- Wen Ho Lee's wife worked for the CIA when she was a secretary
at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the 1980s, a revelation that defense
attorneys will use to attack the government case against the scientist
accused of betraying America's most sensitive nuclear weapons secrets.
- Sylvia Lee supplied information about Chinese scientists
to a CIA officer in her capacity as liaison between the lab and visiting
delegations, according to congressional and intelligence officials, and
people familiar with the case. Wen Ho Lee, who worked at the lab for nearly
20 years, also met with the CIA officer at least once before he and his
wife visited China in 1986.
- The CIA connection raises a crucial question in the case:
Were Wen Ho Lee's actions the work of a spy, a naive scientist or someone
gathering information for the U.S. government?
- ``It is at least inconsistent to ask folks to cooperate
with the government and at the same time contend that what they're doing
is nefarious,'' said a person familiar with the defense strategy.
- Although only Lee has been charged, the FBI has made
it clear that both he and his wife were under investigation. The FBI's
approach, according to a 1999 congressional report, was that ``he had access
to the relevant weapons data, while she had access both to him and to visiting
- Federal prosecutors have alleged that some of the Lees'
interactions with the Chinese on the 1986 trip -- and at other times in
China and the United States -- were conducted under suspicious circumstances,
indicating the Lees might be spies.
- But the new disclosures about the CIA allow the defense
to claim that the Lees' dealings were known to, and possibly sanctioned
by, a CIA officer. While she was mingling with the foreign scientists,
the defense can argue, Sylvia Lee was feeding information about them to
- Judge will decide
- Wen Ho Lee's defense team has asked U.S. District Court
Judge James Parker to order the government to produce documents explaining
Sylvia Lee's cooperation with the CIA. Parker agreed to read the documents
in his chambers before deciding whether to disclose them to the defense.
- The CIA officer -- identified by several sources as Dan
Wofford -- will be unable to contradict any defense claims. He died of
natural causes in the late 1990s.
- The CIA connection will create more headaches for federal
prosecutors already struggling to explain Wen Ho Lee's motives for downloading
the weapons secrets to portable tapes, seven of which are missing. He is
being held in a jail in Santa Fe, N.M., awaiting a November trial on charges
that he mishandled classified data. Although he was investigated as a potential
spy three separate times, beginning in 1982, he has not been charged with
- To win a conviction, federal prosecutors must convince
a jury that Lee took the data with the intent to harm the United States
or aid another country. Lacking direct evidence, they are attempting to
establish proof through circumstantial evidence of suspicious behavior,
including Wen Ho Lee's contacts with the Chinese scientists.
- Assistant U.S. Attorney George Stamboulidis also has
expanded the field of possible motives. He has filed court papers suggesting
that Lee might have taken the data to beef up his résumé
as he applied for jobs in Singapore, Australia, Switzerland, France, Germany,
Hong Kong and Taiwan.
- Wofford's relationship with Sylvia Lee, meanwhile, has
become the subject of a behind-the-scenes dispute between the CIA and FBI.
The FBI has questioned whether Wofford was running an unauthorized ``rogue
operation'' with Sylvia Lee; the CIA has denied it, according to officials
familiar with the debate.
- CIA spokeswoman Anya Guilsher said the agency would have
- Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chair of the Senate intelligence
committee, was prepared to delve into the CIA's relationship with Sylvia
Lee in December, after her husband was arrested. He canceled the effort
at the request of FBI Director Louis Freeh, who said further hearings might
interfere with the criminal case against Wen Ho Lee. Specter held hearings
last year on the FBI's request for electronic surveillance of the Lees
- Wen Ho Lee's case has become one of the most closely
watched and controversial national-security cases in years. His supporters,
especially in the Asian-American community, have charged that Lee is being
prosecuted as a scapegoat by the Clinton administration to deflect Republican
charges that the administration has been lax in enforcing security at the
U.S. nuclear weapons labs.
- The Lees' encounters with the CIA, the FBI and the Chinese
scientists began not long after they arrived at Los Alamos 20 years ago.
Now 60, Wen Ho Lee was born in Taiwan. He came to the United States when
he was 24, earned a doctorate in engineering from Texas A&M, became
a U.S. citizen and began work at the lab in 1980. His specialty was writing
computer programs that predict how plutonium behaves when compressed by
high explosives during the beginning stages of a nuclear explosion.
