The FBI and Los Alamos' Mysterious Mrs. Lee

  • Share
  • Read Later
Just as FBI counterespionage agents were drawing a bead on Los Alamos nuclear weapons scientist Wen Ho Lee, the files disgorged a curious fact: Lee's wife, Sylvia, had been an FBI "informational asset" at the very time Lee was suspected of passing classified warhead data to the People's Republic of China. From 1985 to 1991, according to well-informed sources, Sylvia Lee, a native Chinese speaker who held a support-staff job at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, reported to FBI agents about visiting delegations of PRC scientists. She was not an "operational asset," jargon for paid informant, sources say, but a volunteer who passed along what she heard and saw at social confabs arranged for foreign visitors. Senior counterintelligence hands didn't consider her reports particularly useful. In 1991, after her agent contact retired and she moved to a job that provided little access to foreign visitors, the Albuquerque, N.M., field office dropped her as a source.

Mrs. Lee's modest relationship with the FBI complicates the already murky case of her husband, Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese-born computer scientist who worked on nuclear warhead design programs at Los Alamos. In 1995 U.S. intelligence officers learned that China had somehow stolen classified information about the W-88 miniaturized nuclear warhead program. The ensuing FBI investigation found Wen Ho Lee had violated a number of lab security rules, including failing to report contacts with PRC scientists -- lapses for which Department of Energy secretary Bill Richardson fired him last month. So far, the FBI has not been able to find any evidence that Lee spied for China. But if he is ever charged, his lawyers (who aren't commenting for the record) could be expected to argue that the case has been undercut by his wife's part-time work on the FBI's behalf.