by Ian Greenhalgh & Jeff Smith

The above photo was released by North Korean state media in the wake of their underground test of a nuclear weapon last week, a test that was measured as a 5.1 magnitude seismic event by a Chinese monitoring station and was estimated as being of at least 50 kilotonnes in yield.

Even to my layman’s eye, the picture clearly shows a two-stage thermonuclear device, the dumbell shape containing a fission primary and a fusion secondary at it’s opposing ends. I consulted VT’s nuclear weapons expert Jeff Smith for further insight:

It’s a legit photo all the way down to the coax cable bundle and connector attached to the detonator circuitry, including the barometric pressure sensor and external x-ray neutron generator.

It is a multipoint 12 to 16 point spherical implosion system with a plutonium-based spherical secondary H-bomb design (classic Teller/Ulam H-bomb design). Looks just like our older late 1950’s stuff. Estimated yield 150 plus KT.

Basically it’s a copy of the 1960’s Polaris missile design. The warhead does not separate from the missiles’ main body, so it’s easy to intercept. The re-entry platform is quite crude.

So what we are looking at in the picture is a thermonuclear warhead built to an old US design, however, just because it is an old design does not make it any less dangerous, as Jeff explained:

Just because it is an older design doesn’t mean that it’s junk, rather that it is just not miniaturized enough to fit into a multiple re-entries (MIRV) system or cruise missile. In nukes, one man’s junk is another man’s gold.

However, despite this design have originated with the US nuclear weapons program, it has seen rather more widespread use, as Jeff related:

This design was copied by Israel, France, Russia and China; probably even India. It is also the Israeli Jericho 2 design, copied from the Polaris A1 design. The UK also had it in their older nuclear submarines.

This proliferation of what was originally a US warhead design, therefore, opens up a host of possibilities for whom is behind the supply of this warhead and the technical package to produce more to the DPRK. However, as we will explain, there is one candidate that stands out above all others as most definitely the source of the technology and the assistance and finance to have created the program inside the DPRK that has resulted in that nation becoming the latest member of the thermonuclear-armed ‘club’.

Who is really pulling the strings?

There is an endless discussion in certain circles about North Korea, what it really is and who is really pulling its strings; however, what is universally agreed is that the DPRK is a proxy state, a nation under foreign control that is simply not viable without outside assistance. Theories abound, some say the CIA is the puppetmaster, others point to Israel, but as we will explain, there is only one country that fits with all the evidence and that is Korea’s large and powerful neighbor – the People’s Republic of China.

It is a well-known fact that the DPRK is dependent on Chinese aid, without Chinese shipments, the country could not even feed its people. It is highly doubtful that Pyongyang makes any major decision without consulting Beijing, the relationship is probably closer to one of puppet and master than allies.

In recent years, the DPRK has made great leaps and bounds in both its missile and nuclear technologies, so great has been the advance in so short a period of time that it is pretty obvious that they have been given a great deal of assistance, both financial and technical. Just a few years ago, North Korean ballistic missiles were liquid-fuelled, old, obsolete technology that is highly vulnerable as it takes time to erect and fuel such missiles, meaning that their launch would come as no surprise as the time-consuming preparations would be all too clear to watching spy satellites.

However, the recent test launches of ballistic missiles have been of new, solid-fuelled types and as we have seen from the successful flights of these missiles, they are already well-developed and effective, meaning they are built from mature designs. Such a leap, from liquid to solid-fuelled missiles took decades to achieve in the US and cost huge sums of money to develop, therefore the fact that the DPRK has made the same leap in just two or three years means they had help and not just a little bit of help, a lot of help, a lot of finance, basically, they have been given this technology and probably complete missile systems too.

North Korea’s nuclear developments

The same quantum leap has also occurred with North Korea’s nuclear technology, they have gone from their first test explosion resulting in a sub-kilotonne unsuccessful ‘fizzle’ in October 2006 to a massive, tens of megatonnes thermonuclear blast in just over a decade. Clearly, the device they exploded in August 2017 was far beyond the abilities of a small, impoverished, largely agricultural nation, there is no doubt that it is the result of foreign aid and assistance.

