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The New York Times
September 3, 2000

Are There Any Nuclear Secrets Left to Steal?

By William J. Broad

The abrupt turnaround in the public image of Wen Ho Lee from villain to victim, from atomic spy endangering the nation's security to computer nerd unfairly put behind bars for downloading harmless minutia, is raising new questions about what constitutes a nuclear secret these days. More than half a century after the making of the atom bomb, millions of former secrets have been either declassified or posted willy-nilly on Internet sites, even as the nuclear club has grown to at least eight members, with many more wanabees in the wings.

Combined with President Clinton's announcement on Friday that he would leave the decision on whether to pursue a national missile defense system to his successor -- a shield that China, Russia and the NATO allies have warned may set off another nuclear arms race -- Dr. Lee's case raises a troubling question: what's really secret anymore?

The surprising answer is, a lot. Some restricted data is deemed so sensitive that Washington is engaged in a quiet effort to raise classifications from secret to top secret for 65 nuclear topics, making whole libraries of sequestered data less likely to slip into foreign hands.

Though itself off limits, the list of high-risk topics, experts say, includes information that would let outsiders foil American weapons, fire stolen arms, copy American bomb designs and manufacture nuclear weapons small enough to fit atop long-range missiles or into a terrorist's briefcase.

Even the stack of blueprints for Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima -- an extremely crude device by today's standards -- is now proposed to be made top secret.

"We need to restore people's respect for classified information," said Dr. Albert Narath, a former director of the Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque. The problem, he added, is that Washington has such a "long history of classifying too much stuff that people have lost respect."

The case of Dr. Lee, 60, a Taiwan-born naturalized citizen who was fired last year from the Los Alamos National Laboratory amid a spy inquiry, is a worrisome example of just how bewildering the nation's nuclear secrets policy has become.

After he was arrested in December, the government asserted that Dr. Lee was dangerous because the computer files he downloaded illegally to an unsecure computer were the "crown jewels" of the nuclear arsenal. Some of his portable computer tapes are missing, and the government argued that Dr. Lee, if freed on bail, might give secrets to China or other nations.

But his defense team later showed that the data Dr. Lee downloaded was classified as secret and confidential only after his dismissal from Los Alamos. And last month, a defense witness, John L. Richter, a former top nuclear weapons designer at Los Alamos, testified that perhaps 99 percent of the downloaded information had already been made public and would not be that useful to a foreign country.

Asked if national security would be hurt if the missing tapes found their way into foreign hands, Dr. Richter replied, "I don't believe that it would have any deleterious effect at all."

On Aug. 24, after that testimony, a federal judge reversed himself and said Dr. Lee could be released on bail after eight months in jail, though on Friday prosecutors won an appeal that delayed a final decision.

Dr. Lee's guilt or innocence has yet to be determined. But Dr. Richter's assertion has fed the growing perception that many, if not all, nuclear secrets are out of the bag -- a view based partly on fact.

Decades of memoirs and histories, and the fact that scientists talk for a living, have unveiled most basic principles. It is well known, for instance, how the high heat of a small atomic explosion in a thermonuclear weapon ignites hydrogen fuel in a far more powerful blast.

In addition, the dribble of official declassifications during the cold war later turned into a flood. Private experts who have tapped this gusher include Chuck Hansen, the author of "The Swords of Armageddon," a CD-ROM containing 2,503 pages and 345 diagrams that is a near-encyclopedia of what is known publicly about America's efforts to make nuclear arms.

In Washington in recent years, the push for greater openness has coexisted uneasily with an equally intense desire to raise a wall around the nation's remaining nuclear secrets. That tension began with Hazel R. O'Leary, who as head of the Department of Energy from 1993 to 1997 was the main keeper of the nation's atomic secrets. Her pursuit of openness was widely praised and condemned, but behind the scenes she also promoted a secrecy drive known as "Higher Fences."

"People think Hazel was declassifying promiscuously," said Steven Aftergood, a secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists, a private group in Washington. "In fact, she was trying to bring order and logic to the classification process."

The rationale was that the bag of atomic secrets had grown so large that protection would be ensured only if the most serious topics were set aside for stringent safeguarding. So it was that, long before the Lee case made Washington hypersensitive about lax security, a push was underway to put key nuclear secrets under tighter lock.

In a 1994 report, the National Academy of Sciences blessed the general idea. In 1997, Dr. Narath of Sandia led a Energy Department panel that called for 137 topics to be raised from secret to top secret classification, which would increase protections and sharply cut access. But the Defense Department, which deploys the nuclear arms made and maintained by the Energy Department, balked, citing the added cost of building new storage facilities, computer networks and specialist cadres. Defense Department officials also expressed unwillingness to shoulder the added costs of providing top secret clearances. The price of a federal investigation for a secret clearance is about $100, experts say, whereas a top secret clearance runs about $5,000.

Asked to ease the load, the Energy Department then winnowed the list of proposed top-secret topics to 65, officials said. Still, nothing happened.

Recently, the deadlock ended after Congress shook things up. Thomas J. Bliley Jr., a Virginia Republican who is chairman of the House Commerce Committee, asked Defense Secretary William S. Cohen in a Aug. 14 letter to explain why his agency had apparently failed to make "an adequate effort" to review the Energy Department's revised plan or boost security.

Last Monday, the two feuding agencies signed a agreement to make joint recommendations by Dec. 1, and perhaps to help end the false impression of a nuclear sieve created by the Lee case.

Will the new study end in another standoff between the bureaucracies? "I don't engage in dry holes," said Eugene E. Habiger, head of security at the Energy Department. "I engage in making things happen."

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