Back Channels: The Intelligence Community

Spy-Probe Critic's First Contact

By Vernon Loeb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 31, 1999; Page A11

Several days after Energy Secretary Bill Richardson recommended disciplinary action against Robert S. Vrooman for mishandling the Wen Ho Lee espionage case at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the lab's former counterintelligence chief fired back by saying the case was "built on thin air."

Some saw his remarks as self-serving, an attempt to deflect blame onto others once he'd been held accountable. But long before Richardson's move against him, Vrooman expressed similar sentiments in a May 11 letter to his home-state senator, Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), noting that he found the tone of hearings into the Los Alamos case by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee "very upsetting."

"Senator [Frank H.] Murkowski [R-Alaska] implied that the Los Alamos National Laboratory should have fired or removed Mr. Lee from access as soon as he was suspected of espionage," Vrooman wrote. "He suggested that Los Alamos did not take the Lee case seriously until it was leaked to the New York Times. The answer to this allegation is brutally simple. The Administrative Inquiry (AI) done by [Notra] Trulock's staff at DOE that identified Lee as a suspect was seriously flawed and lacked intellectual rigor. There was no evidence in this AI that Lee had passed any classified information to the Chinese.

"In the late 19th century Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French artillery officer, was accused of espionage. The evidence was weak but he was convicted. His conviction included a mass media campaign, which divided France. The Dreyfus affair was the prelude to the horrible anti-Semitism of the 20th century. It is my hope that the Lee affair is not the prelude to a 21st century that includes rampant anti-Chinese racism."

SECURITY.COM: Spying isn't the only way to obtain information about security at Los Alamos. In 1995, a group of Los Alamos computer specialists presented a paper at a supercomputing convention in San Diego about a computer security program in use at the nuclear weapons lab called UNICORN.

"UNICORN summarizes user activity and system configuration information in statistical profiles," the paper states. "In near real-time, it can compare current activity to historical profiles and test activity against expert rules that express our security policy and define improper or suspicious behavior. It reports suspicious behavior to security auditors and provides tolls to aid in follow-up investigations."

For more information, go to, where the paper is posted on the Internet. The site belongs to the Russian Academy of Sciences' Scientific Center in Chernogolovka.

THE DECLASSIFIEDS: Ever since the CIA embarked on a voluntary declassification program for historical documents back in 1992, the agency has declassified more than 1,000 documents about the Soviet Union. The papers include everything from a 1953 tome on the Soviet food-canning industry to a 1984 national intelligence estimate with a thriller title, "The Soviet Approach to Nuclear Winter."

But the agency may have done something even more valuable in recent weeks to aid Cold War scholars: It published lists of the declassified documents on its Web site.

The lists themselves make fascinating reading, revealing the depth of CIA scholarship into the communist empire. Some highlights, by year:

* 1947: "The Consequences of the Partition of Palestine"

* 1950: "The Crisis in Indochina"

* 1965: "Soviet Politics After Khrushchev"

* 1974: "Estimated Military Assistance to Arab Belligerents"

Steven Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, lauds publication of the lists but wonders about the exact meaning of what the CIA calls its "voluntary" declassification program. A 1995 executive order signed by President Clinton requires declassification of information older than 25 years and other documents that no longer need to be kept secret.

"They are adhering to an increasingly self-serving standard, which keeps a lot of stuff unnecessarily classified," Aftergood said.

CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield responded that "no other nation's foreign intelligence agency has voluntarily released as much information about its past as has the CIA. Within the limitations imposed upon the director of central intelligence by law to protect intelligence sources and methods . . . we will build upon that record in the years ahead."

Vernon Loeb's e-mail address is

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