Americans demonize so many ethnic groups, like blacks and Hispanics, that it's easy to forget we also discriminate against Asians. The latest shameful case in point is the officially sanctioned persecution of Chinese American Wen Ho Lee, a 61-year-old former physicist at a top secret nuclear weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, currently being held without bail at a jail in Santa Fe.
On March 6, 1999, Lee became the Richard Jewell of American espionage when "The New York Times" <nytimes.com> published a front-page story all but accusing him of giving Red China the "crown jewels" of America's nuclear secrets. Rather than admit to making a mistake, as the FBI did with Jewell on the Atlanta Olympics bombing case, after months of hounding by the media and federal investigators, agents arrested Lee not for spying for China, but "unlawful gathering" of national secrets with the intent to supply them to such nuclear threats as, believe it or not, Switzerland.
Lee is accused of 59 redundant counts of downloading restricted information from a computer at the ultra secure Los Alamos National Laboratory to a slightly less secure computer in his office, which was also in the lab, and to seven portable backup tapes, which authorities say are missing (Lee's attorneys say he destroyed the tapes). Under provisions of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, a Cold War relic that no one has ever been prosecuted under before, Lee faces a possible life sentence for mishandling information that wasn't classified and wasn't transferred to unauthorized individuals. His trial is set for Nov. 6.
According to Wenholee.org, a Web site set up by family friend Cecilia Chang, which also collects donations for Lee's legal defense, since being arrested in December, Lee has been held in solitary confinement. During the one hour a day he is allowed to exercise or see his family, he must walk with a shuffle because of the leg irons and handcuffs shackled to his waist. Separated by glass, he and his family must communicate through an intercom while he is sandwiched by FBI agents.
By way of comparison, ex-CIA Director John Deutch made headlines last year when it was reported that after he resigned in 1996, secret CIA files from his office were found on his home computer. Instead of being incarcerated, Deutch, who is white, was given top security clearances and reappointed to a cushy federal panel that studies how to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
With its overtones of racism, scapegoating and political cowardice, the Wen Ho Lee case has been compared to 1950s McCarthyism and the anti-Semitic Dreyfus affair in 19th century France. Republicans, Democrats, officials at the Department of Energy, the Justice Department, the FBI and a compliant news media all share the blame for destroying Wen Ho Lee's reputation, career and life. But ultimate responsibility must go to the Clinton-Gore administration, which during an election year hasn't had the guts to drop the case for fear that Republicans will accuse it of being "soft on China."
Activist groups such as "Chinese for Affirmative Action" <www.caasf.org> and "The Asian Law Caucus" <www.asianlawcaucus.org> say Wen Ho Lee is a victim of racial profiling, and are using his case to raise political awareness in the Asian-American community. Since Lee's arrest, Asian-Americans have rallied, marched, signed petitions and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for his legal defense.
With the exception of journalists like syndicated columnist Robert Scheer <www.robertscheer.com>, few major media outlets or mainstream civil rights organizations have raised much of a stink over Lee's plight. Meantime, affluent, assimilated second-generation Asian-Americans have to wonder, if it happened to Wen Ho Lee, could it happen to them?
One of them is Lee's daughter Alberta, a recent graduate of UCLA. In an interview with Scheer on "Left, Right and Center," a public affairs show on Los Angeles radio station KCRW and archived at the station's Web site <www.kcrw.com>, she seemed stunned. "I mean, my father is entirely innocent and a very good person," she said. "And to see him being treated like this, in America of all places, where you are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty ... It's just been a huge shock to me. I can't believe this is my country doing this to my father."
In June, attorneys representing Lee filed a selective prosecution motion, arguing he was singled out as a spy suspect because he is an ethnic Chinese American. The motion includes a sworn declaration by Robert Vrooman, the former head of counterintelligence at Los Alamos from 1987 to 1998, which says: "I state without reservation that racial profiling was a crucial component in the FBI's identifying Dr. Lee as a suspect."
As a former security head at a facility accused of lax security, it would be in Vrooman's interest to see the Lee investigation discredited. Still, his status as an insider gives his opinions credibility. And in remarks delivered in May at Berkeley and Stanford universities, the text of which can be found at the Web site for the "Coalition Against Racial and Ethnic Scapegoating" <www.asianlawcaucus.org/Cares.htm>, Vrooman compared Wen Ho Lee to Elian Gonzalas. "Both situations could only happen in a presidential election year," he said. "Both cases have been distorted by both personal and political agendas."
Wen Ho Lee was born on the island of Taiwan, a US ally that during the cold war was called Free China. He has been a naturalized American citizen for 25 years and worked at Los Alamos since 1980. His wife, from mainland China, is also a naturalized American citizen who worked at Los Alamos. In addition to their daughter, they have a son who is in college. Both children grew up in the Los Alamos area, where Lee liked to fish, garden, and prepare gourmet food for his friends and neighbors.
Lee's troubles began in 1996, when the US became concerned that the People's Republic of China had gained access to what became known as the crown jewels of America's nuclear secrets -- how to make the W-88 multiple warhead missile deployed on Trident submarines. According to Vrooman, his counterpart at the Department of Energy, Notra Trulock, became convinced the secrets had been stolen from Los Alamos, which had designed the W-88.
Vrooman said DOE opened an investigation called Operation Kindred Spirit, which came up with a list of Los Alamos scientists who had traveled to China and had access to nuclear weapons information. But even though Vrooman believed there were more logical suspects than Lee who were not Chinese, "it was clear from the beginning of the Kindred Spirit investigation that Wen Ho Lee was the prime suspect," he said.
When the FBI, Los Alamos officials and the Clinton administration did not immediately take action on Trulock's suspicions, he became a self-styled whistleblower, briefing reporters and a congressional committee headed by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), whose Select Committee on Technology Transfers to China began looking into alleged lax security at nuclear weapons facilities.
On Dec. 23, 1998, Wen Ho Lee voluntarily took a DOE lie detector test, which he passed so convincingly that the deputy director of Los Alamos issued Lee an apology and asked him to return to work, Vrooman said. With the political pressure rising, however, the FBI began to pursue the case more aggressively, and on Feb. 10, 1999, Lee submitted to an FBI polygraph, which he failed.
The scapegoating of Wen Ho Lee shifted into high gear on March 6, 1999, when "The Times" published its 4,000-word expose claiming an unnamed scientist at Los Alamos helped the Chinese get the W-88 warhead design, and criticizing the Clinton administration for not responding faster to the alleged security breach. The story was largely based on Trulock's congressional testimony, leaked from the Cox committee.
The next day the FBI conducted an intense interview with Lee that Vrooman described as "like a Franz Kafka novel." A transcript of the interview is available on the Wenholee.org Web site, and is truly harrowing. In it, FBI agents try to coerce a confession from Lee not by confronting him with evidence of spying, but visions of how "The Times" story is going to affect his life, family and friends. They tell him he'd flunked all his lie detector tests when he hadn't, and that "The Rosenbergs are the only people that never cooperated with the Federal Government in an espionage case. You know what happened to them? They electrocuted them, Wen Ho."
Lee maintains his innocence throughout, saying at one point, "I know what you're saying, but I already told you all the truth and I, I don't what, I don't know what else to do. I just do the best I can and tell you the only thing I can, and that's what I already told you many times."
The next day Lee was fired by DOE Secretary Bill Richardson for "failing to fully cooperate with the FBI." In other words, Vrooman said, "Lee refused to plead guilty to a crime that he claims that he did not commit and carries the death penalty." Lee's name was also immediately leaked to "The Times," and for the next six months the shy and unassuming physicist was stalked by the media, which portrayed him as one of the most dangerous spies in US history.
Meanwhile, Trulock made the talk show circuit and became a darling of conservative Clinton haters when he was demoted and then resigned from DOE.
In September, the Clinton administration conceded that Lee and Los Alamos had been ruled out as suspects in the theft of the W-88 design, and that thousands of people at hundreds of other labs, military bases and private contractors also had access to the so-called secrets. It was also reported that the initial investigation may have been flawed by focusing on Lee prematurely. Yet in December, Lee was arrested for allegedly mishandling different secrets meant for different countries.
Since then, the government's case has become ever more ludicrous. During a federal court hearing in July, prosecutors revealed that the countries they are accusing Lee of intending to provide with nuclear secrets are all US allies including Australia, France, Germany, Singapore, Taiwan, the then-British colony of Hong Kong and the aforementioned Switzerland. They also happen to be countries with research facilities Lee sent resumes to in 1993, after he and other Los Alamos scientists were told their lab might be downsizing. The government has also conceded that many of the alleged secrets weren't classified as secret at the time Lee downloaded them.
The Wen Ho Lee spy caper has been compared to McCarthyism, the Dreyfus affair and Richard Jewell, but it's also a little like Whitewater, which became Monicagate. The government investigates one alleged crime, then ends up prosecuting for something entirely different. Only instead of the president being the target, to its shame, this time it is the Clinton-Gore administration that is doing the persecuting.
While one man's life has been irreparably harmed, there's also the question of what long-term harm the case will do to relations between America and its Asian-American citizens. The sentiments of many may have been expressed in a letter from Cecilia Chang to the "San Jose Mercury News" last October. After chiding Lee for knowing so little about his rights as an American citizen that he didn't bother to hire a lawyer because he believed he hadn't done anything wrong and had nothing to hide, she adds:
"I am equally saddened by the silence or indifference of many of our fellow Asian-Americans. It is time that we devote a great deal more effort to understanding our rights and responsibilities as American citizens. Take Dr. Lee's case as a political awakening call. Being successful in your career or business does not guarantee your rights as a full citizen in this country.
"When gold mining ran out and railroad building came to an end in the early part of this century, which population do you think got the message that 'you are no longer needed here'? History often repeats itself. Silicon Valley is having its biggest boom right now. But, nothing lasts forever."
Donations made out to "Dr. Wen Ho Lee Defense Fund"
may be sent to P.O. Box 1663, Santa Monica, CA 90406-1663.
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