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Wednesday, March 24, 1999 Published at 17:53 GMT


World: Americas

Chinese scientist was 'FBI suspect'

Wen Ho Lee was promoted at Los Alamos to hide the investigation

A scientist was placed in charge of a top-secret US nuclear weapons programme, despite being under investigation for spying for China.

Taiwanese-born Wen Ho Lee was given the highly sensitive job at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1997, according to a report in Wednesday's New York Times.

Mr Lee went on to hire a postdoctoral researcher, who was a Chinese citizen, and who has since disappeared, the report said, quoting top government officials.

Mr Lee was fired earlier this month amid allegations that he leaked nuclear secrets to Beijing from the New Mexico nuclear laboratory.

Wiretapping

Mr Lee was promoted to avoid raising his suspicions about the investigation, and with the expectation that his telephone conversations would be monitored, officials said.

But the requests from the Federal Bureau of Investigation for a secret wiretap were repeatedly denied by Justice Department officials, who believed there were insufficient grounds to obtain court approval for the surveillance.

Officials told the New York Times that Mr Lee's new position had been approved, in part because it was believed his access to information would be "controlled".

His job was to update the programming codes for the laboratory's "stockpile stewardship" programme, an initiative to make sure that the American nuclear weapons inventory could be safely maintained without further nuclear testing.

Research assistant

The FBI is trying to find the missing research assistant to question him in connection with the invesigation into Mr Lee.

At one point, the agency investigated the assistant, who had studied at the University of Pittsburgh, but did not conclude that he had any intelligence connection.

The assistant worked with Mr Lee from May to September 1997, the newspaper reported. Officials told the newspaper they were not sure if the student was still in the US.

Mr Lee is still a suspect in the FBI's investigation of allegations that China stole nuclear secrets from US weapons laboratories, the newspaper said.

China has vehemently denied the spying allegations. The issue has clouded US-Sino relations, and raised doubts about security at US weapons laboratories.

Mr Lee recently failed a lie detector test as part of a three-year investigation into the alleged disclosure of sensitive nuclear missile technology to China in the mid-1980s.





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