Two journalists take the widely publicized case of accused secret agent Wen Ho Lee as an instance of lax security, bureaucratic bungling, misguided energy, and ill-served justice in America.
Taiwanese immigrant Lee, a programmer at Los Alamos National Laboratories for two decades, had access to virtually every piece of nuclear data in the American arsenal. There’s no question that Lee broke every security rule in the book: he squirreled away top-secret information, copied computer files detailing nuclear-bomb codes onto floppy disks and unsecured hard drives, and talked willingly to Chinese nuclear scientists about technologies that eventually showed up in weapons developed in the People’s Republic. But was he a spy? The US government, having ferreted Lee out in a hunt that pitted agency against agency, never turned up solid evidence that he betrayed his adopted country, though investigators did find box after box of sensitive documents and data in Lee’s garage and caught him in lie after lie on polygraph tests. In the end, Lee walked, despite all the efforts of an intelligence community convinced that China is likely to be America’s chief enemy in years to come and despite the fact that China had been actively gathering nuclear secrets from “not only ethnic Chinese but anyone with access to science and technology information”—requisites that Lee fulfilled to the letter. The heart of the authors’ text addresses the questions of why American intelligence failed, why Lee was able to gather information so freely, and why incompetence seems to run rampant at all levels of our government. Though their narrative sometimes gasps under the weight of detail, Stober (San Jose Mercury News) and Hoffman (Albuquerque Tribune) do a fine job of negotiating a path through the secretive, arrogant subcultures involved in the Lee affair: the demimondes of spies and counterspies, of federal bureaucrats, of self-serving politicians, of scientists—and of journalists.
A powerful exposé.