The 2017 thermonuclear explosion was the sixth test of a nuclear device in the DPRK, and far bigger than the earlier tests by orders of magnitude. The first two tests, in 2006 and 2009 were small, so small that they were obviously unsuccessful; the next three tests, in February 2013, January 2016, and September 2016 were all far larger, in the 5 to 10 kilotonne range.

The thermonuclear weapon just tested is a two-stage device, which is often called a hydrogen bomb, but more accurately, a Teller-Ulam type two-stage fission-fusion device. This consists of a primary stage that is simply a nuclear fission bomb, similar to the ‘Fat Man’ dropped on Nagasaki in1945, the second stage is a fusion device that greatly boosts the explosive yield of the primary. As Jeff Smith explained:

It is a multipoint 12 to 16 point spherical implosion system with a PU-based spherical secondary H-bomb design (classic Teller/Ulam H-bomb design).

Exploded on its own, without the secondary stage, the primary has an explosive yield of between 5 and ten kilotonnes, therefore, it is highly likely that the prior 2013 and 2016 North Korean test explosions were of this primary stage, an essential step in building a thermonuclear weapon – first you get the fission bomb part to work reliably. Jeff once again explained the details:

It’s primary is only 5kt boosted up to 150kt. These is the exact numbers that North Korea did in their tests. So the original 5kt test was not a fizzle but rather, they were testing the primary for the bigger H-bomb test. Most interesting because the W-80 is a miniaturized version of the older W-47 warhead.

See Appendix A for more detailed information on the W-80 warhead.

How China stole the US W-80 warhead design

We have known that the US is riddled with Chinese spies for a long time, they have infiltrated just about all parts of the US military-industrial-corporate complex and have stolen huge volumes of US data and technology, this is the secret behind China’s incredible rise from a largely agricultural, semi-industrialized nation in the 1980s to a superpower with cutting edge technologies. Rather than spend vast sums of money and expend huge resources in trying to catch up to the West by doing their own R&D, the Chinese simply stole what the West had developed, a far cheaper and less time-consuming way to catapult China into the modern age.

We see the results of Chinese espionage all over the place, whether it be blatant copies of iPhones and other electrical gadgets or Chinese automobiles that look suspiciously like near-exact replicas of popular foreign models. Then there was the saga of the Chinese stealth fighter that looked just like it had rolled out of Lockheed’s Skunkworks.

The North Korean nuclear debacle has made it all too clear that China’s copying of US technology includes the most dangerous and highly significant in geopolitical terms – thermonuclear weapons small enough to fit onto missiles. The spy scandal that leads to China obtaining the US nuclear warhead designs broke in 1999 with the arrest of Dr. Wen Ho Lee, a scientist working at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the main center for US nuclear weapons research & development. Jeff Smith remembers it well:

The Chinese stole the W-80 blueprints under Clinton; remember the Wen Ho Lee Department Of Energy spy scandal. 20 years later surprise surprise. China can’t do a full-scale nuclear test because of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaties, but North Korea can test their design for them and get away with it. I do believe this is the real story. It’s also why Tom Countryman got the boot from the State Department; he helped cover up the scandal. Another Hilary Boo Boo bites us in the ass again…

See Appendix B for the full story on Dr.Wen Ho Lee and how he stole the US nuclear weapon secrets for China.

Clearly, running their nuclear weapons development program inside North Korea has allowed China to keep it largely secret and has the added benefit of plausible deniability – they simply deny involvement and blame it all on the ‘power-mad’ Pyongyang regime.

The nuking of Tianjin

It will not have escaped the attention of the world outside Korea & China that something most disturbing was going on and that these nuclear tests were part of a program to develop a thermonuclear weapon. Furthermore, the world’s nuclear experts will have been well aware that it takes vast amounts of money and resources to develop such a weapon and it will have occurred to them that impoverished little North Korea could not attempt such a project without the assistance of a nation that does possess such wealth and resources.

