Accused Chinese Los Alamos
Lab Spy's Wife Worked
By Dan Stober - San Jose Mercury News
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 Chinese delegations.''
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 the CIA.
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 espionage.
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 no comment.
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 in 1997.
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 laboratory.''
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 to museums.''
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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