Wen Ho Lee unjustly punished

Elton Wong

About a week ago on September 13, Dr. Wen Ho Lee was released from prison. He spent nine months prior to this in prison, five months of that in solitary confinement, without ever standing trial. His release coincided with the government’s dropping 58 of the 59 charges filed against him. Those who seek to criticize the government’s handling of this case need not strain their minds thinking of clever words or creative phrases. These people can simply quote U.S. District Judge James A. Parker, who oversaw the case. In his words: “[The government] did not embarrass me alone, but they embarrassed this entire nation and everyone who is a citizen of it. . . I sincerely apologize to you, Dr. Lee, for the unfair manner in which you were held in custody.” The case of Wen Ho Lee would be one of the most sensational espionage cases in recent history if it were not for the fact that Lee was never even charged with espionage. But let us start at the beginning. Since 1978, Lee was an obscure nuclear scientist employed by the federal government at the Los Alamos Nuclear lab. He worked for the X division, which designs bombs and warheads. Lee’s specialty was computer simulations of atomic explosions. Between 1993 and 1997, Lee transferred files from the Los Alamos lab onto an unsecured computer. From here, he made several copies of the information onto tapes, using a co-worker’s computer. Several of these tapes are still not accounted for. The government discovered this while investigating Lee. The reason Lee was under investigation was because in 1995, a U.S. agent in Asia was approached by a Chinese defector who handed over a 74-page document. This document supposedly detailed the Chinese government’s plan to modernize its atomic weapons. The document contained blueprints for a nuclear warhead virtually identical to the American W88, as well as language suggesting the Chinese government obtained this information from the United States. While some within the intelligence community thought these plans were faked, others thought that the documents indicated an information leak at Los Alamos. At the time, the government was still in the midst of the Asian campaign contribution scandal, and political pressure to target Lee in the Los Alamos investigation was strong. In March of 1999, the New York Times broke the story, although it failed to identify Lee by name. The day after, FBI agents interrogated Lee in an effort to get a confession. According to an article in Newsweek, one agent said to him “do you know who the Rosenburgs are? Do you know what happened to them? They electrocuted them, Wen Ho.” No lawyer was present in these proceedings. It is important to note that during the interrogation they did not know about Lee’s transfer of files. In fact, they had no reason to suspect him, other than the fact that he was a Taiwanese-American working at Los Alamos. Just the same, his name was leaked to the press, and he became known as the “suspected Chinese spy.” The investigation picked up when the government learned about the tapes. On Dec. 10, Lee was arrested for 59 counts, everything short of espionage. No one could show what Lee did to the tapes he copied. Lee himself claimed that he copied the tapes to make backups, and that he destroyed them afterward. Lee was placed in solitary confinement pending his trial, in a 13 by 7 foot cell. He was allowed one hour of exercise a day, during which he had to wear leg irons. The government decided on solitary confinement based on testimony from the FBI’s chief investigator in the case, Robert Messemer. Messemer said Lee had engaged in a pattern of deceit, misled the government about his contacts with Chinese officials and written letters seeking employment overseas, perhaps using the tapes to better his chances. The government’s lawyers also claimed that Lee had stolen the “crown jewels” of U.S. nuclear weapon science, with intent to hand over the secrets to foreign powers. Lee’s imprisonment was justified on grounds of national security. Before long, the government’s case began to crumble. In August, the same Robert Messemer who had painted Lee as a danger to national security recanted all of his testimony, saying that Lee was a menace to no one. Messemer also claimed that his fabricated testimony was “an honest mistake.” It soon became known that the government had pushed solitary confinement in an effort to punish Lee into confessing. Lee asked his co-worker for help in transferring the files, a curious strategy for any spy. As for the “crown jewels” of nuclear science, the government conceded, after embarrassing testimony from its own scientists, that “99 percent” of the information Lee copied illegally was already available to the public. Lee had copied “secrets” that were not secrets at all. I’d like to end this column with a personal request aimed at the federal government, the FBI and Janet Reno. My dad is a professor of marketing at this school. He, like my whole family, is Chinese-American. My request is as follows: Please do not arrest him. I can personally assure you that he is not hoarding U.S. marketing secrets with intent to sell them to foreign nationals. I know the United States values its marketing information as a means to economic security. Nonetheless, my dad is not a threat to you. This may seem obvious, but it took you guys nine months to figure that out with Wen Ho Lee, and he had to sit in solitary for months. This arrangement would be totally unacceptable to me, because I may need to ask my dad for money by the time mine runs out at the end of the semester. Among other things.