In the summer of 1998, my wife and I were in a hotel room in Madrid, Spain, when we first heard the name of the protagonist in LANL’s latest scandal. We were on our first trip beyond the western hemisphere, and were hoping we’d left the LANL layoff turmoil behind for a while. From the Old World I watched in amazement as the story unfolded on Spanish TV—suspected espionage in Los Alamos. The reporter said the alleged spy’s name was Wen Ho Lee, and that he was suspected of divulging secrets to the People’s Republic of China concerning the design of the W88, an extremely compact thermonuclear warhead developed in Los Alamos twenty years earlier for the US Navy. It was a relatively old design, yet still very sophisticated.
Multiple W88s can be crammed into the tip of a single Trident missile, with each delivery system costing upward of $70 million. At least five US Trident-carrying submarines are deployed at any given moment, with as many as forty-eight independently targetable warheads per ship. This makes the W88 one of the most lethal designs in the nuclear arsenal. If the Chinese had figured out how to make one, Lee’s alleged leak could have indeed been a threat to US military superiority. A legitimate question was whether the Chinese were figuring things out on their own or getting an unauthorized assist. Someone in authority seemed to believe it was the latter.
Dr. Wen Ho Lee was an employee of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and had developed computer code, some of which was used in nuclear detonation modeling by weapons designers, including those working on the W88. But Wen Ho was not among them, meaning he was never directly involved in that effort. The news report may have mentioned he was only under investigation or just a suspect, but people tend to assume the worst. The New York Times broke the story; a “reliable source” had leaked it—an unnamed party from within the US Department of Energy.