There's Double Trouble in the Spook Industry

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Beijing appears to have acquired U.S. nuclear secrets, and yet Washington has been unable to find any spies — and the government wants to know why. A Justice Department internal report, leaked to the media this week, slams the FBI both for errors in its investigation of Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee and for focusing too narrowly on Lee to the exclusion of other potential suspects. Despite more than a year of investigation, Lee remains the only suspect indicted, and he's been charged only with mishandling classified information by downloading classified files onto his own computer rather than with actually passing information to China.

Although it criticizes the DOJ for failing to approve an FBI request to place Lee under electronic surveillance, the internal report faults the FBI for not initially searching the computer at Lee's office — for which no warrant was required — onto which he had downloaded reams of classified computer code. Lee has been unable to account for a number of tapes of downloaded code, and the DOJ report suggests that the slowness of the initial investigation may have given him time to dispose of these if, indeed, that had been his intention. Charging Lee late last year was interpreted, in part, as a means of pressuring him to account for the missing data.

The DOJ report, however, deals with investigating and prosecuting espionage violations after the fact. The House Committee on Intelligence, meanwhile, has slammed the Clinton administration for allegedly weakening the nation's intelligence services through lack of funding. In a report that cites such failures as Washington's inability to foresee India's nuclear tests and the inadvertent bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war, the committee maintains that lack of funding and leadership from the White House has left the nation's human and electronic intelligence-gathering systems in a poor state of preparedness and put the nation at risk. Stripped of its partisan tilt — it takes two, after all, to underfund a government agency — the report may be pointing to a deeper reality: Optimal security is attained not by the efficient investigation and prosecution of spies, but by prevention and counterintelligence.