ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Scientist Wen Ho Lee says he discarded 17 computer tapes full of nuclear weapons data at Los Alamos National Laboratory, according to a source familiar with the case.
FBI agents are combing the muddy, snowy Los Alamos County landfill where lab trash is buried, saying the search could last weeks.
Agents won’t confirm they’re looking for the discarded tapes in the landfill, but if the pocket-sized computer cartridges Lee downloaded in the lab’s top-secret X Division were thrown into the trash, the 50-acre dump is a likely place where they ended up.
Agents have said for months that they want to find the tapes Lee swore he destroyed.
A source familiar with the case, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Lee said he disposed of the tapes in a Dumpster inside the X Division fence in January 1999.
Lee has been undergoing closed debriefings in which he promised, as a condition of a plea agreement that won his release in September, to tell agents what happened to the tapes. The source would provide no details of Lee’s disclosures.
The landfill search began while the debriefings were under way. An amended plea agreement filed in early November extends the debriefing period into mid-December.
The disposal of the tape cartridges happened just days after Lee’s security clearance was revoked, according to a timetable provided last summer by federal prosecutors. They said Lee repeatedly sought access to the division after his access card was deactivated and that he gained access three times, including once in January 1999 when a fellow lab employee let him in.
Assistant U.S. Attorney George Stamboulidis, who prosecuted Lee, declined to comment.
Stacy Cohen, a spokeswoman for the Lee family, has declined to comment on the landfill search.
The San Jose Mercury News reported Wednesday that Lee told agents in secret debriefing sessions that he tossed the tapes into the trash in January 1999 and that they never otherwise left the lab. The newspaper did not elaborate on its sources.
Lee lost his security clearance in December 1998. Prosecutors have alleged he sought access to the X Division 16 times between Dec. 23, 1998, and Feb. 23, 1999 – including 3:31 a.m. Christmas Eve 1998.
FBI agent Doug Beldon said “numerous” agents and evidence technicians expect to rake through piles of dirt and trash at the landfill daily “for quite some time.”
The search team wears white protective clothing. The workers use bulldozers to move mounds of garbage and hand rakes to comb the debris.
Lee, jailed without bail Dec. 10, 1999, was freed Sept. 13 after pleading guilty to one count of downloading restricted data to tape. Fifty-eight counts were dropped.
Lee has sworn he never passed any secrets to any unauthorized person, and the government never charged him with espionage.
The FBI initially said it was looking for seven tape cartridges and had already found three others.
At the time of his release, Lee told investigators he also made copies of those 10 tapes but had destroyed the copies as well, FBI and Justice Department officials have said.
If anyone found the tape cartridges — and if restricted nuclear weapons data were still encoded on them — there are several computer companies that might be able to recover such data.
On the Net:
Department of Energy: http://www.energy.gov
Los Alamos National Lab: http://www.lanl.gov