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Jewish World Review March 26, 2003 / 22 Adar II, 5763

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Wen Ho Lee whistle-blower says beware of China | All eyes are on the war in Iraq today. But Notra Trulock, a former chief of intelligence for the Energy Department, says in his new book "Code Name Kindred Spirit: Inside the Chinese Nuclear Espionage Scandal" that, in the long run, it is China we have to worry about.

Trulock, now associate editor of Accuracy in Media's AIM Report, blew the whistle on the lax security system that during the Clinton administration allowed China's spies to acquire important nuclear weapon secrets from Los Alamos National Laboratory and elsewhere. After his warnings about security breaches by Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee and others were ignored, and after his career was essentially ruined for going public with them, Trulock wrote his book, which has been largely ignored by the mainstream media. I talked to the man who voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 by telephone on Wednesday from his hotel room in Hollywood, Ca.:

Q: As we speak our armies are moving up to the Iraq border, yet you say it is China that poses the most severe threat to the security of the United States.

A: If you look long out on the horizon, China is the only country that represents a true strategic challenge to the United States, particularly in its interest in East Asia. I say that for a number of reasons, but the topic of greatest concern to me was the Chinese pilferage of our nuclear secrets, our defense secrets and much of our strategic defense technology.

Q: What, in a sound bite, is the gist of "Code Name Kindred Spirit"?

A: This is the story of Chinese nuclear espionage and the failure of the Clinton administration to take measures necessary to prevent, detect and eventually deter that espionage.

Q: This is espionage that occurred in Los Alamos, N.M., or elsewhere?

A: What we learned was that the Chinese for 20 years back had been conducting a massive campaign across the nuclear complex, particularly hitting the nuclear design laboratories - Los Alamos and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory - particularly hard.

Q: How is it that they were able to do this so long? Don't we have FBI and other security and intelligence people? You'd think they'd be watching pretty closely.

A: You would. But, in fact, what we learned was that there was probably a decade's worth of studies and warnings issued to the Energy Department from former directors of the FBI and former directors of the CIA about the laboratories' vulnerabilities to espionage. And yet the labs really did nothing to address the threat or mitigate the threat in any way.

Q: What is the most controversial charge you make about the lax attitude of our intelligence services?

A: I think the worst thing I saw was the FBI's performance once it got on the case and was supposed to be conducting a full-field counter-intelligence investigation. Essentially, the FBI did nothing for three years. I think that's the most alarming thing I saw.

This was 1996 to 1999. The subject of that investigation was Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee, but essentially the FBI did nothing for three years. It was an investigation in name only.


Q: What specific kind of information did the Chinese get that was so important?

A: Within the limits of what I can say, we know that they obtained classified design information on the W88 thermonuclear warhead and on the U.S. enhanced-radiation or neutron bomb warhead. We know that they gained information on five other nuclear warheads in our arsenal, all of them for missiles.

We also know that Wen Ho Lee compromised 22 other nuclear warheads by placing classified data out on an unprotected computer network at Los Alamos. They sat out there for more than a decade. In one short period, 1997-1998, there were recorded 324 attacks from outside on that network, most of them successful.

Q: Hacker attacks, I guess.

A: Hacker attacks, but we knew that some, maybe many of them, were sponsored and came from foreign governments - Russia and China and elsewhere.

Q: And this kind of information is worth what, years? Billions? How do you measure it value?

A: The United States has had a nuclear weapons program since 1943. We conducted a thousand nuclear tests. The data, the non-nuclear tests that went on before, were enumerable. We have probably the richest reservoir of expertise on building nuclear weapons of anyone in the world. Untold amount of treasure - billions - was spent on this information.

Q: And it's not very well guarded?

A: Surprisingly, I think the safeguards on this information are feeble at best.


Q: China seems to have been forgotten. We have the "Axis of Evil" and it's not among them. Should our policymakers be more worried about China than they seem to be, at least publicly?

A: Well, where would the "Axis of Evil" be without China, because China is a major supplier of missile technologies, and, in some cases, even nuclear technologies, to all three of these characters.

They have been instrumental in the Iranian nuclear program. Through Pakistan we have to believe the Chinese have provided nuclear technologies and so on to North Korea. And we know that the Chinese have been supplying missile fuel and helping the Iraqis build up their air-defense program. A lot of those underground bunkers that we're going to have to go in and take out now were built for Iraq by the Chinese.

Q: And you say in your book that we helped Iraq build a nuclear bomb our very selves?

A: That's one of the things I learned. I was very surprised to realize how much assistance the Iraqis gained from our laboratories back in the 1980s.

Q: Do you think Iraq has a nuclear bomb?

A: I think they have a workable nuclear design. I think they have a cadre of scientists. We'll find out over the next weeks, I suppose, how much technology they have acquired. I do not believe they have fissile material that would be needed to actually drive a nuclear warhead.


Q: What happened to you when you tried to blow the whistle on the dishonesty, corruption and espionage you saw or suspected?

A: The first time I was told to bury and cover this all up was in 1997. Over the next years after that my career went progressively down hill. I was demoted out of my job as the director of intelligence in 1998. I was forced to leave the department in 1999. In the year 2000, the Department of Energy pressured a contractor I had signed up with to release me.

I became the object of a smear campaign by the Wen Ho Lee defense team - false allegations of racism, ethnic profiling - and so my career was destroyed by all of this.

Q: What did Wen Ho Lee do and did he get away with it?

A: At the end of the day, yes. An internal Justice Department review of the facts and events of this case that was done in 2000 concluded that there was sufficient probable cause to believe that Wen Ho Lee was an agent of the PRC (People's Republic of China) conducting clandestine intelligence activities.

At the end of the day, of course, he walked away. He pled guilty to one count of mishandling classified information, time-served and a small fine.

Q: Is this an institutional problem or a problem of administrations or what?

A: It clearly was an institutional problem. China was a problem, there's no doubt about this. Washington has a China problem. Twice during the Clinton administration the Justice Department turned down prosecutions or potential prosecutions against Los Alamos scientists on charges of espionage for fear of offending the government of China.

Some of the problems had to do with the dismantlement of the FBI's counter-espionage programs in the 1990s that were accelerated when Director Louis Freeh came on board in 1993, I believe it was. I think now we're at a point where the FBI understands it has a problem here and is trying to rebuild that capability, but it's going to take years.

Q: What did your experience teach you about what happens to whistle-blowers?

A: Well, I'm still learning. But I think that if you're going to be a whistle-blower you better think very long and very hard about the path you are about to embark on. It is a very rocky one.

Whistle-blowers run the risk of losing everything in the process. At the end of the day, in so many cases, particularly at the Energy Department, the things that they blew the whistle on go right on as if nothing had happened anyway. It's a tough road.

Q: You have no regrets though?

A: I have a lot of regrets, of course. But at the end of the day, my job was not to look the other way, cover up, or bury the espionage and the problems that created it, so I did the right thing.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald