10 years ago
1.6 million dollars. That is how much the U.S. government and five news organizations together have agreed to pay Wen Ho Lee. The settlement comes in lieu of further court action, possibly all the way to the SCOTUS, to decide if the news organizations are required to relinquish their sources when it was reported that Lee was being investigated for espionage. See here for story. In my opinion, while I understand why the payment has been made to Lee, I consider this whole affair to be deplorable. No … not the treatment of Lee. Lee was untrue to his covenant with the U.S. government, and got paid big for it. As a primer to this story, read the indictment of Lee here. Also see an interesting blog dedicated to Lee and the events surrounding his indictment here.
Let’s cover a little bit of ground about what all of this boils down to, speaking technically. This is all about the miniturization of nuclear weapons. China already has nuclear weapons, so the threat is not that they would become a nuclear power. Lee took secure documentation (source code, input files, etc.) and made it unsecure, taking it off of the premises of LANL (Los Alamos National Laboratory). This information contained weapons dimensions, mechanical firing data (i.e., the manner and speed with which the various parts of the fissile material are rapidly fired towards each other to cause super-criticality, along with the shape of the parts), isotopic mixture, and the source code for all of the computations to simulate the event.
Basically, it contains all of the information that the U.S. engineers, physicists and chemists have worked on for the last five decades to miniturize nuclear weapons. This is important mainly for the following reason: weapon delivery. The heavier that a weapon is, the more missile that is required to deliver it to its target. This effects the range and effectiveness of the weapon and missile taken together. A miniturized nuclear weapon can be delivered with a smaller missile, thus making the owner capable of reaching longer distances with the weapon than would otherwise be the case. The corollary is that with a given missile, more effective weapons material can be delivered with miniturized weapons. The miniturization of weapons also effects nuclear weapons aging (or rather, our response to it). As the fissile material ages, its isotopic mixture changes due to radioactive decay, reducing its effectiveness compared to initial conditions. Compensation can be achieved through use of the same fissile material in redesigned weapons, thus avoiding the need to create new fissile material. Replacing the stockpile is expensive and burdened with political baggage.
Now. The issue in this case is not (1) did Richardson divulge the information that Lee was being investigated, (2) was Lee mistreated, (3) was the information Lee took from LANL the highest classification or was it later classified that way in order to indict Lee, or finally, (4) was Lee a spy. The issue here is that he took information that, had it been lost or released, accidentally or intentionally, could have made the world a much more dangerous place, and knowingly and purposely removed it from LANL by bypassing engineered security features.
If China had obtained this information (who knows?), the next steps were easy. A quick e-mail to the engineers running the enrichment facility to give them new isotopic mixture specifications, another quick e-mail to the fabrication engineers to redesign the mechanics of the weapon, a good Fortran/C++ compiler for the source code, and suddenly, the world becomes a much more dangerous place than before. This bypassing of the security features at LANL is a breach of signed agreement, unforgivable, deplorable and unpatriotic at the very least, and at the worst, was intentional espionage.
Oh. And by the way, the U.S. has never found one or more of the electronic media that Lee made for “backup” purposes. And Wen Ho Lee is 1.6 million dollars richer today partially at our expense.