A newly declassified Justice Department report released Monday says former nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee was targeted in a probe on suspected Chinese espionage because the Energy Department misled the FBI.
The report criticizes the FBI for accepting the DOE assertion that Lee, a former nuclear scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, was "the only individual ... who had opportunity, motivation and legitimate access" to the nuclear weapons information believed to have been leaked to the Chinese.
"Had either the FBI or DOE done what it should have done, the FBI could have been investigating in the year 1996 what it is now investigating in the year 2000," said the report, completed in May 2000 by former federal prosecutor Randy Bellows.
The DOE targeted Lee because of meetings with Chinese nuclear scientists — both in China and acting as host to the scientists in the United States. Another FBI inquiry into Lee's conduct at the laboratory was also ongoing at the time.
But the DOE ignored locations other than Los Alamos where the nuclear secrets could have been compromised by numerous other potential suspects.
Lee was held in solitary confinement for nine months and indicted on 59 felony counts alleging he transferred nuclear weapons information to portable computer tapes.
He was not charged with spying, and denied giving information to China. He eventually pleaded guilty to one felony count of downloading sensitive material.
"The message communicated to the FBI was that the FBI need look no farther within DOE for a suspect. Wen Ho Lee was its man," the report said. "The FBI never should have accepted this message, as is."
The report also faults DOE for giving misleading information to the FBI about its early investigation.
A group of DOE investigators concluded that there was a high probability that U.S. intelligence had helped China "avoid blind alleys in their own research and development."
The FBI "actively pursued corrective action to improve and enhance its counterintelligence program" when it received the Bellows report, the bureau said in a statement.
The Energy Department said, "this administration continues to strengthen our security procedures," adding that it will review the report in case other policy changes are necessary.
Lee's attorneys were traveling and could not be reached.
"The abysmal handling of the initial phases of this case caused serious harm and delay in resolving fundamental questions about a grave compromise of our nuclear secrets," said Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who has looked into several problems at the FBI, said the report "shows what can happen when investigators focus too narrowly."
The report was declassified under a judge's order. Notra Trulock, the DOE's top security officer during the Lee investigation, says he was defamed by two other investigators who said the Taiwanese-born Lee was targeted because of his race.
Lee has sued the government for allegedly leaking information to the media that made it appear that he had spied.
While the report says the DOE inappropriately targeted Lee, it concludes it was not because of his race.
Larry Klayman, Trulock's attorney, said the report's finding vindicates his client, and the harsh criticism of DOE's handling of the investigation was not Trulock's fault.
Trulock said he did not want the investigation to focus on one individual, Klayman said, but that is what superiors instructed him to do.
"To the extent that's what happened at the highest levels of the Energy Department and the FBI, shame on them," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.