Wen Ho Lee and National Security

Lars Poulsen - 2000-09-16

Two NPR audio news clips from today:

The Wen Ho Lee case seems to be one of those hard cases that make bad law, and I hope nobody will try to derive legal precedents from it.

I am an alien, not eligible for any security clearances, but I have worked in telecommunications engineering in defense related projects, and have some insight into how the system is supposed to work, and the ways in which it is broken. Los Alamos National Lab seems to have been worse broken than most defense engineering establishments, and it looks to be as if Wen Ho Lee became the accidental victim when management decided they needed to rein in the mayhem.

Military engineering is a technological race, and each player (country) tries to maintain a competitive advantage by not letting the opposition know what they are up to. Certain information is designated as secret, and is not to be shared with anyone who does not have an acknowledged need to know. To ensure this, a legal system is set up for handling the secret material, and there are severe penalties for breaking these rules. In particular, a facility that conducts secret work is divided into secure and non-secure areas, and secret documents are not to be taken outside the secure area, and is to be handled only by people with appropiate clearances, who must sign every time they move it. Computers that are used for storing classified material must not have any communication links that reach outside the secure area, etc.

It seems established that Wen Ho Lee copied 850 MB of secret computer programs to tape cartridges, and copied some of them to his regular desktop computer, and may also have taken some of the tapes out of the building. This is clearly in violation of the security rules, and could justify a felony prison sentence. But it also seems established that such violations of the rules were rampant among the research staff in Los Alamos. It may in fact have been within the de facto day-to-day life there for researchers to take stuff home to work on - on their family PCs at home.

The best possible outcome at this time would be for this case to trigger a major review of the way secret materials are handled at national labs and defense contract companies:

I would like to see about 90% of currently classified material either declassified or destroyed, and 90% of the current security clearances allowed to expire. I also think that in an age when our main identified enemy country is China, we should not hire people that are chinese born and with extensive family and professional ties to China to build the weapons that would be used against China in a major war. In fact, it might make sense to insist that security clearances should not be granted to foreign born individual without the approval of a cabinet member.

The FBI says that "Wen Ho Lee could have cleared this up if he had just answered our questions forthrightly". But the climate in which these interrogations were taking place were such that any suspect would have good reason to believe that he would have been locked up for a very long time if volunteering any admission about breaking of any rules. Additionally, it seems not to be unusual for FBI agents to give false information under oath in court, without being punished even when they get caught.

I can understand why the justice department is reluctant to apologize for uncovering a felony crime, to which there is a credible confession. And for which the 9 months that Wen Ho Lee has already served in solitary confinement seems to be a somewhat proportional punishment. It is time for Wen Ho Lee to go home and rebuild his life. And it is high time for the national labs to explain to all staff that the security rules really are meant to be obeyed. If they cannot attract scientists that will work under those rules, so be it. In fact, I tend to think that our national security would be better if we did not advance the state of the art in advanced weapons. The historical experience seems to be that the US weapons research eventually leaks out, and gets implemented by our enemies.

If you share my intense interest in public policy issues, I'd like you to participate in the discussion on my Public Policy Forum.

Follow-up in 2020:

The NPR links do not work anymore.

The Policy forum never took off. Don't go there.

The rest, I will stand by.

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