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Then, on March 6, 1999, the New York Times disclosed the FBI probe without mentioning Lee's name. The next day, FBI agents rushed to his home to "sweat him" before he clammed up completely. A confused Lee owned up to nothing, and on March 8 Richardson fired him for unrelated security violations turned up during the W-88 investigation. His name was leaked to the press, and he became known as a "suspected Chinese spy." He still had not been charged.
FBI agents searched Lee's office and discovered three computer tapes--VCR-size cassettes in metal jackets--containing downloaded weapons codes. Computer-forensics experts concluded that Lee had used his classified computer in the X Division, where nuclear warheads are designed and assessed, to download voluminous mathematical descriptions of the characteristics and performance of various thermonuclear warheads to an unsecure portion of the computer-storage system. Prosecutors say he stored the data in a subdirectory protected only by a password that consisted of his initials. Then, the evidence showed, he went to another division at Los Alamos and borrowed a colleague's computer that came with a device for making backup tapes. On that machine, the government charged, Lee downloaded the data from the subdirectory onto 10 tapes. Only the three have been found.
By then, Republicans on Capitol Hill were up to speed on the Lee case. They had heard from Energy officials who suspected Lee, as well as some who believed he was innocent. But the House G.O.P. was in no mood to show any quarter to Reno or other officials on the case. That spring, several Senators tagged Reno in public for denying the FBI its warrant to inspect Lee's computer in 1997. By the fall, Reno and the rest of the Administration were under intense pressure--and not just from Republicans--to move against Lee. Energy Secretary Richardson was pushing for the prosecution of Lee--on any ground that could be found. The government might not be able to prove Lee was a spy, but he was certainly sloppy with secrets. "There was a tremendous amount of pressure on the Executive Branch to do something and to deal with what appeared to be very substantial security breaches," says Michael Bromwich, who was the Justice Department's inspector general at the time.
Still, the decision to prosecute went all the way to the White House Situation Room--except it was never really discussed once it got there. According to two participants in the two-hour Dec. 4 session, chaired by National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and attended by more than a dozen officials, the conversation was not so much about whether to go forward as about just how damaging it would be to discuss the loss of the crown jewels in court. "We didn't know any other way [to find out what happened to the tapes]," says a participant. "The whole goal was to try and figure out what happened to them." As to whether Lee might be the next Julius Rosenberg, another participant says, "None of us were able to make an independent judgment on that." On Dec. 10 last year, Lee was arrested and charged with 59 counts of mishandling national-security information--everything, it seemed, except espionage.