- He met his future wife in America. Four years younger
than her husband, Sylvia Lee was born in Hunan province, China. She, too,
became a naturalized citizen and began work at the lab in 1980 as a secretary.
- It also was the same year that U.S. and Chinese nuclear
weapons designers, until then strangers, began a series of lab-to-lab visits.
- One of the U.S. goals was to gain a better understanding
of the Chinese weapons program. Sylvia Lee became a central fixture in
the relationship, translating documents, interpreting conversations and
volunteering to act as host.
- A go-between
- ``Both sides would pass messages back and forth through
the Lees,'' said Robert Vrooman, the former head of counterintelligence
at the lab. ``The Lees would write in Chinese and say, `Would you ask so-and-so
to bring this information when he comes next week?' All this was unclassified.''
- Vrooman described Sylvia Lee as sitting at the narrow
part of the hourglass, with the U.S.-Chinese exchanges constantly flowing
past her desk. The FBI said she ``apparently had more extensive contacts
and closer relationships with these delegations than anyone else at the
- In court documents in recent years, the FBI has described
Sylvia Lee's behavior as unusual and ``aggressive.''
- But her role was approved by the Los Alamos lab director
and the FBI, said Vrooman. ``Some people say she inserted herself. And
that is truly unfair,'' Vrooman said. ``She was asked to do it.''
- Sometime during the mid-1980s Sylvia Lee's relationship
with Wofford began. According to people in a position to know, she was
providing the CIA with the same type of information she was giving to FBI
agent Dave Bibb, the counterintelligence officer she reported to at Los
Alamos: names of scientists, lists of those attending seminars, copies
of documents. In CIA jargon, Sylvia Lee was a ``support asset.''
- The Lees' 1986 trip to China, which Los Alamos officials
approved, is an example of how the CIA issue may surface in court.
- Wen Ho Lee was invited to Beijing for a conference on
hydrodynamics, his specialty. It is a subject that has applications in
nuclear weapons, but also in a wide variety of other fields, from weather
studies to astrophysics.
- On the same trip, Lee visited the Institute for Applied
Physics and Computational Mathematics, the Chinese nuclear weapons lab.
In an FBI interrogation of Lee last year, FBI agents put a sinister spin
on the trip.
- ``They were good to you,'' one of the agents said to
Lee. ``They took care of your family. They took you to the Great Wall.
They had dinners for you. . . . You got escorted around. You got taken
- The implication was that Lee had reason to feel indebted
to his hosts and perhaps felt an obligation to answer their questions about
classified matters. But before their trip to China, both Lees had met with
Bibb and Wofford.
- Wofford apparently spoke Mandarin with the Lees; Bibb
does not speak Mandarin. Recently, the FBI has questioned whether the CIA
officer had been secretly using the Lees to acquire certain information
on their trip.
- ``There's been an intense investigation about this, trying
to understand the relationship,'' said a government official familiar with
the situation. ``Because Wofford is dead, it's hard to get inside his head.''
- Bibb, who still has an office at Los Alamos, said he
could not discuss the case without the permission of the U.S. Attorney's
Office. Stamboulidis did return phone calls.
- In the mid-1990s -- after her role as liaison had ended
-- Sylvia Lee's decade-old relationships would bring suspicion upon not
just her but her husband as well.
- Letter of thanks
- When she gave up her role as liaison in 1989, she received
a letter of thanks from lab director Siegfried Hecker. ``I want to let
you know that I appreciate your efforts on behalf of our relations with
our Chinese colleagues,'' Hecker wrote. ``Again, thanks for your help over
the past years.''
- A memo given to Sylvia Lee at the same time suggests
that there was no suspicion of Sylvia Lee, but rather about ``the motives
of the PRC (People's Republic of China) in cultivating her as their point-of-contact.''
- Those concerns were raised another time, when Sylvia
Lee, ``a secretary with no computer expertise,'' was invited to a computing
seminar in China, according to George Kwei, then a manager at the lab.
- The Mercury News strives to avoid use of unnamed sources.
When unnamed sources are used because information cannot otherwise be obtained,
the newspaper generally requires more than one source to confirm the information.
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