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Jewish World Review Sept. 2, 1999 /21 Elul, 5759

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Will we ever learn the truth about Los Alamos? -- RACISM HAS BEEN blamed over the years for everything from poverty to high blood pressure, but recent allegations that racism is to blame for the failure of the bungled federal investigation into spying at Los Alamos National Laboratory takes the cake.

In the last few weeks, two former U.S. Department of Energy officials and a scientist at the Energy Department's Los Alamos National Laboratory have accused the man responsible for exposing suspected Chinese espionage at the lab, Notra Trulock, of targeting the chief suspect in the case, Wen Ho Lee, because of his ethnicity.

Last week, Trulock resigned as deputy direct of intelligence at the Energy Department, largely because of his frustration that his motives and integrity have become the issue instead of the administration's own appalling mishandling of the investigation of whether China has stolen some of the United States' most important nuclear secrets. Meanwhile, the investigation itself seems headed nowhere.

Trulock denied on television Sunday that race had anything to do with his suspicion that Lee may have passed on secrets to China. Lee was born in Taiwan, but is now a U.S. citizen. He worked as a nuclear scientist at Los Alamos highly secret weapons lab for nearly 20 years, until March, when he was fired after failing a polygraph test.

Although he has not been formally charged with any crime, Lee has been the central figure in the government's three-year espionage investigation. While many of the details of the investigation remain classified, it is known that Lee transferred highly sensitive nuclear codes to an unsecured computer, which violates federal laws governing the handling of classified information.

A number of Asian-American organizations as well as the Energy Department's former intelligence chief, Robert J. Vrooman, have suggested the government focused on Lee as a form of "racial profiling" in the espionage field, akin to the practice of some police departments routinely singling out blacks and Hispanics for possible criminal behavior. But does "racial profiling" really explain what happened to Lee?

What makes racial profiling so objectionable is that race becomes a kind of proxy for criminal conduct. A black person driving a late-model car on the interstate or a Hispanic person getting off an international flight are automatically suspect and may be pulled over or detained, even though they have done nothing more suspicious than driving while black or flying while brown. But that's not what happened to Lee.

The Energy Department launched its spy investigation after a 1995 CIA report revealed that the Chinese government appeared to have obtained highly secret information on the United States' most sophisticated nuclear warhead, the W-88. Among the obvious sources of the information were scientists at the Energy Department's nuclear labs, including Los Alamos.

Trulock maintains that Lee was one of 12 possible suspects whom he identified to the FBI as potential spies. The other suspects, two Asians and nine whites, were all cleared by FBI and Energy investigators, but Lee remained a target. It wasn't Lee's ethnic background but his suspicious behavior that landed him in hot water.

Not only did he have access to the kind of information investigators thought might have been leaked, but he had numerous opportunities to pass on the information on various trips he made to China and during known contacts he made with Chinese scientists and government officials visiting the United States. But most importantly, Lee failed a polygraph exam when asked whether he had passed on secret information.

No question, the government has botched the Lee investigation -- largely because government agencies failed to act quickly enough. Robert Vrooman, who raised the racism specter, now faces possible disciplinary action for allowing Lee access to classified material long after the scientist was the primary subject of the espionage investigation.

The Justice Department, too, appears to have impeded the inquiry by refusing to approve a special foreign-intelligence search warrant to allow investigators access to Lee's computer. But now that the race card has been played, who knows whether anyone will have the stomach to get to the bottom of this case.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate