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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

China Got Secrets on U.S. Subs, Records Say

WASHINGTON -- A scientist working on a classified U.S. defense project in 1997 provided China with secrets about advanced radar technology being developed to track submarines, court records and government documents reveal.

Submarine-detection technology is jealously guarded by the Pentagon because the Navy's ability to conceal its subs is a crucial military advantage.

The information about the radar technology, which is considered promising and has been in development for two decades, was divulged to Chinese nuclear weapons experts during a lecture in Beijing in May 1997 by Peter Lee, an American scientist, court records show. Lee was then working for TRW Inc., which had been hired by the Pentagon.

Federal prosecutors in Los Angeles wanted to charge Lee with espionage but were unable to, in part because Navy officials in Washington would not permit testimony about the technology in open court, law enforcement officials said.

The Justice Department in Washington, having some questions of its own, would not approve the prosecution either, the officials said.

Instead, Lee ended up pleading guilty to filing a false statement about his 1997 trip to China and to divulging classified laser data to Chinese scientists during an earlier trip to China in 1985.

Despite the failure to prosecute Lee over the radar technology, the case shows the scope of Chinese espionage is broader than the assertions of nuclear thefts at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which officials say involved another American scientist, Wen Ho Lee.

The submarine technology in the Peter Lee case was developed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

The Peter Lee case is also significant because it clearly demonstrates that the U.S. government believed China was successfully engaged in espionage during President Bill Clinton's second term.

While the Los Alamos disclosures earlier this year prompted an array of investigations, Clinton, two months ago, said no one had brought suspicions of Chinese espionage to him and White House officials initially portrayed the problem as one confined to earlier presidential administrations. On the NBC television program "Meet the Press,'' Energy Secretary Bill Richardson acknowledged that there had been espionage by China during the Clinton administration, but he did not give details.

The breach involved in the Peter Lee case occurred in 1997, a point made in a classified November 1998 counterintelligence report ordered by and then sent to the White House.

At Lee's March 26, 1998, sentencing, prosecutor Jonathan Shapiro told the judge that Lee's activities struck at the heart of national security, witnesses said.

But Lee and his lawyer argued that the Taiwanese-American scientist had simply made egregious mistakes and never intended to help a foreign country or harm the United States.

The judge declined to put Lee in prison and sentenced him to 12 months in a halfway house with three years' probation and fined him $20,000.

Justice Department spokesman Myron Marlin said: "The matter was handled in a way in which many parties had a chance to make their views known. ? We obviously cannot go into details, but there are often a number of reasons as to why a certain course of action is taken.''