. . . But Its Ability to Fool The U.S. Is Impressive
By Edward Jay Epstein, author of "Dossier: The Secret History of Armand Hammer" (Random House, 1996).
August 19, 1999
The Chinese espionage case that has bedeviled American intelligence since 1995 took a new turn this week when Robert S. Vrooman, former chief of counterintelligence at Los Alamos National Laboratory, claimed there was no evidence whatever against the prime suspect, Taiwan-born American scientist Wen Ho Lee. According to Mr. Vrooman, Mr. Lee, who had worked at Los Alamos for 20 years, was only one of many scientists who had access to the design information of the miniature W-88 nuclear warhead--in fact, the data were "distributed to 548 different addresses at the Defense Department, Energy Department, various defense firms, the armed services and even the National Guard." Mr. Lee, it seems, was targeted for investigation because of his Chinese ethnicity. But the full story does not end there.
There are, to begin with, reasons to doubt Mr. Vrooman, who was fired because of his putative mishandling of security at Los Alamos and so has an interest in exonerating Mr. Lee. A search of Mr. Lee's computer files found that he had downloaded classified design information on his own backup computer, evidence of a security lapse (for which he was fired), though not of actual espionage.
There is also the matter of how U.S. intelligence got wind of possible espionage in the first place. In the early 1990s, sophisticated analysis of seismographic and other data indicated that the Chinese had produced a thermonuclear warhead with an increased yield-to-weight ratio, similar to those developed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the 1970s. The burning intelligence issue was how China had managed this feat. Had it been the product of its own scientific work? Had Beijing obtained it from elements in the former Soviet Union? Or from a spy in the U.S.?
Then, in 1995, a Chinese citizen, presumably an official with access to secret information, sent the Central Intelligence Agency a packet of classified Chinese documents, one of which described the exterior dimensions of the W-88. Since the warhead had been designed at Los Alamos, it suggested that China had obtained the information through a spy who worked there sometime before China tested its warheads. With this information, the FBI focused its attention on those scientists and technicians at Los Alamos who had access to the design plans of the W-88 during that period.
Meanwhile, the CIA, looking its gift horse in the mouth, determined that the source had been acting "secretly under the direction of the PRC intelligence services" when he sent them the documents. If so, the documents painting tracks towards Los Alamos were part of a "provocation" designed to misdirect the attention of U.S. intelligence. Such disinformation need not be false so long as it is diverting. Just as in the famous Gestalt experiment in which the same picture can be organized in the mind as either human profiles or as a vase--but not both at the same time--the gifted information could be seen either as an espionage case or as a disinformation case.
As an espionage case, the question was who provided Chinese intelligence with the W-88 design and other technical information on U.S. nuclear weapons. The investigation into the technical staff at Los Alamos turned up evidence of egregiously lax security (which intensified the bureaucratic struggle over whether the Department of Energy or the FBI should have primary responsibility for counterespionage there), but it failed to produce direct evidence of spying, such as unexplained bank deposits, incriminating garbage scraps or secret meetings spotted by surveillance. When suspicion focused on Wen Ho Lee, the FBI tested him with a "false flag" sting in which an FBI agent pretended to be Chinese agent, but Mr. Lee did not respond in an incriminating way. The investigation, based on clues furnished by Chinese intelligence, thus came to a demoralizing dead end.
As a disinformation case, the issue is not where the data on the W-88 design originated--the Chinese government tauntingly suggested that it was available from such public sources as Chuck Hansen's book "U.S. Nuclear Weapons: The Secret History"--but why it was provided in 1995 to the CIA.
Disinformation can be used both tactically and strategically. Tactically, it can help divert attention from a valued spy. In this scenario, Chinese intelligence, learning that the technical analysis of its nuclear tests could compromise an active agent, might have created a red herring leading to Los Alamos while the real spy continued to operate elsewhere.
At a strategic level, the Chinese may have been concerned that U.S. decipherment of their tests could help uncover the means by which they were accomplishing their nuclear breakthroughs--means such as technology transfers from private industry or the secret cooperation of other powers. In this case, it may have wanted to focus U.S. attention on conventional espionage (especially less productive elements) to turn attention away from more valuable sources of information.
It may be years before we learn how China obtained design information on America's most valuable nuclear secrets. Or we may never know. The world of espionage is a house of mirrors, and things are never what they seem.