When a Taiwan-born scientist, Wen Ho Lee, was dismissed from his job at the Los Alamos National Laboratory last month on suspicion of spying for China, awkward questions were raised about his wife, Sylvia.
Among Mrs Lee's responsibilities were arranging tours of the top-secret laboratories for visiting Chinese delegations. She was also said to have made several trips to conferences in China, one with her husband, which seemed to be outside her competence.
But Newsweek magazine says Mrs Lee was just doing her job - being paid by the FBI to help to keep track of visiting Chinese scientists and compile profiles. The magazine said in the Eighties the FBI was thought she might have been recruited by the Chinese to spy on her boss at Los Alamos, a laser specialist, but decided she was loyal and dropped the inquiry.
Mrs Lee's trips to China were raised publicly last month when her husband, Wen Ho Lee, was named as the chief suspect in the alleged theft of nuclear secrets from Los Alamos, also in the Eighties. A New York Times investigation found evidence that China probably stole several secret weapons blueprints (including ones for a miniaturised nuclear warhead) from the laboratory, and the thefts went unremarked for a decade until China started to produce weapons of a design uncannily similar to that of US weapons.
Government officials, intelligence officers, defence scientists and administrators were questioned and a political storm gathered, which would have caused more damage to the Clinton administration if Kosovo had not squeezed it from the headlines. The Chinese denied nuclear spying as the Chinese Prime Minister, Zhu Rongji made an official visit to Washington.
Investigators found Wen Ho Lee - who had worked at Los Alamos for 20 years - had been suspected before, but retained his top-level security clearance. Last month, he failed a lie-detector test and was said to have stonewalled FBI questions. He was dismissed. But the FBI had insufficient evidence to prosecute.
Few details of the Lees' existence suggested a lifetime of spying. They lived in a respectable suburb and neighbours called them quiet and decent. Colleagues were amazed that Wen Ho Lee could have been a spy. "He is either a very, very good actor, or he's not your man," one said.Reuse content