This brings us to perhaps the biggest clue that China is behind it all and that is the explosion of a tactical nuclear weapon in the Chinese port city of Tianjin in 2015, an event that Jeff Smith and I wrote about for VT at the time:

Confirmation Tianjin Was Nuked

The Nuking Of Tianjin Frame By Frame Analysis

What we knew at the time was that someone was mightily upset with the Chinese and was sending them a clear message, however, what that message was and who sent it was less than clear.

We knew that a cruise missile carrying a nuclear warhead was almost certainly what hit Tianjin, and it seemed pretty clear that it was a submarine somewhere in the Sea of Japan that fired the missile; a major clue to this was given by the fact that North Korea, at China’s behest, launched virtually its entire navy to search the Sea of Japan for that submarine.

Now the mystery of who nuked Tianjin and why appears far less mysterious – it was a warning to Beijing to halt its secret nuclear weapons development in North Korea. There may have been a more practical reason too – Tianjin is the port closest to Beijing and a likely departure point for a shipment destined for North Korea, a short sail across the Yellow Sea, perhaps a key shipment for the nuclear program was taken out by the nuclear blast.

Hopefully, the mysterious North Korean nuclear program has now been demystified, in the second part of this article, we will examine the geopolitical implications of this development and explain how the world and the balance of power have just been utterly changed.

Appendix A:

The W-80 Warhead

The Los Alamos National Lab began developing the W-80 thermonuclear warhead in 1976 for America’s new generation of cruise missiles.

About the size and shape of a fire hydrant minus its hose connections, the W-80 is a “dial-a-yield” device. Detonating its plutonium core alone yields five kilotons while engaging its deuterium-tritium gas injector and the dry lithium fuel will ignite a fusion reaction and boost its yield to 150 kilotons.

Because nuclear yields don’t scale linearly, the W-80 is many, many times more powerful than the bombs that incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those bombs weighed tons. The W-80 weighs as much as an NFL linebacker.

The W-80 uses insensitive high explosive (IHE) to compress its plutonium core and initiate a fission reaction. Earlier nuclear-weapon accidents demonstrated the need for high explosives less sensitive to fire and shock. But the IHE in the first production lot of W-80 warheads had a fatal flaw.

Air-launched weapons like cruise missiles must endure hours of sub-freezing temperatures at high altitudes while riding their carrier aircraft. Weaponeers successfully subjected the W-80’s components – including the IHE – to temperatures down to -65 Fahrenheit – during development.

But when actually tested in Shot Baseball during Operation Guardian in January 1981, the W-80 fizzled. The new nuke failed to ignite its fusion secondary and produced only a fraction of its intended yield. The IHE proved to be the culprit. It didn’t burn well at very low temperatures.

You have to go to war with the weapons you have, but that adage didn’t mean going to battle with dud weapons. The United States learned this lesson the hard way during World War II when its Mark 14 torpedoes failed repeatedly. Only a flag-rank investigation by a Navy laboratory involving numerous field tests fixed the problem.

With the W-80, only a live-fire underground test discovered the failure.

It took both Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore labs months to fix the W-80 by redesigning the fission primary and its high explosives. Again, they needed a full-up test to prove the redesign. A year after Shot Baseball, a second W-80 underground test — conducted at -65 degrees Fahrenheit and known as Shot Jornada – successfully proved the weapon.

The full production of the new model warheads began the following month. The United States would manufacture more than 2,100 W-80s between 1980 and 1990. Arms-control treaties and nuclear posture adjustments over the past 25 years have put a third of them in storage or out of commission.

Appendix B:

Clinton Pardons Somehow Miss Dr. Wen Ho Lee

by bsnider Posted on January 30, 2001

Flipping the channels a few nights ago, I stumbled on an interesting story on the WorldLinkTV channel, “Never Fully American,” about the notorious Chinese(-American?) spy, Dr. Wen Ho Lee. Confronted with this disturbing story of yet another hysterical attack by our infamous “Justice” Department that had gone wrong, I quickly scanned the newspaper of a few days before to see if Dr. Lee’s name was on the pardon list.

Nope, wasn’t there. How can this be? A misprint? No, it appears that in spite of all the apologies for Dr. Lee’s abuse by the media, the Congress, and Clinton himself, our president could not find sufficient reason to let Dr. Lee enjoy the full privileges of a citizen again.

I decided to try to understand why this might be.

The Freight Car is Released

Massive government agencies, such as the “Justice” Department, are like a rail freight car on an inclined track with a small pebble between the front of a wheel and the track. Such a small pebble can keep the car, filled with tons of cargo, from rolling. But if you knock the pebble out of the way, the car will slowly start moving and immediately it becomes very difficult to stop now even if you put giant boulders in its track.

The same goes for the monstrous “Justice” Department and others of its ilk. Once rolling, even the members of that department are helpless to stop it. Examples are Ruby Ridge and Waco. The flaw in the system is that they have unlimited resources. Ruby Ridge would have been vastly different if they were not allowed to spend millions of dollars per day without any restraint. When the government has an unlimited budget, the citizens do not have a chance in any dispute with them.

And such was the case with Wen Ho Lee.

But first, let us talk about what the real problem was. With the government, there is always the stated problem and the real problem – usually not the same.

The more a government agency is hidden from public view, the more it is likely to get careless with the rules and laws. This is particularly true of security which is a necessary but tiresome activity added to the much more interesting research by scientists and engineers.

And so it was with the Department of Energy. Security had deteriorated over the years, especially during those years in which the administration was inhabited by liberals who find secrecy a bit disgusting. The problem was further exacerbated by the normal inter-agency squabbling and turf protection (for example, according to Dan Stober of the San Jose Mercury-News, Lee was investigated by the FBI way back in 1982 but they never told the Energy Department!) Trust me, having been a former government employee, I can assure you that turf protection is far more important than national security!

The evidence indicates that Lee copied classified files and moved them around in ways that violated security rules and possibly laws. Since Lee has yet to say much about his side of the story, we still do not know exactly why he got a little loose with these files. Nevertheless, it appears likely that the root cause was the environment of sloppy security that had built up over the years.

Then, in the second term of the Clinton administration, the news began to surface about a possible financial connection between Clinton and the Chinese. The accusations were being made that in return for some large financial contributions from the Chinese, maybe the Chinese were being “allowed”, accidentally or otherwise, to some of our missile and nuclear secrets. With the Republicans riled and the election coming up, something had to be done. That’s when Wen Ho Lee has presented the opportunity to “serve his country”.

A Show of How Tough we are on Spies – Especially Chinese-American Spies

By early 1996, both Wen Ho Lee and his wife were under investigation, along with a few others (“The investigators just told me well, look, I know it’s Lee and ah, we just need some other names to make this thing look good.”, Robert Vrooman, former head of counterintelligence at Los Alamos, as quoted by CBS in “Wen Ho Lee: Scapegoat or Spy?”). The dutiful press, with the “leaks” being fed by the government, began to speak of the Lees as the Rosenbergs of our times and even to suggest that the same fate might befall, at least, Dr. Lee (see “China spy scare: a new stage in the political warfare in Washington”).

In 1999, The Washington “railroad car” gathered momentum. On December 4, 1999, Attorney General Janet Reno, FBI Director Louis Freeh, and Energy Department Director Bill Richardson conferred and decided to pursue criminal charges against Dr. Lee. Then a federal grand jury in Albuquerque returned 59 indictments against him and the FBI arrested him on December 10.

Richardson decided that in view of the sudden and extreme danger that the country was now in, Lee would have to be shackled, put in solitary confinement and not allowed to converse with anyone (strangely he had been under investigation, off and on, for years and yet until a few days before, he was given free access to considerable classified material available as part of his job). He was held in solitary confinement for 279 days.

By Fall of 2000, public interest had died down, the press had somehow decided that maybe this Gestapo action was a little too stinky to support (the New York Times even apologized), Congress was getting upset, and the election was on us which led the government to the conclusion that maybe some of their charges were not well-founded.

On September 13 the government dropped all their charges but one (which was part of a plea agreement) and Dr. Lee was released from prison (the subject of course to continued moderate harassment by the Federales, but a whole lot better than being in solitary confinement). The presiding federal judge apologized for his employer’s actions (See Senator Spector’s comments) and even Clinton, again forgetting that he is actually in charge, wondered out loud how this could happen.

The Prosecution Unravels: The Case of Wen Ho Lee

FEB. 5, 2001

In a secure warren of the Los Alamos weapons laboratory, investigators mined the office of Wen Ho Lee. Books, reports, notes written in Chinese — everything was handled with latex gloves to preserve the evidence. Just days before, laboratory officials had fired the computer scientist for security violations, and investigators suspected he was a spy, but the search was yielding little. Then agents discovered the list.

It was on his desk, a record of computer files containing highly sensitive weapons-design information. With the help of a Los Alamos physicist, investigators determined that Dr. Lee had downloaded the secret files from the laboratory’s classified computer system and transferred them to computer tapes. Some of the tapes were missing. The potential compromise of America’s nuclear weapons secrets was staggering.

”It’s unimaginable,” the physicist, John Romero, remembers thinking.

For three years, agents had suspected Dr. Lee of giving China information on America’s most sophisticated nuclear warhead, the W-88. But their meandering espionage investigation had been short on resources and long on missed opportunities. The discovery of the download, in late March 1999, was the first hard evidence of any crime — the key, perhaps, to the maddening enigma of Wen Ho Lee. Now, with the case out in the open and hotly debated, and Dr. Lee’s huge security breach raising the stakes of the investigation, the government, in the words of one F.B.I. official, ”sent in the cavalry.”

Agents conducted 1,000 interviews over nine months, scouring the globe for evidence that Dr. Lee had leaked his secrets. The Federal Bureau of Investigation carried out its largest computer forensic investigation ever. Investigators traced years of Dr. Lee’s telephone calls. Prosecutors pressed him to explain himself, and when he did not, they brought a 59-count indictment and convinced a federal judge that he was so dangerous he had to be jailed without bail. He spent nine months in such restrictive conditions that he was shackled during recreation.

In the field and then in the courtroom, the prosecution of Wen Ho Lee was a final attempt to understand a man whose deepening suspiciousness had taunted the government for nearly 20 years. When they failed to uncover espionage, prosecutors constructed an unusual and risky strategy, seeking to put him in prison for life on charges they had no direct evidence to support. It was a leap, and in the end, it fell short.

Last September, the judge freed Dr. Lee, declaring that his jailing had ”embarrassed our entire nation and each of us who is a citizen of it.” The Justice Department wound up with a public relations disaster and a guilty plea to the crime it had evidence of from the start — a single felony count of mishandling national security information.

Dr. Lee, 61, had always left investigators feeling that he was hiding something. He had a history of deceiving the authorities about security matters and clandestine contact with foreign scientists. Now, agents discovered that he had tried to delete his downloaded files as they closed in on him. After he was kicked out of the bomb-design area of Los Alamos for security violations, he found ways to sneak back in. Investigators also began seeing signs that he might be exploring a relationship with a military research institute in his native Taiwan.

Whatever the evidence of deception, though, the prosecution’s most powerful charges unraveled as defense lawyers homed in on gaps in the case. Without proof that Dr. Lee was a spy, prosecutors charged him with intent to injure the United States and help a foreign country. But they were never sure why he had taken the secrets, or which country he might have planned to help with them.

They initially suspected he was a spy for China. Then they toyed with China’s nemesis, the regime on Taiwan. Finally, in court last summer, they presented a menu of surprising possibilities that included Australia and Switzerland. And they said they believed his motive for downloading the information was to enhance his job prospects. To the judge who had ordered him jailed, and to Dr. Lee’s increasingly vocal supporters, the government’s cold, hard case was melting away.

Another blow came from John L. Richter, an esteemed weapons designer who had played a crucial role in beginning the espionage investigation that ensnared Dr. Lee. Testifying in court, Dr. Richter played down the threat of Dr. Lee’s crime. Although he later backed away from that assessment, Dr. Richter said he had spoken out in court because he believed Dr. Lee ”had suffered enough” and should be set free.

In one sense, prosecutors got what they wanted — the felony plea and an agreement from Dr. Lee to tell all under oath. But, to this day, they remain haunted by what they do not know. The debriefings over the last few months and further investigation have left them with a blur of questions. Unsatisfied with some of his explanations, investigators are still exploring his dealings with Taiwanese and Chinese scientists.

As for the downloading itself, frustrated investigators are left with nothing but Dr. Lee’s innocent explanation: He downloaded the information to protect his work and tossed the tapes that are missing in a trash bin behind his office at Los Alamos. They have never been found.

At the F.B.I., a top official voiced the bureau’s latest conclusion: ”I don’t think anyone fully understands Wen Ho Lee.”


Each step of the F.B.I. the investigation seemed to fuel old suspicions and cast new doubt.

Day and night throughout 1999, agents sat in cars outside Wen Ho Lee’s red ranch house on Barcelona Avenue near Los Alamos, N.M., where suburban development abuts striking mesas. They trailed him everywhere, and he could hardly have appeared more harmless and cordial. He told his neighbor, Jean Marshall, that the agents especially liked it when he went fishing because it gave them a chance to get out of their hot cars. Once, when he had to travel out of town, he changed his schedule to accommodate his watchers.

But as investigators pieced together Dr. Lee’s past, their already dim view of him darkened.

Their computer investigation showed that in early 1999, just as agents were pressing him for evidence of espionage, Dr. Lee had been busily trying to delete the downloaded files. On Feb. 10, for example, after failing an F.B.I. polygraph, Dr. Lee deleted 310 files, F.B.I. documents show.

Investigators also discovered that he had continued to sneak into the bomb-design area, X Division after his access was canceled. In January of 1999, soon after losing his access, he was let in by an unwitting security officer. Other times he simply walked in behind division employees, lawyers knowledgeable about the case said. (In his recent debriefing, Dr. Lee told investigators that he had slipped in through an open door just hours after he was barred from X Division, the lawyers said.)

”Each day we found more information that cast doubt on him,” said David V. Kitchen, then head of the F.B.I.’s Albuquerque office. In January, Mr. Kitchen had recommended closing the espionage investigation of Dr. Lee, because he appeared cooperative and had innocent explanations for everything. Since the discovery of the download, everything had begun to look less innocent.

In August 1998, agents ran a sting operation to see if Dr. Lee would bite at the chance to meet with an agent posing as a Chinese intelligence agent. Dr. Lee’s reaction appeared ambiguous to investigators.

When the agent called, Dr. Lee said there was a laboratory policy against meeting foreign representatives without approval. However, according to a secret F.B.I. report recently obtained by The New York Times, ”Lee indicated that it is all right to talk on the phone since everything Lee has done was in the open.” Dr. Lee first agreed to meet the agent, then called back to say he could not. When the agent called back the next day, Dr. Lee agreed to take his beeper number.

”He doesn’t take the bait,” said one former government official, ”but he seems to be feeling him out.”

He also seemed to be feeling Taiwan out. In March and April of 1998, according to court testimony, Dr. Lee had spent six weeks in Taiwan as a consultant to the Chung Shan Institute, a government defense complex where American officials say Taiwan has done nuclear weapons research. Dr. Lee’s trip was taken with the approval of laboratory officials.

Investigators discovered that while on that trip, Dr. Lee called the Los Alamos computer help desk to find out if he could access his classified computer. He was told he could not, but investigators later found that he had downloaded an unclassified computer code from Los Alamos to his computer in Taiwan.

Those dealings with Taiwan echoed the F.B.I.’s first contact with Dr. Lee in the early 1980s. Dr. Lee had been picked up on a wiretap, offering to help a fellow scientist who was under investigation for spying. In interviews at the time, Dr. Lee admitted to agents that he had improperly passed unclassified but restricted scientific information to Taiwanese officials.

If the investigation of the download was fueling the same old suspicions about Dr. Lee, investigators were getting the same old result.

Agents determined that 9 of 15 computer tapes Dr. Lee had made were missing, but their exhaustive search — they even visited every private storage facility in New Mexico — left them unable to refute Dr. Lee’s explanation that he had destroyed them. They spent months searching the Los Alamos computer system, even shutting it down entirely for three weeks, but found no evidence that anyone had gotten into Dr. Lee’s computer files. They did discover that Dr. Lee had given his password to his children so they could connect to the Internet and play computer games through his Los Alamos computer while they were at college.

And they had no evidence to counter Dr. Lee’s only public explanation — in a ”60 Minutes” interview in August 1999 — that he had downloaded and copied the information so he would have backup files for his work.

Investigators began to see hints of another motive. F.B.I. agents traveled to Taiwan and found that in addition to lecturing and consulting there in 1998, he also met with a company to explore job opportunities, federal investigators testified in court.

Agents discovered more evidence of Dr. Lee’s job hunting when they searched his house in April 1999 — seven letters to scientific institutes and universities around the world inquiring about job prospects. Dr. Lee wrote them in 1993 and 1994 after he had learned he was on a list of employees to be laid off in the event of a budget crunch.

The downloading that Dr. Lee eventually was charged with occurred during that same period, even though investigators discovered that he had actually begun transferring some material as early as 1988, well before his job was threatened.

Perhaps, investigators thought, the download was an insurance policy. Perhaps, entering his late 50’s and contemplating retirement at 60, he figured that the secrets of Los Alamos would make him more marketable.

”We may not be able to show he was a spy,” said one F.B.I. official, ”but we can show he was not just a wayward scientist.”


The government had no evidence of espionage. So it fashioned an unusual prosecution strategy based on the idea that Dr. Lee must have intended to injure the United States.

In April 1999, federal prosecutors from Albuquerque went up the mountain to Los Alamos, where scientists gave them what one lawyer called the ” ‘Oh, my God’ speech.” Having assessed Dr. Lee’s security breach, the scientists told prosecutors, ”There was nothing more valuable than anyone could take.”

Computer forensic investigators re-created Dr. Lee’s deleted files and determined that Dr. Lee had moved 806 megabytes of information (the equivalent of papers stacked 134 feet high, they said) that contained the tools for computer-simulated weapons testing, a valuable commodity in an age of nuclear test bans.

The files included computer codes, which he had helped write, that used the information from decades of actual weapons tests to simulate the detonation of bombs. He also downloaded files containing sketches and dimensions of weapons and files giving physical properties of bombs.

Experts would later testify that while the files alone would not allow someone to replicate a weapon, in knowledgeable hands they could advance a nuclear weapons program. And officials had another fear, one they were prohibited for security reasons from voicing publicly: Dr. Lee’s files contained information about currently deployed weapons, which could help an enemy defend against them.

The task of translating the science into a criminal case fell to Robert J. Gorence, the first assistant to John Kelly, the United States attorney for New Mexico.

At 41, Mr. Gorence had wide experience as a prosecutor — drug cases on Indian reservations, complicated savings and loan trials, the pursuit of the runaway spy Edward Lee Howard. Intense and aggressive, Mr. Gorence threw himself into the Lee case, spending weeks at Los Alamos with other investigators, interviewing scientists, and reading physics texts. Steeped in the details, he could rattle off such obscure facts as the amount of time it takes for an atom bomb to ”go critical.” (Fifty-millionths of a second.)

At one point, Mr. Gorence went to Kirtland Air Force base in Albuquerque, where the government stores films of nuclear weapons tests in a secure vault, chilled to preserve the pictures. Impressed by the films’ awful drama, he told colleagues he wanted to show them to a jury to demonstrate the power of the secrets Dr. Lee had compromised.

Even so, evidence of a crime beyond the security breach itself was limited. As Mr. Kitchen, the former F.B.I. official, put it, ”Short of espionage, what do we have?”

Mr. Gorence consulted the Atomic Energy Act, which he had read a few years earlier in preparation for the threat of protests at Los Alamos on the 50th anniversary of the Japan bombings. He focused on the only two provisions in American law that allow life sentences for mishandling secrets even without proof of espionage, seemingly a perfect fit for Wen Ho Lee.

No one had ever been prosecuted under those statutes, according to court testimony, and proving the charges, one prosecutor acknowledged, was ”hardly a slam dunk.” But federal officials all the way up to the attorney general, Janet Reno, signed on to the charges, which accused Dr. Lee of acting with ”intent to injure the United States, and with the intent to secure an advantage to a foreign nation.”

