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Sunday, February 4, 2007
Which Source Outed Wen Ho Lee?
By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
On March 8, 1999, Bill Richardson fired Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanian-born computer scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, in connection with an investigation into lost nuclear missile secrets.
Lee, 59, had been a spy suspect for several years, but he had not been charged with a crime.
The official information released by the Department of Energy and LANL was only that an employee had been fired.
Richardson talked to reporters that day to announce and defend the firing, saying the employee had failed to disclose contacts he'd had with people from a sensitive country, failed to safeguard classified information and attempted to deceive lab officials about security matters.
But some news wire and television reports that day and newspaper reports the next day identified Lee by name and with detailed information about him.
Where did that name come from?
Circumstances pointed to Richardson or someone else high in his office.
Years later, after Lee filed a lawsuit against federal officials for invading his privacy by leaking his name, a federal appeals court judge would single out Richardson, Energy Department counterintelligence director Edward Curran and deputy security chief Notra Trulock as the three likely suspects.
Richardson denied under oath that he was the source. In testimony to a Senate subcommittee, Trulock said Richardson was the leaker.
In their book about the Lee case, "A Convenient Spy," San Jose Mercury News reporter Dan Stober and former Albuquerque Journal reporter Ian Hoffman also pin the leak on Richardson.
Reporters for The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and ABC News organizations that published the stories in question have refused to identify the leaker.
Faced with contempt charges and jail for their reporters for refusing to identify the source, those five news organizations agreed last year to pay Lee $750,000 to settle the suit, and the federal government kicked in another $895,000 for legal fees.
The Albuquerque Journal was not party to the litigation and did not report the initial information attributed to unnamed sources.
In August 1999, Lee still had not been charged with any crimes, and he went on "60 Minutes" to plead his case. Lee said he believed the government went looking for a Chinese scientist to blame for the loss of information and found him.
Lee was the focus of the story, but Richardson was also on camera, telling Mike Wallace that Lee had transferred sensitive weapons information from classified to unclassified computers, where it was accessible on the Internet.
Lee finally was indicted on Dec. 10 on 59 counts related to copying classified information with intent to harm the United States.
The criminal case crumbled over the next nine months and sputtered out in 2000 with a plea agreement. Lee would plead guilty to one count of mishandling classified information, be sentenced to time served and agree to tell the truth about where he had put the tapes of classified data he made.
His admission in court was, "I used an unsecured computer in T-Division to download a document or writing related to the national defense." He said he threw the tapes into a Dumpster in the secured X division at the lab.
U.S. District Judge James Parker apologized to Lee and singled out the Department of Energy's top decision-makers, among others, for a tongue-lashing.
"They have embarrassed our entire nation, and each of us who is a citizen of it," the judge said.
Richardson, appearing on "Meet the Press" shortly after Parker's rebuke, said he disagreed with the conditions of Lee's confinement, but he defended the prosecution and the plea.
"Confinement, shackles, I wouldn't have done that," he said. "But there's no question that I think the deal is good because it would enable us to get what happened with that very, very sensitive classified information."