CIA’s Deutch Heedlessly Disregarded Security

Robert Scheer is a contributing editor to The Times

It’s not easy being Janet Reno. You try to run the Justice Department with some appearance of judicial consistency, but politics keeps getting in the way. I mean, how are you going to justify jailing scientist Wen Ho Lee and throwing away the key because he may have mishandled some secret files when the guy who once headed the CIA did much worse stuff and he’s running around the world scot-free?

How awkward to have it come out that John Deutch, former CIA director, kept secret files on his not-secure home computer, his laptop and on easily copied memory cards that he used to leave lying around in his car. Deutch’s files, which were marked “top secret,” involved memos to the president concerning covert operations and closely guarded spy codes that were stored on the same machines that he used to pay his bills and send personal e-mail through ordinary phone lines.

As a result, the security of his files, numbering in the thousands, was compromised by outsiders who planted “cookies” on his hard drives to monitor his computers. CIA investigators have known for years that Deutch continued these secrecy violations even after he left the CIA. And Reno knew about it when she threw the book at Lee, a Taiwan-born naturalized U.S. citizen who had worked for decades at the Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory.

The files Lee is accused of downloading carried a much lower classification of “secret restricted data” than the “top secret” files Deutch mishandled. And Lee’s file transfers took place within the secure confines of the Los Alamos facility. By comparison, Deutch had given the key to his home to a “resident alien” housekeeper who had full access to his computer room while Deutch and the other members of his family were gone from the home.


Lee cooperated fully with investigators, voluntarily taking and passing a lie detector test with flying colors, while Deutch, who stonewalled the investigation of his activities, continued to be protected by highly placed CIA friends.

While Deutch has been coddled, Lee sits in a solitary jail cell after having been lied to by the FBI, which, acting like goons from some totalitarian country, told him he had failed the lie detector test that they knew he had easily passed. They knew also that there was not a shred of evidence that Lee had passed secret data to any unauthorized person and that they could never charge him with espionage or treason carrying the death penalty. But that did not stop FBI agents from cornering Lee in a frighteningly bullying interrogation in which they threatened him with death in the electric chair, citing the fate of convicted atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953.

Access to the files Lee downloaded was protected by two levels of password security, his downloading and erasure of files was known to those monitoring Los Alamos security, and no one ever told him he was doing anything wrong. Los Alamos has an internal security operation under the acronym NADIR that monitors all transfers of files within the Los Alamos labs; they have known for six years, since the day when Lee downloaded his files, but never once objected.

On the other hand, CIA investigators repeatedly complained to Deutch that his home and its computers were not secure. Deutch was the first CIA director to object on “privacy grounds” to having CIA security agents on his property. When investigators finally gained entry, they were horrified to discover that a not-secure phone line was being used and, as opposed to Lee’s careful security precautions, in Deutch’s case no password blocks or encryption were employed. As a result, outsiders could read Deutch’s top-secret files simply by using Microsoft Word.


As late as December 1997, three years after he had begun carelessly exporting top secret files to his not-secure home computers, Deutch admitted to CIA investigators that he only at that late date “appreciated the security risks associated with the use of a modem or the Internet in facilitating an electronic attack.” Did Reno honestly believe that the head of the CIA had never heard of hackers?

This double standard represents Reno at her worst--caving in to pressure from the Clinton administration, which fears an election season China scandal. All this has been whipped up by congressional Republicans and the New York Times, which has trumpeted the case against Lee for the past year.

There’s plenty of blame to pass around for this travesty of justice. Meanwhile Lee sits in his jail cell, a trophy to the deep political cynicism of Reno and the Clinton administration.