Reno's Tug-of-War Over Charging Nuke Scientist

The FBI and Energy want to lean on Wen Ho Lee over missing secrets; Justice isn't so sure charges would stick.

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She charges him; she charges him not; she charges him... Attorney General Janet Reno is caught up in the middle of a bureaucratic-political tug-of-war over whether to indict former Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee. "The FBI and Energy Secretary Bill Richardson strongly favor indicting him under the Atomic Energy Act and a statute in the espionage laws that outlaws mishandling classified information," says TIME Washington correspondent Elaine Shannon. "But some of the attorneys at the Justice Department have a problem with trying to use laws under which prosecutions are rare to nonexistent." Prosecutors also have misgivings because while the FBI believes it has extensive evidence that Lee illegally transferred classified information to unclassified computer systems, it has no proof that he made the crucial next step: passing that information along to China.

The bureau hopes that charging Lee would change that. Agents have discovered what they believe to be evidence that Lee downloaded some of the classified material to tape after transferring it to the unclassified server. "The FBI wants to know what happened to that tape," says Shannon, "and indicting him may put pressure on Wen Ho Lee to provide an answer." And while they have no smoking gun, those who want the scientist charged don't believe he was moving huge amounts of the nation's most classified nuclear secrets from server to server simply so that he could work at home.