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Racism Charged In Spy Probe

The White House is defending the dismissal of a scientist at the Los Alamos nuclear lab, despite charges that he was targeted as an espionage suspect because he is Chinese-American.

Spokesman David Leavy says nuclear physicist Wen Ho Lee's dismissal for violating security procedures was "clearly appropriate."

However, CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports that the White House refused to dispute the allegation of racism. Though Leavy did say he was confident that the departments of Energy and Justice and the FBI conducted the investigation in an appropriate manner.

The comments follow a published report quoting the former counter-intelligence chief at Los Alamos as saying that Lee was targeted because of his race.

Robert S. Vrooman, a former CIA operations officer who retired from Los Alamos in March 1998, told the Washington Post the case against Lee was "built on thin air."

Vrooman was among those criticized by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson for his handling of the probe. Richardson has denied Lee's race played a role in the case.

Even though much of the investigation remains classified, Vrooman added in a written statement provided to the Post that "it can be said at this time that Mr. Lee's ethnicity was a major factor" and that government agents still do not have a "shred of evidence" that Lee leaked nuclear secrets to China.

Vrooman made his remarks less than a week after Richardson recommended disciplinary action against him for failing to remove Lee from the laboratory's top-secret Division X or to deny him access to secret information after he came under suspicion of espionage.

Vrooman countered that the decision to allow Lee to keep working was made in 1997 by the Energy Department's chief intelligence officer, Notra Trulock - the same official who had identified Lee as the government's main suspect.

Breaking a long public silence, Vrooman said he does not believe China obtained top secret information about U.S. nuclear warheads from Los Alamos or any other Energy Department laboratory. He said the data could have been stolen from documents distributed to "hundreds of locations throughout the U.S. government" and private defense contractors.

In the written statement, Vrooman said Lee "was identified by the Department of Energy's Office of Counterintelligence as the prime suspect based on an, at best, cursory investigation at only two facilities, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory."

In an exclusive interview recently with CBS News Correspondent Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, Lee also claimed investigators unfairly targeted him because of his ethnicity.

"I am the only...Oriental or Chinese [person] working on the top secret for the last 18 years," Lee said.

Henry Tang, head of an advocacy group for Chinese-Americans, recently sent a letter to the Justice Department saying, b>"Dr. Lee and the nation deserve a case made on the merits of a thorough and professional investigation, not a racist witch hunt."

Tang went on to say, "Scientists like Dr. Lee are really the rocket scientists of this country and are working at the leading edge of American technology, helping maintain America's scientific superiority"

Lee, a Taiwanese-born nuclear physicist and naturalized U.S. citizen, was fired in March for alleged violations of Los Alamos' security regulations. He has denied ever passing secrets to China, and he has not been charged with any crime.

The Justice Department has not decided whether to indict him for transferring classified information from the secure computer system at Los Alamos to his more vulnerable desktop computer.

Vrooman believes he's now being targeted because he's a whistleblower. "I have been an outspoken critic of the flawed investigation that identified Mr. Lee as the prime suspect in this case," Vrooman told the Post. "I do not agree with Mr. Trulock or with the Secretary of Energy that the information obtained by the Chinese came from the Department of Energy. I consider disciplinary action against me to be retaliation for opposing them on this issue."

CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report

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