Prosecutors had no hard evidence that he planned to give away the secrets, but they reasoned that the simple absence of an innocent explanation showed his criminal intent. They emphasized the deliberate nature of the download — they estimated it had taken him 40 hours over 70 days. And they argued that his long experience at Los Alamos and secretive manner showed he knew what he was doing was wrong. In fact, after the download was discovered, he at first denied making the tapes, according to Congressional testimony.

They argued further that his actions injured the United States by denying it exclusive possession of the secrets, and they began lining up Pentagon officers to testify about the potential effect on American military strategy. Proving that Dr. Lee had aided another nation was more difficult, but prosecutors argued that they did not have to prove he had a specific country in mind when downloading the material, only that he eventually intended to help one.

The strength of the prosecution’s case, one Justice Department official said, lay in the sheer ” depth and scope” of the material. But that was also a major potential pitfall.

Many cases involving classified information are not brought to trial for fear of divulging secrets. In the Lee case, top government officials, including the attorney general, the director of central intelligence and the national security adviser, met at the White House on a Saturday in December 1999 to discuss the risk of prosecution. They decided the case had to go forward, lest Dr. Lee’s tapes are passed to a foreign country since efforts to strike a deal had failed. One letter from Mr. Kelly, the United States attorney, to defense lawyers, ended in blunt frustration: ”In short, we want you to tell us why he made the tapes!”

If they ended up having to go to trial, the officials decided, they would try to thread a needle on the secrets issue, allowing only summaries of the data on Dr. Lee’s files to be used.

Still, as Mr. Kelly conceded in an interview, ”no one wanted to go to trial.” And bringing powerful charges, another government lawyer said, was partly a strategy to get information from Dr. Lee, and perhaps force a plea.

The indictment, handed up Dec. 10, made no mention of the W-88 or of spying. But in bail hearings, prosecutors presented a dark image of Dr. Lee by sweeping together all they knew about him — from his earliest suspicious contacts with foreign scientists to his attempts to delete his downloaded files.

At the first bail hearing, Stephen M. Younger, the associate director for nuclear weapons at Los Alamos, said the information on the missing tapes could ”in the wrong hands, change the global strategic balance.”

A magistrate denied bail and two weeks later after Dr. Lee appealed, prosecutors raised the ante before Judge James A. Parker of Federal District Court. ”This court, I believe, faces a you-bet-your-country decision,” Paul Robinson, president of the Sandia National Laboratories, told the judge.

The judge indicated he was leaning toward a restrictive form of house arrest, but in a secret hearing, the prosecution warned of dire circumstances.

Dr. Lee could be ”snatched and taken out of the country” by a hostile element looking for the missing tapes, Mr. Kelly said, according to a transcript of the hearing.

Robert Messemer, the F.B.I. agent brought in as the lead investigator because of his background in espionage cases and proficiency in Chinese was more pointed.

”We anticipate a marked increase in hostile intelligence service activities both here in New Mexico and throughout the United States in an effort to locate those tapes,” he said. ”Our surveillance personnel does not carry firearms, and they will be placed in harm’s way if you require us to maintain this impossible task of protecting Dr. Lee.”


Jailed for nine months, Dr. Lee found release in music, literature, and science.

Wen Ho Lee was held in solitary confinement for nine months at the Santa Fe County Detention Facility. He was kept in his cell 23 hours a day. A small light burned constantly so guards could watch him at all hours. He was allowed to see his family just one hour a week, and they had to speak English — not Mandarin, which they speak at home — so the F.B.I. could listen. And like other prisoners in solitary confinement, he was shackled whenever he left his cell, even while exercising or meeting with his lawyers.

Early last January, when Dr. Lee’s lawyers demanded that his conditions be eased, prosecutors responded that Ms. Reno had personally approved them.

”These special administrative measures were requested for one reason and one reason only: to restrict Dr. Lee’s ability to pass information through intermediaries that could have the devastating consequence of disseminating the nuclear secrets he had stolen from Los Alamos,” Ms. Reno later told a Senate hearing.


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