Molly Ivins

The Phony Chinese Spy Scare

Paging John le Carré; come in, Mr. le Carré; we still need you on the spy beat. In fact, we need you more than ever because the latest spy scandal is an unholy example of what happens when the national security apparatus, stuck with nothing to do and desperate to justify its budget, finds a way to use credulous media people to whomp up a spy scare.

Only you, George Smiley, could untangle the bureaucratic maneuvering behind this mess, although you would think (wouldn’t you?) that even the simplest minds in the media would recognize the political motive behind the Republican effort to start a spy stampede. But no. “Chinese Scientist at Los Alamos Is Spy Suspect,” trumpet our most reliable organs of communication. Columnist William Safire of The New York Times, who has reverted to full-blown Cold War hysteria, even brags that the “much-maligned media” deserve credit for bringing this grave situation to our attention. Actually, the media deserve to be maligned out the wazoo over this. Look at their sources on this mess: a classic disgruntled former employee of the Department of Energy, a retired head of C.I.A. counterintelligence, and a bunch of leaky Republicans on some fool spy-hunt committee on the Hill. When will they ever learn?

Here’s the deal: The “suspected Chinese spy” is Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwan-born American citizen (wouldn’t you think that was worth reporting?), who has been here more than twenty years, has a family, has no financial resources aside from his salary, and was not working on the technology in question. He is a computer scientist who worked on hydrodynamics codes; even though such codes are relevant to the W-88, a miniaturized nuclear warhead, there is no evidence that he knew about warhead technology. He was questioned by the F.B.I. for three days without a lawyer. According to the Times, “he stopped being cooperative on the third day.” The entire case against him stems from his saying that during an official visit to China during the eighties, he was asked what were, in retrospect, “inappropriate questions” concerning weapons. He had no knowledge of said technology, so he naturally could not answer the questions, even if he had considered them appropriate. But under the security regs, you are supposed to report anything that even seems like an intelligence approach, and since Lee did not report the incident at the time, he was promptly canned for this oversight.

There it is. The F.B.I. acknowledges that it has no case against him. Now, we are having a full-blown fit of xenophobia. Even worse, the ever-repellent “inscrutable Oriental, fiendishly intelligent and incredibly cruel” is back in full stereotypical force. The Houston Chronicle, in a fabulous parody of a fifties editorial, reported: “To top everything off, Lee was given the go-ahead to hire an assistant. Guess whom he chose? Lee hired a post-doctoral researcher, who happened to be a citizen of the People’s Republic of China. [!] His research assistant has disappeared. [!!] The F.B.I. cannot find him.” [!!!] Actually, the F.B.I. found the research assistant, even though he was cleverly hidden in plain sight at Penn State, and the F.B.I. now reports that he has no connection to Chinese intelligence.

As to why Lee might hire a Chinese assistant, let me tell you why: the United States of America is dependent on foreign-born scientists. In fact, the luckiest thing that ever happened to us was Tiananmen Square, which left an entire generation of very bright Chinese graduate students stranded here, unwilling to go home. In terms of physics, we’re sailing into the twenty-first century on the brains of those young people. On top of that, the most remarkable brain drain in history is taking place as we attract scientists from around the globe. There are cafés in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where you can hear nothing but Russian spoken, so many scientists from the former Soviet Union are now working at Los Alamos – as are Poles, Indians, etc., etc. And should we regard this with alarm?

Well, we could say that having foreign-born scientists all over our nuclear program is a terrible thing, except … if it weren’t for foreign-born scientists, we wouldn’t have a nuclear program, would we? Who do you think invented all this stuff in the first place? Starting with Albert Einstein and including Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, Enrico Fermi, John von Neumann and many more, we owe it all to foreign-born scientists. Seigfried Hecker, the director of Los Alamos from ’86 to ’97, is foreign born. So what? It can be argued that the only great physicist this country ever produced was Robert Oppenheimer, whom we declared a security risk during the most embarrassing episode of the Cold War.

The fact is that very few European Americans go into the hard sciences, apparently because we’re just too lazy to do that much work. We rank behind all the other developed countries and even some Third World countries in scientists. At all our great universities – Stanford, Cal Tech – foreign students sometimes even predominate in science. It is simply insane to consider limiting these people; they are working on new energy discoveries, on the human genome project, and on a vast array of non-weapons-related research. Of course they need to talk to scientists in other countries; how do you think science works? The proposal to limit their travel is incredibly offensive and stupid.

There is still no evidence the Chinese “stole” the technology to make miniaturized warheads. They have it, and our intelligence people seem to have reasoned backward from that to the conclusion that someone must have given it to them. But that technology is fifteen years old. It’s practically impossible to keep any technology secret that long. Ask anyone who works for a university or an industrial lab – six months would be a good record.

As with the original spy scare over who gave Russia “atomic secrets,” there really aren’t any secrets; the laws of physics are not secret. The question is what resources a nation is able and willing to put into weapons development. There is no “lax security” at Los Alamos. Foreign scientists are not wandering around the weapons research complex; it happens to be surrounded by tall fences topped with razor wire, with guards all along it and palm readers at the gates to ID workers.

And Mr. Safire – yes, e-mail at Los Alamos Labs is monitored; you’ll be happy to know that instances of both pornography and on-line gambling have been uncovered by our vigilant security forces.

Molly Ivins is a former Observer editor and a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her latest book is You Got to Dance With Them What Brung You. You may write to her via e-mail at [email protected]

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Published at 12:00 am CST