamos, was fired and his name was publicly leaked. Although his name became linked with the W88 theft, the government never proved that Lee -- or anyone else -- had given the information to China.
The FBI and DOE focused on Lee in part because of suspicious behavior he had exhibited over the years. He had first appeared on the FBI's radar screen in 1982 during the Tiger Trap investigation, when he made a phone call to suspect Gwo-Bao Min and offered to help him find out who had leaked Min's name to investigators. (It was later determined that Lee thought Min was working for Taiwan, not China.) Lee denied contacting Min until pressed with the FBI's evidence of the call. Over the years, Lee also sent documents to Taiwan that were stamped with a NOFORN (no foreign distribution) designation, and he failed to report, as required, a meeting with a Chinese scientist until 10 years after the fact.
Although the W88 investigation was closed, the FBI continued to investigate Wen Ho Lee and uncovered more behavior that seemed suspicious. While searching his office in late March 1999, agents found evidence that Lee had moved weapons-design files to an unclassified network, thus making the files accessible from outside the lab. Investigators also discovered that Lee had started moving the files in 1992, that he had tried to delete files from an unclassified server after a 1998 polygraph examination with the FBI, and that he had made tapes that contained classified data and then tried to remove them from the lab.
Based on the new evidence against him, Lee was arrested in December 1999 and indicted on 59 felony counts alleging that he illegally downloaded classified information and violated the Atomic Energy Act and the Foreign Espionage Act. At the time of his arrest, Lee was determined to be a flight risk and ordered kept in solitary confinement.
However, in August 2000, Lee was granted a new bail hearing after his lawyers received new documents from the U.S. attorney's office that were favorable to his defense. The judge's decision to release Lee but keep him under house arrest was initially stayed by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver at the request of the Department of Justice.
In September 2000, Lee and the government struck a deal: He agreed to plead guilty to one felony count for downloading classified material to an unsecured computer. He also agreed to assist the FBI for one year, in return for which his sentence would be time already served.
At the time of Lee's sentencing on Sept. 12, 2000, Presiding Judge James Parker questioned the government's insistence on Lee's imprisonment "under extraordinarily onerous conditions" and apologized to Lee. "It is only the top decision makers in the Executive Branch, especially the Department of Justice and the Department of Energy and locally, during December, who have caused embarrassment by the way this case began and was handled," Parker stated. "They did not embarrass me alone. They have embarrassed our entire nation and each of us who is a citizen of it."
In May 2000, federal prosecutor Randy Bellows fronted a Department of Justice review of the Kindred Spirit investigation. The group released a report in which it found the 1996 DOE administrative inquiry regarding the W88 theft to be highly flawed, because it hastily narrowed the investigation to focus on Lee. The Bellows Report also criticized the FBI for accepting "without reservation" the DOE's recommendations.
In September 2000, The New York Times ran a review of its reporting on the Kindred Spirit case and admitted that its March 1999 story was flawed. Although they defended the paper's coverage of the W88 theft, the Times editors wrote, "Looking back, we also found some things we wish we had done differently in the course of the coverage to give Dr. Lee the full benefit of the doubt."
Shortly after his arrest in December 1999, Lee filed a lawsuit against the federal government, accusing FBI and Departments of Justice and Energy of violating the Privacy Act of 1974 and having a part in the leaks that led to the accusatory story in The New York Times. The case is still pending.
Editor's note: These profiles were written based upon FRONTLINE's interviews for "From China With Love," news accounts of the cases and Dan Stober's book A Convenient Spy: Wen Ho Lee and the Politics of Nuclear Espionage.
+ Why Are Espionage Convictions So Rare?
Here, former FBI Special Agent Edward Appel and criminal defense attorney Brian Sun explain why it is so difficult to win an espionage conviction in a U.S. court of law.
home + introduction + the "parlor maid" case + how china spies + inside fbi counterintelligence
interviews + join the discussion + producer's chat
FRONTLINE + wgbh + pbsi
posted january 15, 2004
web site copyright 1995-2014
WGBH educational foundation